A colleague of mine posted on Facebook that it’s been “interesting” and “difficult” to be thinking and preaching about Wisdom this week in the midst of the Presidential campaign. “I know,” replied another friend. “I’m preaching about hell next week and it’s so much easier.”
One wonders what the responses would be if, as happened with Solomon, God were to come to each of the presidential candidates in a dream and say, “Ask what I should give you.” I started to let my imagination play with that for a while, wondering how God might appear to each, which of them would recognize the voice, let alone what they might ask for. I decided it would be a fun party game, with all sorts of comic possibilities, IF you put aside the fact that the consequences of this election are deadly serious and important.
In the verses assigned for today, the young king Solomon, feeling overwhelmed at the responsibilities thrust upon him at the death of his father, King David, responds to this generous offer from God, after recounting how great and steadfast God’s love had been for David and that God had in fact placed Solomon on the throne now, after much bowing and scraping, Solomon says, “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?”
God is clearly pleased with this request, and says,
“Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind [heart]; no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. IF you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”
The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann is quite willing to say that this is revisionist history at the very least. What our reading skipped over was Solomon’s swift and ruthless dispatch of his brother, a former general and a former priest, and while Solomon was known for his wisdom in discerning which of two women was the real mother of a baby brought before him, as well as for his building of the great Temple in Jerusalem, Brueggemann reminds us that Solomon’s reign was also marked by deception, violence, and “inordinate greed that is unsustainable.” Solomon’s accumulation of wealth and “honor” distort the wisdom he is given, as we have seen happen over and over, and this account of God’s coming to Solomon in a dream merely gives Solomon’s subsequent actions a religious stamp of approval[Odyssey Network Scriptures, 10/15/12] . That may be a little more cynical than you choose to be, but Walter Brueggemann rarely sugarcoats.
What would you ask God for? (“Ask what I should give you.”) It’s not quite the genie in the bottle offering to grant 3 wishes, but what do you want above all else? That is a question worth giving some thought to.
A minister friend relays the story, told to him by the child’s mother, of a 6 year-old boy at a local swimming pool. He was standing at the deep end, toes curled over the edge, and stood there for a long time, contemplating whether he should or shouldn’t, unsure if he should or could do this. “And just when it seemed he was going to back away from the edge,” his mother reported, “he looked up to the sky, put his hands together and said, ‘O Lord, give me skills or give me gills!’ And he jumped.” [Told by Timothy T. Boggess, Day 1, 8/16/15]
“Give me skills or give me gills.” Other than being almost unbelievably perfect [I actually know some 6 year-olds who could easily have come up with that prayer!], it is a great answer to the offer from God, “Ask what I should give you.” Give me what I need to overcome this challenge– the skills, or give me what I need–the gills–to endure whatever it is I need to go through. How shall I live wisely, as the apostle Paul admonishes the people of Ephesus? “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”
Give me wisdom, Solomon asked, the ability to discern the difference between good and evil.
“Give me wisdom”–Wouldn’t love our leaders to ask–“Give me the ability to discern that which protects, serves, and cultivates the relationships of your people to you, to themselves, to each other, to the earth, to the systems of governance, and to our surrounding nations, [show me how to lead within and beyond Ferguson and Baltimore; what is the path of wisdom in the Middle East? ]…and show me what is evil–what destroys, threatens, corrupts any of these relationships.” (Harper, Odyssey Networks–Ferguson 1 Year Later: Give Us Wisdom, 8/10/15] Can you imagine any of the current presidential candidates offering that prayer?
“Give me wisdom.” Wisdom, you may know, is a figure personified in parts of the Bible as a female, dancing and playing alongside God at the beginning of creation, God’s “delight,” and as a grown woman whose name in Greek is Sophia. The alternative to the reading about Solomon today was this reading from Proverbs about Wisdom Sophia, as Eugene Peterson puts it–
9:1-6 Lady Wisdom has built and furnished her home;
it’s supported by seven hewn timbers.
The banquet meal is ready to be served: lamb roasted,
wine poured out, table set with silver and flowers.
Having dismissed her serving maids,
Lady Wisdom goes to town, stands in a prominent place,
and invites everyone within sound of her voice:
“Are you confused about life, don’t know what’s going on?
