The Beauty and Wonder of Wisdom

We live in an age where knowledge is more vast and profound than at any point in history. More people have access to more information and knowledge more easily and readily than ever before. There is more to know and more ways to learn it. This morning I have accessed the internet and reference books several times already. Knowledge is as close as my computer keyboard or a short walk to overflowing bookshelves.

The down side to so much knowledge is that we cannot all hold on to everything – it is too vast. We discover that there are more and more experts who specialise in narrow fields that go very deep but are not very wide. Scientists specialise more deeply and more narrowly into fields never before explored. They may know everything there is to know about one small part of this vast universe but little about the rest. I have often been frustrated in listening to patients in hospital who are moved around from specialist to specialist because they can only look at the person from their own narrow perspective and not relate symptoms more broadly or across specialties. The patient flounders in the space between these specialist’s expertise.

Knowledge is a wonderful thing. I have delighted in learning new things. I love knowledge and delving into the wonders of the world, of history, music and the arts, the way things work and so on. I love fixing things that are broken (rather than simply replacing them) – I have to learn how they work and then try to repair broken elements. Knowledge is good and important. It is a God-given gift.

Despite our vast access to and use of the breadth of knowledge available, we often lack wisdom. We know much but do not always know what it all means or how to use this knowledge wisely. Wisdom is critical and oft-ignored in using knowledge. For example, science has tremendous knowledge in a broad range of areas, always pushing back the frontiers but should we always seek to use that knowledge? Do we have the wisdom to use it safely and well? Do we need to use this knowledge or is it unwise? Should we continue to push the boundaries of nuclear weaponry when much of the world doesn’t have wisdom in their use (do we need them at all??)? How far do we go with human cloning…?

In the Biblical and other ancient traditions, wisdom was a critical virtue – especially for leaders. In the Hebrew wisdom books of the Old Testament, wisdom is a virtue that is personified as a feminine co-worker with God. Sometimes there is the sense that Wisdom (Sophia) is part of the essence of God – perhaps the Holy Spirit (also expressed in the feminine in Hebrew). Wisdom looks at the world from a different perspective. She invites us into the place of pondering, wondering and to take delight in the world God has made. It is a different place to that of our modern scientific paradigm. Instead of trying to dominate the world through knowledge, of gaining power over the unknown and ‘being like God’ through this pursuit, wisdom invites us into the place of experience and enjoyment of God’s creation. Whilst the modern world seeks to own, use, know and dominate, the ancient voice of wisdom, the feminine side of God, invites us into relationship with the world God has created. In the ancient book of wisdom called Proverbs (chapter 8) wisdom cries out to humans and invites them into the story of God creating. It is not a story that speaks of how – the scientific explanation of creation – but of the wonder of God creatively and playfully bringing the world into being. It is wonder and fun, enjoyment and delight. Wisdom was there with God and laughs and sings at the joyful placing of stars and planets, suns and moons, and of the beauty of the earth.

In our modern society there are essentially two ways in which humans interact with the world around. The dominant way is to subdue it, dominate it and use it. The earth is an economic resource that we are bound to exploit for our own purposes and gain. We mine, chop down, pollute, dig up and often destroy. Whilst this sounds very harsh, it is the essential reality of what we do to the earth. Yes, there are things we need from the ground – timber, iron and various minerals… Do we need to exploit the earth in such a dominant and abusive manner though? Do we really need everything we dig up or chop down? Is it genuine human need or economic greed?

The harder question is: What do we do with the mess we are making? Our knowledge has given us great power to exploit the earth but it has not recognised that we are creating waste at tremendous rates and don’t know how to contain it. We are like an aquarium without a filter and gradually our planet is filling up with the toxic mess of human waste. The atmosphere, the rivers and oceans and the land are filling up with the waste of human technological knowledge run rampant without the wisdom to use it well. Our knowledge of human weaponry is just as vast and impressive and our wisdom to use it is equally poor.

