What wisdom looks like

by susan on August 9, 2015


15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.   – Ephesians 5:15-21, NRSV


I don’t think I need to tell you that we are in desperate need of wisdom these days. Just look around:
We are making advances in science and technology at a record pace.
We are being bombarded with more information than we can possibly process on a daily basis.
We are pressured to decide on which side of numerous debates we will stand or whether or not we will take a stand at all.
And, we are facing numerous decisions in our own lives with little time and energy to weigh pros and cons: what school will we choose, what job seems best suited for us, when will be ready for a relationship, what’s the best financial move and how will we spend our retirement years?
Not to mention all of the problems facing our community and world: crime, environmental challenges, war and the list goes on…

We are in desperate need of wisdom.

Yet, wisdom seems to be a fading virtue. We are much less likely to search the depths than to react, rant or claim we just don’t care anymore.

Where is wisdom? And what does it look like anyway?
[We paused to discuss the image of a sculpture found in Waterperry Gardens in England given the name “Lamp of Wisdom”. We shared our thoughts about how this sculpture reflected wisdom.]

Wisdom does not suddenly show up in this letter to the church at Ephesus. Wisdom is valued throughout the story of scripture. It is considered a feminine attribute of God. Wisdom was also a core virtue in Greek and Hellenistic cultures which surrounded Christians in Ephesus. It was personified through the Greek goddess Sophia. And later, through Plato, it became one of the four cardinal virtues.

Wisdom was valued, yet according to Paul, there was a disconnect between valuing wisdom and living it. To help these Christ followers understand wisdom, Paul gives two contrasting pictures: one of foolishness and one of wisdom.

Foolishness looks like: Getting drunk.
This is not justification for banning the sale of alcohol on Sundays or never consuming any alcohol at all (although some of us may need to commit to that). In Paul’s day, this reference to getting drunk was about misguided worship. See, Greek god & goddess worship involved dances and exciting music and drinking wine. Things could get pretty out of hand. Such worship provided an escape from reality. It produced a feeling of ecstasy. It resulted in drunken orgies. This was the image that came to mind when Paul thought about foolishness: People getting carried away after drinking too much wine while worshiping Greek gods.

It’s not an indictment against ever drinking alcohol, it’s a metaphor for all the ways we waste our days away doing little more than trying to escape reality.

In contrast, Paul paints a very different picture of wisdom.
Wisdom looks like making the most of time instead of wasting it. It’s living in a way that we do not take the minutes we have been given for granted. It’s living as though life is a gift.
Wisdom also looks like understanding what the will of the Lord is, which is for all things  to be reconciled to Christ (Eph. 1:10). Wisdom looks at the BIG picture, not just our little corner of it, not just our comfort and our conveniences.

Paul paints two contrasting pictures.
One is careless, wasteful and self-centered. It’s a person drunk on wine.
The other is mindful and open to the possibility that there is more to our existence than what is pressing in on us.

More often than not, this kind of wisdom comes as we experience more and more of life and often through its struggles. John Claypool was an Episcopal priest who lost his daughter to leukemia when she was only 9 years old. In The Hopeful Heart, he tells the story of how shortly after his daughter Laura Lue’s death, he was making a hospital visit when he ran into a rabbi friend. After offering sincere condolences, his friend looked him straight in the eye and asked a startling question that he could not avoid. He said,

‘I want to ask you something, man to man and heart to hear. Did God do anything for you in that stretch of darkness through which you have just come?’ In all honestly, [explained Claypool] I was taken aback by his question…However, as I looked into the burning intensity of his eyes, I realized that here was one of those holy moments when a sincere human being dares to reach out to another and ask, ‘What was it like in the valley of the shadow of grief? Were there any traces of divine presence amid all that pain and anguish? Tell me, please, about the darkness.”

Claypool quickly sensed that this was no time for a glib response. Standing there in the lobby of the hospital, he began to let his mind wander over the events of the last 20 months. He remembered those times when he thought he could not bear another instant…The memory of one morning, in particular, came surging back to him. It was close to the end of his daughter’s struggles. Most of her veins had collapsed and an intern was trying to begin an intravenous procedure without any success. As he stuck her over and over again, his little daughter pleaded with him to make him stop…The tension was so great that he remembers thinking, ‘I simply cannot do this anymore!’

…Yet, as the memory of this awful morning came rushing back, he realized something else.

[He writes,] “From somewhere far beyond me, an Energy not my own had silently enveloped me like a gentle mist and enabled me to resist running away in a panic, and to stay connected and be present for my suffering daughter. …I finally answered my friend, the rabbi, ‘Yes, God did do something in the depths of that darkness. God did not do what I most wanted, which of course was to heal Laura Lue…but, the Holy One was not absent in that great trevail. My brave young daughter and I were given the gift of endurance and, along with it, an opportunity to grow spiritually….I myself became a very different person from the one I was before her death. … I see now what an astonishingly good fortune a single day really is. The realization that life is gift and birth is windfall is more apparent to me than ever before.

This is what wisdom looks like.

Wisdom expands our understanding and encourages us to make the most of time. Wisdom allows us to pause and confront hard questions and to see God in impossible situations. It learns from the past and sheds light on the future.

If foolishness is coming home from worship drunk, wisdom is a man who has lost everything, yet somehow beginning to sing songs of hope again.

This is the other part of the picture of wisdom Paul paints. Wisdom looks like being filled with the spirit instead of with wine. It leads us out of self-centeredness and into relationship. It results in a community who comes and goes giving thanks, singing and serving together.

I don’t need to tell you that we are in desperate need of wisdom. Perhaps, we can ponder together:

What will wisdom look like as it takes root in our lives? What habits and practices will help us move deeper into wise living?

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