Saturday, October 25, 2014

How Wisdom Grows

There is something to be said for unflinching honesty that doesn’t sugar coat things.  There is a fascinating tension in this whole portion of scripture (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Chronicles and 1 and 2 Kings)– the people have been freed from Pharaoh, delivered from slavery, to be the free people of God. But it’s really hard to be free, and they have begged to have a king, like the other peoples. So God gives them a king, and they struggle after that with the political reality of having a king, as God said they would.

But God bless their honesty, the scriptures are ambivalent about their kings – on the one hand they praise their achievements- we see how powerful and wealthy, successful and wise they were, how they ruled in righteousness or built up Israel and brought prosperity and strength, but on the other hand, they also blame the kings for breaking the covenant with God, for turning away from the promises and words of God and their choices ultimately lead the people of Israel into exile. 

And throughout, for most of the kings, the prophets are continually calling them back to covenant and reminding them who is really in charge.  And the bible holds both of these things in tension – their great success and their utter failure, and in the midst of it all, God’s desire for relationship –to be their God and for them to be God’s people, a light to the nations, hope for the world.

So despite David’s murder, rape, etc. he is known for his faithfulness and his righteousness, and for his love of God.  And Solomon, who has 300 of concubines and 700 wives and builds shrines to foreign gods and builds opulence and wealth on the backs of the poor, was known for his wisdom.

So let’s just get that little bit aside here for a second – these are not clean characters or easy stories. They are messy and scandalous and frustrating, and the writers of these texts acknowledge the disappointing side of their heroes readily.  Because – and this is important to keep in mind throughout – this is God’s story. God who works in and through and in spite of the best and worst we can throw at God, and who never gives up on us – that is the story they are all telling, and they are committed to telling it right.

We left things last week with David’s household - which is a not the most peaceful one - God tells him the sword will never leave his house, and it never does.  In his old age there are several attempts by sons to take over after David, lots of bloodshed, and finally, Solomon - Bathsheba’s second son (the first one dies as punishment for his killing of her first husband, Uriah) Solomon is the one chosen by God, appointed by David, and anointed by Nathan, who ascends to the throne of David, but even he is involved in some scheming and has a potential usurper half-brother killed in the process.

So Solomon, who has already shown cunning and savvy, now begins his reign of the Israel in the most ideal way possible- at least from God’s point of view. God says to him, Ask what I should give you. And Solomon asks for wisdom.  And God is very pleased with this request.  Because while wealth or power or revenge would serve Solomon, but wisdom will serve the people.

What is wisdom?
Like love or hope or foolishness, it almost can’t be explained or explored in the abstract, it appears in circumstances and situations, in the word and actions of human beings in real life.  So wisdom researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine study people who are considered by others to be wise, and look at the kinds of experiences that make someone wise, and what it looks like in context to be wise. 

In order to illustrate Solomon’s wisdom, we are given a story, a context in which to see wisdom enacted.  It’s a horrid story, really, about two women on one of society’s lowest rungs caught in a tragic situation and at the mercy of the king, who holds the power of life and death in his hands. It’s a story of loss and despair, of what desperation and grief can do, and of what love looks like too.

In this story, Solomon peels back the curtain of wisdom for a glimpse, and shows the roomful of people not a dazzling display of his own intellect or power – though to hang a child’s life over a sword is certainly power- but a simple doorway to wisdom. He doesn’t judge or condemn either woman, and he doesn’t try to get to the bottom of anything, or figure out rationally what is right and what is wrong, and who is to blame and what their punishment should be. He taps into the deeper reality.  He starts with the love that will care for the child enough to let him go, so he might live, and exposes that.

Solomon sidesteps the drama and (albeit with considerable drama of his own) lays the truth bare.  The consequences will still be theirs – one will need to face her loss instead of denying it, and will grieve terribly, the women will have to work out their relationship and living arrangements with one living child and one childless mother. But Solomon’s actions in this moment leave open the possibility for reconciliation and forgiveness, for honesty and a way forward, without in any way simplifying or trivializing the complex reality of life and living for these women and anyone else there witnessing this moment. 

Of course, we want to know, Would he have sliced the baby in two? The absurdity of this as a solution – it’s sheer illogic and shocking non-solutionness makes me think no, of course not.  Unless it is simply to shut them both up and get the problem out of his presence, which, as a powerful king, is risk enough for them to take him seriously. A king could do what he wanted, so if he wanted to make a mockery, or cause pain, or show his might, he certainly could have.  

But that’s not where he was headed.  He offers the solution of dividing the child as a test, one that actually treats the women as participating human beings and not as problems to fix or objects in his way.  By this absurd gesture he allows reality to be exposed – the deeper truth is spoken, the one who loves the child, and would give the child up to see him safe, this is the true mother.

