Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Word to the Wise

1 Kings 8:22-43; John 6:51-58

Solomon was wise—wise beyond his years, wise even beyond description.  So the story goes.  What probably is true is that Solomon, as king, was  the patron of a certain group of people who carried wise sayings, proverbs, and the cultivation of wisdom literature to the status of high art.  So many of the wisdom books in what came to be our Bible bear his name.  The storyteller who relates Solomon’s famous prayer for wisdom is weaving a narrative in support of an already existing identification of Solomon with wisdom.
            The notion of a king praying for discernment and wisdom is by any standard a fetching story.  It is fairly rare, actually.  Sincere prayer of that sort, I mean.  Leaders do not always have a streak of humility, if that is what prompts prayer for wisdom in the first place.  Sometimes leaders and would-be leaders are busy knowing all the answers, shooting off their mouths, all but poking fun at wisdom, certainly with a penchant for burlesquing it.  But Solomon, says the story, asked for guidance and discernment.  “I will give you a wise and discerning mind,” it is said that God responded.  And moreover, he would have all those things that he had expressly not asked for—long life, power, triumph over enemies, riches.  And, says God, “if you have the good sense to keep my commandments and statutes as your father David did, I’ll see to it that you have a long life.”  After Solomon was dead and gone, he looked, like most of us, better and better in retrospect.  Certainly he was a paragon of intelligence and wisdom compared with his son Rehoboam who succeeded him.  Rehoboam holds the prize for saying the stupidest thing in the entire Old Testament.  When he came to the throne, a delegation came to him and in effect said, “Give us a break.  Your father made our yoke heavy.  Lighten it up for us, won’t you, and we’ll serve you.”  So Rehoboam took his sweet easy time, consulted the elders, heard them say, “You know, they’re right.  You could have this thing in the bag, if you’ll take our advice and heed them.”  Rehoboam had a better answer:  “My father disciplined you with whips, but I’ll discipline you with scorpions.”  Just about as dumb a thing as he could have come up with.  And, of course, the kingdom split over such nonsense.

            So, in a way, Solomon’s reputation as a wise king, while mitigated by some of the evidence like his forced labor and some rather brash love affairs, was built on the way he contrasted with what followed him.  And the explanation of his effectiveness is in part this prayer, read back into the account of his reign. 

            Out of all this story, get one thing:  discernment is a very valuable thing.  Exactly what is it?  In effect, it is the gift, the ability, to be able to see the truth of things, the heart of the matter, and to choose actions consistent with the truth.  We could put it more picturesquely by saying that discernment is the gift or ability to distinguish between the voice of God, which is Truth, from all the other voices that we hear. 

            Before we go any further, let me say flatly that none of us becomes wise simply by wishing that we were.  We cannot will ourselves to be wise (would that we could!).  Nor can we become discerning just by deciding that we want to be.  On the other hand, I am convinced that there are some things that in the long run move us more towards being wise and discerning and away from simply posturing and playing as if we are lot smarter than we actually are.  One of those things is  practice.  There are some practices in which we can engage.  And there are a few key attitudinal shifts that can help us to “wise up.” 

            In order to explain what I mean, I want to turn to today’s gospel, which is the last in a four-week series of readings from the 6th chapter of John, in which Jesus discourses about the “true Bread.”  The entire chapter, including the snippet that we hear today, depicts Jesus speaking metaphorically while people take him literally.  He says that he has come down from heaven to be the true Bread which gives life to the world.  He says that the Bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh.  He says what must have turned the stomachs of his hearers, that unless they eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, they have no life in them.  Those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him and he in them.  I don’t know a better or clearer example of a sacred text that more explicitly calls for a discerning mind!  If you can’t discern the difference between symbolic language and the directions on a box; if you can’t discern the difference between metaphor and diagnosis; if you can’t distinguish between poetry and biology,  then you’ve got a major problem.  And the problem is that you’re going to miss some very interesting and I would say essential things that are a part of the experience of being human.

            It would be dandy if we could simply say that Jesus is talking about things like his eventual death on the cross and the Church’s Eucharistic celebration.  But what he is saying is that if we look at spiritual reality as something that can be parsed in the terms of physical science or political theory, we will frankly starve.  “My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed” is, of course, something that in a few minutes you and I will experience at the altar.  But it is more, much more, that that.  The practice involved in discerning is the practice of looking behind and beyond the obvious and opening ourselves to the grammar of the spirit.  It’s somewhat like going to a football game and trying to “get it” by analyzing the muscle groups in the various bodies that are playing on the field.  It is possible to do so, but it would hardly be the way one would understand a bevy of other things in play such as motivation to compete, team rivalries, histories, not to mention the psychological effects of yells and cheers, music, and the pageantry of half-time, nor to mention the ritualized behavior of referees, coaches, and the outsized role of the quarterback in a team’s reputation.  In order to “get” the real life promised by Jesus, we can practice looking for the meaning of the symbols.  That is not so different from how we learn to enjoy football, for example.  When I was six years old and in the first grade, my brother who was sixteen and not far from finishing high school, tried to help me understand football by teaching me how to sketch plays.  It was years before I realized what all those plays were about, because I wasn’t connecting the symbols on the paper to what was happening on the field.  The problem that a great many people have with religion is that they don’t see how to connect it with what is really happening in their lives.  They don’t see what it has to do with their financial decisions, their work, their living arrangements, their bodies, or their sex lives. 

            So discernment is practicing the art of asking questions—such as what might be the meaning of the various experiences we have; how our symbol systems, religious and otherwise, help or hinder us from understanding our lives and ourselves; how we might sort out what is relatively useless from what is quite essential and helpful.  Once we get far enough into practicing discernment, then other things begin to make sense:  regular meditation, prayer, staying in community, worshiping consistently; pulling together our bodies, our psyches, and our spirits; taking regular stock of what we are doing and how we are living; practicing regular confession, especially with another honest human, in an effort to avoid the trap of confusing healthy self-esteem with arrogance. 

            But discernment doesn’t stop there.  Once we get started, or re-started, in practicing the things that make for discernment, it is possible to begin looking at the world not as a set of binaries, a field of polarities, a simplistic right/wrong, good/bad, light/dark, good/evil, material/spiritual affair.  Most folks can’t seem to get beyond that, witness the pervasive tendency to demonize those different from us and to vilify those who disagree with us.  Yes, there is a value and plenty of reason to look duality in the eye and respect it.  There is, for example, such a thing as real evil in the world, and we are not especially helped by papering it over with a nicey-nicey attitude.  But pushing beyond the obvious long enough might open us up to the possibility of seeing that truth shows up in surprising places and that God is not limited to a relatively small fan club in which to work wonders.  There is flesh and blood, and it is possible to see the divine in the very tissues of the human body (one of Jesus’ major points and a point that many Christians keep missing).  There is an underlying oneness that upholds all creation, matter and energy, bodies and spirits, animate and inanimate creation.  Stay on the path of discernment long enough and it shouldn’t surprise you (yet it always will) to find that you come, over time, to appreciate real Wisdom more and more—like the wisdom of a Solomon on his better days, like the wisdom of the gods, as was said to have characterized the prophet Daniel.  You might even glimpse from time to time something in yourself that feels like wisdom—though the truly wise will always be the first to question whether their own wisdom is the real stuff, or just a shiny object that caught their fancy for a moment.  A word to the wise.  Don’t worry about that.  It is probably a long way off for most of us.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015