Grant Us Wisdom

Grant Us Wisdom

“’Give your servant therefore an understanding mind . . . .’” 1 Kings 3:9

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 30, 2017 – 8A Pentecost

An angel appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean of the college that in return for his exemplary leadership, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean of course selects infinite wisdom. “Done!” says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light. The dean feels the expectations in the room mounting, all these brilliant minds waiting for a pearl of wisdom to spill forth from the mouth of their freshly anointed leader. At length, one of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.” The dean looks at them and says, “I should have taken the money.”

It is worth pausing for a second to reflect on why we find a joke like this funny. It is not, I suspect, because we really disagree with the dean’s answer to the angel. In our hearts, we know the immense value of wisdom, and that choosing wisdom over money is a sound choice. The reason we laugh is because we also know, as the dean feels intensely before the expectant stares of his colleagues, that living into a life of wisdom is daunting work; that it by no means is a guarantee of happiness; and that it carries with it responsibility to others. By contrast, money is everybody’s fantasy of instant happiness, and has the promise of providing an escape from hard work, expectations, and the demands of other people. We all realize that wisdom is what we should be seeking, but it is so much more fun to dream of having money.

The story of King Solomon, a portion of which we heard this morning in our first lesson, reflects this same human dynamic. At least at the beginning of his reign, Solomon appreciated that it isn’t enough for a king to be merely powerful. Effective leadership requires more; it requires wisdom. So, when asked by God in a dream what one thing Solomon might want if he could have anything he wished, Solomon replies: wisdom.

Or, more specifically, Solomon says that he wants an “understanding mind” coupled with “the ability to discern between good and evil.” The underlying Hebrew word is even more nuanced; as scholar Eugene Peterson points out, the word could just as easily be translated as a “God-listening heart.” The Scriptural understanding of wisdom includes both the head and the heart, and is centered in God.

Wisdom of this sort seems in short supply these days. Perhaps it has always been so. But still, our times seem acutely desperate for wise people, wise leaders.

Here is just one simple index: In the 1900s, Harvard’s commencement speakers included statesmen like Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, and General George Marshall; brilliant writers like Carl Sandburg, Thornton Wilder, and Ralph Ellison; and prophetic voices like Barbara Jordan, Father Theodore Hesbergh, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In the beginning years of this century the list of Harvard Commencement speakers included: Mark Zuckerberg, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Gates.

You’ll notice something about these two lists. The list from the last century includes men and women of vast experience, courage, imagination, and dare I say, wisdom. The more recent list consists of folks whose primary distinction is either making a lot of money or achieving a certain measure of celebrity or both. These more recent speakers are fine people, don’t get me wrong, but let’s just say that Mark Zuckerberg is no Winston Churchill.

In a sense, though, Solomon’s story, as you may remember from the Bible, also mirrors this decline from an appreciation for wisdom and truth to a love affair with money and celebrity. Though Solomon was a wise ruler for a spell, things did not end well for him. His wisdom was ultimately overtaken by his love for money, his love for many foreign wives, his love for power, all of which combined to turn his heart away from God, ultimately costing him and his son much of his kingdom, dividing Israel for centuries to come. It is a classic ‘fall from grace’ story.

What we learn from Solomon is that while human wisdom is a great gift, and ought to be assiduously cultivated, purely human wisdom is inevitably limited and frail, especially when it becomes untethered from a deep relationship with God.

I am reminded of a story about Abraham Lincoln who, though his religious beliefs were neither conventional nor entirely certain, had a deeply theological mind, as those of you know who have studied his second inaugural address. During the Civil War, Lincoln was once asked if God was on his side. Lincoln famously replied: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on my side; my greater concern is whether I am on God’s side.”

Authentic human wisdom always recognizes both its limits, and its source. One of my favorite Anglican theologians is David Ford, who teaches theology at Cambridge University in England. One of Ford’s major interests is helping us to recover the great wisdom tradition from our Bible so that we can apply it to our everyday lives. Ford sees Christian wisdom less as an intellectual pursuit, than as the cultivation of habits of heart and mind that help us to cope and thrive in the midst of life’s many overwhelmings.