In the ancient stories of wisdom, humans are invited to stand back from their frenetic drive to know and dominate and to rest in the beauty and wonder of what exists. We are encouraged to create, as people created in the image of the Creator! We are invited, urged, to delight in the beauty of the world, its colour, diversity and wonder. We are encouraged to create art, music, crafts of all kinds and to enjoy the wonder of relationships. Sophia, wisdom, the feminine voice of God, welcomes us into relationship and nurtures us in the ways of welcome, hospitality and community. This alternate view of life is sustainable and delightful. It rejoices in the wonder of life rather than being burdened by the weight of responsibility and expectation that comes with a world of material excess and dominating power. When we feel the profound stress of life or the heavy weight of expectation or the burden of knowledge, wisdom cries out to us! She cries to come out of the city gates and run free in the wilds of the world of God’s beautiful creation. We are invited to rejoice in the garden, laugh in the rain, feel the warmth of the sun on our back and enjoy the little creatures that we share the earth with. We care for plants and trees and delight in their beauty reflected back. We care for the animals and creatures of the earth and wonder in their diversity and beauty. We share community with other people and God is in our midst!

The Hope of Diversity…

There’s an ancient story that speaks of origins of human ethnic diversity. It is a bit like our own Aboriginal people’s Dreamtime stories of origins. They are wise, very wise stories that contain deep truth and wisdom. This story speaks of people who continually succumb to the temptation and desire to be great – God-like. Individuals seek power and control over others and think they are powerful, like God. They learn violence as well and this adds to their sense of power and ‘greatness’ over others.

Then these people learn to work together. They built a city that could hold them together against the natural dispersion and scattering that was occurring in their world. They thought through the possibilities and realised that (in their world-view) the heavens, the realm of the gods, was just up in the sky. If they could build a tower and climb into the sky they would be like God (or gods)! If you dwell in the place of the gods, you will be god-like. So together they pooled their wisdom, strength, knowledge and began to create a huge tower into the sky. With each stage the excitement grew as they moved closer to their desire for power and god-likeness; a powerful group of people who were of same language, culture and united in greatness.

As the story goes, God came down and saw what these people were doing. God recognised that these people were resisting the natural diversity inherent in the world, in creation. God recognised that this group of people wanted to re-create their world in their image, their way and resist the movement of people’s across the earth in the beauty of diversity and difference. God scattered these peoples and confused their languages, thus ensuring the essence of the created realm continued. It’s a fascinating little story that has stood for thousands of years and can be read in Genesis 11.

The truth of this little story, however, continues to hold strong. Last century, Hitler determined to recreate the world in his own image – an Arian race of true humans who would achieve true greatness (god-likeness!). He sought to destroy difference and diversity, weakness and vulnerability. His megalomaniacal exploits threatened the very stability of the world and thrust us into the hell of WWII. Wherever there is the desire to constrain diversity and difference and create power, control and greatness within a particular image, form or type of human, we have the Tower of Babel story rekindled. It is seen in Apartheid in South Africa and the racial segregation of the US, Australia… In fact wherever one race is elevated above others and there is an unjust accumulation of power and control in their hands, we have a problem. We hear echoes of the story when gender, culture, faith… are asserted to be more true and pure than another. When people congregate as a uniform group that deny diversity and difference in an exclusive or ignorant manner the Babel story echoes down through history to us.

One of the truths of this story is that humanity is not God and that uniformity is counter to the reality of creation – and the essence of God! We are to be united and equal but not uniform and identical.

There is another ancient story that we will also read this week – it isn’t quite as ancient, only 2000 years old. You can read it in the New testament book of Acts – chapter 2. In this story we again hear echoes of the essential elements of the Babel story. It comes after the Easter story when the followers of Jesus are closed off from the world considering their options, awaiting the next step. Out of nowhere the Spirit of God comes to these people. In language that speaks of wind blowing, fiery tongues spreading out over the people. They then began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.

