Growing in Wisdom
I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Alice Fleming Townley
August 19, 2018
This morning’s story of Solomon is one of my favorites.
God asked Solomon, “What should I give you?” Solomon recalled God’s great and steadfast love to his father David, and how David’s heart turned toward God.
“What shall you give me? I am only a little child; I do not know how to come in or go out and you have made me king. Give me an understanding mind to lead your people and to discern between good and evil. Give me Wisdom.” Solomon responded.
And this answer delighted God. “Yes, oh yes.”
The book of Proverbs says that Wisdom was active with God at creation, hovering over the deep, and delighting with God and with the sons and daughters of humankind, day after day.[i] To ask for Wisdom is to ask to be in this dynamic relationship. Wisdom is not a list of easy answers that will get us out of hard situations. Wisdom is not certainty or security, and don’t we wish it were. Wisdom beckons us to create and delight with God and with each other. Wisdom asks us to weep and to struggle with God and one another. We find Wisdom as we listen within and around us. We know the people and practices with which we most often discern wisdom, and other times we are surprised by her. Wisdom calls us to be curious and open, not rigid and closed. Wisdom calls us into movement and growth. The Holy dance of Wisdom brings forth life.
We don’t have a lot of stories in the canon about Jesus’ childhood, but what we do have is Luke chapter 2, tucked in after his birth narrative. In this story Jesus’ family returned to Jerusalem for Passover. As Mary and Joseph began their journey home, they both figured Jesus was somewhere in the caravan—until a day later when they realized he wasn’t.
Three days later they found Jesus still in the temple, still in Jerusalem. He was sitting among teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard Jesus were amazed. Jesus so immersed, seemed almost startled that his parents would wonder. “Didn’t you know this is where I would be?” In the presence of the Holy with the sacred text, the questions, the stories, the community of scholars studying, debating, wondering, and illumining. This is where young Jesus’ heart and mind longed to be. Luke ends chapter 2 saying that Mary treasured all these things in her heart. And that Jesus increased in wisdom and in years.
Rachel Held Evans grew up steeped in scripture—memorizing large portions and served as president of the high school Bible Club. Whatever the subject–economics, science, history—the Bible was the answer book, useful because it was clear and right. It told her who to vote for, the role of women at home and the church, and who was in and out of God’s favor. She had it all figured out, the Bible told her so.
But as the years passed, she began to wonder. The more she reasoned and read, the more people she met and life experiences she had, and the more she began to see inconsistencies. While her parents responded to her questions with compassion, the church community around her treated her as a dangerous threat to silence.
She left her faith a dozen times in the years that followed, only to return a dozen more. Over the years her journey has been meandering and ongoing. She is grateful for saints of holy curiosity who taught her not to fear her doubts, but to embrace and learn from them. This summer her latest book came out, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
From the Jewish tradition she “learned the mysteries and contradictions of Scripture weren’t meant to be fought against, but courageously engaged, and that the Bible by its very nature invites us to wrestle, doubt, imagine, and debate.” Historical and literary criticism study methods opened wider scholarship to her. Liberation theology and feminist theology showed her the Biblical calls to justice. The spiritual practices of Lectio Divina and Ignatian meditation, helped her engage the text contemplatively and recover devotional reading.[ii]
When she stopped trying to force the Bible into what it is not—static, certain, absolute—then she found out what it is: living and breathing. She came to see her story in the larger narrative of God’s redemptive work, and Scripture as an invitation to wonder and to wrestle and to engage. And Rachel continues to grow in wisdom.
During the summer of 1930, Harry Emerson Fosdick watched Riverside Church being constructed. In 1930, the United States was struggling under the Great Depression, still recovering from one World War, while heading into another. The Riverside Church edifice rose as an elaborate stone and stained glass cathedral overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. John D. Rockefeller Jr. had given the $5 million to make it possible and had pursued Fosdick to be their preacher. And yet Fosdick heard the cries of the poor in the city and the words of Jesus. Amidst these tensions, Fosdick composed a prayer as the processional hymn on the first Sunday in the new building.
God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power;
crown thine ancient church’s story; bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour.[iii]
As their preacher, Fosdick critiqued the same wealth and privilege that had made possible the building of the church. Riverside grew as an interdenominational, and interracial church known for urban ministry. Fosdick’s sermons were broadcast on the radio and published in books. He not only led Riverside Church but influenced the nation and social gospel movement. He received both wide acclaim and disdain.[iv]
Wisdom is not safe or pre-printed in an instruction book for us to follow. In Washington DC this summer, Rebecca Coles introduced me to a clergy colleague, Craig, whose church is sanctuary for a woman named Rosa. Craig told us how he has come to consult Rosa for on the church advice and theological insight and asked her to preach when he is away. “You know,” Rebecca commented to me, “they are making this up as they go along.” I do know. Wisdom calls us into uncertainties, to listen to the sacred text, to engage the community and to move towards action. Wisdom doesn’t say ‘be nice and ignore the problem and it will go away.’ Fosdick prayed,
Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.
Let the gift of thy salvation be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore, serving thee whom we adore.[v]
Benton Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a solid, healthy congregation in the Midwest. They formed an evangelism team of 3, and after a year and a half, called in a consultant to tell them what to do. Martha Grace Reece, the consultant they called, writes that for once she didn’t simply tell them. Instead, she challenged them to pray together for three months, and not make any decisions.
“What?” they asked.
“Yes, You three pray. Pray for the church, for the members, for direction, for the people you don’t even know that God would love to be able to bring to the church. Pray that you will be open. Pray for each other and what’s going on in each other’s lives. Pray that God will show you what you’re to do, and God will nudge the right people to help you. Read books, but mostly pray. Don’t make any decisions or do any ‘work’ for three months.”
And so they began, praying alone and together, reading and researching, and wondering. They gave monthly reports to the Board not on what they had done, but on what they were learning and how they were praying. They got teased, but also others asked if they could join in.
After the three months, they started with energy and vision. They intentionally welcomed and followed up with visitors and planned to reach out to the apartment complex near the church. As the year progressed, they began to lose their energy. They talked to Martha again, and she asked how prayer was going. They realized that let that part go, and they needed to return to be renewed. A year later, the evangelism team gave a report to the board. 65 church members had joined the prayer team, engaging in intercessory prayer and opening to ways God might nudge them. 80 new people had joined the church. The instructions for growth had been: “Pray. Ask for wisdom.”[vi]
Our own church is at a crossroads, as we discern how God might be leading us, and how best to use the gifts and challenges we have. On the last Sunday of every month this summer, Rob and I have been hosting conversations about ‘Next Church.’ Deacons and Elders will review our vision and mission and these notes in September and continue the process.
As we ask where God is leading us, let us we hear the echoes of Solomon, Jesus, Rachel, and the Benton Church, “Pray, ask for Wisdom.” With Fosdick and Riverside we sing:
From the fears that long have bound us,
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, and grant us courage,
for the living of these days, for the living of these days.[vii]
[i] Proverbs 8:22-31
[ii] Rachel Held Evans, “Introduction,” Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
[iii] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” verse 1, Glory to God, 307.
[iv] C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: God of Grace and God of Glory,” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-god-of-grace-and-god-of-glory.
[v] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” verse 2, Glory to God, 307.
[vi] Martha Grace Reece, “What Do You Mean, ‘Sit and Pray,’” Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism, 44-45.
[vii] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” verse 3, Glory to God, 307.