Sunday, August 19, 2012

Seeking Wisdom

I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14, Ephesians 5:5-20
August 19, 2012

            What do you think of when you hear the words “seeking wisdom" or "wise person"?  I think of Obie Wan Kenobie from Star Wars.  I also think of Yoda and Indiana Jones and Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter and Mr. Miyagi from the original Karate Kid movie. 
            Besides the fact that this proves I have a shameless love of pop culture, I also think that these iconic figures – for indeed that’s what they are – have become archetypes of wisdom.  I’ll admit that when I was sitting in the cool, dark theater watching Star Wars unfold for the first time or seeing Indiana Jones with his fedora and whip that I didn’t grasp the concept that I was watching an archetype of wisdom.  Yet I’m convinced that’s what these figures have become.
            Let’s take Obie Wan Kenobie for example.  Young Luke Skywalker goes to him with a cryptic message he’s found in one of his uncle’s new droids.  This sets off a chain of events and Luke begins his training as a Jedi knight under Obie Wan’s tutelage.  Certainly this kind of training involves the use of the Jedi weapon, the light sabre, but even more than that Obie Wan tries to teach Luke that being a Jedi is not just about fighting.  It’s about recognizing the power of the Force within you and within the entire universe, then channeling that force to the cause of good.  Obie Wan also counsels Luke about the dark side of the force, because that too holds a power.  It led Luke’s own father astray.  The wise Jedi understands that the dark side of the force is equally as strong as the light side of the force, and makes choices that respects how quickly the dark side can take hold.
            Well, hopefully you know at least the outline of the Star Wars story so what I’m saying makes a modicum of sense to you.  But even if you don’t know the Star Wars story, there is a greater point being made here.  Obie Wan Kenobie didn’t just teach Luke Skywalker the various fighting stances a Jedi needs in battle, he passed on the deeper wisdom of the Jedi belief system.  Later on Yoda continues that lesson in wisdom, teaching Luke that the power of the force is not limited by physical size or strength, but only by the narrow scope of Luke’s imagination and trust. 
            Maybe it’s silly or nonsense, but when I think of seeking wisdom, I tend to get a picture in my head of a young hero or heroine who must be schooled in whatever knowledge he or she needs by someone who is the epitome of the wise elder teacher.  The teacher takes this young person under their wing, and not only helps the youth with the nuts and bolts required to deal with whatever trials lay before them, but they help them see the larger purpose, the greater meaning, the ultimate truth of their quest.  That is wisdom. 
            Wisdom is where we are today.  At the beginning of the service I quoted what is commonly known as the Serenity Prayer.  God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.  This is a more contemporary version of the prayer that has been attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr.  12 step groups, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous as well as others, have made the saying of this prayer at the beginning of each meeting an integral part of those meetings.  That makes sense to me.  If you are struggling, day by day, to recover from addiction, you would want a prayer that speaks to what is and isn’t within your power.  And you would certainly want a prayer that speaks to wisdom.
            For many years I thought that the really tough part of this prayer was the serenity aspect.  I’m not a particularly serene person, nor do I calmly and coolly accept the challenges life throws at me.  I’m better than I used to be.  But historically that’s not been my initial reaction. 
            Yet as I get steadily older, I’ve come to realize that the really tricky part of the serenity prayer is that last line about wisdom.  Finding serenity to accept what I can’t change is becoming easier the older I get.  Finding courage to change what I can – well I’m working on that too.  But the wisdom?  That’s hard.  How do we know one from the other?  Where does our wisdom come from?  And furthermore what is wisdom to begin with?
            In the passage we read from I Kings, the Lord visits the newly ascended Solomon in a dream and asks Solomon what God should give him.  Solomon doesn’t ask for great wealth or a fleet of tricked out chariots.  Solomon asks instead for an “understanding mind to govern you people, able to discern between good and evil;”  Solomon recognizes that he is young and inexperienced and he is now the king of a numerous people, so he asks for wisdom.  I suspect it took a certain amount of wisdom to realize he needed wisdom.  The Lord grants him his request and more. 
            In our passage from Ephesians, the new rules for living continue.  It seems that all of them require a certain amount of wisdom to accomplish.  Let no deceive with you empty words.  Live as children of light.  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.
            Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise. 
            Once again, how do we do this?  How do we live as wise people?  Which begs the question I asked before, what is wisdom? 
