Learning Wisdom from Outside

wisdom of pulling togetherI once came down with what everyone thought was a bad chest cold, but when rough coughing set in Doc supplied some meds. Ten days later I was sicker and Doc prescribed different drugs. These also missed the mark and my health deteriorated. Doc then said it might be walking pneumonia, so rest, Charles, and, here, take these other drugs. I worsened and was now waking myself up in the middle of the night coughing violently.

Two months had now passed. I was getting scared and my work suffered. I was on a writing deadline for a new book but only able write for a couple hours each day (the publisher gave me an extension). I had also been preparing teaching material for a long overseas trip, where I would be traveling from city to city and speaking nearly everyday, and on some days more than once. I had tickets to board the plane in a month and I wondered if the trip, nearly a year in planning, would have to be postponed. I had visions of audiences asking why this very sick foreigner was among us behind a microphone popping pills and coughing his lungs out.

During this period, my wife and I continued hosting a weekly, evening Bible study in our home. One night after we had all closed our Bibles and opened the snacks, Anna, a nurse who had been attending and was concerned about my health, suddenly asked a strange question, “Have you breathed-in any mold dust lately?” “What in the world is that?” I asked. “It’s like dust,” she said. “Kind of blue-gray in color.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I flashed-back to the day I had strewn several bales of straw over a large area of freshly sown grass seed on our front yard, to protect the seed and new grass from getting too much sun. (It’s the done thing here in the hot South.) Having moved here from a big city in the north, I knew little about rural life. I hadn’t thought anything about the strange blue-gray “dust” that I had been inhaling, which floated up in front of my face every time I broke open a bale and scattered the straw.

“I’ll bet that’s your problem,” Anna said. “I think you’ve been misdiagnosed. You probably inhaled a lot of mold dust and it’s made you very sick. Take a sputum sample to your doctor and get tested for that.” Long story short, Anna’s was a word of wisdom. The correct meds were prescribed and I boarded the plane, still coughing, but now recovering.

This story has always symbolized to me what we could call transcendent points of reference for evaluating problems and making decisions to resolve them. None of the usual cast of medical characters, bless them, had the wisdom needed to resolve my particular, and terribly worsening, problem. Instead, it was from a source outside my doctor’s circle that I gained the needed wisdom for the proper diagnosis and solution.

Whenever we encounter problems we typically seek wisdom to resolve them through the usual cast of characters, such as by turning to a family member or to a trusted friend or leader. We live in a time, however, in which many of the problems we face – socially, economically, politically, and so on – cannot be resolved from within our normal realm of relationships, because the problems did not have their sole origin in those relationships. A universe of ideas, values, and ways of doing things that seem “alien” to us encroach upon our lives each and every day, even if we don’t like it and don’t want them to. In our increasingly shrinking world with its growing cosmopolitanism, “outside influences” are by default implicated in everyone’s problems.

So it’s not just that we, within our normal relationships, are facing this predicament. The reverse is equally true. We are implicated in the problems that others face who are outside of our cast of characters and who look at us as “alien.”

Public dipomacyCollective problems such as this are not going to be resolved by staying solely within our own group. If we depend solely on the wisdom our usual sources, we might be entirely unable even to pinpoint the problem. We need to develop a habit of listening to “alien” voices to find a resolution, especially when a diagnosis keeps missing the mark.

The most obvious and crucial example today, I believe, is for Christians to listen to Muslim voices of moderation (and vice-versa). Far too often, the only sources of understanding that we Christians have about Muslims comes from what other Christians have said about Muslims. And in the bigger picture, it is, for instance, common that the only view Christians have about Palestinians has come from Israelis.

If we want to know what’s really going on with Muslims, however, or what’s really going on in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians, what I am suggesting is to learn about Muslims from Muslims and about Palestinians from Palestinians. This is to have a fundamental respect for the truth. When both “aliens” are doing this in the right spirit, it adds wisdom to all the parties understanding of a collective problem to help us work together resolve it. This kind of learning wisdom from others is vital in our time.

Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan – a city wildly diverse in its religious and cultural ethos – knows a thing or two about the importance of fostering learning wisdom amid human diversity. In answer to a question I put to him about learning wisdom from the other, Keller located it in the Bible’s teaching of common grace.

Simply put, all human beings, “whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, or whether they believe in God or not, share gifts of wisdom, insight, creativity, and beauty because these gifts come to everyone. Christians call this common grace, because they consider these as gifts that come from God. If that’s the case,” he concluded, “then I could expect that my neighbor who does not believe anything like I believe might still have wisdom from God that I have to listen to.”

Wisdom is waiting for us in the neighborhood if we pull together there.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

The Cradle Fund: A Bridge for Shalom in the Middle East

Stirling bridgeA few months ago in Capital Commentary, I shared some ideas from the biblical wisdom tradition about shalom and the vital work of repairing damaged and broken lives and relationships, socially, economically, and politically, whether domestically or internationally. I want to extend that thinking here. (The following was published in a recent issue of Capital Commentary.)

Many Christian and Jewish circles today talk about shalom as God’s vision for a future of peace and harmony for all of creation, including, of course, collective human life. And to give that vision legs in the here and now, shalom is also advanced as social, economic, and political “flourishing” or “well-being” in this world.

Those of us in the West already blessed with goodly degrees of well-being typically maintain the latter idea . But there seems to be a kind of relativity to shalom. We would see that the near-future goals of a Chinese peasant farmer, for instance, or an Indian woman seeking a micro-loan would most likely entail visions of flourishing that are much more modest than our own. And there are countless others whose lives can only be described as precariously lived – consider the refugee families who have fled ISIL for whom shalom in this world would be different still.

Beyond that, however, lies a blind spot. After a decade or more of Christians like me giving airplay to shalom in America, we haven’t been able to prevent the word from becoming equivalent to “getting ahead,” “succeeding,” or “moving up in the world.”

It seems that shalom is becoming synonymous with pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. If so, the biblical sense of shalom as “gift” has been lost.

The contradiction between shalom as “gift” and “trying to improve one’s lot in life” hit me hard last autumn as I learned about the Cradle of Christianity Fund,  which has been implemented by the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) to supply immediate- and long-term aid and support to thousands of displaced and refugee families who have fled ISIL/ISIS. At the time, I had been talking with friends about the staggering changes of life that have been forced on these families. We wanted to help alleviate their misery, but were got stuck. We were here. They were there. And we knew of no bridge. But with the Cradle Fund we had not only a bridge but an inspiring this-world reminder of biblical shalom.

Policies by Western governments to address the crisis have been slow in developing, and in November, 2014 the UN reported that a huge shortfall in funding meant that winter aid from the UNHCR would reach only 240,000 of the 600,000 displaced Iraqis and Syrians. The Cradle Fund and other NGOs, such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Heart for Lebanon, have stepped into the gap with manna: food and water, insulation kits and boards, heaters and kerosene, and other essentials needed by families to survive the winter while holed up in small tents, abandoned buildings, and other makeshift shelters

In the Exodus narrative, the people of Israel “groaned” under punishing abuse and “cried out” for help. God “heard” their cry, “saw their misery,” and told Moses, I’ve “come down to rescue them.” That rescue was a poignant example of the gift of shalom.

“For the precarious,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “shalom can be understood as the assurance that there is a hearer for our cries, an intervener who comes to transform our lives.”

Today, the cry of despair and the hope of an intervener coming from persecuted Christian, Yazidi, and even Muslim families in Iraq and Syria is analogous to the Exodus narrative, when the only thing that matters is survival and the form that faith takes is one that cries out for deliverance. Brueggemann notes that because the Exodus generation lived their lives amid the acute precariousness of their situation, they “were interested in the question of survival – either actual physical, historical survival or at least the survival of faith and meaning.” Similarly, the crisis among Christians in Iraq evoked this cry last year from Patriarch Louis Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church: “We feel forgotten and isolated” and wonder about the reaction of the world.

Neither the giving of shalom nor its receipt must wait for the bullets to stop flying.

