Gaining Wisdom

“…acquire wisdom, acquire perception, never forget her, never deviate from my words.” — Proverbs 4:5, JB

I’ve been reading Proverbs recently and this little snippet caught my attention. Proverbs is all about gaining wisdom, acquiring it, and learning how to live life in full connection with God. What struck me is that wisdom is something to be gained, not something you either have or lack with no recourse.

The reason I found this idea so powerful is because, when I look around at the way our society treats people who make mistakes, it is clear that our standards for each other (and ourselves) are too damned high.

I’ve grown much wiser in the past few years, but that was after mistake after screw up after pitfall. It took a lot of lessons, often repeated with a healthy dose of karmic discipline, for me to grow into a better, wiser human being. In the midst of all those lessons, I lost respect, friends, and colleagues.

When I see other people make mistakes or having their skeletons thrust out of the proverbial closet, I see much of the same. Friends and family members curse, deride, or abandon. Society mocks, points fingers, all while securing the lock on their own closets even tighter. There is no compassion, no chance for redemption, no assumption that someone could do better.

Reading Proverbs, however, reminds me that when I look at my life and my failings, I am really seeing a long journey of lessons learned that enabled me to be the man I am today. I am proud of that man, and of the boy who never gave up so that yhis man could exist today. Further, I’m reminded that everyone has lessons to learn, and my job is to accept where each person is on their journey.

Does this mean sitting back and accepting or condoning abuse, hatred, or misconduct? Of course not. It does mean, however, that in all of our attempts to do and enforce what is right, we should also be compassionately present for those who are in the midst of the painful process of gaining wisdom.

Wisdom, knowledge, and righteousness are all things we pursue and gain as we live life. Unfortunately, learning in life often means making mistakes, sometimes a lot of them. Understanding this means not abandoning each other or writing people off. Rather, we should connect with those who, like us, are having to embrace some of life’s more painful teachings. After all, isn’t that what each of us would want?

Peace be with you!

Snakes, Wisdom, and Life’s Headaches

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” — Genesis 3:4, RSVCE

Poor snake.

I mean, I get that the serpent of Genesis 3 does cause some trouble. He broaches a sensitive topic, asks some leading questions, and finally presents a couple half-truths that prompt the two literary representatives of humanity to commit the first act of deliberate disobedience. Really, though, I think we mistreat the poor fella.

There is no indication in the Hebrew text that this character is Satan, a devil, demon, or anything other than a creature “more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made” (3:1). The word often translated as “subtle,” “crafty,” or “cunning” is arum, which actually just means “wise.” The connotation can be negative or positive based on the context of the entire passage in which the word is found. In some passages, those who are arum plot evil things. In Proverbs, though, an arum man is considered to be beneficial, or sensible.

The reason I bring this up is that the serpent’s description as arum occurs before the story, which means it could actually be described as neutral. Translators tend to translate the word based on their knowledge of the story, which is why the English connotation is almost always negative (except in the Common English Bible, which translates Genesis 2-3 wonderfully, see here). I believe the use of  arum in this way is an intentional move by the authors, as the wisdom of the serpent proves to be an amazing metaphor for what happens to all of us as we become more acquainted with this world.

Don’t get me wrong. Disobeying God isn’t good, but it’s time we were honest about the Genesis passages. There is no mention of original sin or temptation, only deliberate disobedience that brings the Man and Woman to full awareness of their situation.

That’s the painful thing about wisdom, isn’t it? The more knowledge and wisdom we possess, the more painful life seems to become. Think about it. The blissful ignorance of a child, similar to that of the Man and Woman before their act of disobedience, is a form of peace that we all lose as life goes on. We become aware of both good and evil, just as the humans of Genesis do, and, like them, our greater awareness yields both positive and negative things. This is why the author of Ecclesiastes says, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

In the biblical world, snakes carried a variety of meanings. They were dangerous, but their venom also was considered to have curative properties. Serpents could both harm and heal, the perfect example being the fiery serpents and bronze serpent of healing found in Numbers as Moses and the people of Israel move through the wilderness (Numbers 21). In this way, serpents were also symbols of wisdom, because wisdom hurts, but also can provide for ultimate healing.

So what does this mean for us today? We should all take a moment to acknowledge the amount of ignorance in the world. People pass judgments on others, even when they know nothing about them! Look at pro-choice/pro-life debates, political parties, or the Islamophobia that has reared its ugly head since 9/11. Look at terrorist groups, the adherents of which believing they are doing God’s will by hating and seeking to destroy entire groups of people based on one particular view of life. Hell, many in the United States have no idea that we are still sending and losing soldiers to conflict overseas! In all of these situations, and more, we see sides being taken with realities being completely ignored, and this is not a recipe for success.

