Wisdom Knows

imageFor there is no remembrance of the wise, as with the fool, forever. Since in the days to come, all will be forgotten. Yes, the wise dies like the fool! - from Ecclesiastes 2

Hokmah/ wisdom (like English ‘intelligence’ or intellect’ but unlike English ‘wisdom’) is ethically neutral. Wicked men and nations may have hokmah (e.g., 2 Sam 13:3; Isa 29:14; 47:10; Ezek 28:5), and this hokmah is genuine, even when abused. Proverbs is unique in insisting that hokmah is ipso facto a moral virtue. – Michael Fox

So that’s hokmah/wisdom. This wisdom entails erudition, discernment, drive, resolve, seriousness, good sense, savviness in acquisition and management… expertise.

Wisdom is the MBA grad whom the business school asks to come back and give the “Distinguished Alumnae Lecture.” She’s the academic who knows how to popularize the dusty material and package it into the wildly successful book, “Using the Pythagorean Theorem to Raise Awesome Kids.” He’s the plumber that has steadily moved up the ranks from apprentice to owning his own profitable HVAC company.

Wisdom’s children have all graduated college and found good spouses. And now he’s wrapping up a 30 year career and transitioning to grandfathering, charitable endeavors, and keeping an eye on a bulging investment portfolio.

But wait, if we’re going to also call all these manifestations of genuine wisdom, we must mention other features. Over all and throughout this life-long ambition and self-control there’s a shrug of the shoulders. A genuine self-doubt. A minimizing of the success.

The wise man glances at his accomplishments and summarizes them in a word: “Meh.”

Just so – because wisdom isn’t revealed merely by the high SAT, the killer job in the high-rise downtown, the turned-out kids. True wisdom is ambition and discipline that is alongside of…

…an awareness of looming death and realizing it’s a great eraser and equalizer. Soon you and the middling performer and the out-and-out bum will all come together in the League of the Buried and Forgotten. If you’re consumed by leaving a legacy, or showing your high school classmates and siblings how you’ve differentiated yourself from the mediocre majority, you don’t yet have “eyes in your head.”
…the working realization that you can only safely invest in what is beyond this space and time. Dying only with bursting barns – that will then be turned over to unproven competence (that is, your inheritors) and subject to the ravages of economic and natural decay – exposes you to the scorn of heaven: “Shortsighted Fool!”
…the recognition that all this drive and success come at an unavoidable cost. You are paying for your success with worry and stress. Don’t tell yourself that the weekend e-mails and the long commutes and all-nighters aren’t exacting something from you and your family. You can’t do it all, “effortlessly as gods.” Nobody comes out of the wilderness and into the land of milk and honey without a few bodies strewn in the wilderness. Wisdom realizes that everything is a trade off, and knows what he’s given up just as much as what’s been gained.
…the judgment that the high good of this life is neither unmistakable success nor untempered hedonism, but the gift of enjoying the mundane: hearth and home and health and a good experience in and through work. Beyond these simple enjoyments, the pursuit of some more stellar markers of success (key words: “lakefront”; “legacy”; “League” {as in Ivy}) is a lie.
…the realization that even the ability to enjoy these simple pleasures is given by God, and to every person He distributes or doesn’t for reasons that are inscrutable. And so come lunchtime, the wise man sits before his bean burrito and reads his newspaper with both thanksgiving and a sigh of relief.

 

 

What I Should Have Said: Issue 427

imageSometimes after opening up the word with the congregation I am dissatisfied with the piece of work. Last night was one of those occasions. Even though it’s a tall order, like Paul having to eat three hamburger patties, let me make amends.

What I should have said in looking at Acts 6: 1-7:

I missed an opportunity to express thanksgiving. First of all, I’m thankful to God and grateful to this congregation that I have been freed from a lot of practical tasks in order to give myself to study and to prayer. Others care for the building and grounds, manage finances, tend the website, create schedules, and a host of important tasks.

Furthermore, I get a lot of assistance even in that which falls under “the word and prayer.” Others create the service order, prepare and present bible lessons, lead other bible studies including Christianity Explored, guide the church in making music. And I’m almost certain that there are some in the assembly who, apart from praying for their own concerns, also regularly and systematically pray through the concerns of the church.

Thank you.

Secondly, I should have emphasized that the type of challenge that the beginning of Acts 6 records could be met only by those who had accepted the basic (and reasonable) requirement of the Christian life: To present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Unfortunately many believers in Jesus have never accepted this basic requirement of sacrifice and their life suffers a fundamental incoherence and unfruitfulness.