In Jerusalem that day were Jewish people from across the earth, gathered for the holy festival of Shavuot. These were natives of Judea who had been scattered across the world throughout their history and made their home in new lands amongst diverse people. They maintained something of their own culture and faith – the dietary laws, prayer, worship of the one God… Periodically they made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as they were able for religious festivals.

On this day they suddenly heard the followers of Jesus, Jewish Christians speaking of God’s love in their own language! This brought great confusion and the last part of the first section of the story ends with: ‘What does this mean?’

This story is an affirmation of the Divinely inspired diversity of the Babel story. God doesn’t bring the people together in uniformity. God doesn’t enable everyone to hear and understand the one language – even some Divine, heavenly language of God. God speaks in the diversity of the languages of people! God expresses Divine love into the language and culture of all people.

So, why do we try to make faith mono-cultural? My Masters supervisor, Rev Dr Don Carrington, a former missionary in the Pacific, said that the early missionary movement as about colonising, civilising and Christianising – making everyone like us! So much of the church’s life (like the rest of society) is about uniformity, about everyone agreeing on the same things, looking the same, acting the same, thinking the same, being the same. The story of Pentecost (and Babel) invite us to embrace and express our differences and to celebrate this diversity – but in love!

We are to recognise that humanity is not God and we don’t have to try to be God! When we struggle for our own greatness or to exercise power over others we deny the uniqueness of ourselves and other people. The result is the usual displays of violence, exclusion and conflict based on envy, ignorance, fear and poor self-worth.

Both stories encourage diversity and difference. When humans are willing to work together out of their diversity great things can emerge. We can do great things together but only if we respect difference and don’t seek to be all-powerful. The Spirit of God inspires love amongst us and that love lifts our vision to reach out in understanding and compassion, justice and inclusion.

When our goal is self-importance and glorification, power and might, we will ultimately fall and fail. When our goal is love and community, compassion and inclusion we can never be defeated. Elsewhere the Apostle Paul says: ‘Now these three remain: Faith hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.’

Beware Whom You Condemn!

‘That’s so un-Australian!’ It seems this is the ultimate put-down and condemnation of people who say or do something that challenges a dominant view, the status quo or is different from the ‘norm’. If anyone challenges something about Australian culture or attitude or does something a bit different they are considered ‘un-Australian’! I detest the phrase and its use. What on earth does it mean?!! What does it actually mean to be ‘un-Australian’?

Typically it is used by politicians who claim that anything that challenges what they believe to be integral to Australian society is ‘un-Australian.’ It is a pejorative term used to describe a person(s) who is different or expresses a different view. It is used to judge and condemn others for differences they may express. The Macquarie Dictionary has definitions that convey codes of conduct such as not dobbing on your mates and ‘not driving past a pub’. It seems that it is un-Australian not to drink excessively?? There is a web-site about gambling that expresses the view that it is un-Australian not to be able to freely gamble and those who oppose gambling are ‘un-Australian’.

There are, of course, other terms used to denigrate and categorise people with whom we have differences, people we don’t understand; people who do or represent something that is new of different; people who challenge some of the ways of Australian society. It seems ‘un-Australian’ to express concern about societal greed and materialism or to challenge the profit-obsessed corporations who put profit before people, the environment, the common good or sometimes ethical behaviour.

It is ‘un-Australian’ to work for the rights of refugees and those seeking asylum – ‘they are taking our jobs…’ It is very difficult in our nation to challenge the history, mythology and stories that people hold dear but which may be inaccurate or demonise others. Aboriginal history is often set aside and ignored in favour of justifying dominant views that sustain our errant beliefs of our own history. It is preferable, for our society, to believe the patronising, demeaning and even racist views that circulate than to seek the truth and have to change our attitudes and ways.

It is certainly easier to hide behind an all-embracing, pseudo-patriotic cry of ‘it’s un-Australian!’ than to confront truth and reality and open ourselves to a different future where we may have to change. This is especially difficult if it means that our material prosperity may need to be lowered in order for others to enjoy freedom, hope and life.