Part of God’s creation is free will, and that includes the freedom to pass our judgments and establish our opinions based on minimal information, no matter how that might hurt others. Ignorance is appealing, as it keeps our experienced reality simple, and we don’t have to complicate life any further by seeking the truth. We would rather just pretend we already have it! To meet those who are different, to live life with those with whom we don’t agree, and to seek to understand those people we may not even like would risk putting us in a precarious situation where reality is far more “gray” than we would like. This “gray,” however, is exactly what’s needed for us to move forward, for it is only with full knowledge of our sickness that we can seek the wisdom to heal it.

As Christ says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Jesus is pointing out the ignorance of the religious authorities, whose judgment of those seeking the Lord’s presence actually blinds them to their own need of salvation. When we choose to live in ignorance, judging what we do not know without questioning ourselves, we go the way of the pharisees and miss Jesus’ work in our lives.

As we go forward into another week, let’s examine ourselves. Where are we ignorant, and who are we judging based on incomplete information with no experience? In what ways will knowledge in this area make things more complicated for us? How can we take that discomfort and re-invent ourselves and our positions to reflect the complex reality God has gifted to His creation? I will be asking myself these critical questions, and I hope you will join me. If we prayerfully go about this work with the kindness of Christ in our hearts, we can take the painful knowledge of this complicated world and turn it into a wisdom that has the power to heal the wounds of ignorance. I’ll pray for you if you will for me!

Peace be with you!

 

 

Making a Difference

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”– Matthew 13:33, NRSV

We live in a world full of people who want to make a difference. When we are children, we dream of being astronauts, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, pastors, nurses, ground-breaking reporters and authors, along with a myriad of other professions that lend themselves to making big differences in the lives of others. In college, I was one of thousands of starry-eyed undergraduate/graduate students ready to get out of school, land the “dream job,” and get started on changing the world.

Once graduations took place and careers were begun and ended, though, I came to a common realization: this crap sucks. Every day is not some life-altering engagement with people that produces loads of positive ripples that transform the world before our eyes. More often than not, even the “dream job” is full of mundane details, seemingly useless conversation, and just trying to survive whatever bureaucratic tedium might be in place.

Recently, I have really been struggling with this. As a pastor, I had influence. People had a reason to listen to me, and my word carried some actual weight. I was able to counsel, guide, educate, comfort, and correct. When I lost that job, I felt like I lost a piece of myself. I have been feeling like I matter less, even in the eyes of those I love, because my pastoral authority is no longer there.

Today, I realized this is total bull.

Nonsense.

Horse hockey.

Balderdash… Alright, I am done. But seriously.

We have such a hero-worshiping culture, that we actually despair because we aren’t among the loudest, busiest, or biggest names in the world-changing business. The falsehood of our world tells us that unless we have a dangerous or high-profile job, we can’t make a real difference. If we aren’t the doctor, astronaut, cop, soldier, philanthropic billionaire, or amped-up, full-time missionary, we just aren’t doing that much, just benefiting from what these extraordinary people do.

Load of trash.

Jesus warns us of high-profile attempts at making a difference. Check out His admonitions here in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, where he encourages us to be seen in secret by our Father, without letting even our left hand know what is going on with the right hand (Matthew 6:3-4). Further, we are even instructed to look at the Kingdom of Heaven as something that arrives in seemingly small, unsuspecting ways.

If we look at the text that kicks off the article, found here in chapter 13, we see that the Kingdom of Heaven, the transformation of the world into a place under the blessed reign of God (in short, a pretty big deal!), doesn’t come to us via bombast and spectacle. Instead, the Kingdom is made up of mustard seeds and yeast, small things applied and nurtured consistently until everything falls into place. This, dear reader, is how making a real difference in the world works.

Sure, I am not a pastor anymore. I am a freelance personal trainer, currently writing my own devotional, and I write a blog. That said, I bring a smile to my clients’ faces every day. I help them feel good about their bodies and improve their quality of life. I continue to work with people like my good friend Ekram, who just published a wonderful book that relies on some of my Christian perspectives (he is a Muslim). My blog has followers from all over the world, people who feel encouraged and comforted by what I write about. On top of that, my looser schedule enables me to love and support my wife. I can be there for friends and family at any moment, and I am still involved at our new church.

All of these things are small, but they add up. They are little things that God can act through if they are maintained consistently and applied with a heart of love. You may feel like you do nothing, or that you have failed because you have yet to make the “big difference” you had always hoped for. I guarantee if you look around, you will find that you have opportunities in front of you. These may not be opportunities to feed a whole third world country or tackle systemic racism, but they are opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of those with whom you interact.

Jesus’ instruction boils down to feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and comforting the afflicted. These are things we can do in a variety of ways, to some degree, every single day. You don’t believe me? Check out Matthew 25 here.

You, as you are, are enough. You possess all you need to make a difference in this world, and God is just waiting for you to realize it. It doesn’t take money, power, or overwhelming influence to change the world. Jesus had none of those things as we know them. It doesn’t take major mission trips, deployments, or excessive sacrifices, though none of these are necessarily bad. If you allow God to open your eyes, and if you look intently at your daily life, you will see that work, school, sports, home, friends, neighbors, and family all afford more than enough opportunity for you to get those transformative ripples going.

