Sermon: Wisdom


Detail from the cover of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss
Detail from the cover of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss

Two young fish were swimming along and happened to pass by an older fish. The older fish says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and says “What the heck is water?”

Please join me in prayer… 

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s lessons.  May they touch our hearts, and speak clearly to our souls, that we may come to more fully comprehend your eternal and undying love for us and for all of your Creation. Amen.

This Sunday we consecrate our Christian Education Ministry’s programs for the year. So, it is fitting that our topic is Wisdom.

As I was preparing this message, I came across a Commencement Address by the late David Foster Wallace, given at Kenyon College in May of 2005.

Professor Wallace gave the fish story I related at the beginning of this message and then said its point “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

Dr. David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
Dr. David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

He then related another story:

Two guys are sitting in a bar in Alaska. One guy is religious, the other an Atheist. After a few beers, they begin to argue about the existence of God with great intensity. Finally the Atheist says: “Look, I have reasons for not believing in God. Just last month I got in a terrible blizzard. I was lost and couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below. So I fell to my knees and cried out ‘Oh, God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’”  

The religious guy gives the atheist a puzzled look: “Well, you must believe now. After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist rolls his eyes. “Nope, two Eskimos happened to wander by and showed me the way back to camp.”

The lesson here, Wallace points out, is just as obvious as that of the first story: the exact same experience can mean totally different things to different people, because their templates of how the world works are very different.

Google Glass
Google Glass

These “templates of meaning” are the maps we carry inside ourselves, the lens through which we see and interpret everything we experience.

This is an important point: all of our meaning-making depends on how we see and interpret what we witness in the world around us. Meaning and understanding are the result of interpretation. The teachings of our faith – teachings of any sort, in fact – are meaningless without interpretation. Interpretation is the process of taking our own observations or knowledge and making them real and relevant to ourselves or others.

For instance, in the Alaska story, the atheist is certain that the Eskimos had nothing to do with his prayer. His “template of meaning” makes no room for divine intervention. But the religious man’s problem in this story is exactly the same as the atheist’s: they both exhibit blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner is oblivious to their condition.

Kim Davis, Rowan County Clerk
Kim Davis, Rowan County Clerk

We’ve all seen this, a recent and glaring example is the story of that Clerk of the Rowan County Court in Kentucky, Kim Davis, who is mistaking her personal uncompromising faith-based stance on the sanctity of marriage as the universal truth.

Now, like her, we all tend to be automatically certain that our truth is the truth. It took a lifetime to build the Templates of Meaning we have now, and we’re not going to give them up without a fight!  That’s how our minds work. In fact, there is nothing in our experience that doesn’t place us at the center of what is happening in the world. Our own feelings and thoughts have an immediacy, vibrancy and urgency which nothing external to us will ever match.

Our feelings, therefore, are the only ones that are real to us, because they are ours. All others are foreign. And so, our personal perspectives and experience, our “Template of Meaning” leads us to believe that those who don’t see the truth as we see and feel it really don’t matter, because they aren’t real like ours are.

And, this is where our faith comes in, especially as practiced here in this church.

You see, Wisdom is not about having a great mass of learning or facts at your disposal. You can have a great deal of education and still be a fool.

Wisdom is also not a virtue. We don’t get a gold star or a bigger mansion in heaven for being wise, nor does it necessarily make our lives any better. Many of the wisest people I’ve ever known have been homeless, depressed, victims of great injustice, or afflicted by some of sort of troubling if not terminal health condition.

And, many of the most foolish people I’ve known have been wealthy or extremely successful in their lives, feeling entitled and with enough resources at their command to free themselves from most of the worries others face every day.

But, most of us live at neither extreme. Our humdrum lives are not all that different from the lives of everyone around us. So, how does wisdom work? What good is it?

Our faith teaches us that we must free ourselves from these Templates of Meaning that are so inherently self-centered. We must become “other-centered”, to see that it is not all about us, but just as much about them – each one of them, no matter who they are.

This is the flaw that lies at the heart of foolishness like that we see in the Kentucky Court Clerk. They do not comprehend “The Other” and see no reason for (and may even fear) trying to do so. They believe – foolishly – that since “The Other” is not them, then “The Other’s” emotions, accomplishments, relationships, challenges – even their lives – are in some way less important, or even invalid because their truth is not ours.

Learning how to perceive the world and ourselves and others in a way that is “Other Centered” really means learning to exercise control over how and what we think. It means being conscious and aware, choosing what we pay attention to and being careful how we construct meaning. To use another old cliché, the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.

