Reading “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson
Wisdom. It’s the pearl of all pearls. It’s lifted up in cultures all over the world. I picture us diving to the bottom of the ocean in search of it – seeking some magical scroll locked in a treasure chest in the hull of a ship buried at sea. Or climbing to the top of a mountain, to engage with the holy person we might find there, sitting, cross-legged, long-bearded, full of wisdom, in a cave. Or I see us venturing into the wilderness, like a raider of a lost ark, a hero, seeking that which will save us, save our families, maybe everyone.
Desperately seeking wisdom – that’s the phrase that popped into my head as I was writing this. There was a movie I remember from growing up called desperately seeking Susan. I no longer remember what she was so desperately in search of, but that image, of urgency, desire, of stress, of need, that image stayed with me.
So that phrase came to mind as I was working on this sermon – desperately seeking wisdom – because we want wisdom. So, it made sense.
Until I actually pictured that guru on the mountaintop – calm, slow, not acting in particularly desperate ways. Someone who might possibly actually solve our problems.
If that’s what we want.
Because is that what we always want?
Is it wisdom we are so desperately looking for?
We are, most of us, desperately seeking something. Desperately seeking relief, desperately seeking distraction, desperately seeking for someone who knows what the heck they’re doing to fix the mess in the world. We are desperately seeking someone who will finally understand us, and we may desperately be seeking the next big moneymaker that is not a Ponzi scheme. Desperately seeking quiet in the house, or for someone to see our point of view and stop arguing with us.
And in our desperation, or maybe it’s just habit, we fall into our own version of some hole in the sidewalk. Except that, speaking for myself, I often don’t always even realize it even by the third time. Nor do I always climb out all that quickly. In my life, it has more often felt, like that snoopy cartoon where Lucy – remember her, with the foofy black hair and a little bit of attitude – Lucy holds the football for our beloved Charlie Brown to kick and every time. Every time, she pulls it away at the last minute and he falls on his behind – ever time. I sigh, just thinking about it.
It reminds me of conversations I have with a friend of mine. When I start out I’m pretty sure I will convince him. The holes in his argument are so clear to me. But by the time we are done. Me exhausted and disappointed, he, with an expression on his face – is that a little smug? Maybe that’s just my imagination. But either way, it didn’t go quite how I thought it would.
Whether it’s Lucy and a football, a notion that we will finally convince someone, or that this time, we won’t hit next Netflix’s next episode button and actually go to bed before midnight, we can’t always see the truth about our situations. Or, indeed, we may not always want to.
In my opinion, that is because wisdom can look highly unappealing.
Think about it.
Take Ben Franklin, I like him, smart guy – what did he always say? Early to bed early to rise – makes a man healthy wealthy and wise – that sounds kind of puritanical actually.
Or, one from the book of proverbs in the bible: As you shall sow, so shall you reap – that’s terrifying. That some nasty karma is coming after me ready to pounce at any moment.
Here’s one from Rumi, the Sufi poet and mystic whose voice often is often woven into UU worship on Sunday mornings. Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Yes, fine, but that sounds like a lot of work.
Proverbs 19:20: Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise. Discipline sounds very unpleasant. The whole advice thing, kind of annoying.
Wisdom…. can look highly unappealing.
Still, there is something there. We know there’s something there, it’s one reason many of us are here. It’s part of why we come to church in the first place. For those vexing problems we just don’t know what to do with. For those Sophie’s choice moments when no answer is right. And all of them feel wrong.
When it feels like a choice between your marriage or your job. Between your sanity and your job. Between the safety of your child and your commitment to just stay out of it. When your relationship is hitting the rocks and you don’t know why. When you’ve come to the end of some road and don’t have the faintest idea where to find a new one. When the heaviness of the world’s problems weigh on you but it’s all so big you just don’t know what to do.
We do seek wisdom. And, once in a while, we find ourselves willing to open to it, even if it comes in a form that we don’t like.
Every month I get together with colleagues to talk about the theme of the month. In our most recent call, one of them reminded us that we are, this month, in the middle of Lent. When our Xian siblings are recounting the time Jesus spent in the desert. Facing temptation, fighting his demons. Fighting the demon. 40 days and 40 nights the Bible recounts. Hunger, thirst. Boredom surely. Fear, Jesus must have felt fear in that place. And uncertainty – where am I being led, he must have asked, and why? For what? What is this all for?
