Making New & Making Do
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
26 February 2023
The “Church shares in the call to cultivate wisdom for daily life,” writes theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw. “Church life,” she adds, “is a site of training in wisdom.”
The Season of Lent is always a time for spiritual growth. Through examination, reflection, and discernment we try to prepare ourselves for the new creation of Holy Week and Easter. This season often involves coming to terms with our sins through confession, forgiveness, repentance, and mercy. This season often involves giving something up, making sacrifices, engaging the spiritual disciplines, training our habits. This season sometimes involves taking something on—exploring something new, learning, and growing.
This Lent, our worship life will focus on the words of wisdom—the various books of the Bible that are called wisdom books and the advice that they give us for living. I’ll be guided by this idea of Amy Plantinga Pauw’s that the church is a school for wisdom. That in church we should be learning practical ideas for how to live well and faithfully in the actual world.
According to Pauw, the church’s wisdom is not some ethereal, spiritual advice, but is earthy and practical. Grounded in our experiences of the world we actually live in. She writes, “Our understandings . . . should be earthy, rooted in and attuned to the patterns and cycles, the vulnerabilities and resilience, of our planet.”
And there are a few key points she highlights about the church’s wisdom. Among those are:
That this wisdom is practical—we are learning about real, ordinary, daily life.
This wisdom is about our bodies. We are embodied creatures and all of our spirituality, all of our morality, takes places in these fragile, vulnerable, beautiful human bodies.
The church cultivates wisdom not just for our own good, but for the world. She writes that the pursuit of wisdom “propels [the] church beyond itself into the world.” And that God calls us to be wise on behalf of “creaturely well-being.”
Which means that our wisdom is also ecumenical. We live in a world of diverse cultures and faiths, and so the practical wisdom for living well in our world means that we have to learn from each other. She points out that significant bits of the material in Old Testament wisdom books like Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes comes from other cultures and other faith traditions. And here in the 21st century, we have much to learn from one another. So, our the church’s wisdom is not limited only to our own faith tradition, but should draw upon what is wise in the teachings of others.
Which means that our wisdom also is filled with ambiguity and contingency and even uncertainty. We only ever have partial answers to life’s vexing problems. We are trying to do our best within the limitations of the human body and the complexities of the world.
And maybe most importantly, she emphasizes that the church’s wisdom “lives in the gap between the resurrection of Jesus and the last things.” We are to carry out God’s work, but ours is not the final word on creation. Nor are we Jesus. But we are responsible for living well and faithfully in the mean time.
So, guided by those values, this Lent we will examine what we can learn from the wisdom teachings of our scriptural tradition that will help us to live better, more faithful lives as God’s agents in this complicated world.
Amy Plantinga Pauw focuses on six themes that she calls “communal orientations of the heart.” They are making new and making do, longing, giving, suffering, rejoicing, and joining hands. Those will be our weekly worship themes for Lent. She claims that these are “the rhythms of life lived in God’s presence,” and we are called to attune ourselves to these rhythms.
So, this week, then, Making New & Making Do.
If we are “called to live faithfully within the opportunities and constraints of the present,” how do we do that? God has proclaimed that all things will be made new. Yet, we don’t seem to be living in the time when the fullness of God’s reign has come upon the earth. We are living in the mean time, in ordinary, complex, sometimes even quite weird, times.
She begins by emphasizing that the church is “a place of lifelong embodied learning.” The training in wisdom we do here doesn’t stop in Sunday school or confirmation, but fills the life of a congregation. Such that one of our central, ongoing tasks is helping people learn what they need to live well and faithfully, at every stage of life, and no matter what happens to them or in the wider world.
And we must remind ourselves, that this life isn’t something we do alone. We are in this together. Our pursuit of wisdom, of living well, occurs in a shared life.
This is true, even when we aren’t being intentional about it. We learn how to live through the messages we receive from our wider culture, through the ways other people treat us, and by copying what we see others doing.
And we know that the wider culture and society aren’t always giving us messages that are wise and lead to well-being. Think of all the body issues that arise because of the limited range of beautiful bodies we see. Or the toxic masculinity that boys can absorb. Or the violence inherent in so much entertainment. I’ve been focused a lot on trans kids in the last couple of months, and the negative messages they are receiving from the anti-trans bills currently before our state legislature. And this was already a group highly prone to thoughts of suicide.
In recent weeks there’s been much reaction to the new study that revealed the tragic state of adolescent mental health coming out of the pandemic, particularly the effects on girls. I was drawn to one article that said our children are sick because our society is sick.
Listen—if you need help, if you need someone to talk to, please know that I’m here, Katie’s here, Jim’s here, so many of the people in this room are here to listen, to see you, to care for you. And also to work together to get us all safely through this thing called life.
We in the church believe in sanctification—that we can be transformed into wise, whole, and holy people. That all of our vulnerability, fragility, wrongheadedness can be transformed. That we can become a new creation. We even believe that we can overcome the negative images of the society and culture, that we can defeat sin and temptation, that we can leave the toxic behind and take what is good and helpful and safe and turn it into something beautiful and good.
We are creatures of dust and ashes, as we are reminded at the beginning of Lent. We are made up of all the same stuff as everyone else—both good and bad. There’s good news. This earthy stuff can embody joy and well-being and courage and hope.
This is our belief in “making new.” A new creation, new and transformed selves, everything made new. This we believe.
And so, as Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “Christian practices [such as healing, worship, and forgiveness] aim at embodied wisdom for a way of life that lives in gratitude to God and is aligned with God’s purposes for all creation.”
And we do that, we make new, by also making do. Making do with our own limitations as embodied creatures. Making do during the times and in the spaces and communities in which we live. She adds, “Making do is also an acknowledgement of creaturely limits—limits of time, energy, knowledge, and control over the . . . forces around us.” So, together as a worshipping community we admit that “we are not whole, that we are not at peace, that we need healing and nourishment only God can provide.”
What helps us to make do then?
Honest awareness about ourselves and our situations. Discernment over what is around us that affirms life and well-being and what doesn’t. Humility about our own limitations. Patience that our own individual growth, much less a wider transformation, can and does take time.
Honesty, discernment, humility, patience—these are aspects of practical wisdom.
Pauw writes, “Church does not pretend to have already realized the full hope of the Spirit in its own life, nor to have the capacity to bring this hope to fruition by its own actions.” But we are called to do our best. We are responsible for living as faithfully and effectively and as well as we can—not only for ourselves and our families, but on behalf of God’s mission to the whole world.
This Lent I invite you to a season of exploration and growth, as we listen to these ancient words of wisdom, as we discern how to live well and faithfully in our time and our place.