And you know, our world is a pretty sad, boring place: traffic jams, crowded checkout lines at stores. The cat died. Cleaning up after the dog – again; or – worse yet – cleaning up after the neighbor’s dog – again. I need to take my screaming kid to the Doctor for stitches right now, even though the Patriots are winning – again. This test isn’t fair! My cell phone died. Somebody unfriended me on Facebook. I can’t avoid these sinful thoughts, so I must be a terrible person. Obama is destroying America. Global warming is killing everything. It’s all so unfair!

But, wisdom teaches us that how we think of all these unhappy or boring things is what matters, not that they exist. Wisdom will not make them disappear. But, what we choose to think about them determines the nature of own reality: that’s the whole point of our faith. Are we going to look at the world as a half empty glass, or a half full one? As a place of hope, or a place of judgment? Are we going to hate our neighbor, including hating that Court Clerk, or love them? How do we love them? (That will be another sermon!)

Spock wearing a Rose Colored Visor (From Star Trek
Spock wearing a “Rose Colored Visor” (From Star Trek “Is There No Truth In Beauty?”, 1968)

This does not mean we should be looking at the world through Rose Colored Glasses – to use another old cliché. Facts have to be acknowledged, but how we think of those facts, and our willingness to confront them while remaining aware of our own biases and weaknesses is the key. We are flawed creatures, the Bible tells us so. Unless we’re really good at deceiving ourselves, we know we will often be wrong, we know we will be misled by others and we know we will even be misled by our own templates of meaning (well, occasionally).

Wisdom requires skepticism. Those who claim to be absolutely certain will eventually be seen as absolute fools, once their absolute certainties are found to be wrong, if not absolute nonsense.

Our faith tells us to pay attention: pay attention to what is really being said by “The Other”, not what you think they’re saying behind the words they are speaking. We need to be aware of the world we are moving through. As Isaiah put it, our ears need to be awake. And, we must pay attention to the world of biases and systemic privilege that we all live and move in, but which we often don’t see, especially when we are the beneficiaries.

Wisdom tells us that our “templates of meaning” must make room for compassion, for mistakes, for doubt, for change, and for learning. This holds true not just for the great events of our lives, but also for the mundane and even trivial repetitions of everyday life. This is what wisdom is: living a life constantly aware that we are not at the center of all things; that we may be wrong; that we may need to change or grow. To become wise, we must deny the centrality of ourselves in the world.

Wisdom also helps us avoid the trap of worshipping the things of this world. Because such things always become a distorted and painful addiction – like money, or relationships, or status, or power, or the American Dream.

Professor Wallace said: “If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty … and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in [our] daily consciousness.”

Wallace is right.  Our faith teaches this exact same truth: “Gaining the whole world,” as it says in this morning’s reading in Mark 8, profits us nothing.

And so, learning is critical to wisdom. Although, the facts we learn are not that important in themselves. I mean, does it really matter what year the Pilgrims landed [1630]; or what the atomic number of Plutonium is [94]; or which movie won the Oscar for Best Picture last year [“Birdman”]?

No. It is how we interpret facts through our “templates of meaning” that matters. Facts have meaning because we see meaning in them, and in how they reflect upon other things we know and experience, not because they have meaning of their own. We often call this building of a robust and capable “template of meaning” as “learning how to think.” We really do need wisdom in our lives, wisdom informed by facts. Facts in isolation are meaningless, but wisdom cannot exist without a solid grounding in facts.

We need wisdom to lead meaning-full lives. We need wisdom to have a faith that is productive and useful. We need wisdom to see the realities of the world around us, and the reality of our own foibles and failures. We need wisdom to be able to love our Neighbor as ourselves.

DrSeussTwoFishThis is the mission of our Christian Education Ministry, to help us learn how to think, and to act, as people who are not self-centered, but other-centered. Without such a ministry active in our congregation, we’ll never acheive wisdom, but will just continue swimming around with our eyes closed, oblivious to everything around us that really matters.

Amen.

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, September 13, 2015

Sermon Audio:

Scripture readings:
    Isaiah 50:4-9 (NRSV)
James 3:1-12 (NRSV)
    Mark 8:27-38 (NRSV)

Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

2 thoughts on “Sermon: Wisdom”

  1. Great sermon. I think wisdom is a difficult gift to acquire. You have to work through many templates, I think, before you can hope to achieve wisdom. I think it was Carl Jung that said ” wisdom comes in the second half of life to most when you learn to dance with your shadow.” But no reason not to try to receive it earlier in your educational program this Fall!

    Liked by 1 person

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