Come with me, oh come, have dinner with me!
I’ve prepared a wonderful spread—fresh-baked bread,
roast lamb, carefully selected wines.
Leave your impoverished confusion and live!
Walk up the street to a life with meaning.”
Here is a picture of wisdom that is wholistic, strong, and appealing, an invitation to life. In contrast, Folly, a few verses later, issues her invitation, offering only bread and water, and, ultimately, death. Which would you choose? Which invitation seems to be the one we are answering to?
Be careful then how you live, [Paul writes], not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
How shall we live? How shall we use this time wisely, how to redeem the time, even? “Do not get drunk with wine,” Paul says, but rather “be careful how you live.” As sociologist Brene Brown points out, we have the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history today, which she attributes to our attempt to numb vulnerability, which, alas, ends up numbing everything else. [TEDX Houston, Shame] “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.” Pay attention. Feel what you feel, risk vulnerability. Be fully alive.
Come with me, oh come, have dinner with me! Lady Wisdom says. I’ve prepared a wonderful spread—fresh-baked bread, roast lamb, carefully selected wines. Leave your impoverished confusion and live! Walk up the street to a life with meaning.”
This Wisdom is more than intelligence, but also “brings it together with feeling, intuition, sensory input, and experience,” as Parker Palmer says [cited by Kate Huey in sermonseeds, 8/16/15]. Wisdom encompasses justice and compassion.
In the WholeBeing Institute, through which I took my Positive Psychology course, there is a helpful model for living which has the acronym SPIRE. As we sit beneath this rather funky, striped “spire,” we might be reminded of these 5 aspects of a wise life–S, for spiritual, P, for physical, I, for intelligent, R, for relationships, and E, for emotional. Every day we need to pay attention to each of these aspects of our lives if we are to live wisely, with a sense of well-being.
“The highest form of wisdom is kindness,” the Jewish Talmud says, kindness to others, kindness to self, wisdom. It goes way back in our religious heritage.
In fact, the strength and power of our Wisdom tradition have all too often been lost or repressed in our Western form of Christianity. We in the west have focused on Jesus as Savior, the unique One who has come to save us. In her book Wisdom Jesus, Episcopal priest and scholar Cynthia Bourgeault writes,
The Christianity of the East saw things radically different. Christianity was supremely a wisdom path. For the earliest Christians, Jesus was not the Savior but the Life-Giver. In the original Aramaic of Jesus and his followers, there was no word for salvation. Salvation was understood as a bestowal of life, and to be saved was to be made alive.’ Entering the waters at the hand of John the Baptist, Jesus emerged as Mahyana, ‘The Life-Giver.’ He came forth also as the Ihidaya, ‘the Single One’ or’the Unified One.’ Nowadays we’d call him ‘the Enlightened One,’ a person whose life is full, integrated, and flowing. Jesus’ disciples saw in him a master of consciousness, offering a path through which they, too, could become ihidaya, enlightened ones. [This kind of Christianity] focuses on the path. It emphasizes how Jesus is like us, how what he did in himself is something we are also called to do in ourselves. By contrast, [salvation Christianity ] tends to emphasize how Jesus is different from us–‘begotten, not made’; belonging to a higher order of being–and hence uniquely positioned as our mediator.
This wisdom path may seem strange, Bourgeault suggests, a fringe aspect of Christianity, “unorthodox”–but as we learn more about the other 270 degrees of the Christian whole, (which includes the Orthodox Church) it turns out we are the variant. [p. 21]
“Give me wisdom.” “Give me skills or give me gills.” Live wisely, because the days are evil. Jesus, in the Wisdom tradition of Christianity, is the embodiment of Sophia, Wisdom. He is the way, the truth, and the life, not as an exclusive object of our worship, but as the way to God, to become enlightened, wise.
Are you tired? Jesus asks in Matthew’s gospel. Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me–watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” [Mt. 11:28-30, The Message]
Leave your impoverished confusion and live! [as Lady Wisdom says.] Walk up the street to a life with meaning.” May we too walk in the way of Wisdom, and so may we find life.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark