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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Samuel M. Cooper

June 22, 2014

 The Heart of Wisdom

1 Kings 3:16-28; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31


            The thin gray beard that you see on this old face used to be bright red. I let it grow out before I went to seminary and so my classmates had never seen me without it. One afternoon, on a whim, I decided to shave, and not long after, I was met by one of my classmates who saw me and exclaimed, “Sam, you don’t look wise anymore!”

            Appearances notwithstanding, I decided to keep it off that summer since I was going to be working in my home church and didn’t figure the church was ready for it. As it turned out, maybe I should have kept it. I was 22 then, but looked 14 and resembled a cross between Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and Alfred E. Newman, the face of Mad Magazine.

            I went in to my first visit at the hospital, trying to remember everything I could from my one pastoral care class at seminary. I knew I needed to say something compassionate so when the lady in the room told me she was having trouble breathing, my eyes locked on the little plastic tube that went over her ears and across her upper lip with little protrusions going into her nostrils.

            “Well,” I said. “I don’t guess that thing in your nose makes it any easier to breath” to which she replied that she couldn’t breathe at all without it. I wasn’t feeling particularly effective as a pastor and began to look for an exit strategy. About then, the phone rang, so I saw another chance. I asked if she wanted me to answer it for her. She said sure, so I did. The person on the phone wanted to speak with her, of course. So, after passing the phone I heard her say, “Oh, that was that Presbyterian little boy.”

            I started that day to grow my beard back. If it couldn’t make me wise, maybe it could make me look a little older.

            Looking back on those days, I see that I really didn’t know much at all, and understood even less, and if anyone thought I was wise, well, it was a complete illusion. Opie Griffith grew up to be a successful actor and director named Ron Howard. Alfed E. Neuman never grew up and Iam not sure I have, either.   I know Iam a lot better at wisecracks than I am at wise actions.

            But I decided to try to tackle this sermon, because wisdom, it seems to me, is in very short supply these days. Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man, so we have to figure that growing in wisdom is a good thing. But just what is wisdom?

            Wisdom is both hard to define, and hard to find these days.We are told that we live in the information age and if you don’t believe it, just ask a question at the dinner table, such as: “Where does tapioca pudding come from?” And see how quickly the iPhones and Galaxies come out to see who can give the answer the quickest. We can know a lot and understand what we know but be totally lacking in wisdom.

            I remember a man who lived across the road from us at one of our homes in South Carolina. He was a pilot, had his own plane, and even his grass landing strip. He even maintained his own plane. So when his tractor broke down it was only logical that he would try to fix it himself. In frustration, though, he called a neighbor, who was a mechanic, over to see if he could see what was wrong. The neighbor suggested that he might want to put it back together, put some gas in the tank, and try again. I was wise enough never to get in the plane with him.  

            I hate to say it but I think knowledge and understanding often team up to fool us into thinking we are wise, or smart, anyway.

            Paul reminds us in I Corinthians that knowledge puffs up. The more we know and the more fully we understand it, the less our capacity to become wise because wisdom, I believe, starts with humility. Wisdom has little to do, really, with what we know. It is more about how we apply it to the way we live. Or, as Forrest Gump would quote his mother as saying, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Quoting your mother is usually a very wise thing to do.

            My Daddy, who worked for the state law enforcement agency in South Carolina used to tell the story of Joby, one of his informants. I knew Joby, and the Forrest Gump character could have been modeled after him.

            Joby was on the witness stand and giving testimony about something he had witnessed on the front porch of a house from the car he was sitting on in the street. The defense attorney began to pepper Joby with questions about the weather that night, his vision, and the lighting on the street in an attempt to show that he could not have seen what he said he saw. When the attorney asked Joby how far away he was when he saw what he said he saw, Joby pointed to the back of the courtroom and said, “’Bout as far as from here to that wall.”

            “And if it had been twice that far,” asked the attorney, “could you have seen it?”

            “Yes, sir,” said Joby.

            “You seem mighty sure of your ability to see at night,” said the attorney. “Can you tell me just how far you can see at night?”

            “Well,” said Joby, pondering carefully the question. “I can see the moon. How far is that?”

            The simplest of people can be the wisest of people, and the most intelligent can be the most foolish.             Wisdom has a lightening-bug-like quality to it, flashing here and there often from the least likely of persons and in the most surprising circumstances, almost always delighting.

            A couple of nights ago as we walked up the drive Lily noted that it made her feel good to see the lightning bugs. She said that it makes the world seem more right and they always add enchantment to the night.