Wisdom is not knowledge; it connected to the way things are, to our very being. It is like glimpsing the alignment of things, sensing the deep truth underneath it all.  And it is always something that moves us beyond ourselves and connects us with others, it is always for others, never for our own personal gain.

Included on the long list of words people use to describe those who are wise are “things like compassion, ability to see the big picture, to put things in perspective, to see things from many points of view, to be able to reflect on and rise above one’s own perspective.” Dr. Margaret Plews-Ogan, who studies wisdom, explains, “Wisdom is different from intelligence. Intelligence seeks knowledge and seeks to eliminate ambiguity. Wisdom on the other hand, resists automatic thinking, seeks to understand ambiguity better, to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and to understand the limits of knowledge.”

Where does wisdom begin?  
Solomon gives us some insight into this.  He is credited with Proverbs, (and Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes – the wisdom literature).  And we hear there this very often-repeated refrain, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (e.g., Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 10:27; 14:27, 15:33; 16:6).  This is where Solomon started.

The word for “fear” can mean being afraid or scared, but it can also mean reverence, wonder, amazement, mystery, astonishment, honor, in other words, something like awe.  And it is linked linguistically with the word for seeing –
Abraham Heschel wrote, Awe is a sense for transcendence, for the mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple: to feel in the rush of the passing, the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe."

The fear of the Lord, the awe and the awareness of the eternal beyond the within the ordinary, the seeing into – this is the beginning of wisdom.  Wisdom is speaking from the great truth bigger than ourselves, the silence beneath the noise, the real reality that holds us.  But, it begins with an honest assessment of yourself and the world.  Lord, How can I govern so great a people? I am but a small boy! Give me an understanding mind.  I am limited and you are beyond all – help me see with your vision, help me glimpse with your insight, that I may serve these people rightly and do what is best for them.

Solomon asked for wisdom from God and received it.  But most often wisdom is gained not from studying or listening to someone else wise, but from experience, often tragic, difficult, painful, real life experience. Where these things can cause post-traumatic stress, they can also lead to what some have called, post traumatic growth. Plews-Ogan asks, “What better teacher of compassion than one’s own experience of suffering? How better to learn humility than to make a mistake? And what better to discover the deeper meaning of one’s life than to face a circumstance that forces you to focus on that which is of most value to your life?”

And we are participants in the process, we can receive the paths wisdom carves in us.  All the exemplars of wisdom the University of Virginia researchers looked at in their Wisdom Study had one thing in common– they had all, at some point, made an intentional choice to do something that was hard.  Plews-Ogan describes it like this: “It may not have been what they really wanted to do, and certainly not something they thought would necessarily end up well. But it was something they felt they had to do to set things straight. They chose, in many cases, the harder course of action. They chose to face their circumstances face on. We say, they “stepped in”. They may have decided to apologize to a patient or family, to go into a room full of intense judgment. It might have meant that they had to face their addiction, or take control of their health. At some point they made a courageous choice to make a difference in their own lives.”

But what leads people to make hard choices in the face of adversity? To remain vulnerable and changeable instead of hardening and becoming bitter and shut down?

When researchers asked what gave those people the courage to make their hard choice – to step into something they’d rather avoid, their answers could be summarized in five things: a community to hold your experience- a place to tell your story, cultivating gratitude and hope, some kind of quiet reflection or prayer, doing something to help others, and having some kind of spiritual grounding to help guide you as you make hard but good choices.  Since wisdom is from God, it doesn’t surprise me that these things that open a place for God’s wisdom to grow in us sound exactly like church.

Solomon had the gift of wisdom from God, for the people, to see the greater truth and help others live in it, to connect him to God’s reality and bring that reality to be in his leadership, but he also had his own cleverness and intellect in spades, and it is easy to see when he relied on one and not the other. 

His rule was characterized by stability and peace within the borders of Israel’s huge territory, and political and social order. He was a prolific writer and composer, beloved for his wisdom, and he gave the people of God the Temple. 
But he also used slave labor from conquered peoples to build the temple, built shrines for the worship of foreign gods, and taxed the people heavily to support his lavish and excessive lifestyle.  He made the people work as soldiers, chief officers and commanders of his chariots and cavalry, and gave preferential treatment to the tribe of Judah, which angered and alienated the other tribes.  By the time his 40 year reign came to an end, the people were weary, burdened, frustrated and disillusioned, after his death, the kingdom he had built broke apart. 

Wisdom keeps us human and connected to others. It keeps us human and connected to God.  But, Solomon did not have a prophet. There was no Nathan for him like there was for David.  Was there anyone who spoke hard truth to power?  Who reminded him of his vulnerability?  Who called him back to God’s ways when he got distracted by his own power and ingenuity, or became enslaved to his desires and the drive to satisfy his own wants, even at the expense of those he was called to serve?  

One researcher describes, “…a wisdom atmosphere as one in which doubts, uncertainties and questions can be openly expressed, and ambiguities and contradictions can be tolerated, so that individuals are not forced to adopt the defensive position of…“too confident knowing”.’ (John Meachum)
Perhaps Solomon, for all his wisdom, did not have this.

These wisdom researchers were not studying church. They were not looking at the Bible or the faithful from the generations who’ve gone before us, or those of us who seek to live in wisdom in a community of Jesus Christ with and for one another. So they couldn’t have realized what it would sound like to us gathered here tonight when they said this:

“When we foster compassion, empathy and forgiveness, in ourselves and in others, we are opening up the possibility for wisdom. When we foster the capacity for self- reflection in our children, or our community, we are creating the matrix for wisdom to develop.
When we foster gratitude, wisdom is likely to follow. When we accept the complexity and ambiguous nature of things, and refuse to accept a simplified black and white explanation, we are increasing the likelihood of wise decisions. Wisdom does not arise out of the easy, simple parts of our lives. Wisdom lives in the most messy, hard, complex and painful of our experiences.”

This, my friends, is Church. They are talking about church.  They are talking about us. We are people called to live with one another in the messy, hard and complex experiences, called to foster gratitude, to make space to openly express doubts, and to accept ambiguity and mystery.  

We are called to hear and hold each other’s stories – stories that God works in and through and in spite of so that we can be with God.  We are to be, for each other and the world, the people who help one another step into hard things, and who remain open and soft when life wants to make us bitter and shut down. 

We make space for silence and pray together, we can be brave and trusting instead of afraid and guarded, and we can dwell together in the fear of the Lord, that place where awe and wonder well within us and open up to us a seeing that otherwise remains closed. 
And when we look at David and Solomon and all these faithful who have gone before, in all the raw ugliness and beauty of their lives, it can help us to foster compassion, empathy and forgiveness in ourselves and others.

We are the Church, the Body of Christ, the living and breathing reminders of grace, experiencers of grace, spreaders of grace amidst life’s joys and struggles.  We are the community where wisdom grows.  May we come in honesty and awe before God and “feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal." (Heschel)


Guest Post: So Sorry

This post is written by Lisa Larges, who preached this sermon on Sunday, October 19 at LNPC.

2 Samuel 12:1-9, Psalm 51:1-9 (read in succession)

We haven’t had a political sex scandal for a very long time, by which I mean at least a few months. For a while there they were as regular as rain. And just as regular was the whole way they played themselves out – beginning with the adamant denials, continuing with the exposure of the truth, proceeding to the press conference apology which is nearly simultaneous with the twitter and talking-head analysis, and then by the late-night comedy riffs, and ending either by the fade in to obscurity, or sometimes, by the attempted comeback and then the fade.

In recent times those press conference apologies have seemed both more generic and more intimate. It’s pretty clear that public relations firms have focus-grouped various phrases and produced a handy formula to improve your chances of raising a sympathetic response from the American public.  You have to say, “Most of all I have hurt my wife and my family,” (because most often you are a heterosexual married male) and make reference to “time to heal,” and you have to use the words, “actions for which I take full responsibility,” even if your actions thus far have made it clear to everyone that the very last thing you ever intend to do is take any responsibility whatsoever, and that you are only standing here now in a last ditch attempt to salvage something. The public relations firms will tell you how to stand, and how to look, and what suit and tie to wear. As important, they will tell your wife that she has to be there too, and they will tell her what to wear, how to stand, and the right kind of pained yet supportive look to mold her face in to.

Let’s just consider for a moment that some of them really meant what they said. Let’s just posit that some of them were indeed truly chastened through and through. The problem is, of course, that it’s almost impossible to tell the real penitents from the fakers. On the one hand, the political handlers have become so adept at teaching their clients how to mimic remorse that even the most recalcitrant can give a convincing performance. On the other hand, we the public have become so jaded, and in no small part because the handlers and PR people have so consistently manipulated us, that we err on the side of discounting all of them. It’s as though from overuse and abuse our bs detectors have gotten jammed in the on position.

These public sex scandals make all of us feel a little tainted, not just because there is nothing anymore that is left out, with absolutely every last detail of every last graphic act being uncovered and described, but also because we are made to be complicit in the media frenzy. They leave us feeling depressed, dirty and, more than anything, exasperated over the time and resources that are being sucked away from dealing with the very real and very serious problems in front of us.

