Learning from Experience
Scriptures: Proverbs 4:1-9; I Corinthians 15:1-11
In 2006 Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was coming off a Superbowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks when he went riding on his motorcycle without a helmet. His coach Bill Cowher had told him over a year earlier not to risk injury by riding a motorcycle, especially without a helmet. He pointed to the experience of Kellen Winslow, a tight end for the Cleveland Browns, who hit a curb, was thrown off his motorcycle, and tore his ACL, potentially ending his career. Even former Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw told Roethlisberger, “Wait until you retire to ride a motorcycle.” But Roethlisberger said he was going to keep riding his motorcycle without a helmet. He said that Pennsylvania law did not require one and that he felt more free without it. He told his coach, “I’ll just continue to be careful” (New York Times, June 12, 2006). So that summer, after winning the Superbowl, he ended up in the hospital with a concussion, a broken nose, a broken upper and lower jaw, fractured facial bones, head lacerations, and two lost teeth from crashing on his motorcycle.
There are two ways to learn from mistakes. One is to make them yourself. The other is to let someone else make them. The latter is what we call education, the preferred method of learning advocated by the book of Proverbs.
Two weeks ago we began our study of Proverbs by reading from chapter 8. In that chapter wisdom called to us saying, “And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.” Proverbs 8, as I said two weeks ago, is an appeal to us from Wisdom personified, an appeal for us to study, to use our heads, to learn how the world works so that we can serve God more effectively.
Today’s reading from Proverbs, chapter 4, continues this theme but with a new twist. Verses 1-2:
Listen, children to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching.
This time wisdom itself is not talking to us; instead it is talking to us through a parent.
Actually, if you look closely, Proverbs 4 is not just the words of a father to his children, it is a father quoting to his children the words of his father. Look again at verses 3-4:
When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother’s favorite, he taught me, and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words: keep my commandments and live.
The remainder this scripture through verse 9 is a quotation not from a father but from a grandfather, which is why I kind of like this chapter. In Proverbs 4 we have the words of a grandparent, passing on wisdom to a parent who is passing it on to a grandchild.
Recently I saw revival of the old television show All in the Family. This famous television shows from the 1970s consisted of Archie Bunker, his wife Edith, their daughter Gloria, and her husband Michael. In one show Gloria had just given birth to her first child and was suffering a severe case of new mother anxiety. When her mother Edith tried to make a small helpful suggestion Gloria snapped, “Mother, what do you know about raising children?”
Sometimes it is hard to believe parents know anything, even about raising children. But whatever their faults and limitations, parents have an advantage in at least one commodity: experience. If nothing else, gray hair means you are a survivor. Gray hair means we have lived long enough to acquire a significant number of experiences, and even if they weren’t all good experiences, you can learn from someone’s bad experience without having to go through it yourself. We call that education.
Proverbs wants to take advantage of that. Proverbs invites us to learn from the experience of others, not just parents or grandparents but any faithful servants of God from a previous generation. That’s what we have in the Bible—the collective experience of God’s people, the experience of people who actually knew Jesus or knew people who knew Jesus. And even in our church today there are people who have gone through the experiences you are now facing, and may have a helpful insight or two.
Of course, you have to be careful about the kind of people whose experience you try to learn from. There are good sources of experience and bad ones. Later in chapter 4 Proverbs says,
Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on. For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.
Note that last statement: “they have made someone stumble.” There are people quite willing to use their experience to exploit others, to indoctrinate you into values and strategies for getting ahead that are destructive, that have nothing to do with the wisdom of God, the wisdom shown to us in Jesus Christ.
But I think a church family can help even in those situations. The church is a place where you can come and ask if something your friends or your boss or your coworkers want you to do is good or not. The church is a place where you can come and ask if something your parents want you to do is good or not. Some of you have come to talk with me about your parents, whether it is wise—there’s that favorite word from Proverbs—whether it is wise for them to continue driving or living alone, and whether it is wise for you to do something about it. Pastors are generally not trained social workers, nor are most church members. But there is a collective experience to be found in a church family that sometimes can help. If nothing else, a pastor can point you to a professionally trained counselor or social worker, someone who has even more experience about these things than we do.
The point is that you don’t have to try to figure out the Christian life on your own. You can draw on the collective experience of the church, your mothers and fathers in faith.
Paul describes this in our first scripture reading. He tells the Corinthians, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: …” He then tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and finally concludes, “Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” Even the apostle Paul did not appeal to his own wisdom. He appealed to the collective experience of the church, the parents and grandparents of faith who have passed on to us who Jesus is and what he means to us.
Fred Craddock, a minister who for many years taught at Emory University, tells about a young woman coming to him during her freshman year of college. This is from a collection of his writings called Craddock Stories. She told him, “I was a failure in my classes; I wasn’t having any dates; and I didn’t have as much money as the other students. I was just so lonely and depressed and homesick and not succeeding. One Sunday afternoon I went to the river near the campus. I had climbed up on the rail and was looking into the dark water below. For some reason or another I thought of the line, ‘Cast all your cares upon him for he cares for you.’ I stepped back, and here I am.”
She was remembering a verse from the Bible: I Peter 5:7. “Cast all your cares on Jesus, for he cares for you.” This college freshman was standing on the railing of a bridge, thinking about taking her life, and suddenly she remembers a Bible verse that causes her to step back off the bridge and go see her campus pastor.
Craddock listened to this and said, “Where did you learn that line?” She said, “I don’t know.” Craddock said, “Do you go to church?” The girl said, “No.” Then she said, “Well, when I visited my grandmother in the summers we went to Sunday School and church.” And Craddock said, “Ah…” (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 33).
Listen, children to a parent’s instruction, and sometimes even a grandparent.