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Winsome Wisdom

In H. G. Wells’ tale “The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper,” it is November 10, 1931, when Mr. Brownlow returns to his apartment at the end of work and sits down to read his evening paper. As he takes the wrapped bundle in his hands he thinks it feels different than usual. Looking at the address he notices that it was supposed to go to an Evan O’Hara. Still, if he got Mr. O’Hara’s newspaper it is likely that this is only a minor mix-up, and that Mr. O’Hara is already enjoying Mr. Brownlow’s paper over a cup of tea. So Mr. Brownlow unwraps the daily journal and settles in.

Soon, however, he is caught by the strangeness of this paper. The paper is smoother than usual to the touch and the photographs are in color. More significantly, the news itself doesn’t seem to make sense, tossing off names of countries he’s never heard of, world leaders he can’t remember rising to power, and contraptions he’s never seen. As he turns again to the front page Mr. Brownlow notes the date: November 10, 1971. Forty years into the future!

He scours the pages with growing interest and amusement. The world is governed by something called a Federal Board. Fashions have changed. Environmental concerns and conservation seem to be top priorities. Mr. Brownlow laughs to himself, sure that this is some elaborate hoax cleverly fobbed off on him. Still, in the middle of the night his nuisance paper troubles him, and he tears out a section to show to his friend in the morning.

When he wakes, however, the cleaning woman has arrived. She threw the paper out with the garbage and now only his scrap remains.

Wells ends his story there, leaving the reader nursing an uneasy speculation. What could have caused the time warp? Is there a Wisdom that transcends time and injects enough prophetic caution into the system to keep us from self-destructing? Does Someone in the universe know what is going on? Are we dabbling at things like rats caught in a mysterious maze while all around us, beyond the light of the stars, a host of giant Presences compare notes and chuckle at our limitations and stupidity? Do they tantalize us in moments like Mr. Brownlow’s serendipitous encounter by dangling carrots of prophetic insight before us?

Obviously wisdom is in shorter supply than we might hope. Politicians blow clouds of cryptic absolutes, pleasing all and none. Marriages begin with confident vows, only to end with hollow suggestions that “we made a mistake.” My grandpa used to shake his head and say, “We get too soon old and too late smart.” Hegel summarized well the plight of the human race: “What experience and history teach us is this -- that people and governments never have learned anything from history.”

Where is wisdom to be found? Will someone drop a “shining path” from the heavens to provide insight rather than bloodshed?

Our lectionary readings for today are all some version of Proverbs’ insight about true wisdom. What makes Wisdom a winner is not so much that she can bring wealth or power or fame; rather, Wisdom’s great asset is her link to divine love.

Intelligence can be brittle and harsh. Like Mr. Brownlow’s magical newspaper, it can tell us information without helping us truly live. Experience, likewise, may be a teacher that turns us more mean and spiteful than gracious and caring.

Only true wisdom is rooted in divine goodness and mercy. It is not as concerned with data as it is with persons who can use or abuse that data. It is not as worried about information as it is about how that information warms human hearts. It is not as focused on facts and figures as it is on relationships and healing.

Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1
While it may seem at first glance to be a tedious collection of rather dry one-liners, Proverbs is much more than that. It is our doorway into the educational system of the Israelite community. Our word “proverb” is derived from a Latin term which means “for a verb.” So these are “words” which take the place of “more words,” or concise distillations of wisdom compacted into a few carefully conceived phrases. The wisdom presumed by the proverbs is the worldview of the Sinai covenant, as the Prologue (Proverbs 1:1-7) indicates. The message of the book derives its direction from Solomon, who was enormously wise because of the special gift of God (1 Kings 3). Solomon is the father of Proverbs in several ways. First, he created Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem which gave a permanent home to Israel’s covenant marriage partner. Second, the wisdom of Yahweh spoke powerfully through Solomon, so the whole world came to hear his proverbs and pithy sayings (1 Kings 3-4). Third, the greatest bulk of this book called “Proverbs” is attributed directly to Solomon (1:1, 10:1, 25:1). Fourth, Solomon was also known for his wide-ranging and ultimately catastrophic flirtations, courtships and marriages, which may well be reflected in the pointed moral sermons of the first 9 chapters of Proverbs. In truth, both Solomon’s early expressions of pithy wisdom (which drew the attention and the attraction of the world; 1 Kings 4:29-34, 10:1-13) and his disastrous sexual alliances (which caused his downfall; 1 Kings 11:1-13), served to shape the collection of Proverbs in its final form.

