Lean in, listen, and Learn

Rev Douglas Taylor


What is wisdom and how do you know that you’ve got some?

In a few minutes I am going to ask you to write a piece of wisdom on the cards you have in your orders of service. We are not going to read them out loud here in the service; instead we are going to post them on the bulletin board out in the hallway for the next few weeks while we consider the theme for the month together. Wisdom. What does it mean to be a people of ‘Wisdom’?

One suggestion for when you are ready to write something on the card – I invite you to not put you name on it. Instead list your age. My card will, for example, have whatever piece of wisdom I put down and then “signed, a 49-year-old.” But, if you would, wait a few minutes more before writing anything on the card. First, I want to unpack one big idea and also then show you a short video.

In preparing for this service, I found a bunch of really great bits of wisdom in particular from a 5-year-old named Charlie. For example, Charlie offers this wisdom about relationships:

Charlie says, “Don’t put a glue stick in her hair. It sounds funny, but she never thinks so.” https://www.menshealth.com/trending-news/a19536383/advice-from-kids/ I’m going to scatter some of Charlie’s wisdom throughout my homily so as to keep your interest as I talk.

And I’ll start with the big idea: Confucius was a very wise teacher from China two and a half thousand years ago. The big idea I want to unpack is from him. Confucianism is a philosophical and religious set of teachings many people follow still today.

So, here is the big idea: According to Confucius, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” (Confucius, Analects, XVI.9, [maybe] tr. anon) I’ve had this quote taped above my desk computer for several years.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Let me dig in here just a little bit.

#1) Reflection:

Charlie says, “Don’t cross the street without looking both ways because you could get hit by a car and then somebody else gets all the candy.”

So, one method by which we learn wisdom is reflection. That’s really the point of coming to hear a sermon, isn’t it? It gets you thinking. I say some stuff up here and you think about it and reflect on it. This is the benefit of studying scripture or taking a class in ethics. It gets you thinking and reflecting on your life and how you are in the world. Confucius describes that as the noblest way to attain wisdom.

Of course, the real benefit is when such reflection is put into action. I remember reading about how growth and learning comes from allowing chaos and mistakes to happen. It’s about fostering an environment of curiosity and innovation. But that feels like chaos and a lack of control, which is uncomfortable. Reflecting on this piece of wisdom is one thing. Living it is another.

#2) Imitation:

Charlie says, “Bury your money in the back yard. But make a map so you remember where the money is. But then hide the map where you can’t find it, so you don’t dig up the money. Maybe give the map to a friend who has enough money.”

A colleague taught me an invaluable lesson that fits here under ‘imitation.’ I was in my first year of seminary and was complaining about how I’d been treated by an elder minister. I’d felt dismissed and ignored by that elder minister’s words and behavior toward me. Another colleague said “Every colleague serves as an example to us. Not all of them are good examples that we want to emulate. But we can still learn from all of them.” She was suggesting I learned how not to treat new ministers when I become an elder colleague.

According to Confucius, imitation is the easiest method by which we learn wisdom. Everyone has something to teach us by their example. Who do you want to emulate? Who has treated you with kindness, or good support, or clarity of truth? How can you imitate that example in your treatment of others?

#3) Experience:

Charlie says, “Sometimes you have to laugh so hard, you super-pee. That’s when you pee over your entire pants. Your pants are like ruined with pee. That’s how hard you laughed.”

There’s an old saying: Good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from poor judgement. Don’t be afraid of the mistakes you make. Learn from them. They are valuable. This is not to say our mistakes don’t hurt. Confucius suggests that learning wisdom by experience is the bitterest method, but it definitely works.

Here are somethings I’ve learned through the experience of my mistakes and poor judgement: “Reacting defensively is usually not my best move.”

Sometimes when another person is angry with me, they are really angry about something else. It’s not always about me. I’ve made the mistake of reacting only to the surface level of a conversation or argument, only to discover later that there was something else going on that had nothing to do with me. If I had not reacted defensively in the moment, I might have been able to help. Reacting defensively is usually not my best move.

This is the big idea I wanted to unpack. Essentially, that we have wisdom, all of us. We’ve acquired it by various methods to be sure. And over the years we keep gaining more wisdom. Listen to the wisdom around you and within you.

I have one more thing to offer you before I invite you to write something on your card. I have a video you will enjoy, and it might help you think of something to write down on your card if you haven’t already decided. This video is from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation entitled “How to Age Gracefully.”


Any time after the service, bring your card up front and leave it on the table here with our chalice.

I’ll close with one more bit of advice from Charlie. “If you eat salad, make sure it’s not poison ivy. That poison ivy will get you, mister.”

In a world without end, may it be so.