12 Jun, 2022

Duty and Delight

12 Jun, 2022

Duty and Delight

by Louise Westfall

So this guy goes and asks a wise man, “What is the secret to happiness?” The wise man replies “Don’t argue with idiots.” The guy says “I disagree.” To which the wise man responds “Okay, you’re right.”

Well. You can draw your own conclusions about the wisdom of this particular piece of advice, but what about its source? What constitutes “wisdom”? Would we know it if we saw it; or is it defined by our own perspectives–and lacking in the idiots with whom we don’t agree? Why does wisdom (unlike knowledge and information) seem to be in such short supply these days?

Our morning text is the quintessential Biblical portrait of wisdom. It’s even in a book–Proverbs—that is part of the “wisdom literature” genre. Here wisdom is personified as a woman (the Greek word for “wisdom” is “Sophia”) who identifies it as essential for life and human thriving. She celebrates its Divine origins and her shared role with God in creation. The text ends with an invitation, a plea really, to seek it daily. A reading from Proverbs, in the eighth chapter, verses one to four, and 22-36. Listen for God’s word to us, for whom the search for wisdom may get squeezed out in the demands of the daily grind, our impossibly busy schedules, multiple commitments, and complicated relationships. [Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-36]

In my own never-ending quest for wisdom, recently I ran across some research published in a leading medical journal (Dilip Jeste, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2017). A psychiatrist has developed a six-statement survey designed to gauge personal wisdom. While I can’t attest to its accuracy (and I won’t reveal my own score 😊), here are the six statements to ponder: I enjoy being exposed to diverse viewpoints…I have a difficult time keeping friendships…It is important that I understand my actions….I cannot filter my negative emotions…I tend to postpone making major decisions as long as I can…others look to me to help them make choices… (and please let me know if you’d like the instructions on how to rate yourself!)

Wisdom, it seems for Dr. Jeste, embraces broad knowledge, deep self-knowledge, and the ability to apply them to personal and community decision-making. What characteristics would you add to these as requirements for wisdom? Age? (that one’s looking better all the time!) Experience? Emotional intelligence? A sense of transcendence and spiritual insight?

Ms. Sophia herself might agree with all these qualities, because I think she’d start with one important affirmation: the source of wisdom is Divine. Its importance is noted as the first of God’s creative acts ages ago, before the beginning of the earth. She spends several verses celebrating the imagination and creativity inherent in the formation of the heavens and the earth, and herself as a partner working alongside God.

Now a quick question: how many of you are familiar with the concept of a divine feminine in our Judeo-Christian tradition? I can tell you personally that not even in seminary did I learn of Sophia described as the artistic director of God’s creation production. A decade or so ago, controversy swirled in the Presbyterian Church when women amplified this text and image as a helpful corrective to Christianity’s patriarchal theology. What a firestorm ensued! Arguments and counter-arguments flowed back and forth. Charges of heresy (messing with the all-male Trinity) were met with charges of idolatry (the divinization of the masculine). Faithful people on both sides of the debate were chewed up and spit out.

Perhaps on a hot June morning, this tempest seems confined to a teapot–given all the other more critical events and challenges of the present. But I wonder: might a little more attentiveness to Sophia’s vision of wisdom have shifted our human interactions and helped us craft lives and communities more attuned to God’s original intent? The horrific scenes from Buffalo and Uvalde and the House hearings on the January 6th uprising certainly reflect our Reformed forebears’ reckoning of depraved humanity. We are guilty as charged. But friends, we should never receive that judgment without also affirming the description of God “rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race!” To see the beauty and goodness of nature and in the souls of our siblings…and to care for them so that they live and thrive. To “know” the wisdom that lays bare the heart of creation: we are blessed by God beyond measure, and therefore have the power to confer blessing as well.

A new creation doesn't happen alone but in Divine relationship, human partners working (and playing!) side by side, collaborating, inventing and re-imagining, repairing and transforming.

There’s nothing magical or heretical about Sophia–she’s intimately part of the God we worship and serve. Her essence is not simply intellectual acuity, but practice; we gain wisdom not simply by becoming smarter people but by learning to be godly people who follow paths of justice and peace, who “keep wisdom’s way.” She embodies both duty and delight, responsibility and joy. As Presbyterian theologian William Brown says it “[Sophia] revels in a world made both secure and enthralling by God, a world of light and discovery, a world of wonder.”

I had an encounter Ms. Sophia yesterday, when I took part in a rally for gun violence prevention. Some friends from the Colorado Faith Communities United to End Gun Violence (an interfaith nonprofit to which Central has just been introduced), invited me, and we met up and walked with many others down Broadway and into Civic Center Park. Though there were plenty of “wizened” folks like me in attendance, the entire rally had been planned by high school kids (they were quick to point out the irony of not being old enough to secure the necessary park permit). They had lined up speakers, who recited the grim statistics. One after another spoke of fear (one sign read “I learned how to do lock down drills before long division”), the grief of lost friends and family members, frustration at the disproportion of heat to light and the adults in power who continue to do very little to change this reality. A number of politicians spoke about the importance of voting and electing pro-gun-violence-prevention candidates. And then one young woman came to the mic, smiled broadly and swept wide her arms as she said “I love you. I’m here because I want to live and I want you to live too.” Yes, raising awareness and identifying contributing factors to any problem is absolutely essential. Citizens of a democratic nation need to be reminded that thoughtful participation in the public square helps keep the light of freedom shining. But so help me God, it was that basic articulation of the deep connection with others–all others–that sparked hope in me, hope enough to imagine a different future. There is duty: a human obligation, a sacred responsibility. But there is delight; joy for the journey, companions with whom to share it. Hello, wisdom. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

A new creation doesn’t happen alone but in Divine relationship, human partners working (and playing!) side by side, collaborating, inventing and re-imagining, repairing and transforming. That’s why Central carries out our mission through partnerships. We can’t do it alone. And even more important, it’s not about us. We seek out and develop partnerships with nonprofits, other congregations, interfaith groups, civic and governmental entities to accomplish more and better what will make our community stronger, kinder, and well, wiser. Wisdom isn’t produced in the proverbial ivory tower or monastic cell (though insights both secular and spiritual may be ignited there) but is ultimately proven by immersion in the glory and messiness of real life and flawed human relationships. The sophia of God offers a distinctly different vision of life from ones heralded in culture, social media, entertainment; based on glittery fame, self-absorbed happiness, and enough exclusivity and stratification so you don’t actually have to argue with the idiots who disagree with you. Instead, Sophia stands at the crossroads, in the city and up on the mountaintops, and calls to her children to listen and remember…Divine love is poured out upon everyone, so that all may live and all may flourish and all may freely serve.

Thanks be to God

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