Wisdom

James Baldwin wrote, “My progress report concerning my journey to the palace of wisdom is discouraging.  I lack certain indispensable aptitudes.  Furthermore, it appears that I packed the wrong things.”

I am in the middle of a project to repair and remodel two bathrooms in my house.  Because the pipes within and from my house to the sewer system have very little fall, I need a new toilet that uses 1.6 gallons per flush rather than the new standard of 1.28 gpf in order to have adequate flow for the gravity system to work.  Much to my delight I was able to order online one that met my needs.

The toilet came by freight truck.  But because there was no way the truck could actually get to my house on the narrow streets and around tight corners, I suddenly had to scramble to find a way to meet the truck and collect the heavy and bulky freight.

Weeks later the plumber came to install one of the toilets—a great source of excitement because it meant that the project was finally underway.  However, I discovered then that I had failed to get the comfort-height that we needed and that the elongated toilet bowl that I had bought extended further into the room than I had expected.  Disappointment took over.

Then after using the toilet I discovered it flushes quickly and quietly—a big improvement.  And the elongated bowl being thin allows the cabinet doors to open better than they had before.

My lack of knowledge and failure to be attentive to all the details has taken me on a roller coaster ride.  And the journey has just begun.

My mistakes have been costly, but I have learned a lot.  Having been a perfectionist most of my life, this experience would earlier have flattened me.  Instead, I have learned that a bathroom is a small matter in the whole scheme of things.  I have had a choice to laugh or cry and I have chosen to laugh; the saga (and there is more I didn’t tell) really is funny.  And I’ve had more practice seeing and swallowing that I make mistakes just like everyone else.  It never hurts to know the absurdity of chasing perfection.

Says St. Catherine of Siena: “Wisdom is so kind and wise that wherever you may look you can learn something about God.  Why would not the omnipresent teach that way?”

Queries:

How are you doing on your “journey to the palace of wisdom”?

How well do you use your experience of life to “learn something about God”?

Prayer:

Gracious, merciful, and loving God, help us keep perspective on what really matters and hold fast to You.

For further reflection:

“. . . neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers . . . , nor height, nor depth . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (See Romans 8: 31-39).

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (See Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8).

A Reminder and a Witness

I’ve heard the question, “If it were illegal to be Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Today, when in many circles being religious is suspect at best, behaving outwardly in a specific way that indicates you are a religious person takes  commitment and courage.

Thomas Ellwood, an Englishman, became a Quaker in the mid-1600’s.  Friends then, acting out their faith, wore plain dress, refused the typical hat honor, and used the same you-language for everyone regardless of their social status.  Ellwood writes:

“A knot of my old acquaintance [at Oxford], espying me, came to me.  One of these was a scholar in his gown, another a surgeon of that city… When they were come up to me, they all saluted me, after the usual manner, putting off their hats and bowing and saying, ‘Your humble Servant, Sir,’ expecting no doubt the same from me.  But when they saw me stand still, not moving my cap, nor bowing my knee, they were amazed, and looked first one upon another, then upon me, and then one upon another again for a while, without a word speaking.  At length, the surgeon…clapping his hand, in a familiar way, upon my shoulder, and smiling on me, said, ‘What, Tom, a Quaker!’ To which I readily and cheerfully answered, ‘Yes, a Quaker.’  And as the words passed out of my mouth I felt joy spring in my heart, for I rejoiced that I had not been drawn out by them into a compliance with them, and that I had strength and boldness given me to confess myself to be one of that despised people.”

Today I know a few Friends who wear plain clothes, and the men uncut beards.  They tell me their appearance is a witness to their faith.  It is also a reminder to them of who they seek to be, and it invites others to initiate conversation with them about religious things.  Recently a local rabbi explained that he wears a yarmulke for many of the same reasons, as a challenge to himself and a witness to others.  And I’ve read that some Muslim women choose to wear headscarves for similar reasons—to witness to their faith and to honor Allah.

