May 6, 2007

Wisdom Desired
Proverbs 4:1-9

The footstool in my hands looks in many ways like an ordinary footstool from the early 19th century. But there is nothing ordinary about it to me. It was this very stool that I propped my head on when I was a young teenager lying on the floor of my grandfather’s bedroom in my parents’ house. We watched TV game shows together like Concentration and The Price is Right, suffered through endless Phillies games on WCAU radio, and at times simply sat with each other in silence. Of the various experiences that Pop Pop and I shared over the last six years of his life, however—he died two weeks after my high school graduation—none were more significant in my overall development than when he shared his stories and answered my rather youthful questions. “Tell me about how you first came to faith,” I’d often request. I never grew tired of hearing that story. “How would you handle this situation?” I asked whenever I found myself in a bind. Pop Pop, after all, had been a follower of Jesus for over 70 years, and he had much to tell. With my head on this footstool, I listened as my grandfather passed on the wisdom that he had gained from years and years of observation, devotion and experience.

William Abraham, you will—might?—recall from two weeks ago, defines wisdom as “good, old-fashioned horse sense.” I suggested, in a similar way, that wisdom is fundamentally the ability to hear and follow the rhythm or beat that God has instilled within the very fiber of creation. In a world literally exploding with counterfeit voices and conflicting beats, a world that all too easily entices us to run out of control in this area of our lives or that—time, money, relationships, food, words—God calls us to live within his rhythm, to live lives that are balanced, sane, focused and God-honoring. My grandfather, as I lay with my head on his footstool, wanted to help me to do just that. So does the sage—the teacher—here in Proverbs 4:1-9.

The teacher, to recreate the setting, refers to his own, personal experience as he addresses the students gathered around him. In the same way that my grandfather had patiently but consistently counseled me as a young boy, so too did the teacher’s father instruct him (vv. 1-4a). “During my early days,” the teacher announces, “my father taught me. I sat on his knee, looked into his eyes, and listened intently as he talked to me about the everyday affairs of life. He told me stories of goats wandering off to the neighbor’s house, land squabbles with fellow nomads, and how to find water hidden in seemingly dry, lifeless desert plants. He taught me how to provide for my family, when to offer a response and when to turn a deaf ear, and how to select my friends. He instructed me in the virtues of hard work, keeping my promises, and treating others fairly and with dignity. After carefully noticing over the years the rewards of wisdom and the consequences of foolishness, my father sought diligently to prepare me to take my responsible position within society. Get wisdom and cherish her,” he often said. “Wisdom will never let you down.” An exhortation: “Get wisdom and cherish her.” And a promise: “Wisdom will never let you down.”

“Get wisdom,” the teacher announces, “and cherish her.” An exhortation. It sounds rather like a parent’s advice to a son who has fallen head-over-heels for a young woman. “Go get her, son. Then cherish her.” And the writers of Proverbs and other so-called wisdom materials often do describe wisdom as a young and attractive woman. One can easily imagine a young man developing a strategy and plotting his course in hopes of securing the woman of his dreams—when to ask her out, what to say and where to take her. He scans the Living section of the Patriot for special activities, carefully makes his selection, rehearses his lines in front of the mirror, and chooses a time to make his move.

So it is with wisdom Wisdom is beautiful, and we ought to desire her and develop a strategy for getting her. If Erasmus once said, “Sell all you have and buy books, and if there is any money left, buy food,” the teacher here says, “Forsake all else and get wisdom.” The teacher, clearly, speaks here, not of the accumulation of data and information—not simply of knowledge—but of genuine insight and understanding. A knowledgeable person might very well know how the male and female reproductive systems work, but a wise person also understands the importance of controlling our sexual urges and using our sexuality as a means of honoring God. A knowledgeable person reads articles about the difficulty of overcoming addictions to drugs and alcohol, but a wise person sees in those same articles a warning to exercise caution and self-control. A knowledgeable person knows various strategies for multiplying his financial assets, but a wise person recognizes the subtle ways in which an attachment to money erodes genuine faith. A knowledgeable person is aware of certain statistics concerning poverty and other forms of injustice, but a wise person envisions creative ways to use even limited resources to make a difference. A knowledgeable person can quote sonnets and recite poetry, but a wise person understands the power of her own words. A knowledgeable person can discuss the dangers of isolation, but a wise person acknowledges his difficulties and invites other people into his life. Knowledge, to be sure, is a good thing, but it falls short of the ideal so obviously thought of here in Proverbs. While a knowledgeable person quotes important information and perhaps even understands the relevant data, a wise person discerns how such data is connected and the ways in which these connections will impact his life and the lives of others.

So get wisdom. Work hard for it. Keep an eye on the world around you. Listen to the advice of those who are further along on the journey than you are. Be careful what you look at and how you use your time. Plan certain activities that stretch you and expand your thinking. Go beyond your comfort zone. Wisdom, the teacher recognizes, isn’t simply a commodity that a person has or doesn’t have—you have to make attaining it one of your highest priorities.