Ford’s most basic point is that, for the Christian, wisdom comes not in claiming to be wise ourselves, but in grounding ourselves in Christ’s Wisdom. The wonderfully paradoxical truth of the gospel is that the road to enduring wisdom does not start with our efforts, with our striving, with our designs for ourselves. For the Christian, wisdom begins in letting ourselves go so that we can be embraced by God in Christ through the power of the Spirit. In part, this is what Paul means in today’s reading from Romans when he says that the “Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Wisdom begins when we acknowledge that we are not in control and that our own ideas about what we should do with our lives do not come first. What comes first is our immersion in the life of Christ through the power of the Spirit.

Once we are grounded in a Christ-centered life of worship, prayer, and sacrament, the pursuit of true wisdom becomes possible. It would be folly to suggest that there is any one path to wisdom, but Ford suggests at least four time-honored practices for growing in wisdom.

The first is to become reacquainted with the wisdom literature in the Bible. Our Scripture’s wisdom tradition is generally said to reside in the Books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and the Psalms; but wisdom sayings and stories also run throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters. These books contain gems of insight that seek to distill what has been learned from millenia of experience and reflection. They are not so much recipes for action that can just be mindlessly applied to our lives. Rather, the wisdom comes in wrestling with our own situation while continuing to meditate on these sayings and stories.

Ford’s second suggestion is to practice cultivating the traditional virtues of Christian living. St. Paul’s list of the nine fruits of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians (5:22) is perhaps the most famous summary of these virtues: the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Our academic institutions do a wonderful job of teaching things like math, history, English, science and the like; but we sometimes seem reluctant to embrace the teaching of virtue. Yet, this is an essential aspect of the Church’s mission, and we need to be bolder about naming, describing, and practicing the virtues that form a good life, and to create communities of teaching and learning where we are not embarrassed to pursue virtue.

Ford’s third recommendation is to seek out wise people and to belong to communities that are passionate about wisdom. Book learning has its place, but wisdom is best cultivated face-to-face. Many of us have been blessed to have wise parents, teachers, and colleagues; but even if we haven’t been privileged in that way, there are opportunities in church life, in spiritual direction, in book clubs, and in friendships of all kinds for growing in wisdom. Because wisdom is so much a matter of making deep connections in the midst of the complexities of life, there is no substitute for seeing how someone else does it. The hard part is to be intentional about forming and maintaining these relationships amidst the busyness of our lives.

Finally – and here is where the wisdom of Christ departs most dramatically from the wisdom of the philosophers – Christian wisdom, Ford writes, comes from the experience of opening ourselves up to others in empathetic care. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a concentration camp in solidarity with his Jewish brothers and sisters, wrote a piece near the end of his life entitled “The View From Below.” In that essay, Bonhoeffer insists that real wisdom emerges only from experiencing the world from the vantage point of others, most particularly those “others” in this world who are vulnerable. We become a truly wiser people by living with, caring for, and learning from our poor, our elderly, our children, those who are weak, those who suffer. An empathetic heart is a sanctified heart.

The most famous story about King Solomon’s wisdom, as I’m sure you remember, concerns two women who come to the king each claiming to be the mother of an infant child. They ask the king to settle their dispute and determine the real mother. Solomon declares that the only way to resolve the matter is to cut the baby in half. The one woman is satisfied with this result, content that if she can’t have the baby at least no one will. The other woman wails against the ruling, begging Solomon: “Give the baby to her, just don’t kill him!”

We see wisdom, of course, in Solomon’s clever ploy for ferreting out the true mother. But as the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth points out, it is the contrast in the women’s behavior that reveals an even deeper truth about Christian wisdom. There are some people, Barth writes, who profess to come to God in search of wisdom, and would even inflict death upon another to be proven right. And there are others, like the second woman, who come to God in search of wisdom, and would rather suffer themselves in order to give life to the other.

The wisdom of Christ is not the dispassionate cleverness of a ruling king. The wisdom of Christ is the self-giving and passionate love of a mother who would do absolutely anything to save her child.