If David had been a politician in 21st Century America and not a politician in Ancient Israel, perhaps he would have followed down the same dismal path. Perhaps he would have stood in front of the camera shutters and the scrim of reporters with his wives in a row behind him looking grim and determined. Perhaps he would have begun by saying that he had let down the American people, and that now he needed time with his family and time to heal. Perhaps he would have told us that he accepted full responsibility for his actions, even as his lawyers were drawing up the briefs that would shield him from paying for his actions in any serious way.

There were political handlers and public relations specialists in David’s time, they were officials of the court, and faith has convinced me that there are still prophets like the prophet Nathan around today. Sadly for us, we rarely hear about those prophets now. But fortunately for us, we have this instance preserved for us in which the prophet reached the political official before the handlers did.
In Psalm 51, we encounter something wholly different than what we have become accustomed to. Here is the real thing. Here is unflinching, abject penitence. You get the sense that if this David had stood in front of the TV cameras and spoken the words of this Psalm, the pain of it would make us look away, or squirm under the burden of the hearing of it.

The Bible is many things to us, the Word of Life, a guide, a source book of faith and hope. But it’s also, in places, downright interesting. Especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a parade of characters who haven’t in any way been cleaned up for us. We find them with all their faults and flaws and bad behavior on full display. Chief among the flawed and the faulty is David.
I hear that the PW women, when discussing this text, enumerated all the commandments David busted through, with coveting, adultery, and murder topping the list.

Among the other benefits Scripture gives us, it plunges us in to the real. Take any of the apologies offered by philandering politicians and stack it up against Psalm 51. The first will leave you feeling empty and a little sullied. In the other, you will feel the pain as real and deep now as it was three thousand years ago. Here is a man facing the full horror of what he has done. Here is a man utterly convinced of his need for grace.

In my own life, the other place where I have found this same penitential spirit is in Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m sure that any of you who are a part of a 12 step program know what I am talking about.
When I first dragged my sorry self to AA, what struck me through the haze of my own confusion was how much like church it was. In fact, it often seemed more like church than church did.
It had many of the same components. There were prayers, there was a liturgy of sorts, and there was testimony about the goodness of God. There was even a passing of the hat.
It struck me too, that in many ways, AA was more successful than many of our churches. There’s no paid staff, no buildings, and no proselytizing. Still people come, and then they come back. They learn about God there, and also about the rigors of a spiritual practice.

As a church person, I’ve often wondered what we could learn from the 12 step model. I think that one critical difference is that 12 step programs have a higher threshold of membership, which gives them a kind of edge. It’s a place that you go when you’ve exhausted all your other options.
What if we only came to church after we had hit rock bottom. What if we put a sign out front that said, “Come back when you’re ready.” The good news is that we get to come here any time. The hard news is that it will be a great temptation to avoid coming to terms with repentance. The great thing that we addicts have over the civilians is that we get the clear and simple choice between facing ourselves or death. It helps to concentrate the mind.

Consider the great swath of destruction that David created before facing his own sin. A woman raped, a man dead, and no end of lives ruined. David yielded to the same tendency toward denial that is in all of us, and pretended that the pain wasn’t real. The luxury of being king, with all those resources at your disposal, and sycophants to tell you only what you want to hear, is that you get to pretend a little longer. The horror of being king, with all those resources and lying officials is that your pretending will have far reaching and calamitous consequences.

At the least, David’s story reminds us that we each have within us the capacity to be a total jerk. It’s part of our human nature to indulge in elaborate schemes of self-deception, to be enthralled by power, or greed or obsession. Or, to put it more simply, the hard part about life is that we will hurt one another. The knowledge of that fills us with fear and shame and sadness. We’d rather do anything other than come up against that one hard truth, but there it is.

We sometimes squander the resources given to us, we fail to cherish and care for the earth that is our home, we don’t acknowledge the ways in which the choices that we make limit those of others, and we don’t always do right by one another. We don’t do these things because we are bad people, we do them because we are people. We bear the burden and the blessing of being born with the capacity to love. With love comes vulnerability, and with vulnerability comes fear. It’s all part of the deal.

By the grace of God, David had Nathan in his life, and by the grace of God, David listened when the prophet laid out the truth to him. Then the full force of what he had done hit him, and hit him hard. It was a truth too great for bearing. When David finally stopped running from himself and from facing the truth of what he had done, he was at last driven in to prayer.

God’s grace was sufficient for David, and God’s grace is sufficient for us too. Grace makes penitence possible and not simply overwhelming, and grace not only makes penitence possible, it makes penitence liberating.

Church gives us the chance to feel again our own desire to live in accordance with love. Church is that place which grounds us once again in what is real, even when what is real and what is hard are the same. Church gives us a community of prophets and sinners to learn with and from. Church calls us to lay our hearts on the altar, and to trust in a God who knows us and who alone has the power to set us once again on the path of love.