The Episcopal Church has recently released a Rule of Life for Christians called the Way of Love. The Way consists of 7 steps: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest. During the season after Epiphany, my colleague and I have been offering sermons on these steps, one each Sunday. Below you can find my “Learn” sermon, as well as a list of recommended resources.
If you would like to check out the other sermons in our Way of Love series, you can do so here.
In today’s selection, the psalmist writes, “So teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts to wisdom.” I like biblical scholar Robert Alter’s translation of this verse: “To count our days rightly, instruct, that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
I don’t want to make assumptions here, but I think it’s safe to say that all of us would like to “get a heart of wisdom.” There’s a lot that goes into becoming wise, and living wisely in this world, but undoubtedly learning—and having a heart that is willing to learn—is an important part of that.
Today we are focusing on the second step in the Way of Love. As a reminder, the Way of Love is a rule of life (a habit of life, you might say) that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and others have worked together to build for us, to support us in becoming more faithful disciples of Christ—to help us become people of Love. Last week, Father Tim spoke about the first step, Turn, and how that is not a one-time event but an ongoing practice in our lives. We turn over and over again toward Christ. And turning toward Christ opens our heart to the second step, which is Learn.
Our psalm today reminds us that we are very small, and our lives are brief; that we are dust and to dust we shall return; that our perspective is not God’s perspective. It reminds us that humility is the most appropriate attitude for us to have in life, and especially when it comes to God. Indeed, it is, according to this psalm, a prerequisite for becoming wise. I think it’s important to keep this in mind when we’re talking about “learning,” because goodness knows when people go looking for something in scripture, they tend to find it. But a humble person will strive to be open to what God is communicating to them, through scripture or other sources of wisdom.
I don’t know how to talk about this second step except to tell you how important it has been, and is, in my own life. When I first came to the Episcopal Church, it didn’t take me long to dive in headfirst. I wanted to learn everything I could about my new tradition. I read lots of books about the Episcopal Church, as well as books from Episcopal or similar perspectives. I read books that helped me read the Bible in ways that I had not been exposed to before. I read about others’ faith journeys and how they had wrestled with spiritual questions. I had conversations with wise women in my home church about faith, both theirs and mine.
All of this helped me to grow in my own life of faith. I turned what I’d read or heard over and over again in my mind and in my heart. It would pop up throughout my week to challenge or perplex me. Through this practice I found new lenses through which to view my faith and spirituality, and I tested them out. I compared them to the lenses I had been taught to see through earlier in life, and I compared them to one another, and to my own lived experience of God in the world. I learned through all this that, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active,” as the writer of Hebrews says. And I kept this practice up, because it was vital to me. It gave me life.
My studies of scripture, and of the texts of holy women and men through the centuries, and of the lived experience and accumulated wisdom of those around me showed me over and over that God was alive and present with me, now, in the same way that God had been alive and present with others, and also that my own experience and knowledge of God was vital and important, and that the word of God is not something that is in the past but is something that is ongoing and happening now, in the lives of all of us.
All that I learned in that time shaped my faith, as has all that I’ve learned since. The wisdom that has been passed on to me in various forms has supported me in really difficult circumstances, reminding me that I am not alone and that I do not face these difficulties alone. This wisdom has challenged me, too. It has held me to a higher standard than I would have held myself to. It’s taught me to be kinder and slower to judge. It’s asked me hard questions about the way that I live and the impact that has on others. It has demanded that I remember my place in the world—how small I am, and how big God is, and how the lives of others and of creation are as vital and important as my own.
The most faithful people I have known have been people of wisdom, and while we come to wisdom in many ways, intentional learning—hearing the stories and perspectives of others and holding them up to the light of our faith and pondering them alongside our own—is a necessary part of gaining wisdom. And I will tell you this: when I neglect this part of my practice, this component of my own rule of life, it doesn’t take long before I see the results of it. I become more impatient and judgmental, less open to others and more inclined to selfishness. You see, learning not only makes me a better Christian, it makes me a better person, and a better spouse, and a better priest.
So how do we put this piece of the Way of Love into practice?