What I should have said more clearly:

The issue in this passage is that of retaining the sense of individual vocation. On the other hand, there doesn’t have to be a sharp division of labor. Deacons can also handle the word. Those charged with the priority of the word of God and prayer can still administrate and do some manual labor. The bible study leader can also come to work days.

However…

This passage does demonstrate that, from early on in the church, the study of the word and prayer were under threat… from carelessness. The two great tasks could be silently crowded out by other things, good things, especially by noble enterprise and pressing needs.

So in staving off this carelessness, sometimes the good will have to be relinquished for the best. Sometimes the bible study leader stays home from church work days so his lesson the day following will be something worth listening to. And even though an hour or two blocked off in the pastor’s daytimer for “prayer” instead of “counseling the desperate” could be looked at as dainty or impractical, the prayers should be the first concern.

(To get back to a point above, these decisions to forego some good in order to focus on the best must be arrived at honestly. And that happens only under the exhortation of Romans 12:1, which Calvin named the basic principle of Christian behavior.)

Finally, this passage also contains a pattern that is recognizable in Christian experience, not just in the church but also in the individual Christian: A) Crisis, B) An opportunity to assert the priority of the word and prayer in the face of other pressures, and C) Expansion.

If you had asked the apostles before the widows came to them, ‘what is the most important thing you can do?’, the answer surely would have been something like ‘giving ourselves to the word of God and prayer.’ But the One who tests hearts wanted them to answer in the face of a real-life pressure, one racially charged and that touched on matters of utmost necessity, okay, survival.

And so God comes to us in our busyness and actual strains. Will we emerge with priorities intact? – the hearing (and all that attends a good hearing) of the word of God and an active, systematic, in-the-closet and corporate, prayerful dependence on God.

Retaining these priorities is an act of faith, a surrender of control, an exposure to loss, feels as a dying.

Until we do learn to hold these priorities under duress things will remain the same. And that’s a pity. But if we can come out from under real pressure while genuinely maintaining these two great priorities, we enter into a new fruitfulness.

 

 

No, Not Pleasure Either

And all that my eyes sought I did not withhold from them, nor did I deny my heart any merriment – for my heart was merry – from my toil, and this was my share from all my toil. And I turned about in all my deeds that my hands had done and in the toil that I had toiled to do, and, look, all was mere breath and herding the wind, and there was no gain under the sun.

 

imageThe experiment has already been tried, and the results have long past been submitted. Pleasure, that is. What are it’s possibilities? What do several pleasures add up to?

Another One said that life is more than the sum of possessions. But how about the sum of good experiences? I have heard, and then relayed the advice – if forced to decide, spend your money on an experience rather than a thing. With due regard for differing circumstances, isn’t the 18 year old hostel-hopping backpacker through Europe getting more of life than the 18 year old purchasing a MacBook Pro?

Well Qohelet** had some experiences. He applied himself to various categories of pleasure, added one experience or endeavor to another. Applied is correct, because he opened himself up to all the sensations of pleasure but without neglecting the perspectives of wisdom. And added is also the right word, because in all of his exploration of pleasure he was asking himself, does this amount to anything? Does pleasure come out to meaning?

If work and suffering don’t necessarily render life profitable (as Q already concluded), perhaps pleasure will?

And in the experiment, “pleasure” wasn’t defined simply. Qohelet had fun, but more than fun too. He also toiled to find satisfaction in accomplishment.

Many people are looking for fun, often ignobly. And there is a minority group who has turned away from fun to strive for accomplishment. But don’t miss that the massive “fun crowd” and the growing-ever-smaller gallery of “accomplishers” are similar in their striving for pleasure.

Of course discovering that pleasure isn’t a simple matter is already a little frustrating. Thus the plight of writer E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web): “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

So, pleasure. Different sensations hitting your tongue. The state of intoxication (and all the tastes leading up to it). Sex. Sex with many partners. Music. Completing projects. Completed projects that multiply experience, as gardens and fountains. Completed projects that support other projects. (“I made for myself pools of water from which to water a wood growing trees.”) Art. Bulging savings accounts. Good food on your plate. Future food grazing on your land. Lots of land.

And Qohelet says, pleasure is something, but it doesn’t add up to anything. Well, ok, pleasure (fun and accomplishment) is “mere breath” and “herding the wind.”

