Monday, February 28, 2011

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Everyone knows the serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference, the one from the other.

We come now to the last phrase: the wisdom to know. Proverbs Chapter 9 is at the heart of Biblical wisdom. This wisdom is knowledge but it’s more than that. This wisdom is information but it’s more. This wisdom comes to all who know God, and therefore is a gift of God.

There are three ways that we search for the wisdom of faith and the faith of wisdom. God grant me the wisdom to know…

The first is with trembling. Ellen Davis, Wisdom literature scholar, says that this “fear of the Lord” has an element of “ordinary” fear in it. Then, she points to the time in Exodus when Moses is meeting with God and the people are waiting on a word and they are trembling. At the heart of Biblical wisdom is that verse: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Alyce McKenzie says that Biblical wisdom has this in it- the bended knee. We come to this God overwhelmed by his power and love.

Like the Lenten hymn says: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble…”

She grew up in the church attending with her family every Sunday. When she was a teen, she joined the youth group and rose through the ranks of leadership. She went to college and got married. Now, 31, she has two children and she and her family go to church, serve on committees, and are active in every aspect.

She went to a rather ordinary meeting with a friend and something that was said or done moved her to take a fresh look at her faith. The next week she said to her pastor: “I grew up in the church. I have heard and seen the cross so much that am numb to it. I have been playing church. I am not ready to stop all the game playing and make Jesus my savior.”

To meet this God is to come to the realization that all of this is real. To fear the Lord is to take God and our faith seriously.

The second way that we attain to this wisdom is through trusting.

Ben Patterson tells this story: “In 1988, three friends and I climbed Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park. Two of us were experienced mountaineers. I was not one of the experienced two. Our base camp was less than 2,000 feet from the peak, but the climb to the top and back was to take the better part of a day, due in large part to the difficulty of the glacier one must cross to get to the top. The morning of the climb we started out chattering and cracking jokes.

As the hours passed, the two mountaineers opened up a wide gap between me and my less-experienced companion. Being competitive by nature, I began to look for shortcuts to beat them to the top. I thought I saw one to the right of an outcropping of rock - so I went, deaf to the protests of my companion.

Perhaps it was the effect of the high altitude, but the significance of the two experienced climbers not choosing this path did not register in my consciousness. It should have, for 30 minutes later I was trapped in a cul-de-sac of rock atop the Lyell Glacier, looking down several hundred feet of a sheer slope of ice, pitched at about a 45 degree angle. ... I was only about 10 feet from the safety of a rock, but one little slip and I wouldn't stop sliding until I landed in the valley floor some 50 miles away! It was nearly noon, and the warm sun had the glacier glistening with slippery ice. I was stuck and I was scared.

It took an hour for my experienced climbing friends to find me. Standing on the rock I wanted to reach, one of them leaned out and used an ice ax to chip two little footsteps in the glacier. Then he gave me the following instructions: Ben, you must step out from where you are and put your foot where the first foothold is. When your foot touches it, without a moment's hesitation swing your other foot across and land it on the next step. When you do that, reach out and I will take your hand and pull you to safety.

That sounded real good to me. It was the next thing he said that made me more frightened than ever. But listen carefully: As you step across, do not lean into the mountain! If anything, lean out a bit. Otherwise, your feet may fly out from under you, and you will start sliding down.

I don't like precipices. When I am on the edge of a cliff, my instincts are to lie down and hug the mountain, to become one with it, not to lean away from it! But that was what my good friend was telling me to do. I looked at him real hard. ... Was there any reason, any reason at all, that I should not trust him? I certainly hoped not! So for a moment, based solely on what I believed to be the good will and good sense of my friend, I decided to say no to what I felt, to stifle my impulse to cling to the security of the mountain, to lean out, step out, and traverse the ice to safety. It took less than two seconds to find out if my faith was well founded. It was.

To save us, God often tells us to do things that are the opposite of our natural inclination. Is God loving and faithful? Can we trust him?

He is. We can.
-Ben Patterson, Waiting, Leadership, Vol. 15, Number 1.

A man lay in the hospital bed when a nurse came in to draw blood for what seemed like the tenth time. The nurse was gracious. She said: “I am sorry to have to do this to you again.”

The man said, with arms open, “I am in your hands; do with me as you need to do…”

We open our hearts, our lives, to God and we say in faith: “I am in your hands; do with me as you want to do…”

A third way that we attain to this Biblical wisdom is by taking directions.

I don’t have a GPS in my car but my friend does. He showed me how it works. A woman with a British accent tells him to turn in 1.4 miles. He loves that. But, instead he turns left, and the voice doesn’t know what to do. It says:

A man was lost on a country road in rural Alabama. He saw a farmer sitting on a fence and asked him the way to Montgomery. The man listened, thanked him, and drove on. Thirty minutes later he was back where he started. The same farmer was still sitting on the fence. The man said: “I am back where I started from. What happened?”

The farmer said: “I wasn’t about to give you directions to Montgomery until I knew that you could take directions.

Philip Yancey tells the story of a friend of his who went swimming in a large lake at dusk. As he was paddling at a leisurely pace about a hundred yards offshore, a freak evening fog rolled in across the water. Suddenly he could see nothing: no horizon, no landmarks, no objects or lights on shore. Because the fog diffused all light, he could not even make out the direction of the setting sun. Yancey then tells how his friend splashed about in absolute panic. He would start off in one direction, lose confidence, and turn 90 degrees to the right. Or left - it made no difference which way he turned. He could feel his heart racing uncontrollably. He would stop and float, trying to conserve energy and force himself to breathe slower. Then he would blindly strike out again. At last he heard a faint voice calling from shore. He pointed his body to the sounds and followed them to safety.
Disappointment With God
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1988), 203

God promises that if we seek his wisdom and ask him that when things get foggy and scary we will hear his voice saying: “come this way…”

As Proverbs says: “This is the way; walk in it. This is the way that leads to life.”

Dave Nichols

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Thanks for checking out my blog. I'm new to this, as you can probably see. But, I, like you, have convictions and ideas worth sharing. I hope this will be an opportunity to connect with others who are Christian and/or religious. I am happily United Methodist. I am committed to the basic teachings of our church, and to the compassionate outreach to the world.

I hope these pastoral ponderings will generate something in you that is hopeful.

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A graduate of Newberry College and Duke University Divinity School.  I have served as a pastor in the United Methodist Church since 1975.

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