Toorak Uniting Church

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Fear and Wisdom; an open letter to God

Psalm 111   1 Kings 2: 3 – 14
Rev. Ian Brown
20 August 2006

"Dear God, I’ve a few spare minutes and a some things on my mind, … and since there’s no call waiting function on prayers yet, I’d like to bend your ear for a while.

It’s this thing about fear and wisdom, God. Fear, we know a lot about at the moment. It’s what terrorists strike with, it’s what lawmakers use to push through outrageous and inhumane treatment with. And wisdom, well, looking at our world you might have to conclude that it’s a rare commodity.
What troubles me is about fearing you being the beginning of wisdom.

For myself God, I’ve been to church a good few times over the years and I’ve read this holy book of ours. I know the idea of fear we have is not so helpful for understanding old prayers like this and I’m sure we could slip in "respect" or "honour" instead, – but none of the words make it attractive for us these days, however we try.
If you don’t mind me saying so, God, being associated with any sort of fear is not a good look any more.

So, Ok, I guess I need to let you be God, and that will cover the beginning of this for me. Then my problem is really with wisdom; what it really is and who gets to define it.

Sure it is a big subject, but you are a big God and I’m not the only one interested, so let’s chew it over.

You’ll remember Solomon, I’m sure, his name is synonymous with wisdom!
I’ve always been impressed that in his dream, you gave him a blank cheque to ask for any gift and he asked for wisdom to be a good leader for his people.
Wealth, power, huge harem, world domination, anything, he could have asked for – and perhaps he would have if he’d been awake!

Still it is impressive that the story records his desire for the good of the people and probably more impressive that wisdom was considered more valuable than power, big armies, weapons or wealth. There is something wholesome, ethical, I think, and community building and lasting about this; so I guess that’s something to celebrate!

here’s some fitting words:
Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendour and his righteousness endures forever".

History has it that Solomon was a terrifically wise leader,
but we don’t seem to be so well blessed these days, God.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming you for that; it’s sure to be our fault – we just can’t seem to agree on what is wise any more.

Solomon’s name gets associated with the wisdom book of Proverbs, so I looked there for some more help. It has 48 references on wisdom. And you might be interested; this Bible of ours has 346 verses on wisdom and another 232 on being wise. In the proverbs I learnt that you established the world by wisdom – I’m hoping that there’s plenty of it that’s still innate! And then, that ‘wisdom is better than jewels’, ‘better than gold’ and ‘is with the humble’.
Then I read that ‘even a fool, when he holds his tongue, is counted as wise’ and I thought perhaps I’d better hold mine, but as it’s probably too late for that anyway, I’ll keep going!

To be honest, I rather like what Socrates said, that; "wisdom begins in wonder." Simple, profound and beautifully ambiguous to hold together the paradoxes of real life experience. "Wisdom begins in wonder."

Like the Psalmist, I wonder at your works:
"your work is full of majesty and splendour and your righteousness endures forever."
But at the same time I’m often left wondering.
I visited an old man, suffering near the end of life, tormented and in pain, able to do nothing about it. Where is the wisdom here? The mum of a preschooler hangs between life and death with an inoperable brain tumour. Where is the wisdom here? Grown men, leaders of countries and even religious leaders think they can solve their problems by causing the most pain they can, to those they see as the opposition – it is always men isn’t it? . Where is the wisdom here?
Oh, and I did think it quite apt, God, when I looked to find the roots of our word for wisdom, and saw that the Greek for wisdom is "Sophia" – a feminine word, mmm…

Nevertheless, a man, Henry David Thoreau managed a wise saying, "It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." Could more of us pay heed to this, please God!
Maybe George Burns had right: "Too bad that all the people who really know best how to run the country are too busy cutting hair or driving taxis!" – or perhaps not!

"Wisdom begins in wonder." We have to wonder don’t we!
Wonder in both senses, God. Wonder in the sense of awe and worship, wonder that is like a fear, wonder at you, God, that begins our wisdom and wonder at what happens around us, that shows us our real and often desperate need of wisdom.
We need some wisdom that is bigger than us, bigger than our experience and our pain, wisdom from you that can help us deal with the terrible things that so often happen.

Your old Greek friend Sophocles said "wisdom is the supreme part of happiness" and perhaps that’s why we humans have wondered about it and chased it and debated it so much. I want that happiness, God, and not just for me.