 

* The photo is the most debauched I could find.  But can there be a better representation of the life of pleasure, than Liesel holding sweet bread on Christmas morn?
** “Qohelet” should be tucked away for the odd game of Scrabble, since it is a “Q” word that is neither a name (rather a title), and no longer confined to its original Hebrew.

 

 

 

Don’t Go There

imageAs for me, look, I increased and added wisdom beyond all who were before me over Jerusalem, and my heart has seen much wisdom and knowledge. And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know revelry and folly, for this, too, is herding the wind. For in much wisdom is much worry, and he who adds wisdom adds pain.

Solomon brings another expression to describe the world as it is: herding the wind. Merest breath (impermanence, relentlessly cyclic) and herding the wind (at the bottom elusive, frustrating, resistant our efforts): If we don’t experience life in these terms, Solomon says, it’s because our eyes aren’t open.

But Solomon’s are. With more intensity than any before him, Solomon sets out to discover the meaning of all activity. And he returns from his quest both wiser and sadder, equipped with two colorful phrases: merest breath and herding the wind.

From Solomon’s gloomy wisdom I extract the following principles:
1. The closer you look at anything, the more uglies will come to the surface. That perfect family, the company ranked first in job satisfaction, the pristine church – place any of these under the microscope and you’ll discover plenty of waste, contradiction, futility. Of course with that observation comes much opportunity for sourness, complaining, cynicism. But better to just show up with a strong stomach, a tongue ready to be bit, and patience for all.

2.  ”Under the sun” happiness relies on ignorance, willful or otherwise. So you have a choice: 1) be the guy at the party who reminds everyone that it’s soon coming to an end, that the clean-up is going to be horrible, that it all feels kind of hollow and pointless. Or b) set aside all of these hard truths and simply enjoy the meal.

3.  Ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to stare into the abyss?’ Why would you? Through his far-ranging experiences, research, and introspection, Solomon lifted the top off of life and peered down. The sight only brought him unhappiness. So now will you go to the bottom of things to see if you’ll come up with something different? You won’t.

“We are glad when the day ends, when the play ends, and ecstasy is too much pain,” says the poet. Happiness is stressful enough. So don’t go after more trouble, which is just what you’ll find when you explore to the roots, especially the roots of your frustration and angst! Rather than seeking out the meaning and purpose of life under the sun, enjoy your work, enjoy your meals, and prepare to meet your Maker.

P.S. Of course in Jesus Christ there isn’t just “under the sun.”

“Merest Breath” and Snow Shoveling

IMG_0625 (2)

The KJV translates the Hebrew phrase “vanity of vanities.”  Michael Fox has it as “absurdity of absurdities.”  And Robert Alter, whom I trust, says “merest breath.”  What are these translations referring to?

Well, everything.  Everything under the sun, that is.  In other words, life as we experience it.  “All is mere breath,” says the wisdom of God.  This impermanence and lightness of being cannot be got out from under no matter who you are – pagan or enlightened, pious or stony-hearted, rich or poor, gardener or city-dweller. 

One quality of breath is its tendency to go away and be replaced by another, and similar, gulp of air.  So one breath leaves, and another enters, only to quickly exit again.  The whole string of air intake/outtake is so monotonous, so predictable, we stop distinguishing one exhalation from another and just throw one word at the whole repetitive process, “breathing.” 

No one’s complaining that breath is so good at just showing up, again and again.  But then expand breathing’s monotony and predictability into every aspect of life, and that utter sameness of everything can really wear us down.  The snow comes, you shovel out your driveway, the truck plows you back in, you shovel out your driveway, the snow comes, you shovel out your driveway, the truck plows you back in…

To stick out the unvariedness of it all, do the following:

  • Realize you can’t escape it.  Oh no you don’t! –  even your fantasies of living in southern California aren’t taking into account the dreariness that would set in from having to endure one perfect day after another.  Anywhere you go, you’re still stuck in the cycle.
  • Stay out of the search for the cure-all, the crest of the hill, the turned corner – the thing or accomplishment or move or romance or drug that will erase the possibility of dreariness, that will flatten the cycle. 
  • Understand that all work is endeavored under the condition of “mere breath.”  So the challenge is not to find the extraordinary job or life, but rather to find a way for enjoyment in what is. 
  • Don’t struggle against the monotony and instead learn to live comfortably in, copy, take advantage of, and even enjoy the ordinary.  Farmers make a living by this.   The great storytellers point us back to the mundane, and show us its romance.
  • Realize that all of the above are secrets.  These things don’t occur to most people.  Or they are elusive to people, too slippery to be grasped and held on to.      
  • Even as you realize that “merest breath” is the current condition, also understand that it is not the world’s native or final condition.  There are some unique, unrepeatable events in the history of the world.  Swirl these around in your mind regularly.  (I can think of four extraordinary moments – how many do you know of?)