But wisdom, like love, can wither if left unattended and unnurtured. So, the teacher continues, “Do not forsake her. Love her. Prize her highly.” I know of few things higher up on the sadness scale than seeing a once vibrant relationship that has since grown stale. But it happens more often than any of us would care to know. A couple, once deeply in love, now seemingly unable to even look at each other. The change, of course, never happens overnight, does it? Two lovers don’t simply decide to fall out of love. They don’t make conscious decisions to abandon their love and to go their own separate ways. The distance begins instead with a bit of neglect or a simple misunderstanding that is never resolved. Hours at work increase, feelings are hurt, and an expanding sense of distance gradually appears. Finally, after one event or experience has segued into another and then another, an impregnable wall appears that a short time earlier would have been impossible to imagine. “Can the two of you recall any joyful moments together?” I’ve sometimes asked couples that I was meeting with. And you can soon tell that there was once a fire there. But they stopped stoking it. They stopped feeding it. They stopped writing love notes and sending flowers and saying “Thank you.”

Wisdom, the teacher suggests, must likewise be cherished and cultivated. Wisdom must be prized for as long as we live. Isn’t it wonderful to meet a person nearing the end of life who continues to demonstrate an interest in learning and a desire to explore new thoughts and ideas? Isn’t it exhilarating to spend time with a person who wants to see new sights, meet new people and taste new foods? And conversely, don’t you tire quickly of a person who has all of the answers and is hopelessly settled in all of his ways? It seems as though they haven’t thought a new thought or entertained a new idea in months or even years! Oh, it didn’t happen over night. A lot of _____ _____ in. More and more wasted time. And eventually, a stagnant life. “Cherish wisdom,” the teacher repeats. Keep searching for her and enjoying her. Never take her for granted.

“Get wisdom and cherish her.” An _____. And now a promise. “Wisdom will never let you down.” In fact, the teacher highlights two primary benefits of wisdom (vv. 4b-9). Wisdom will guard you, and wisdom will honor you. There is, as you know, a great deal of foolishness going on around us, and its consequences are often downright absurd. Just last Sunday morning, Josh Hancock, a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, was sadly killed when he drove his SUV into the rear of a parked tow-truck. When the report of the accident was released a few days ago, authorities revealed that Hancock was drunk and talking on his cell phone at the time of the accident. They also discovered marijuana in the front of his vehicle. Such findings, of course, make Hancock’s death no less of a tragedy, but the folly of the circumstances are nevertheless striking. And so the story goes, over and over again. Hanging a loved one out of a 23rd-story window. Driving 90 miles an hour on a local, back road. Working 10, 12 and even 14 hour days while your family waits at home. Insisting you are always right while your friendships erode. Exercising 3 hours a day while your soul lies unattended. Hopping into bed with a casual acquaintance without thinking about the first night of your honeymoon just a few years down the road. Crazy choices. Foolish decisions. Horrible consequences. Leave folly alone, the teacher repeats. Go after wisdom. She will protect you.

And wisdom, the teacher concludes, will also honor you. People are, as you know, remembered for any number of things. Throw out names, and what do you think of? Greatness? Foolishness? I was talking with someone just last week in Toronto, and the subject of the Virginia Tech massacre came up. Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter, wanted among other things to be remembered. He wanted to make a name for himself! But why, we wondered, would anyone want to be remembered for such an atrocious act? Why would a young man desire to go down in history as a deranged and indescribably violent killer? How much better it is to be remembered as a wise person, a person who makes sound decisions, a person who lives a balanced and caring life, a person who lives within the rhythm that God has instilled within creation.

I meet each month with a spiritual director in Bethlehem. Over the years, I have of course met any number of highly intelligent and well-trained individuals. But it doesn’t take long to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom when you come face to face with a person who has made the gaining of godly wisdom a life-long desire. Barry, the man I meet with monthly in Bethlehem, is just such a person. A former pharmacist who noticed that people in his store often asked him significant questions about life-changing issues other than their prescriptions, he has committed his energies and resources to living in the center of God’s rhythm. He reads good books. He pays careful attention to the endless inner connections between decisions that we make and their outcomes. He studies the Scriptures and sits quietly with God. He is conversant with the social sciences and even went back to school later in life for formal training in Christian Spirituality. He is bright, intelligent and very knowledgeable. But there are plenty of people like that in the world who are at the same time foolish, stubborn and naïve. Not Barry. As I sat with him the last time and shared with him certain struggles that I was wrestling with, I felt nearly numb as he probed deep within me in ways that I hardly thought possible. I met wisdom face to face, and she was startling.

A few weeks after this meeting with Barry, I found myself in a conversation with a retired seminary professor at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville. Somehow the conversation came around to Barry. When I mentioned that I met with him each month, the retired professor looked at me and said, “Isn’t he special? A wise, wise man.” “Get wisdom,” the teacher concludes. “She will honor you. She will place a beautiful crown upon your head.”

We settle for a great deal of foolishness sometimes. We make thoughtless decisions, put ourselves in danger, and craft a reputation that we might later regret. We live out of control, following the tune of one Pied Piper or another. But we don’t have to live that way anymore. God has placed a rhythm within creation that he invites us to follow. Put your head on the stool and listen to the teacher. “Whatever else you do,” he says here in Proverbs 4:1-9, “get wisdom and cherish her. She will protect you, and she will honor you.”