How do we get there, God?
If I collect my thoughts, it seems like the beginning is in your foundations, the beginning of wisdom is right standing with you; wonder, awe, respect and then to be in a relationship of active wondering about life.
It’s really the opposite of ‘blind faith’ isn’t it?

One of your great mystics Pierre Abelard was on this track, I think, when he said, "the beginning of wisdom is found in doubting: by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking, we may come upon the truth."
God, this gift of language and the tradition we have of valuing wisdom and passing it on are great gifts!

"Great are the deeds of the Lord! They are to be studied by all who delight in them. He makes his marvellous works to be remembered."

So, if I manage to make this beginning, what comes next then, God? The Psalm says "your works … stand fast forever and ever, because they are done in truth and equity."
But we seem to have a throw away culture and truth seems to be just relative to the moment, just to achieve our ends, if it’s even that. Where is the wisdom here?
How can we take more than first steps?

And if like the Hebrew’s of old, we find it better to look for examples and stories to help us, who will we look to today God?
Solomon might still interest some, but surely we ought to have a few moderns to look up to?

It’s hard to name names, God, a few I’m fairly sure of having wisdom would be your friends Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela from South Africa – a wisdom shown in restraint and respect for justice and a great compassion shown in the face of great injustice. Wisdom in the quiet caring of a Mother Theresa, the peace making of Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Wisdom in the advocacy of a Tim Costello and a Julian Burnside. And do names like Kirby, Brennan and Dodson ring a wisdom bell for you?
I don’t expect that wisdom dropped from above or came in a dream to these of your children God, and I don’t expect it will just land on me either.

I remember your old friend Confucius had a good summary of how we get wisdom, God, it went something like:

"by three methods may we learn wisdom:
by reflection, which is the noblest, by imitation, which is the easiest, by experience, which is the bitterest."

And I’m becoming more and more sure, God, that it’s the flour that’s important, not the mill, the fruits of wisdom that are to be prized, not the philosophy of wisdom.
Your Psalmist says,

"the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, those who act accordingly have a good understanding".

God, I’m sure most of us would want to seek wisdom and act accordingly. It’s just that often we are better at monumental stuff ups than wise reflective actions. I think we trust those who we see seeking wisdom and probably most doubt those who claim to have found it and have a mortgage on it.

As Paul told us, God, we should "be careful how we live, not as unwise people, but as wise, making the most of the time, not being foolish, but understanding what the will of the Lord is." So wisdom is about living well, about what we do and how we act. Can I tell you a story then, God, to finish off, because for me it’s all about where we start and our reflection and wonder and then the living of it. You’ll recognise it as rather like your son’s story of the talents.

"There was once a wise and good king who ruled well and was loved by his people. He had four daughters and saddened them one day with the news he was to leave them for a time, to seek truth and serve others. "In my absence", he said, "I will leave the four of you to rule." They were aghast, but he reassured them, "you will do well, I’m sure, and I will give each of you a gift, my prayer is that you will learn from the gift the meaning of ‘rule’." The king gave each one grain of rice and left.
The eldest tied her grain with a gold thread and placed it in a crystal container by her bedside to see it every day.
The second placed hers in a secure box and hid it well.
The third, said it’s only a piece of rice and threw it away.
The youngest wondered about it for days, weeks and months til she thought she understood.

Years later the king returned, greeted them warmly and asked of their gifts.
The first daughter brought the crystal container and gold thread bound rice grain, the second her box kept rice, the third ran to the kitchen and brought a fresh grain. The king bowed and accepted all these with thanks. The fourth said "I do not have the grain you gave me." Her father asked, "what did you do with the grain, my child?’ "I thought about it for a long time, and realized the grain was a seed, so I planted it, it grew, I harvested the seeds and planted them all again, I have continued to do this, come see the result."
The king looked and saw a great rice crop. He took off his crown and laid it on his youngest saying, "you have learned the meaning of rule." She ruled the kingdom wisely and well for many years.

It’s like that, isn’t it God, with the right beginning and putting the little wisdom we have into action in all we do – much can be achieved. So please God, help me, help us all, in our beginnings, in our wondering, our doubting, in all our actions.
God, give us wisdom, Amen.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2006


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