 

To Be Read Slowly

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn't. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.

Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal in missions. It's the goal of missions because in missions we simply aim to bring the nations into the white-hot enjoyment of God's glory. The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God. “The Lord reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (Psalm 97:1). “Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!” (Psalm 67:3-4).

But worship is also the fuel of missions. Passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can't commend what you don't cherish. Missionaries will never call out, “Let the nations be glad!”, who cannot say from the heart, “I rejoice in the Lord…I will be glad and exult in thee, I will sing praise to thy name, O Most High” (Psalm 104:34; 9:2). Missions begins and ends in worship.

If the pursuit of God's glory is not ordered above the pursuit of man's good in the affections of the heart and the priorities of the church, man will not be well served and God will not be duly honored. I am not pleading for a diminishing of missions but for a magnifying of God. When the flame of worship burns with the heat of God's true worth, the light of missions will shine to the most remote peoples on earth…

Where passion for God is weak, zeal for missions will be weak. Churches that are not centered on the exaltation of the majesty and beauty of God will scarcely kindle a fervent desire to “declare his glory among the nations (Psalm 96:3). Even outsiders feel the disparity betwen the boldness of our claim upon the nations and the blandness of our engagement with God. – John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions

 

Hey, What Are You Looking At?

Let your eyes look in front,
and your gaze straight before you.

 

What might seem a rather commonplace call to focus takes on more importance when we see that this is one of the sayings that are “life to those who find them/ healing to all their flesh.”

Go for focus. It energizes. Repairs what is ailing. It even sounds more comfortable than being “spread thin.”

Are you looking at what is in front of you? At who is in front of you? For example, the string of advice that our proverb sits in begins with a father sitting down with his sons: Hear, O sons, a father's reproof, and listen to discerning knowledge. He proceeds to unfold what makes a life safe and honorable and appealing and efficient and clear.

Now that kind of conversation doesn't just happen but is contrived: it takes time and an extra-ordinary atmosphere and composure. Well, focus. It is exactly these kinds of conversations with these persons – that is, sons & daughters – to which we are to devote our energies.

Remember Mrs. Jellyby, that well-meaning “telescopic philanthropist” in Dicken's Bleak House, who gazed on the ends of the earth, and forgot the people in front of her.

1. Scripture. 2. Prayer. 3. Family. 4. Church. 5. Christ's commission to make disciples where you are. 6. Livelihood. These are what God has placed in your path. Now let them hold your attention.

(Kindly notice the App store and Angelina Jolie didn't make the list.)

 

The Father to the Son

My son, give me your heart
and let your eyes keep to my ways,
for a prostitute is a deep pit
and a wayward wife is a narrow well.
Like a bandit she lies in wait,
and multiplies the unfaithful among men.


Today I'm not much interested in the final four lines. I've included them because they're part of the stanza and give some concreteness to what is today's focus, the exhortations in the initial couplet: Son, look at me. Son, give me your heart.

Give me your heart. This is what a father asks of his son. What does he mean by that request? Allow me to be chief Sherpa as you decide what route to take in life. Allow me especially to advise you in your influences, because your life will largely be decided by what/who is influencing you. For example:

Son, one day you'll be invited to a house where you've never been. Maybe it's the house of your thesis adviser, maybe it's your boss's boss. On that fateful evening, you'll enter an expensive neighborhood, you'll turn into a long, winding driveway with immaculate landscapng on either side, you'll be ushered into a high-ceilinged vestibule, you'll sit down at a well-appointed table.

Now listen up son! When you pull your chair up to the table, put the metaphorical knife to your throat. Don't allow any dream to take shape within your head. Don't imagine yourself living in these surroundings. This night, don't make any goals or form any expectations.

You could blacken many days in your time around that table, son. Instead of taking this evening as the serendipity of enjoying a fabulous meal with fascinating people, you could let it become the source of great dissatisfaction, of selfish ambition, of misusing your family. The night could turn out for you to be an uncertain star that, as time goes by and memory grows wobbly (was that an oak or mahogany table we sat around?), becomes more and more misleading.

Son, you're at risk of being seduced (and not by your host!) into a flawed idea of success. Take care, boy! Just enjoy the lobster, take a good leave, and think nothing else of it.