            Believe it or not, there has been a bit of research on the subject of wisdom and how it is acquired. Pascual Leone describes the situations in which wisdom is likely to develop as “ultimate limit situations,” circumstances that “cannot be undone and are nonetheless faced with consciousness and resolve … situations like death, illness, aging, absolute failure, uncontrollable fear.” Psychologists Laurence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi have been studying this positive response to trauma for the past ten years, a phenomenon they call post-traumatic growth.  We have all heard of post-traumatic stress, but these researchers noted that when asked about how trauma might have changed them for the better, people began to describe the positive ways in which they had changed because of what they had lived through.  This complex set of changes fall into five domains: increased appreciation of life, warmer relations with others, recognition of new possibilities for one’s life, a greater sense of personal strength, and spiritual development. 

            Tedeschi and Calhoun suggest that trauma induces a disruption in our understanding of ourselves and the world, and that disruption forces us to re-work our understanding of ourselves and the world, resulting in learning and growth with the potential for wisdom as the final result. Another way to put it is to say that while wisdom cannot be taught, it can be learned. It is learned mostly by failure, not success. It is learned when we are forced to let go of an old handle on life so that we can take up life with a new handle.

           If we want to learn it, the people we need to pay attention to are not the perfect people, but the people with scars. When I think of people I have known whom I consider wise, it seems to me that they are all people who have faced adversity, people who have had their lives turned upside down. They are people who have suffered some sort of radical disruption and disorientation in their lives and pretty much started all over again.

            But wisdom is not the automatic result of failure. Not long ago I read a church sign that said: “Wisdom is nothing but healed pain.” That statement is on the right track but it almost implies that healing is automatic. It isn’t. Pain can be debilitating and can lead to bitterness and calloused lives if we are not able to bring our awareness and our faith to the situation.

            Margaret Plews-Owings is a researcher at the University of Virginia who studied 61 physicians who had made serious medical errors and coped positively with the results. When asked what they had learned and how they had changed for the better because of their experience, they used the language of wisdom.  They talked about having increased compassion for others, increased capacity for forgiveness and humility, an increased desire to understand things, but also a deeper understanding of the ambiguous nature of things and becoming more aware of the limitations of knowledge.

            What is even more interesting to me is the fact that all of them had at one point made a choice, a conscious, deliberate choice to pursue something that was hard.  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.  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.

            On the surface, it may appear that Solomon came by his wisdom a little more easily. After all, didn’t he just pray for it? What we may fail to appreciate is the profound humility from which Solomon prayed for wisdom. Because he prayed for wisdom and not long life, or riches, or destruction of his enemies, God gave him all of the above. I guess you could say that Solomon was wise enough to pray for wisdom but it is really out of humility that this prayer grew because wisdom always starts with humility and never with pride.

            The books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon in the Hebrew scriptures are called wisdom literature, and there is a lot of wisdom there. But like any good thing, we can carry wisdom too far and perhaps the Jews had done that, as the Greek philosophers had. Even in the Hebrew scriptures wisdom is personified and glorified, if not worshipped.

            In the end, wisdom is not so much something you possess as it is something that possesses you. It is something that when start getting the idea that you have it, you are bound to find out just how foolish you are.

            Paul’s claim is radical. “For since in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” And I don’t think he is just talking about salvation from hell that could come after death but from anything that would rob life of its fullness in the here and now. We can smooth off the rough edges of the Gospel but there is no way in hell we can make it logical or to be a wise choice in the way the world sees wisdom.

            Even Solomon, in the courtroom with the two prostitutes, and the one baby seemed more crazy than wise, about to chop the only innocent one in the bunch in half! Quite honestly, it seems about like Judge Judy’s courtroom. Solomon’s sword went back in its sheath when the one woman spoke up and said: “Give her the living boy and do not kill him.” Why, well the text tells us, as if Solomon read her heart: “Because passion for her son burned within her!” She was willing to give up her son in order to save his life. Solomon, in his wisdom, saw the power of love and made his decision on that basis.

            At the heart of the Gospel, at the heart of true wisdom, lies the necessity of giving up in order to get back. It requires from us the most radical letting go of what we have so that we can receive what God has for us.

            I once heard of a young boy who took off riding his bicycle down a long and winding mountain road. At one point he got a little out of control and as his bike when around a curve, he lost control and the bike went flying over the cliff, and so did he. Only he managed to catch by a bit of luck, the root of a tree that began breaking away from the side of the hill. With each moment, more and more tore loose and he dropped a little with each tear. He began to cry out, “Help, help, is there anyone out there?” “You are safe,” came the voice. “I am the Lord your God, and I will save you.” Well, came the slightly calmer but still distressed cry, “What should I do?” “Let go!” said God. There was a pause, a long pause. And then another cry, “Is there anyone else out there?”

            Is there anyone else out there? Is there? What is it that God is calling you to let go of? If you have been listening, I bet you know. Thanks be to God whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and whose weakness is wiser than human strength.

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