Vote, raise your kids, help your parents, donate to charity, get involved at church, sit with that lonely kid at school, listen to your friends, share your thoughts, ask questions, volunteer, pray for a co-worker; do what you feel moved to do, a little bit every day. If we all plant these small seeds, if we all add that little bit of yeast to the batch of our daily lives, we will soon look back and see the Kingdom of Heaven breaking through in ways we never thought possible.

Peace be with you!

 

On Being Your Own Lesson

“These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.”

1 Corinthians 10:11, NRSV

If you’ve found your way to my About page, you know that one of the reasons I had for starting this blog was to provide some hope and instruction to those who may feel like their mistakes run their life or define them. For this post, we are tackling that concept head-on, so buckle up! As per usual, our buddy Paul has a thing or twenty to say.

In chapter 10 of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul goes over the less-than-illustrious history of Israel’s obedience to God in the wilderness between Egypt and the land God promised. You might think that Paul was just going to bash Israel. After all, look at how we and our world handle mistakes, ESPECIALLY if they are as habitual as Israel’s seemed to be.

For example, I lost my parish ministry job via habitually selfish behavior. These were not moments that could be rightfully overlooked, and so I actually have no complaints over losing my job. I deserved it, I can admit that. In fact, being fired helped me understand my sense of self, my call, and the direction I needed to go if I wanted to be and do better. However, it was the response to this situation from others that hurt like hell.

Friends issued obligatory words of comfort and encouragement, and then dropped off the map. Ministers refused to answer or respond to my calls. Colleagues refused to add me on Facebook or even speak to me, except to tell me that they would do neither from that point onward. This is all in addition to rumors that continue to circulate, started, as usual, by those not involved.

If you have made any serious mistake in your life, you have probably started nodding along with the above paragraph, as the judgment contained therein is common when it comes to handling each other’s past misdeeds. Forgiveness is considered a virtue, but not a necessity. Unfortunately, we often adopt this approach to dealing with ourselves, opting to feel even more crippling shame after having it leveled at us from other sources.

Don’t get me wrong. I also had colleagues, friends, and loved ones that showed me the very meaning of God’s grace, and I owe those people more than I could ever repay. The fact remains, though, that I was almost broken by the internal self-abuse that had been plaguing me since childhood, and odds are, you know what that feels like.

This is where Paul comes in.

Paul doesn’t use the passage in 1 Corinthians 10 to shame the nation of Israel. He could, but he doesn’t. Instead, he offers an interpretation of those events that helps give hope and meaning to those less than flattering moments that we all find when we look over our own histories. He does this with a simple sentence: “These things occurred as examples for us” (10:6).

You see, God’s will is not for us to feel shame or allow ourselves to be defined by the worst parts of ourselves. This does not produce righteous living or hope, as you and I both know. If, however, we were to take time to feel the guilt that comes with wrongdoing, address it, understand it, and move forward resolved and equipped to do differently, we have turned that moment of weakness into a learning opportunity. We can become our own sources of instruction, made both wiser and more compassionate by those lessons.

While we should never forget our sin, otherwise we will lack the compassion necessary to deal well with the sin of others, we also shouldn’t allow it to have victory and power over us through a useless sense of shame. Christ is the One who has the victory, and if we say that, if we believe that, we must be willing to do the work of letting him in to our sinful natures so that they may be healed. If we do this, we increase in wisdom, compassion, and thanksgiving for the gracious love of God that has the power to change our lives.

It took months of counseling work and prayer to get to the point where my shame gave way to instruction. My friends, my family, and my amazing wife never once gave up on me, and I realize how lucky I am to have them. Don’t get me wrong, I still have to fight those negative feelings, but Christ continually gives me the power to do so. I am even going back into ministry, seeking to become a chaplain so that I can utilize my gift for sitting with others through the hardest moments life has to offer.

My hope for you, dear reader, is that you realize that no matter what mistakes you have made, no matter how “bad” you may feel yourself to be, God already knows, understands, and forgives you. While you can’t be responsible for the negative attitudes and opinions of others, you can take time to heal and learn, taking that negative power away and turning it into valuable instruction that puts you head and shoulders above others who may not be able to understand.

Now, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means” (Romans 6:1-2, NRSV)! What we can do is learn from our sin, absorb the grace of God, and reflect that grace and wisdom in our lives. Nobody is perfect, but that is what makes the grace of God so powerful.

Imagine a world in which we actually learned from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Imagine a world in which we all show grace to one another while still expecting changes to be made. Imagine a world in which forgiveness, wisdom, and humility triumph daily over sin and shame. This is the Kingdom of God, and it waits for you. So take heart, learn your lessons, and let’s move forward together to make this imagined Kingdom a concrete reality.

Peace be with you!