This is seen in the “Lectures on Wisdom and Folly” that stand at the head of the book. In the Hebrew language both “wisdom” and “folly” are feminine nouns. Thus the use of the repeated literary device, “my son” in Proverbs 1:8--9:18 is intentional. All readers or hearers of these lectures become the “son” who is courted by two women, “Wisdom” and “Folly.” By the end of these carefully crafted lectures, in which each woman is given ample opportunity to present her case, all of us must choose which woman to wed. The choice is real, and personal, and life-changing. Wisdom brings stability and well-being; Folly offers quick experiences and tragic ends.

Dating often seems to be a trivial pastime and sexuality sometimes merely the arena for power-plays and sporting events. But in Proverbs, the high calling of courtship is held out as the definer of human identity. None of us remains single. All of us are swept up into the drama. It is forever a triangle: whether female or male, in this affair we are the young man pursuing and being pursued by two women, Folly and Wisdom. Each parades her virtues. Each calls for a choice and a commitment. But there the similarities end. For Folly brings us into an endless addiction to one-night stands in which we lose ourselves in the delirium of mere titillation, and ultimately lose all substance and self-respect. Wisdom, however, wants to take things slowly, and seeks as much to get to know us as we her. Wisdom desires a relationship where respect deepens and both parties are enriched.

If, at the close of these lectures, one should choose Folly, the rest of the Proverbs have no meaning. That person should slam shut the book and get on with other destructive behaviors, for she or he cannot understand the language that is used in the house of Wisdom.

If, however, one hears and understands these lectures, and responds with an appropriate desire to court and marry Wisdom, the rest of the book of Proverbs becomes the stuff of which her house is made. When one is bound to Wisdom, the proverbs are the furnishings of her home, and the decorations on her walls, and the conversation pieces in her rooms, and the lifestyle that organizes her economy. The many, many proverbs are not to be read together as an unbroken narrative, but are supposed to be savored and tasted like the multitude of meals taken in the marriage house of Wisdom, and breathed as if they were the life-sustaining rhythms of respiration itself.

The truth of this can be seen in the manner in which Proverbs ends, as is found in the short description often called “The Wife of Noble Character” (Proverbs 31:10-31) which is today’s Old Testament reading. Shaped as an acrostic poem, the twenty-two couplets each begin with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In this way the very literary technique communicates the completeness of the idea explored: here is everything you need to know about the noble wife, A to Z.

But what is the purpose of this culminating articulation? Does it describe the ideal woman every young man should seek when dating? Is it the catalogue of traits to be found in the most respectable of Israelite wives? Can it be used to identify the appropriate tasks of a homemaker in ancient Israel?

Perhaps any or all of these are possibilities, and that is why so many Christian preachers use this passage as a text for the homily on Mother’s Day. But if the book of Proverbs is taken as a whole, and careful attention is paid to its development, there is a wonderful completeness brought about by this acrostic poem.

The opening lectures of the book place before the reader the requirement to choose between two women, Wisdom and Folly, each of whom presents her attractions and enticements. If we choose to marry Wisdom, chapters 10-31 of Proverbs describe the furnishings and lifestyle in the home created by our new spouse. This acrostic poem then forms a concluding testimony of the good life created by Wisdom. In that sense it is more than a sociological description; it is a theological culmination of the life-engagement processes found in the covenant community.

Wisdom, according to Proverbs, is not merely intelligence, for people with big brains can do very foolish things. Nor is wisdom simply street smarts or hardscrabble experience, though both of these can help us figure out what really matters in life. At its root, true wisdom is the process of entering and appreciating the worldview developed out of the Sinai covenant community. When one learns to live with Yahweh in holy awe, the contours of the world begin to be defined by the resurgence of the Creator’s design. Living in this universe, one becomes married to Wisdom, because Wisdom is the human expression of Yahweh’s presence at the heart of the society. And in Wisdom’s house, conversations of daily simplicity, as well as the intimacies of family relationships and the governing principles of kings and courts, are formed by the language of these Proverbs.

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Friends in Alberta, Canada, used to tell of an uncle who married late in life. His bride was a feisty widow who sparkled with energy. The wedding took place on a farm in the old family home.

At the appropriate moment in the ceremony the pastor asked the bride, “Do you promise to love, honor, and obey him?”

She hesitated, face scrunched in thought. “Love and honor -- yes,” she finally responded. “Obey -- no!”

Both the pastor and the groom were taken aback. What to do now?

It was the groom who broke the impasse. “Two out of three isn’t bad,” he said, and the wedding went on.