During those 40 days and 40 nights, these scriptures tell us, Jesus is tempted. Tempted to satisfy, after so much deprivation, his physical hunger. Tempted, after day upon day of weary wandering, to give up his faith. To give up his trust in a spirit that guides him, and instead to hesitate, fortify, double-check, make absolutely sure… Tempted to give up simple trust in what he knows to be true. And finally, he is tempted, after that bone-wearing, wind-whipped, soul-wringing desert experience, he’s tempted by power, power that could lift him up, make him the envy of others, and free him from the need to ever be uncomfortable again. The only price? His moral integrity. His commitment to live in the way he knows is right. His inner compass. His wisdom.
Lent, is the time when Xians all over the world metaphorically walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Not literally going into the desert, but experiencing some kind of emptiness, giving something up.
Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon on lent, relays a little bit about its origins – how it even came to be a thing that people do at this time of year. Turns out, that where the earliest seekers, right after Jesus’ death, had been martyrs, bold challengers to the powers that be, speaking out and standing up for the poor, […] at some point, they lost something, they lost some conviction, some clarity, some commitment. They started seeking to be nice, she writes, instead of holy. At some point, they saw “no contradiction” Taylor concludes, “between being comfortable and being Christian.”
There was a need, for some spiritual spring cleaning. To help people reconnect with some, basic, spiritual hunger. [F]orty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when comfort is gone. To find something beneath all that occupies and distracts us, and see, just how powerful that something might be. The practice of Lent was born.
For Christians, it’s all about rediscovering or deepening a relationship with God.
But, for any of us, theist or not, perhaps there is something for us, too, to uncover, or rediscover.
Then, as now, people had their pacifiers, as Taylor calls them. All the things and ways that we keep ourselves from feeling what it means to be human, [which includes] being in pain or being afraid. Our pacifiers tell us we don’t need spiritual tools, don’t need time for reflection, maybe they even tell us we don’t need community. Our pacifiers are Netflix late at night, our pointless repetitive arguments, our addictions to work, or to sex or alcohol or to unhealthy dynamics or whatever it is that pulls us in but then takes us down in ways we know are not good. They are our holes in the sidewalk. We fall in, we climb out, we fall in, we climb out. Our relationship with these aspects of our lives can keep us so occupied it can help us forget that in each of us, there is some emptiness that ultimately, cannot be filled. Some uncomfortable emptiness. Buddhists call our desire to fill this space our hungry ghosts – because they can never be satisfied. Some Christians call this space in us a God-shaped hole because, they say, it can only be filled by God.
I’ve heard this empty place called the seat of creativity, I suspect it is also a fundamental source of human wisdom.
But uncovering it can feel like diving to find a treasure chest in the hull of a ship at the bottom of the ocean.
Or traversing the expanse of the desert as the hero in search of the holy grail.
Or at least, the emotional journey we travel to uncover it can feel that harrowing.
But maybe that’s okay because perhaps the journey is an essential part of preparing us to hear, whatever it is, we need to hear. No wisdom is sought by those who are not hungry. Who life has made hungry.
Maybe we have to fall down those darn holes in the sidewalk. Maybe we have to get desperate.
Maybe we have to try giving something up for Lent or at any time of year. Maybe we have to welcome some discomfort, challenge ourselves, in small ways or large ways and see what that empty space inside might have to show us.
In his reflection on Lent, Catholic priest and theologian Henry Nouwen preaches that the temptations of Christ in the desert line up with 3 common temptations for all us regular humans.
The first he calls the temptation to be relevant. “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”
He speaks to Christian leaders but I think it applies to any of us. Each of us is called to be irrelevant, offering up just our vulnerable self. Called to give up our persistent need to be someone, be seen, acknowledged, heard, heeded. And show up with just our open hearts.
The second he calls the temptation to be powerful. “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible… is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love? It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
Tim Suttle, in a reflection on this quote, gives a wonderful example of this – parenting. How will you lead your kids when you no longer hold all the power? Parents who lead [primarily] through size & position struggle […] when their kids become teenagers, because [they] didn’t learn how to lead through their own vulnerability. Vulnerability is essential for love, he writes.
As a non-parent, I know this applies, completely, to me, too.
And the third temptation is the temptation to be spectacular, which is huge in our culture. A key question of our time, then, is this, he writes: In a world where the spectacular is king, who will dare to do a small thing faithfully? Who will risk being faithful in obscurity? Who will dare to follow [the way of integrity] while nobody is watching?
Relevance, power, being spectacular – three temptations that drive so much of what occupies us.
Vulnerability, love, and humility. Three qualities sitting underneath everything that gets in the way.
Sometimes I wonder whether the more we recover our connection with these, the wiser we become?
I don’t know. But I think if we try it, we cannot go wrong.
May it be so, amen.