Wisdom’s Focus

Here’s the video with which we opened worship.

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

Aug 16, 2015

1 Kings 2:1-2; 3:3-14

Proverbs 9:1-6

We just sent Alden off to another year of college, and so these texts about wisdom have had some resonance for me.

This year, he did all of his own packing. He’d done most of it in the past, but I have no idea what he took with him this time. He carried out his bags to the car and I trust he has what he needs.

Sending my kid out on his own induces a moment of anxiety for me—where I realize that there was SO MUCH I thought I was going to teach him as he grew up, but now I have 2 seconds before the car backs out of the driveway.

He knows how to do laundry, right?

And make food so he won’t starve?

He can access his bank accounts and knows that money has to last him all year, right???

Will he floss?

Is that mustache really a good idea? (just kidding, son!)

I don’t have much of Solomon’s wisdom, but the small share I was allotted led me to not scream “MAKE GOOD CHOICES!!!” as he drove away.

We’re sending him off to college to become better educated, which on some level involves the acquisition of knowledge. We want him to learn things that will serve him well in life, allowing him to serve the world well with his life.

My moment of anxiety as he left for school, though, I think, happened because I realized he needs more than knowledge. He needs wisdom. He needs the ability to take his knowledge and apply it to the situations life throws his way.

As a parent, I can’t quite figure out how to commodify wisdom for my kids.  I want to just take everything I’ve learned, often through the struggles of my own life, and zap it into their heads.

I know it doesn’t work that way. My wisdom, such as it is, was acquired as I failed, and failed forward. Looking back at my life, I realize my wisdom was hard earned, from all of those times I crashed and burned and then got back up and tried again.

My wisdom was not acquired in a vacuum, though, where I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps.  It was gifted to me as people helped me get back up again. Because sometimes when you fail, you fall hard. And you’re lying there on the ground with the wind knocked out of you, convinced that it’s all over—and then someone reaches out a hand, helps you stand again, and dusts you off so you can try again. I think about friends who stood by me. And about strangers who offered a hand up by extending kindness toward me. I think about people in positions of authority and power who used their resources to help me. I think about the bigger systems that were in place to offer me assistance too. When people were willing to wade into the messiness of my life to help me up, it taught me not to fear being there for other people when they fell. I learned wisdom when other people extended care toward me and my life.

I think about Solomon’s answer to God’s question, and I wonder how he knew to ask for wisdom in the first place. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” That’s a good answer. Well done, Solomon.

Let’s be clear—you have to have a certain level of wisdom already to even come up with that answer. I’d ask for the vanquishing of my enemies and maybe a million dollars. I don’t know. I’m sure those of us who need wisdom rarely would think to ask for it.

But then I think about his father. King David. God’s golden boy, the favorite one. David, the guy who had Uriah the Hittite killed so he could marry his wife, Bathsheba—the woman who would become Solomon’s mom. I think about David, whose squabbles with and about his own children led to the near collapse of his whole family. One of David’s sons even rapes one of David’s daughters. Don’t we just love family values in scripture?

David may have had all of the steadfast love of the Lord, but it didn’t mean his life was simple or that he made good decisions. I think about these stories and wonder what it was like to be Solomon, David’s surviving son. What must it have been like for Solomon to survive a childhood as the son of the “other woman”, with an erratic father–one minute on top of the world and the next minute disaster?

I can think of a lot of words to describe King David—wisdom is not one of them.

Maybe Solomon had already gone through enough trial and struggle by the time he took the throne to know that wisdom had been lacking in his home as he grew up. Wisdom was just what he needed.

Which leaves me in a conundrum. I want my children to receive wisdom. I don’t want them to have to grow up surrounded by tragedy in order to get wisdom. I want to save them the pain and loss and difficulties of my mistakes.

I know I can’t do that. There’s nothing in scripture to suggest life works that way for anyone. If King David, the person most highly favored by God,  had a life full of struggle and personal tragedy—why would I think I could manage my parenting so my kids could avoid it?

It’s possible I have control issues.

Pastor Rob Bell said this about suffering:

Rob Bell Quote

I appreciate the reminder in this quote that while life happens to all of us, and while none of us can prevent challenge, we can all choose how to respond to those moments when they happen.

We can be bitter or better.

More ignorant or more aware.

Wisdom can be an attitude we seek.

So, sorry kids. I can’t make your life happy and easy. But what I can do is attend to what scripture says about wisdom. In Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a woman.

I’m struck by what Wisdom does in this passage. It’s a lot of work. You only need to hew seven pillars to hold up a roof if you’re going to have a big house. Wisdom prepares her house for a big crowd. She cooks a big feast, preparing food for everyone who needs to come to the feast. And she spares no expense to make sure people know about the feast, sending her servant girls to gather people in and going out herself to call from the highest places in town.  She uses what she has to make sure that other people are cared for. “You that are simple, turn in here. Come and eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”

On a practical level, wisdom is in the business of bringing other people up to a better starting place—feeding them—both literally and figuratively—so they are equipped to walk in the way of insight.

Because when your basic needs aren’t being met, when you are hungry, or when you aren’t physically safe, or when you are in real pain or desperate circumstances—it is hard to make wise choices in those moments.

When we think about the wisdom of Solomon, we often think about the story of the two women who come to him for counsel. There is a dispute about a child. Both women claim to be the mother. He tells them to cut the baby in half. The true mother gives up her claim on the child rather than see it killed. And that’s how Solomon determines who the real mother was.

You may remember a similar story from Seinfeld. In this scene, Elaine and Kramer are fighting over the custody of a Schwinn bicycle. And Newman is about to render his verdict. Notice that Elaine’s neck is injured. She’s in pain.

This is, of course, a silly illustration. But after reading that Proverbs text, I think the reason Elaine suggests the bike should be cut in half is because it is hard to make wise decisions when you’re in that kind of pain.

I try to remember this when I see people on the news making decisions you or I would not make. Unless I’m living with the same level of comfort and privilege that they are, I try to hold back my judgment on what seems to me to be their bad choices. Desperate people make different decisions than do people who have options.

Wisdom seeks to offer help to those who need it so they can walk in the ways of wisdom. She doesn’t ask if they deserve it. She doesn’t really even seem to worry about whether or not they are seeking wisdom. She just knows that the way to build a better community is to put people in a position where they are better equipped to make good decisions for themselves.

There’s blessing in it for her too. If you live in a stronger community where more people are able to live by wisdom and good choices, then your life is going to be better too.

But if building a better world for only yourself is the goal, you won’t find Wisdom there. She’s serving dinner to everyone else at her place.  Solomon didn’t ask for wisdom for himself either. He didn’t want it so he could be the wisest guy in town. He asked for wisdom so he could give good counsel to God’s people. That was the answer that made God glad.

Wisdom directs itself, primarily, toward others. What would the world be like if the blessing of other people were the primary motivation?

I heard this story on Story Corps a while back. It’s about Eddie Lanier, a man from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. See what wisdom looked like in this story.

I don’t know why David Wright decided to reach out a hand to Mr Lanier. But because he did, because he acted like Wisdom from the text in Proverbs, one man now has been given the chance to live into the ways of insight.

How we focus wisdom toward others will look different for each of us, as it did for all of the people in that video I shared at the beginning of worship, but how might God be calling you to share God’s wisdom with the world? And what kind of a world might we yet create if wisdom were something we directed beyond ourselves and toward the world?

Let us dream this into being together. Amen.

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