Obedience and submission are scarce commodities in most of our lives, and that is probably the reason why James has to emphasize them in our lectionary readings for today. There are probably at least two reasons for that. For one thing, we are self-made people. Early in life we make it clear that “I do it myself!” We have a need to be right, a need to save face. One of my friends has a cartoon on his office door that pictures a senior official standing grimly in front of a subordinate’s desk. The boss says, “I didn’t say it was your fault; I said I was going to blame you.”

There is a lot of that in all of our lives. Since Adam and Eve passed the blame along to others we all try to outwit reality in order to save face. We need to be right. We need to be strong. We need to be identified as “winners” rather than “losers.” Submission is for the weaklings, not the strong.

A second reason why we hesitate to submit to anyone else is that we don’t know if we can trust the other person. One man in his middle years can recount to me every promise his father made to him and then broke, when he was a lad. To this day he finds it hard to trust God. After all, as a wise person has noted, “‘Daddy’ is the name for God on the lips of a child.” When parents fail us (and they always will), we learn mistrust in the religious core of our beings. In order to keep from getting hurt we won’t submit, even to God.

Wise pastors have always known that. Yet they continue to encourage people to trust and submit because it is the essence of who we are as humans in our relationship to the

In the early church a teaching tale told of a young girl who lived with her parents in a cottage at the edge of a dense forest. “Don’t wander too far into the woods,” they told her. “You might get lost.”

A warm summer’s day with birds singing and winds calling, however, carried the girl’s feet deeper and deeper into the cool underbrush. The shadows were long before she realized how lost she was. Yelling and crying, she dashed one way and the next, not finding home and working herself into convulsions of panic.

Meanwhile, her parents were worried as well. In the dusk of evening they called her name and made forays into the woods. As thoughts of all the worst fates attacked them, they organized villagers and other neighbors into search parties.

By dawn the young girl was sleeping exhausted on a bed of pine needles, and only her father was left of the many searchers. As he stumbled into the clearing and saw her, his footsteps broke branches and sent birds twittering. The noise awoke her and she saw him. Jumping to her feet she ran toward him, arms outstretched. “Daddy! Daddy!” she cried. “I found you!”

So it is in our lives. When we finally find God, “on our own,” as we might say, it is a moment of great excitement for us. Yet when the whole story is told to us again, in our later years, we realize just how patient and persistent God’s own search has been for us.

At that point we no longer need to put on religious airs. Then, too, submission sounds like a natural thing.

Mark 9:30-37
Every good story is told best through the rim of darkness and shadow, as Jesus does at the opening of this pericope. I think of the conflict between the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri in 18th century Vienna. Salieri was the official “court musician,” and he had a right to be. He worked hard at his craft, writing hummable melodies and decent choral pieces.

Salieri was a devout Christian and had prayed passionately for God to bless him in his musical efforts. His appointment in the royal precincts seemed to confirm God’s gracious response.

Then came Mozart. He was a boy wonder, a child prodigy. He would dazzle the crowds, playing at music like it was as natural as the air he breathed, and as trivial a thing as some simple toy. Mozart’s fingers danced at the keyboard, and his melodies for instruments and choirs were both complex and fun at the same time. When he directed the orchestra it seemed as if heaven came alive on earth through Mozart’s soaring songs.

Salieri was green with envy. More than that, he was bitter at the unfairness of it all. To put it bluntly, Mozart was as obvious a sinner as Salieri was a saint! Mozart was immature, vulgar and obscene. He made off with the ladies of the court and the street time and again.

Salieri was incensed. Why should God shower such talents on Mozart while he, Salieri, worked his devotion to music with incredible drudgery? Why should Mozart traffic only in worldly pleasures, and still succeed so divinely?

When Mozart died from some mysteriously induced poisoning, Salieri’s eyes gleamed vengefully. Yet Mozart’s demise never restored to Salieri the esteem he coveted among the Viennese elite. He ended his days in an insane asylum, cursing God for denying him the kind talent that Mozart had displayed with a profane playfulness.

Desire and envy are twin sisters within us. Our thirst for God and his goodness rises from the same heart that can jealously seek fame and fortune over the heads of rivals. If you have ever been hurt in life, if you have ever been passed over for a promotion, if you have ever been struck down by a disease or a disability you didn’t count on, if you have ever watched others sail right on through waters that swamped your boat, or soar on winds that plastered your craft against the cliff, you know what Salieri tasted whenever crowds applauded Mozart.

This is how Jesus warns his disciples about eyeing one another for priority places in society. Then he takes a child to teach a different way.

Do you remember Rudyard Kipling’s tale of How the Camel Got Its Hump? At the dawn of creation, according to Kipling, God gave each of his wonderful animals a job to do. Working together they began to prepare the new world for the coming of humankind.