            That’s a question I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to figure out the answer.  I know that it’s more than just having a wealth of knowledge or information.  Wisdom is more than our technology.  A quote that I read many years ago, I no longer remember who actually said it, is that as a people our wisdom has not yet caught up with our technology.  We can have a ton of info, but be lacking in wisdom.  Wisdom is having knowledge, sure, but wisdom also seems to come from experience.  It seems to be rooted in compassion, in empathy, in realizing that self-interest is not the only interest.  And wisdom seems to encompass a broad perspective on people, on life, on the universal hopes and fears that we share in common. 
            I wouldn’t claim to be wise, but I do know that whatever wisdom I have as a minister has come not only from what I learned in seminary, but in how I’ve learned to put into practice what I learned in seminary. 
            The coursework for a Masters of Divinity was only three years, but I earned mine in four.  In my third year I took on a year-long internship in a church.  In my first two years, I met a number of students who came back for their final year seeming very wise indeed.  In my eyes they were already ministers, they just didn’t have the official stamp of ordination yet.  So I was eager to embark on an internship year myself.  Perhaps I would also come back an unofficial minister. 
            I had a wonderful internship.  My supervisor, the head of staff, was not only a skilled minister, he also had an incredible gift for supervision.  He became a real mentor to me in my time there.  I’m convinced that the reason I came back and passed all my ordination exams in one shot, was because Greg was so good at helping me integrate theology and daily pastoral ministry. 
            But saying that my internship year was great does not mean that I didn’t make some colossal mistakes.  I had just enough knowledge in me to be completely dangerous.  One of my responsibilities as an intern was to work with the various youth groups.  A problem erupted in the Senior High youth group between one of the girls and a boy who was socially awkward.  I heard various complaints about some comments he’d made to her.  This young man had upset a lot of people by things he’d said and done, and I was told by several that I needed to do something.  So I decided this was the perfect opportunity to use all that I’d learned in my group processing classes.  I set up a special youth group meeting in which we were going to have open communication, and get to the source of all the tension and anger in the youth group.  From this we were going to form deeper bonds with one another and become even more Christ like in our community.  I laid out a whole plan of action, pulled out my communications Awareness Wheel, created some teaching handouts so we would all be on the same page as to how to share our feelings, and went into that meeting armed with knowledge.
            Should have gone off without a hitch, right?  Wrong!
            Never has a plan of mine backfired so spectacularly.  The meeting completely fell apart.  Girls left crying.  Boys were angry.  The girl in particular who’d been so upset by the socially awkward boy thought that she was being blamed for the problems in the group.  The socially awkward boy thought that everybody hated him.  And every single member of the group blamed me.  To use contemporary lingo, it was an epic fail.  To this day I still cringe at how badly I botched the whole thing.  I had tons of knowledge, great heaping portions of information, but absolutely no wisdom. 
            The good news is that I gained a little wisdom from failing that badly, not just in the failing but in the making it right.  I ate a lot of crow.  I not only saw how completely I’d messed up, I also had to admit it.  And apologize.  That’s probably the most valuable wisdom I’ve gained as a minister.  When you’re wrong, admit it and apologize.  By the end of my year, the group was back together.  We had an end of the year celebration and the kids who were once furious and threatened never to come back to church again were together, laughing and joking and enjoying themselves.  Grace prevailed.
            I think the true lesson in all of this is that the youth group was ultimately a community grounded in the love of Christ.  In spite of our failings, we left the door open to grace.  Those youth, young as they were, understood the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.  So too, when Paul told the church in Ephesus to live as wise people, he said this to a community of people who also sought to follow Christ.  They were a community built on the foundation of Christ’s love.  And it is in Christ that we have our role model for wisdom.  I would never liken Jesus to Obie Wan Kenobie or Yoda – Jesus is more than just an archetype for wisdom – but in him we learn what it means to be fully human.  We learn that love and humility trumps the world’s perception of power and success.  We learn that the greatest wisdom comes not just from the information that we possess but in the compassion we show in using that information. 
            I’ll probably spend the rest of my life seeking wisdom, seeking to be wise, but I know that in those fleeting moments when I am able to emulate Jesus, and love as he loves, then I am one step closer to the wisdom I seek.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

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