I haven’t followed these faithful people yet.  I would be satisfied if I just lived out the words of the song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Queries:

What impact does what you believe have on how you live?

What is the difference between authentic, faithful witness and in-your-face offensiveness?

Prayer:

“Lord, make me a channel of your peace.  Where there is hatred let me sow your love” (Prayer of St. Francis).

For further reflection:

“Hear, O Israel:  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. . . . Bind [these words] as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (See Deuteronomy 6: 4-9.)

“I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long” (Psalm 145: 2).

An Anxious and Fearful World

With suicide bombings that seem to happen anywhere anytime, and mass murderers who attack even in places and on occasions that we always thought were safe, it is no surprise that people are afraid.  Some people are even being taught to fear physically their own government.  The response in some American environments is to buy and carry guns for security—even in churches.

I don’t want to argue about whether having a gun makes one safer, but rather to point out that for Christians security rests in God alone.  And that security doesn’t mean that we and those we love won’t be killed or taken down at a young age by a terminal illness.  And it doesn’t mean that if we are true believers we will prosper.  The security comes in living as a beloved child of God.

In the Bible a message from God very often begins, “Do not be afraid.”  To the exiled people of Israel living under Babylonian rule God says, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.” When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary with his life-changing news that she is to conceive and give birth to a child she is to name Jesus, he says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

After the tragic racist-motivated shooting of Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and eight members of his congregation, it would be easy to imagine that church succumbing to fear and a desire for vengeance.  But no—on their website, in Ninety Seconds That Changed the World one reads, “Our mission is still hope.”  The AME Church arose out of a social justice protest—against Methodist churches that gave whites priority at the prayer rails.  Racism is nothing new to the people of that denomination.  Emanuel AME’s response to the attack on them:  “We know we live in a violent and sinful world. . . Our faith must be stronger than our fear.”

Queries:

How can your faith be stronger than fear?

There is a lack of fear that is foolishness and a fear that enslaves us.  What does God’s “fear not” mean?

Prayer:

Relax and let go your racing thoughts until you can focus on something that makes you afraid.  Stay with that in your imagination until you can get a felt sense of the fear.  Where is it in your body?  What does it want you to notice or know?  Holding it in the Light of Christ, where is there fresh air?

For further reference:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28).

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (See Psalm 27).

Hoping When There Is No Hope

Ernest needs a place to live, but his lack of income, mental health issues, and past assault and battery charge are slamming doors in his face—despite the help of a well-connected friend who has journeyed with him for a long time. Elsa has been a nurse for several years but was recently dismissed because of coming to work in the morning having already consumed too much alcohol. Her family history is rife with alcoholism. On the international scene, living with the fear of again being exterminated makes completely untenable for Israelis the possibility of being subject to attacks by Palestinians. The oppression Palestinians endure is intense. Caring about such situations, how do we respond?

The world is full of seemingly hopeless situations. To live in despair is to make the world worse; yet to live with false hope can contribute to the existence of the problems or make them worse. How can we practice real hope that doesn’t deny reality?

To associate “hope” with my ability to fix things or with my wishes or expectations sets me up for trouble.   We need to have hope within a bigger picture, one even bigger than what we can see.

We can learn to look for signs of hope—indications that something greater than ourselves is at work. The very presence of caring, compassion, knowledge of the complexity of the situation, and support are gifts–things we can be thankful for. Gratitude feeds hope. And if we are looking, we may see things develop that we hadn’t imagined.

But when it seems that nothing offers hope, it matters to live holding the tensions and the pain without having to resolve any of the pieces, to have the courage to live anyway, as much as we can, in the manner we are called to. To love God and our neighbor; to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Living faithfully is to live in hope.

Queries:           

What is your experience of despair? Of hoping when there is not hope?

What about your faith provides a grounding for hope?

Prayer:

Remembering a particular seemingly hopeless situation, read and pray Psalm 13. Put it into your own words.

For further reflection:

“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (See Romans 8: 24-25).

“Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers . . .” (See Psalm 37: 1-9)