The only one among them that would not work was the camel. Whenever the other animals asked for his help, he just said, “Humph!!” and walked away. The camel, according to Kipling, thought he was better than all the other animals, so he “Humph!!”ed around every day with his proud nose in the air, and a disdainful swagger in his legs.

But when God saw what was happening, he collected all of the haughty camel’s “Humph!!”s, and one day dumped them right down onto the camel’s back. And that, said Kipling, is how the camel got its hump.

Proud people are a lot like camels, aren’t they? Noses in the air, swaggering steps, and humps of self-importance pushing up wherever they invade the company of others. Mid-20th century Italian dictator Benito Mussolini played the part so well. Although he was short of stature he was long on pride. People used to say that he could strut even when he was sitting down. A newspaper once reported that “He was a solemn procession of one.”

Pride is a funny thing. It is an extension of many very good qualities that God has given us as gifts. Why, then, does a great athlete cross the line from confidence to cockiness? What pushes a beautiful woman from graciousness to arrogance? When does a businessman step up one rung too high on the ladder of success and become self-important?

The ancient Greeks tried to define the transition from piety to pride in the story of Narcissus. Narcissus was a wonderfully beautiful young man, greatly talented and admired. Unfortunately he had ears large enough to hear the whispers of appreciation that buzzed through every crowd when he approached. Soon he began to believe what others said, and then fell in love with himself.

One day he was scrambling through the rocks of the hills on a hunt. Thirsty, he paused at a pool in the hollows, and bent down to drink. But before his lips broke the mirrored surface he caught sight of a marvelous water nymph staring at him from below. He was entranced by the beautiful face, the wonderful eyes, the marvelous nose and chin, and reached down to embrace the nymph.

Yet when he disturbed the water it seemed as if the nymph scurried away. That pained him deeply and he began to cry. But when the ripples subsided, the nymph was back. Though Narcissus didn’t seem to catch on, he was actually seeing himself.

Over and over the scene repeated itself -- Narcissus staring in love at his own reflection in the pool -- until he finally fell famished to his death!

The point was clear: the moment we begin to love ourselves as the highest good we lose the power to live authentically. We cross the line from piety to pride when we become the object of our own appreciation.

This is a perplexing issue, however, since we all need self-esteem to function to our fullest potential. The concern in the Bible becomes a matter of where that self-esteem originates. When we are loved by another, our self-esteem grows. The source of the power is located outside of ourselves and energizes us to be the best we can be. Once we fall in love with ourselves, the empowerment becomes cancerous, and we destroy the very qualities that might otherwise make us lovely.

Tony Campolo said it well. When he was in seminary, taking his first class in preaching, he was already a very gifted speaker. After his first “practice” sermon to his fellow students and professor, his peers praised him up one side and down the other. He couldn’t wait to see what his professor wrote.

The evaluation came back with a single line in red marking ink: “Tony, you can’t convince people that you’re wonderful and that Jesus is wonderful in the same sermon.”

That is why Jesus tells his disciples to become like children. I cannot love anyone else when I am obsessed with myself, even if my obsession is for holy living or righteous behavior.

Submission is a crucial dimension of spiritual wisdom that has few advocates in a society strong on personal assertion. John Maxwell, in his book Developing the Leader within You (Nelson, 1993), noted that there are five different levels of authority that a person can attain in life, but each is based on an increasing willingness to submit to outside forces or influences.

The first is “position,” where people are challenged to respect you for your rank in society. Second, there is the authority of “permission” that happens when you enter a relationship of significance with someone else, and that person allows you to have a say in his affairs. Third comes the authority of “production” in which you are honored for the results you can get. Fourth, there is the authority of “people development” which recognizes the empowerment you have given others. Finally comes the quality of “personhood” where the very character of your life demands respect.

We can all name people who gather one or another of these forms of authority to themselves: a judge, for instance, fits the first; a dating partner the second; my neighbor across the street did such a good job of bringing up the production in his factory in our town that he was transferred to tackle the development of an even larger plant in another state -- that is an example of number three; my uncle who retired as a high school guidance counselor got the accolades of the fourth; and we only have to say names like “Billy Graham” and “Mother Teresa” to explore the last.

Interestingly, the source of all five of these forms of authority exists in our relationship with our parents. A mother has position over us when we are young children. She can abuse that position, as some have, or she can also use it to give us a wholesome sense of ourselves, as many others have.

A father has our permission, early in life, to direct and guide us. We go looking for support and advice from him. A mother holds over us the authority of production. Before we can tie our shoes or dress ourselves, she is doing things for us we could not begin to handle on our own. So it is with level four -- a good parent is able to serve in developing our characters. When we sat around at my Grandmother’s funeral some years ago, my dad and all his siblings said the same thing: “Mom always believed in us. She always prayed for us. We wouldn’t be the people we are without her care.”

