Seeds

“Nothing is more practical than finding God."

war-and-peace

During my sermon yesterday I shared a personal working definition of peace. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive definition, but a practical one for living this stretch of my journey.

Peace is the ability to accept and embrace the uncertainty, risk and emotional vulnerability of being human.

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prodigal-son

The two parables in yesterday’s and today’s gospel readings are so surprising. After the shepherd returns with the lost sheep he celebrates with his friends rather than stewing about how the stupid sheep ruined his day. Then comes the parable of the prodigal son. At the end the prodigal son’s father throws him a party. Really? Personally, I get where the older son is coming from (being the oldest of 6 myself). It’s one thing for the father to allow the younger son to come home; it’s more of a stretch to welcome the prodigal with open arms. But throw him a party? That’s what you do for sons (or daughters) who’ve been away fighting wars or serving in the Peace Corp. That’s not something you do for a son who’s partied half the family’s wealth away.

So where’s the judgment? Continue reading

Cross

I find it interesting to reflect on Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading against the backdrop of Veterans Day as well as the 100th anniversary of  the World War I armistice on November 11.

World War I was to be the war that ended all wars. Jesus talked about creating a new world. In fact, he announced that it was already breaking in. He “enlisted” disciples to join him in announcing and ushering in his kingdom. He called them his followers.

But there other “followers” as well. These were more like his fans. They traveled with Jesus because he was an exciting guy to be around and they were curious to see what he was going to do.

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HearingFor those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Romans 8:14).
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).

We come to the last of the four sources of wisdom: the Holy Spirit. The other three are ourselves, life experiences and others. And no, the Holy Spirit isn’t our wisdom source of last resort. It’s not that we first draw upon our own growing ability to think wisely or reflect on past experiences or consult with others, and then, if all else fails, we ask the Holy Spirit’s help. Paul writes, “So I say, walk by the Spirit… (Galatians 5:16).

It’s actually the Holy Spirit that helps us grow in our own ability to think wisely, learn from past experiences, and discern what to do with the counsel of others. Jesus described the Holy Spirit as our Paraclete, a Greek word meaning partner or someone called alongside to help. The Holy Spirit wants to come alongside and teach us how to learn from all the sources of wisdom.

At the same time, there can be these sort of direct “messages” from the Holy Spirit. We may not be sure if it’s the Spirit or our own unconscious speaking; if it’s the Holy Spirit’s voice or our own inner voice, or even some other spiritual voice. Uncertain, we may find ourselves asking, “Am I being led, or am I being led astray?”

I think part of the problem is that we confuse walking by the Spirit with thinking the Holy Spirit is always going to tell us what to do. In my experience, the Holy Spirit as often as not sheds light on a situation without necessarily giving me a direct order. He wants me to exercise my thinking function, develop emotional intelligence, and engage with all of my God-given abilities. At the same time we don’t rely only on our own intuition or logic, but allow the Holy Spirit to show us an angle that we might not have seen on our own.

It can be our immaturity that wants to be told the wise thing to do without knowing the actual wisdom behind that choice. In other words, we want to skip the step of actually learning wisdom. We want to get it right the first time. We don’t want to make mistakes. We don’t want to look foolish. We don’t want to have to take responsibility for our own decisions. We don’t want to have to learn from life experiences. “Just tell me what to do, God.”

And when we think he has, and the results throw that into question, we can quickly doubt our ability to hear God, or wonder whether he even can be heard.

As some of you know, I try to make it a regular practice (though not as regular as I should) to kneel before God with a red pen and open journal, asking God to speak into my life, often about a particular situation or decision. Usually what comes into my mind are insights rather than directives, additional understanding rather than what I should decide. Even when the guidance is specific, I’m usually shown some wisdom about why it’s the best course of action.

But not always. If a granddaughter, for example, is financially strapped, a dollar amount may come to mind that I may not be able to explain. Sometimes the same amount occurs to both Sharon and me, and that pretty much seals the deal.

Remember, the Holy Spirit is working with Jesus to disciple you. He’s here to help us grow, not just learn how to obey orders. He’s also here to help us carry out Christ’s mission. There will be plenty of “holy hunches” to act upon, without knowing where they will lead or what the results will be. Let’s be grateful that we have this Helper to assist us every step of the way.