Start with who you are. Start with what you already do or love. It might not surprise you to learn that I’ve always been a big reader. I was the kind of kid you could take anywhere for any length of time as long as there was an adequate supply of books. So for me, printed books are a natural path to learning. When I want to study scripture, I read the Bible, and I read commentaries on it. But it’s important to know that if sitting down with a book is either not your thing or not very practical in your life, that’s not the only way to go. You can listen to scripture on your commute. You can pray the daily office with the lectionary scriptures online. You can explore the wealth of podcasts on scripture and faith that are out there. Think of what already works for you, and start there.
The same is true of time. If you’re a person who needs a rigid routine to make something happen, or if things have to be in your planner or you’ll never get around to them, then do that! My own practice is a lot less scheduled than it used to be, back when I got up before 5:00 am in order to read and pray before heading to work as a teacher. But that’s what worked for me then, and this is what works for me now.
And what might this practice look like? It can take so many forms, and there are so many resources available, but I’d suggest scripture, as the central text of our faith and a connection to Christians through the centuries, is a natural starting point. But please note: it is generally NOT advisable to start with Genesis and attempt to read straight through! I’m sure that does work for some people, but most of us will get stuck somewhere around Numbers and just give up. So if you don’t have a habit of reading scripture already, here are two ways you could start:
Read the Sunday lectionary passages each day. If you’re on our parish email list, you get them in your email as part of the week’s announcements. From the day you receive it, until the day you receive the next one, commit to reading through the passages once each day. This is a wonderful way of deepening your engagement with our Sunday texts, as you’ll reflect on them daily both before and after hearing them read and preached on during Sunday services. It’s incredible what you can get from reading the same passage many times, immersing yourself in it and pondering it over the course of several days.
Another option is to pick any book of the Bible and read through it, one passage at a time. Mark is a good option for this, since it contains familiar gospel stories of Jesus, and it moves quickly—Mark does not waste words! Genesis too is full of wonderful, fascinating, and familiar stories, and I’ve found that reading Genesis through, so that I understand the fuller context of these stories I’ve heard so many times, has enriched my understanding of them. The Psalms are another good way to jump in to scripture, especially for those who are fans of poetry or like to pray with scripture. When I read scripture in this way, I like to read someone else’s thoughts on the passage too, and then journal a little about what I’ve noticed and how I see it in my own life, so you might consider that as well.
You can also of course choose to learn more about our own Episcopal tradition, or what others have said about the Christian life, or how others have lived as faithful disciples of Christ. There is so much out there to explore and enrich our faith in our practice of learning!
Now, there’s nothing an Episcopal priest loves more than recommending books, so Father Tim and I put together a short list of recommended resources, which you can find below. And if nothing on this list resonates with you, or if you want other recommendations, let me assure you that Tim and I will be HAPPY to help.
The Way of Love is a way for us to grow in our faith—to grow as faithful disciples of Christ. It is not a one-time path; it is meant to be traveled over an dover again. And it’s not necessarily a sequence, but usually we do need to Turn before we can Learn, because you have to be open to how God will speak to you through your study before it will do you much good.
As we go forth into the world and discover how Christ is calling us to learn and to love more fully, let us carry the prayer of the psalmist with us in our hearts: “Teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts to wisdom.” Amen.
The HarperCollins Study Bible
The Green Bible
The Saint Helena Psalter (an inclusive translation of the psalms by the Episcopal Order of St. Helena)
The HarperCollins Bible Commentary, edited by James L. Mays
Books about the Bible
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, by Marcus Borg
Inspired, by Rachel Held Evans
Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today, by Adam Hamilton
Podcasts about the Bible
The Bible for Normal People
2 Feminists Annotate the Bible
Videos about the Bible
The Bible Project (www.thebibleproject.com)
Books to support the Christian’s life of faith
Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, by Archbishop Rowan Williams
Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, by Archbishop Rowan Williams
Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, by Archbishop Rowan Williams
Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis
Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, by Marjorie Thompson
Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs and Practices, by Scott Gunn
Your Faith, Your Life: An Invitation to the Episcopal Church, by Jenifer Gamber
Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans
The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg
Life of the Beloved, by Henri Nouwen