But there's also Let your eyes keep to my ways. The father is confident that his manner of life is consonant with his advice. Son, I've been through the temptations, weathered the pulls on ambition, and I know what it is to come up right. I can be thankful and leave it at that. I've learned the secret to being content. Look! – Those things about me are my wits. My years have been spent guarding my heart.

One Key to Leave Behind Laziness

Say to Wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call Discernment a friend.

 

Warning: This is a little complicated, perhaps because I myself am still trying to figure out the principle here. But I sense that it is an important one. (Certainly it's no throw-away line!) And it's a truth that other sages have spoken. That old German Goethe had a saying that comes up to this proverb: Cease endlessly striving for what you would like to do and learn to love what must be done.

You've gotten 8/10ths through the long task, but then the 2/10ths has sat unfinished for several months now. You're on to other things, you've gotten used to the inconvenience of working around the unfinished parts, nobody's prodding you to completion.

Except wisdom. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth. According to wisdom, regularly not finishing the job places you in a category you don't wish to be. Wisdom says, Be diligent. Finish what you started.

Ok, simple enough. But now for a strange question: how will you hear wisdom say to be diligent? I have come to believe that your notion of wisdom, your idea of what is her relation to you, indeed the sound of her voice in your head, makes all the difference in whether you will continue in the way of wisdom.

Think of wisdom as your sister. Not having a sister, I'm at a disadvantage in understanding this proverb. But I look on at my daughter, who is also a sister, and learn some sistering things from her. My findings: the best of sisters are interested**, even opinionated, realistic/ practical, cheerful, and affectionate. And now to my point: it is these sisterly qualities that we are to ascribe to wisdom.

So when wisdom says to be diligent, don't hear the phrase as from master to serf: impersonal, threatening, solely after efficiency.

Neither hear the call to diligence in lofty, poetic, or sociological terms. For instance: Every society that is not marked by diligence has faltered and then slid into oblivion. or Diligence is civilization shaking its fist at chaos.

No, no. You have to hear wisdom's call of diligence as from your sister – the one who watched you grow up, who knows your gifts and besetting sins, who becomes happy by your success.

So the 2/10ths needs not hang over you as a drudgery. When you hear the call to diligence as from your sister, you are, in a way, set free to love and enjoy (and then start!) the 2/10ths that needs be done.

Do you understand? You have to like and trust wisdom before you'll start listening to her. Wait – that's not exactly true. Let me rephrase: You have to like and trust wisdom if you're to keep listening to her.

 

**Even though she's the fourth born, Tess among her older siblings is the only one who replies to my morning 'how did you sleep' with the 'how did you sleep.'

Pay Now or Pay (More) Later

The sluggard's way is like a hedge of thorns,
but the path of the upright is smooth.

 

For about a month, our family had been gathering around the table with our food lit by candlelight. All the primitive flickering was not a nod toward our New England Puritan antecedents, but rather the consequence of our dining room light dimmer going belly-up.

At first we found the lower light charming, but it wasn't too long before we had a hankering for the good old days of modern illumination. Ben had to give up his reading at the breakfast table. We got tired of burning the cup of our hand as we dropped lit candles back into their candleholders. And we inconvenienced our guests: at dinner time the Sunday night study group shuffled around the gloomy room, blindly rummaging in one mystery dish to another.

Ah, the guests. They had entered our home by a strange ritual. Like any solid citizen they walked up to our front door, knocked, and waited. They heard the sound of approaching footsteps. But then, the door didn't swing open. Instead, “Can you open the door? We can't from this side.” For at least a month we hadn't been able to open our front door because of a broken latch.

A family of seven, no matter how Dickinsonian eccentric it is, occasionally has to leave the house to have dealings with the real world. Doors are ideally suited for these kinds of exits. And front doors have all the advantages of directness.

But when it was time for all of us to leave, we'd send Kai out the back door, into the backyard, along the side, through the fence, up the steps of the porch, and we'd startle the neighbors by filing out as Kai held open the door.

It's been a complicated month, thanks to these two mamed fixtures. What stopped me from fixing them? Well that's complicated too. It has a lot to do with my having to go down to the back of the basement, open up the gray box, read the faint, messy print, and piece through which switch it was that turned off the current to the dining room light. A huge obstacle by any one's measure.

On Monday, though, I took the two hours and fixed the dimmer and door handle. Lit food and easy exits have gone far to smooth out our lives.