The use of pejorative, deprecatory and judgemental terms are also often protective devices that we hide behind out of fear, uncertainty or confusion. When we are confronted by something different that seems to challenge the status quo of our lives, the way we’ve always thought and believed, we oppose it, challenge it and fight it. It can be very difficult to believe something new in life, whether an issue of faith, politics, ideology, history or something about someone we have believed in… The various derogatory terms used about those arriving on boats tend to be used out of fear, uncertainty and concern that these people will ruin our way of life, take our jobs or, worse still, bring overseas problems to our land. We are easily led to believe they are more likely to be terrorists, even though there is no evidence and less likelihood a terrorist would risk their life in a rusty boat.

People who are different or hold different views cause concern, fear and suspicion until we have the opportunity to relate to them and glimpse their humanity. When we discover that someone is a person like ourselves, with the hopes, fears and struggles of life, it can change our perception and open us to new possibilities. This applies to people with whom we may feel uncertainty or even antipathy – people of different ethnically,  or in faith, ideology, political persuasion, socio-economic disposition, sexual orientation, age… In condemning the unknown we may miss God in disguise!!!

In our story this week (Acts 16:16-34) Paul and Silas are still in Macedonia. They are going to a place of prayer when they are followed by a slave girl who has ability as a fortune-teller that makes money for her owners. She discerns who they are and cries out that ‘they are servants of the Most High God and proclaim the way of salvation.’ She continues to follow them for several days and finally, much frustrated, annoyed and fed up Paul turns on her and orders the spirit in her to come out and leave her. She appears in her right mind but has lost the gift of fortune telling. Her owners, who care nothing for her, see that one of their strands of money-making has been lost, turn upon Paul and Silas. They condemn them as foreigners who are opposing the way of life of their city. They claim that Paul and Silas are advocating activities and ideas illegal to their city. They stirred up fear and loathing until Paul and Silas were dragged into the market place, stripped of their clothing, flogged and then thrown into prison. Paul and Silas did something that was about justice and healing in freeing a slave woman oppressed internally by a spirit and externally by slave-owners. This act of justice and freedom denied them money and they reacted aggressively towards Paul and Silas, inciting anger and hatred towards them creating fear at what they might represent. It isn’t far from what so often happens in our own society – Paul and Silas would be considered ‘un-Australian’. They may have stood up for justice towards Aboriginal people or poor people, unemployed or those with disabilities or mental illness or asylum seekers or… Those threatened would demonise Paul and Silas…

In prison Paul and Silas sang hymns and prayed. Though they were locked away, beaten and imprisoned, they were free in God and trusted that all would be well – whatever happened to them! The freedom and liberation of God came to them through the night as chains fell off and light flooded their cells. The presence of God, the liberation and hope of the Risen Christ surrounded them and everything changed. The prison guard was afraid that they had escaped but they reassured him they were all there. He was so amazed and touched by the hope, grace and love that emanated from God in their midst that he believed in the power of God. He and his household experienced the liberation of God that night and were baptised. The face of God was in this foreigner who brought freedom and life!

Freedom to Respond and Love

Why did the chicken cross the road? That is the beginning of a series of relatively droll jokes. Here are some to remind you:

  1. Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.
  2. Why did the rooster cross the road? To cockadoodle dooo something
  3. Why did the chicken cross the basketball court? He heard the referee calling fowls (fouls)
  4. Why did the turkey cross the road? To prove he wasn’t chicken.
  5. Why did the chicken cross the playground? To get to the other slide
  6. Why did the dinosaur cross the road? Because chickens hadn’t evolved yet
  7. Why did the horse cross the road? It was the chicken’s day off.

Enough of the jokes but to push the theme: Why did Paul cross the sea? It wasn’t to get to the other side. It wasn’t for curiosity or personal gain. It wasn’t a sight-seeing trip or even for work.

Paul crossed the sea because someone called out in need. Paul had a dream, a vision (see Acts 16:9-15) and in it a man from Macedonia (approximately modern day Greece) called out for help. Paul set off in response to the call for help.

