What is wisdom? Is it right judgments? Is it the pooled knowledge of humanity? Is it sound advice? Is it something found in Hallmark cards or on refrigerator magnets: a friend in need is a friend in deed! A penny saved is a penny earned! Neither a borrower nor a lender be! To thine ownself be true! And, above all else, always wear clean underwear!
Wisdom is something humanity searches for: we seek to receive it and seek to give it as well. But how do we know what really is wise? Where can we find the real source of knowledge and wisdom?
I can tell you that I was certainly in search of wisdom this summer. Before starting my internship here at Mt olive, I completed a summer unit of CPE: Clinical Pastoral Education. This means that I served as a chaplain in a hospital setting in South Carolina. There were always difficult questions, some of which only required the wisdom of referral: a patient’s family member in the waiting room asks, “where’s the ladies room?” ok—that was easy! Right down the hall. a man facing surgery the next day asks, “can we pray?” another easy! Sure thing! “Chaplain, can you bring me a bible?” I even knew where the bibles were stored in the office. No Problem! I could even locate and mark some specific passages he was looking for. So far, this chaplain thing was not so bad. I had all the right answers! That was, of course, until I was asked a Real question.
I went to see a lady who had requested a chaplain to visit her. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was feeling particularly confident. This wasn’t going to be a difficult visit, all she wanted was to talk with someone and, well, I certainly know how to do that! I walked into her room and sat down. We talked about simple things at first, introductions and the like and everything seemed to be going well. She was a Christian and she was a little down that day and thought that maybe we could pray. I also offered to read some scripture. All those active-listening skills I had learned about in seminary and had been honing the past month or so were ready to go.
That is, until she got down to what she really wanted to ask me.
You see, this lady was a patient on the psych ward and as I came to learn,
the people on that floor ask the really tough questions because in a way, they have nothing to loose. She suffered from depression, so severely, in fact, that after all other efforts of counseling and medication had been exhausted, she was at this hospital to receive ECT. Shock therapy. She was scared, not so much of the thing that seemed the most frightening, the procedure she would undergo the next few weeks, but scared that it wouldn’t work. “Chaplain,” she asked, “if I kill myself, will God send me to hell?”
Now, exactly how does one answer that question? “I’m ready to do it,” she told me, “they’ve got me pretty well protected in here, but when I get out, if this shock therapy doesn’t work, I just cannot do it any more. There are no other options for me. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be like this forever. Would God forgive me if I did it? I think he has forgotten me anyway.”
For this, I had no answer. What was I to tell her? I’m not God. I don’t know. And why should I know, I mean, I’m only a chaplain, right? I’m not even out of seminary yet! And where was all that seminary knowledge? Where was that theology professor with all his logical answers? Where was the pastoral care professor with the perfect prayer? Where was the cheat-sheet, the cross reference book with the way to find ANYTHING in the bible? I had no wisdom for her. All I could do is point to God. It sounds so feeble, like a little child sitting on the floor pointing up at the cookie jar she can’t reach. “I don’t know the answer to your question,” I told her, “but I do know that God never forgets anyone.”
We talked about where she had seen God in her life: in her husband, in her children and in her friends. We talked about the bible stories she remembered from childhood and young adulthood and how hopeless and abandoned these people must have felt as well. Noah and his family and all those animals stuck in the ark. The childless Abraham and Sarah. The whole people of Israel wandering around in the desert. The pregnant and unwed Mary. Jesus crying all alone on the cross. We talked about how God really was there with them the whole time —how it was God who had all the answers—even when they, even when we, don’t.
We prayed together that God, the source of all knowledge, would give us both wisdom. She said, “I’m tired now and need to sleep. Please go.” So I left wondering if I had said the right things and if she would be ok. I wished that I had been wise enough to answer her questions.
Our text from Ephesians today instructs us to be wise. The writer tells that we should make the most of time, be filled with the Holy Spirit, look to psalms and hymns for ways to communicate with one another, make music to the lord in our hearts, give thanks to God at all times for all things in the name of Christ. He tells us to look to the will of the lord. Sometimes, we feel that these things are easy—this wisdom thing is not hard at all!
We all know right and wrong, how to obey the law and do the right thing. That is, until we get to the really hard questions. When we wonder if we’ve made the right decision, when someone else looks to us for the right answer, when it seems like we are all alone and wonder if God has forgotten us. When we are faced with times when we don’t know right answers to the really tough questions, wisdom seems something we can never attain.
We feel more like we’re living in evil days, that we are filled with things much less enlightening than the Holy Spirit, we don’t know what to say and often our words and the words of others are empty of meaning and purpose. It is those times that we can trust in God’s wisdom.
When we turn to God as the source of all knowledge, we can trust that even when we cannot understand, God does. Even when we have no wise answers, God’s wisdom is there for us. Just like the lady in the psych ward and I looked at the lives of people shown to us in scripture, we can look at others who have felt distant from God and how, in God’s wisdom, God was always there with them and will always be here with us.
One of the ways we are reminded of God’s wisdom is found at the table, here, in the body and blood of Jesus, broken for us. In our Gospel text for today, Jesus talks of his flesh and blood being real food and drink for us.
When we consume this meal, Jesus has promised to be in us and to give us life. In so many ways, this all sounds so unwise to us —the early followers of Jesus even said that this was a hard thing to understand. God’s wisdom is sometimes so contrary to what we think is wise that we can hardly recognize it. How could it possibly be a wise move for God to leave his son all alone on a cross to die? How could it be wisdom to believe that God would raise him up from the dead? Would it possibly be wise of God
to even become a fragile human like us in the first place?
Unlike our hallmark wisdom of the world, God’s wisdom is greater than any wisdom we could ever come up with.