Mining for Wisdom

Preached on 03 July 2005
The Ordination of Deacons
by Michael Sadgrove

In the days when coal was king, there was an entire language that used to be spoken by the pitmen of the Durham and Northumberland coalfield.  ‘Pitmatic’, as it is called, has wonderfully arcane words like clarty, galloway, kennah, tarry-tout and yakka, useful for Scrabble.  One of them is cuddy.  On and off the north-east coal field, cuddy is an affectionate nickname for Cuthbert, our native saint.  On Lindisfarne you can collect little pieces of fossilised wood called cuddy beads on the beach opposite St Cuthbert’s island; you can watch the cuddy ducks on Inner FarneBut in the pitmatic spoken near Alnwick where I was once a parish priest, a cuddy was a pitman’s ass and by extension, a fool; if they called you one, it was not a compliment.  In East Durham however, to be cuddy wifted means being left-handed or ambidextrous and that has the nuance of being rather clever.

Next week’s Durham Miners’ Gala service is our annual reminder that this cathedral and the mining industry are inseparable. One of the most moving places in the building is the memorial where the names of hundreds of men who perished down the mines are recorded.  A miners’ banner hangs in the south transept like an icon in an orthodox church.  And our first reading from the Book of Job is a familiar miners’ text that features a sort of Bible pitmatic with its obscure language about swaying miners suspended precariously in pits deep below the surface of the earth.  It tells of mining operations in the ancient world: gold, silver, copper, iron, precious stones – everything is harvested from the fiery, dangerous depths of the earth: everything that is, except coal - and one other commodity so elusive that you can’t mine it or dredge it up from the sea.  You can’t buy it or barter it – you can’t even put a value on it, for it is beyond price.  You will hear rumours of it but you won’t find it, travel to the ends of the earth but you will come back empty-handed.  Only God knows its place, says Job, understands its secret.

This rarest of harvests, says Job, is wisdom.  Even though it has been there from the beginning when the world was created and God saw it and searched it out, it remains hidden from mortals.  We cannot find it on our own.  Yet there is a way to it, open to everyone. ‘The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’  To be wise is to know your place in the world and before God.  It’s to recognise that God requires of us our reverent allegiance – this is what ‘the fear of the Lord’ means.  As a consequence, it’s to know what it means to live well as a person of integrity and mercy, justice and truth.  And because God is the source of wisdom, because he is wisdom, to be wise means becoming like him.  And becoming like him means knowing him, offering him our loyalty and love.

Wisdom has been the theme of our ordination retreat over these past few days.  I have tried to suggest that ordained ministry is a calling to help other people become wise and live in the light of God’s invitation to know and love and worship him.  The Bible is a story not of rigorous duty but of rich delight, for its theme is the gracious, generous movement of God towards us and towards his world.  Wisdom is a gift of God before it is requirement on human beings.  The New Testament speaks about Jesus as the word and wisdom of God made flesh, visible and tangible among us.  He comes as God only wise to show us what it is to walk in the way of wisdom.  He comes as God only love to rescue us from our folly and re-create us so that we can realise our destiny, which is to bear the image and likeness of God in the world.  O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.

To help others become wise means being, or becoming, wise ourselves. This is the calling to which these nine men and women are ordained this morning.  Public ministry in the church has never been more exacting than today when most of our contemporaries think the church is irrelevant and our talk about God incomprehensible.  More and more we are ‘singing the Lord’s song in a strange land’.  Yet we do not lose heart.  This calling, to make people wise, and our society wise to the threats and opportunities facing it, is an immeasurable privilege.  In the retreat we looked at the story of King Solomon at the outset of his reign.  At this defining moment God appears to him and invites him to ask for the gift he most needs.  Solomon resists the obvious self-driven requests: wealth, victory, a long life.  Instead he prays for wisdom to govern his people well, for, he says, ‘I am only a little child; I do not even know how to go out and come in’.  We may hope that those taking part in next week’s G8 summit come to Scotland in that spirit.  They will certainly need the wisdom of Solomon, and yesterday’s worldwide crowds of demonstrators are not going to forgive them if they don’t at least ask for it.  And as for our deacons today, there is no other prayer to offer than the humble request for the understanding and discernment that only God can give. 

As you embark on a lifetime of service in the ordained ministry, let it begin and end with this: the wisdom that is the fear of the Lord.  Seek her out, not as something to be unearthed by human effort, but deep in the unfathomable mines of God.  Nurture her, cultivate her, let her be alongside you as she was alongside God in creation.  Recognise, as Solomon did, that God gives what he commands; what you lack will be yours if you ask for it.  You would not be human if you did not feel that all you can do today is to hold out empty hands to God.  Today, St Thomas’s Day, is for all who are only too aware of fragility and doubt, fightings within and fears without.  But God’s way is to place jewels in a rubbish heap, and give the keys of the castle to cowards, as Teresa of Avilá put it.  He has brought you to this point.  He will give you the wisdom you need.  In the risen Jesus he comes to us on this first day of the week in word and sacrament, he invites you to acclaim him and offer yourselves to him in those magnificent words of recognition: ‘My Lord and my God!’  All this is what we shall shortly be asking for you in the prayer of the church at the heart of this ordination service.

Here are some words written by the South African writer Alan Paton for a godson’s confirmation.  They are a prayer that we may be wise and know ourselves, that we may be humble and ask to be forgiven, that we may always serve well and be faithful to Christ. 

This kneeling, this singing, this reading from ancient books,This acknowledgement that the burden is intolerable, this promise of amendment,
This humble access, this putting out of hands,This taking of the bread and wine, this returning to your place not glancing about you,
This solemn acceptance and the thousand sins that will follow it,This thousand sins and repenting of them,
This dedication and this apostasy, this apostasy and this restoration,This thousand restorations, and this thousand apostasies,
Take and accept them all, be not affronted nor dismayed by them,They are a net of holes to capture essence, a shell to house the thunder of the ocean,
A discipline of petty acts to catch Creation, a rune of words to hold one Living Word,A ladder built of sticks and stones whereby they hope to reach to heaven.