Macedonia was a long way away across the sea. It was distant in terms of proximity and culture to where Paul and his friends had lived and worked and ministered. There were few Jewish people in this region, too few for even a synagogue. The small group gathered in homes to pray and read scriptures. Lydia was a wealthy businesswoman, a proselyte to Judaism from another region and a leader in this community. It was from here that the call for help came to Paul in a vision. People overwhelmed by the culture in which they lived. People trying to be faithful and live lives of faith and peace amidst a pagan culture that valued wealth and prosperity more than faith or community.

As Paul travelled through the Western Mediterranean lands he discovered people who sought freedom and hope from their bondage, amidst others who allowed their own freedom to oppress others. There is the story of a young woman who is held captive and placed on display to make money because she could tell fortunes. Her owners abused her and oppressed her. There are stories of people trapped in cultures of bondage and oppression, slavery that is physical, emotional or spiritual. It is into this mix of hope and despair that Paul is summoned – through a vision and by God’s Spirit.

Paul enters into this place as one who has nothing to offer but the grace, peace and love of God. He has no wealth, no power or authority. He offers himself in the power of God’s love and proclaims the message of Jesus into the midst of human life and struggle. As he loves and cares for those he meets, enthusiastically encouraging them to open themselves to God and God’s grace, they experience hope and respond to this grace. Lydia believes and is baptised. She becomes the first leader of the church in the West – a woman of wealth who offers hospitality to everyone in God’s name.

This is a radical story from the 1st century. In our day we still struggle with gender equality. Many churches still refuse women leadership (although I am pleased to say that in the Uniting Church we have always ordained women and expected that they would share equal opportunity in leadership in the highest levels. That is vital as it brings broader perspective and gifts to bear on the church’s life.).

In this story Paul commissions Lydia into the leadership of the new church in Macedonia! It is not unique in the early church, which was a broad community that included all people. The early church embraced men, women and children, rich and poor, people across the socio-economic spectrum, people of different backgrounds and cultures… Their common faith in God’s grace and love, revealed in Jesus, drew them together and bound them together. They learned that the basis of the life of faith as Jesus lived and taught was love: Love for God and love for neighbour. They shared what they had with those who had need – in and beyond their community and they endured persecution from outside.

When I first read this story I didn’t quite recognise what Paul had done. I picked up the story in the midst of the broader story of Paul’s travels and didn’t realise what had actually happened here. Paul heard a call for help. It seems to have come on top of other experiences and feelings about where to go next. He had tried other possibilities and each time the door of possibility closed. Paul heard a call, a cry, for help from this distant land and went.

I wonder where you and I hear a call for help? How do we respond? Who are our ‘Macedonians’?

It is easier to respond to the straightforward calls for help from those close to us. When there are family crises or crises in the lives of close friends we will drop everything and respond as we are able.

It isn’t quite as easy to hear or respond to cries for help from people further afield, those a little outside our normal orbit or those very different form us. Sometimes we aren’t quite sure what we might do, by what authority we might act. Perhaps we don’t understand what they want or need or don’t want to impose. Sometimes we don’t hear because we are busy or distracted. Sometimes we feel powerless to make a difference. ‘I am just an ordinary person – what could I do?’ There are myriad reasons not to hear and not to respond.

Mainly, though, I think we lack the freedom to respond. We feel caught or trapped by expectations, fears, uncertainties and bound by cultural norms of individualism that cuts us off from others. We don’t know what we might do in response to other people’s cries for release and peace because we haven’t fully embraced the freedom and peace of God in our own lives. It is there as a free gift but…

Paul was deeply free from cultural expectation and the bondage of his society. He did what he liked, as did Jesus, acting out of love for God and neighbour. It brought them into confrontation with the powers of the world but God was God, not worldly powers!

In what ways might you shuck off the bounds of cultural norm, prejudice, individualism… and in freedom, love – God and neighbour?