Having the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean we no longer have to think for ourselves. It just means we no longer have to think by ourselves.

 

Holy DiscussionWe’ve been talking about the four sources of wisdom – ourselves (especially as we are being renewed into Christ’s image), life experiences, others and the Holy Spirit. A disciple of Jesus is learning how to drink from all four streams, because we need all four streams.

So let’s talk about the wisdom we seek from others.

The most obvious and important place we learn from others is Scripture. And the most important Other we encounter in Scripture is Jesus. So we mention Scripture here with Jesus’ own caution: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39).

Why is Jesus so important for seeking wisdom? In order to answer that question, we need to say something about different levels of wisdom.

For example, The Old Testament word for wisdom, hokma, can simply refer to learning a skill. This is the wisdom that guides the heart and hand of an artist or artisan.

The same word for wisdom can also be used for the practical wisdom that is often expressed through aphorisms, proverbs and principles. Think of those memes you see on Facebook that try to capture some bit of wisdom for how to live life well. You don’t usually have to be a Christian to benefit from this kind of wisdom, and God is generous with the places and ways he shares it.

But there is another level of wisdom that is deeper still, tapping into the meaning and purpose of life itself. Jesus is our main source for this kind of wisdom – the one who claimed to be “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). The apostle Paul says something similar: “My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ – in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3). Everything about Jesus is saturated with wisdom – his life, his teachings, his cross (as we saw on Sunday), his resurrection, and the fact that all of history is headed in the direction of everything in heaven and earth being unified in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

But it’s not just everything about Christ that contains this treasure trove of wisdom. As disciples, he himself is our teacher. And because he has authority over all things (Matthew 11:27, 28:18) and in him all things are held together (Colossians 1:17), we look to him to teach us in all things — which means that when we are yoked to him, everything becomes a potential source of wisdom!

Getting back to Scripture, it’s helpful for me to think of the Bible as a place where I “meet up” with Jesus. Of course, in Scripture we encounter many voices who can be our teachers. Jesus himself wants us to also seek the counsel of others – not just the voices within Scripture, but others as well — especially our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Jesus said, “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19). I figure he must really want us to discuss things with one another if he even wants us to talk about what we’re going to pray for!

Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise” (Proverbs 19:20).

Seeking others’ counsel includes seeking wisdom from those who we disagree with. Wise people learn the art of engaging in difficult discussions. Instead of vehemently defending their position or barricading themselves behind their own viewpoint, they’re always seeking new insights and a fresh perspective. One doesn’t have to agree with everything in order to learn something.

Authors, songwriters, preachers, teachers, parents, spouses, friends are all potential sources of wisdom. Try not to confine yourself to one or two instructors or counselors: “So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians: 21-23).

No teacher or counselor is infallible, which is a good segue into my next post about the final source of wisdom – the Holy Spirit.

Who do you go to for advice?

FailureIn my last post I talked about our own inner selves being a source of wisdom. A second source of wisdom is life experience. As one person said, “Wisdom is the daughter of experience.” Fortunately, we can learn from other people’s experiences as well as our own. This includes people in the Bible. A lot of the wisdom we get from reading the Bible comes from learning from others’ experiences, including their mistakes, sins and failures.

I’ve often quoted Rob Bell who said that if you take all of the sin out of the Bible, what you have left is a pamphlet. I normally read the daily lectionary, and the Old Testament readings just got done working through the book of Judges. People like Samson and Gideon are not exactly stellar spiritual heroes. And now that the readings have turned to Job, I’m reminded that Job’s friends meant well, but ended up being a thorn in Job’s side because of their inadequate understanding of the relationship between sin and suffering. They cared, but their caring lacked wisdom.

Moses had a temper and murdered an Egyptian. David was an adulterer, and to cover up his tracks, murdered one of his own officers. His son Solomon collected wives and concubines like trophies, built temples to their gods, and forced his people to work on his endless building projects, which created such ill feeling that after he died the northern kingdom separated from the southern kingdom.

