Monday, August 5, 2019

Information, Wisdom, and Waiting

I remember the first time I was a part of a conversation when, as a group, we did not know the answer to a question and one person pulled out a smart phone and through a web search discovered the answer.  I thought I had witnessed a combination of magic and witchcraft.  Today such occurrences are commonplace.  Classroom students do not take notes as much as surf the web to learn more about a particular point of interest in a professor’s lecture.  Preachers are advised to remember sermons are being fact-checked in real time.  And yes, everyone searches on-line for information and answers.

As a part of my copious sermon research I googled a completely random question: Who invented the Ping-Pong ball?  Here is what I learned in a matter of seconds:

· Table Tennis was invented in the 1860s by a group of aristocrats seeking after dinner entertainment on a rainy English night.  Books set on end divided a table in half and cigar box lids served as paddles to bat a champagne bottle cork back and forth.

· The name “Ping-Pong” was coined by an English firm in the late 1890s and later trademarked by Parker Brothers.  Before this the game was informally known by several different names, including “whiff-whaff”. 

· While on a trip to the United States in 1901, the Englishman James Goode purchased a celluloid ball he thought would be ideal for the game.  Up until then golf balls, rubber balls, and balls of tightly wound string were being used.

I learned all of this and more in matter of seconds.  On an unrelated note, my computer screen is now littered with pop-up ads for ping-pong tables! 

We have come to expect instant access to information.  The answer to any question, no matter how trivial, literally is at our fingertips.  There is a reason we call this time the Information Age.  But information, while important, is not the same thing as knowledge and it most certainly is not wisdom.  Knowledge takes time.  It involves knowing information and context and how each relates to the other.  Wisdom is something altogether different.  In part, it recognizes the limitations of both information and knowledge and finds a way to be at peace with not having all the answers, especially answers to life’s deepest questions.  Wisdom involves living with ambiguity, nuance, and shades of subtlety.  I define wisdom as “learning how to live gracefully and humbly without having all the answers.”

Today’s readings from the Old Testament and Gospel are grounded squarely in wisdom, as I define it.  The writer of Ecclesiastes (a word that means preacher or teacher or literally the assembler, as in the one who assembles wisdom) says he has given his life first to pleasure, then to productivity, and finally to despair.  After it all he concludes everything he pursued is nothing but vanity – literally vapor dissipating into the air.  Jesus, in refusing to settle a financial dispute between two brothers, tells a parable of a man who sets out to build barns big enough to accommodate all the grain he is able to grow.  Jesus calls the man a “fool” (one of the harshest words in the bible) because unbeknownst to him he will die that very night.

Both lessons do a great job of calling into question some basic assumptions we make about life.  Neither lesson resolves the conflict it creates by supplying us with an answer.  We are left hanging.  If we approach what the assembler and Jesus says here as if we are googling for information what we get back is a blank screen.  Today’s readings don’t supply answers.  All they do is raise questions.

I suspect many preachers today are standing in the pulpits of many churches wrestling with these same readings because so many of us use the same common lectionary.  And I guarantee every one of us is facing the same temptation to manufacture an answer to the questions raised in these passages.  Somehow there has got to be a way to wrap all of this up in a neat, tidy, tenable package.  Isn’t this what preachers are supposed to do?  After all, don’t we point to the bible and say all of life’s answers are in here?  Well, here is my answer:  sometimes it is important to live for a while with the questions. 

The most famous passage from Ecclesiastes says,

There is a time is for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to tear down and a time to build,
  a time to be silent and a time to speak.

What we read this morning falls under the category of a time to uproot, a time to tear down, and a time to be silent. 

We are so used to having answers come quickly, perhaps dating back to math drills in early elementary school (“1+1=2” and “2+2=4”).  The faster the answers come to us the greater our reward.  Never are we taught some questions do not have answers or for some questions the answers come only after a long period of silence and unknowing.

I have told you before about the counseling relationship I entered after my marriage ended in 2002.  Most sessions left me with a question to ponder. I resolved some on the way home while others took a day or two to think through.  I will never forget the question my counselor posed at the end the very first session.  He listened patiently to my litany of woes – everything from the end of my marriage to the frustration I felt when my girls wouldn’t keep their rooms clean.  On and on and on I went until he said, “Why do you think it is that things don’t work out the way they are supposed to?” 

I lived with this deceptively simple question for the better part of two years, unable to come up with an answer.  And then one day it came me: Why don’t things work out the way they are supposed to?  Because they don’t!  I don’t get to control everything.  And this realization has changed my life.  Maybe the counselor knew the answer on day one.  Maybe his answer was not what my answer turned out to be.  Had he told me the answer on that first day I would not have been able to receive it.

What I needed was not information about how life works or knowledge about how to operate better in my harsh new reality.  What I needed was wisdom.  I learned wisdom is not as much an intellectual pursuit as it is an emotional one.  What the head may know the heart may not be ready to embrace.  Sometimes, what the head says to accept the heart will reject.  Sometimes the only thing that will bring the head and the heart together is time…

…and courage.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage not to run for the cover of certainty and easy answers.  I think about the many times I have sat with a person who was in the midst of a difficult experience, facing challenges raising deep questions about life and meaning and God and faith.  More often than not, all I could say in response was this: “You are asking all the right questions and I admire how you are doing it.  It takes a lot of courage to hold your loss, your pain, your fear, and your anger and wait.” 

And yet, in life there are times when this is exactly what we must do.  The assembler of wisdom knew it and Jesus knew it.  Through their teaching today they tear down and leave little or nothing in its place.  Life is like that sometimes.  And knowing that the Holy Scripture contains sections of pointed questioning where no answers are supplied tells us when we are in a place like this we are in a place that must be named as faith, not doubt.  It is faith when we ground these moments in a trust God will not lose hold of us.  It is faith when we hope one day to understand or to accept or to be strong again.  It is faith when we do not run away from uncertainty.  Doubt manifests itself when we accept as safe harbor cheap answers and false certainty.  The truly wise turn away from such things and wait.  The wise wait with a peace passing all understanding. 

Brain McLaren, in his book A Generous Orthodoxy, observes there are four stages of faith development:

· Simplicity – a time early on in life when we are comfortable seeing everything as black and white.

· Complexity – a time when we realize everything is not as neat and tidy as it appears.

· Perplexity – a time of deep questioning when we know not how to make sense of it all.

· Humility – a time when we let go of it all and find our rest in God. 

Today’s readings are grounded squarely in perplexity.  The degree to which you open up yourself to life’s big questions and the degree to which they are thrust upon you, is the degree to which you are on the cusp of making the most important pilgrimage of the spiritual life: letting go of what you absolutely know to be true and letting go of what you absolutely cannot figure out in order to let God be God… a God who loves you beyond words, beyond thoughts, beyond beliefs, but not beyond knowing.  Such an experience births wisdom beyond what I can describe, but I can assure you it is real and it will come to you… in time.