In fact, when all these forms of authority are rolled up in a single package it is that fifth form, the one that is particularly hard to earn, which epitomizes the best of what great parenting is about. There is no higher tribute that can be paid a person than to say that he was a father to me, or she was like my own mother. In our brief years of life, as we meander through strange and familiar paths, both untried and yet as ancient as time itself, no one can help us find our truest selves better than a wise and loving parent.

This is the mystery of submission. The best of ourselves rarely comes when we fight it out on our own. Instead, it is brought to life when someone who loves me takes my hand and helps me to reach higher than I thought I could.

The ancients always compared our wills to horses. It is a fitting comparison, I think. There is a stallion inside each of us, snorting and restless, and nervously pacing. That energy and strength of character can be thrown about with the destructive power of a mad horse that will not be mastered, or it can be harnessed by a rider and a bit, and channeled into speed and purpose and direction.

Your will is strong. You need it to survive. But you also need it to be brought under submission to a higher power if you would be fully human. Maybe it begins in our relationship with our parents. But it finds its fullness when we get wise in faith and submit to one who said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).

Alternative Application (Mark 9:30-37)
My friend and I just had a contest to see which of us is more holy. I won because I’m more humble than he is.

Of course I’m being facetious. But we did have a rather interesting conversation about piety, ministry, and the pitfalls of trying always to lead people deeper into spirituality and expressions of Christian living. Every step of “success” I might have as a pastor breeds new polyps of cancerous envy and selfish ambition. Last night a young lad in our church looked up at me and said, “You know God, don’t you?” He said it with all the innocent awe that a six-year-old can intone.

I said yes to him and then asked him if he knew God. “Not like you do,” he replied. If only he understood how hard it is to be close to God and at the same time to be all wrapped up in the skin of envy and selfish ambition. I want to preach great sermons so that people’s hearts will be moved and stirred, so that children will believe in God, so that men will deepen their devotion and women will express great faith. At the same time I want to preach great sermons so that people will say what a great preacher I am.

When I listen to other preachers preach, they always have powerful things to say. They talk so clearly and cleverly to their congregations. They shine with grace and cry with hearts broken for the things of God. And I’m envious. When I see loving pastors touch people with grace and kindness, knowing how to listen and when to say just the right things, I’d like to be like them. In fact, I’d like to be better than them so that people would come to me instead. When I visit those mega-churches shaped by great leaders who seems to know exactly how God wants to build the Kingdom, I wish they would turn to me and say, “Wayne, you’re a successful pastor. What should we do next? Tell us how you built up your church.”

I know what James means by selfish ambition and envy. I wish I didn’t, but I do. John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote this in his diary as a young man: “How shall I gain a reputation? How shall I spread an opinion of myself as a lawyer of distinguished genius, learning, and virtue?” Sometimes, in my crassest moments, I wonder the same. When will people take note of me? When will I get my “fifteen minutes of fame,” as Andy Warhol put it?

I’m not obsessed with these thoughts. I don’t dwell on them, and these passions don’t rule my life. At least I don’t think so. But that is the insidiousness of sin, isn’t it? It uses every grace and gift we might have from God, turning each into a competitive contestant in a public game show race toward those very goals we know are so good. When we achieve some spiritual success by these pushy means, the reward is cruel and the prize is much more ugly than we had imagined.

J.C. Penney, whose stores are now a major marketing force in North America, remembered working for six dollars a week at Joslin’s Dry Goods Store in Denver. He was ambitious and craved the day when he would be worth $100,000. As wealth poured in and he met that initial goal, he said that the old exhilaration wore off and he had to rekindle the driving passions by setting his sights at becoming a millionaire. He and his wife worked even harder to expand the business. Then one day she caught cold and developed pneumonia. In a short while she was dead. “When she died,” he said, “my world crashed about me. To build a business, to make a success in the eyes of men, to accumulate money -- what was the purpose of life? I felt mocked by life...”

Why does it so often take a death in the family to wake us up to life’s truest values, and to perform surgery on the cancers of sin that grow within? No one really knows. In fact, God probably asked himself that very question on the first Good Friday.
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Object: A saltshaker, a stone, glue, salt, and a knife to scrape the stone. For the salt stone, I used a stone about the size of an apple, but you can use any size large enough to show. Many of the original ones would have been bigger. To make our salt stone, cover the stone with glue and then roll it in a pan of salt. Repeat that a few times until there is a visible coating of salt over at least part of the stone, and let it dry.

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