The rulers and people of Israel repeatedly fell into the same spiritual traps. Without the constant litany of spiritual infidelity, idolatry and injustice, we wouldn’t have all that amazing poetry written by the major and minor prophets.

Of course, it was God’s chosen people that rejected Jesus. Even Jesus’ closest disciples betrayed, denied and abandoned him. The apostle Paul was a persecutor of the church and a murderer before his conversion, and without a plethora of problems occurring in churches like Corinth, let’s just say the New Testament would have been a lot smaller.

It’s a good thing that God loves sinners.

In an email I received from Helen Barkley after Sunday’s message, she said she believed life experiences were an important source of wisdom, except that a lot of us don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. You’re right, Helen, absolutely right.

So the most we can say about life experiences is that they are a potential source of wisdom. Each day contains experiences that can potentially make us wiser – including our faults and failures. On Sunday we’ll talk about the importance of living in God’s grace so that instead of allowing our guilt and shame to take us out, we can quietly learn from even our worst mess-ups.

In my experience, guilt and shame are more likely to hinder than to help my quest for wisdom. First, I need to know that I am authentically loved as I am. I also find that the search for wisdom can’t be hurried. If I have the courage to live with my questions, including about my failures, God will almost always speak from a variety of sources.

Fortunately, we also have accounts in the Bible of people like Peter and Paul, James and John learning from their moral and spiritual failures. God’s grace makes that possible.

How do you gain wisdom from life experiences? What gets in the way?

ThinkingAs we embark on our quest for wisdom, we should probably ask where we find it. The automatic response might be “the Bible.” And that would be a great answer, except that our search for wisdom would be pretty limited if it was confined to whatever time we spend reading Scripture. So Scripture couldn’t be the only source of wisdom – not for 24/7 students of Jesus.

I’d like to suggest four general avenues or places to find wisdom. All four are available to us all the time, which makes them very practical sources of wisdom. They are four streams available to us whenever we ask the question, “What is the wise thing to do?” The four streams are ourselves (surprise), life experience, others (including Scripture) and the Holy Spirit. I’ll say something about each of these over the next few days.

One source of wisdom is ourselves. Of course, we don’t want to make this our only source, partly because we take seriously Jeremiah’s caution: “The heart is the most deceitful of all things; desperately sick, who can fathom it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). So yeah, it’s easy to deceive ourselves, especially when we’re invested in a particular agenda and are just trying to get our ducks in a row to do whatever we’d already decided.

Hopefully, simply asking the question “What is the wise thing to do?” will short-circuit some of our default ways of making choices. But that assumes the existence of a wiser part of ourselves that is at least somewhat capable of thinking more broadly and deeply about the situation. We’re made in the image of God after all. That assumes some kind of capacity for wise thinking. And now that capacity is being trained by Master Jesus. A disciple isn’t just someone who collects bits of wisdom or has a running list of principles for successful living. A disciple learns how to actually think deeply and wisely. As Dallas Willard says, we’re being “trained to reign.”

When God asked Solomon what he wanted from God as Solomon began his youthful reign over Israel, Solomon asked for wisdom. So God gave Solomon an exceptional ability to think wisely. That suggests to me we can ask for the same thing. The Hebrew word for wisdom, hokma, refers to a particular aptitude or capacity for making wise choices. It doesn’t just refer to wise sayings but wise thinking.

So how about if during these next seven weeks we ask God for an increased capacity to think wisely? Not just for wisdom or direction about how to deal with a particular situation in our lives, but the ability to think wisely in general. If Solomon could ask for this kind of wisdom, I’m pretty sure we can too. Of course, the mind doesn’t operate in a vacuum. So our ability to think wisely will be gradually formed and shaped by the other three streams of wisdom – life experience, others (especially Scripture) and the Holy Spirit.

For example, because we’re still growing in our ability to think wisely, we’re going to make mistakes. That’s where experience comes in. Even our mistakes can be experiences that we can learn from and can shape our thinking process going forward.

So let’s not overestimate our ability to think wisely, but let’s not underestimate it either. We’ve been born again or born from above (John 3:3). We are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). We’ve been given the mind of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:16). And, yes, we are a work in progress. All these things should encourage us to believe in our ability to think wisely, especially when our primary purpose in life is to know and follow Jesus.