For me, the Cradle of Christianity initiative has brought a necessary corrective in my thinking, bringing me back to the biblical meaning of shalom as gift to the most helpless. This fund enables churches and people of faith here in the United States to join with the indigenous efforts already underway by local churches and organizations in the countries of conflict and the countries that have received the overwhelming numbers of refugees.

The current exodus may not be over. But the vital work of rescuing and repairing damaged and broken lives has begun, but only just.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Neil Howard (permission via Creative Commons)

For more information. Like a growing number of people who are now following and supporting the Cradle Fund, here you can find many more moving stories and pictures about how the people are living in these stopgap conditions (from Chris’s blogs among the displaced families). Also check out IGE’s Facebook page and the above links as well.

Here are some FAQs about the Cradle Fund. Also Chris is providing personal updates from the region, including photos, on the IGE website and Twitter. Coverage of the Fund is also found at Christianity Today, CBN, and MPAC and Fox News.

Other posts and updates on this blog about the Cradle Fund: The Cradle Fund: Helpless No More /// Snapshots: A Day-in-the-Life of Iraq’s Religious Refugees /// This Bad Weather Is No Joke /// The Cradle Fund: Getting Thousands Safely Through a Middle East Winter.

Charles Strohmer is the author of several books, founding director of The Wisdom Project, and a visiting research fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

This Bad Weather Is No Joke

woman refugee caught in snowA personal note from Charles Strohmer:

Severe winter weather has now blown in, adding misery to the already desperate struggle to survive that is being faced by displaced Iraqi and Syrian families who have fled ISIS and are holed up in makeshift refugee camps, small tents, abandoned buildings, and other shelters. Please check out this brilliant piece of photo journalism put together by Alice Speri.

I began blogging about this crisis, here and here, before the winter set in, to help raise awareness and support for the Cradle of Christianity Project, which is providing immediate aid to relieve the misery. Please think about doing more than just looking at these images. Check out the story of how this this remarkable Project arose and see if it’s one you can get behind with a gift, prayers, forwards, shares, tweets, or more.

refugee baby caught in snow stormIt’s been very moving to hear from people who have said they wanted to help these families but did not know how to do that. We are here. They are there. There was no bridge. Now with the Cradle Fund there is. If you want to jump right to ways to support, here’s the page.

Thank you,

Charles

For more information. Like a growing number of people who are now following and supporting the Cradle Fund, here you can find many more moving stories and pictures about how the people are living in these stopgap conditions (from Chris’s blogs among the displaced families). Also check out IGE’s Facebook page and the above links as well.

Here are some FAQs about the Cradle Fund. Also Chris is providing personal updates from the region, including photos, on the IGE website and Twitter. Coverage of the Fund is also found at Christianity Today, CBN, and MPAC and Fox News.

Other posts and updates on this blog about the Cradle Fund: The Cradle Fund: Helpless No More /// The Cradle Fund: A Bridge for Shalom in the Middle East  /// The Cradle Fund: Getting Thousands Safely Through a Middle East Winter.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Alice Speri and VICE NEWS.

WISDOM AND HUMAN MUTUALITY part 5 of 5

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Carter Begin Sadat handshakeThese posts on wisdom and human mutuality have been raising urgent questions about why we tend to limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. For we have been seeing what it means that wisdom, according to Scripture, delights in “all humanity.” As further evidence, the previous post looked at Lady Wisdom’s vital role for sustaining the unity-in-diversity of human life. She is, we concluded, a huge fan of human mutuality, not of uniformity or sameness. And she is an  agency of shalom amid that diversity.

That wisdom is for all humankind is affirmed centuries later by Jesus, in Roman-occupied Palestine, where diverse cultures abounded. Today, it is usually Jesus’ roles as a healer, miracle worker, and savior that are emphasized. Of course he is also known as a teacher but, to our loss, little emphasis has been placed on Jesus’ rather significant role as a teacher of wisdom. If you are a Christian reading this, stop and think about this for a minute. When was the last time, or the only time, that you heard a sermon on Jesus as a wisdom teacher? I sometimes ask this question to congregations and classes; it is  rare to see a hand go up. (Perhaps in some later posts we can spend some time looking at “Jesus the wisdom teacher.”)

Here, I just want to draw attention to a kind of riddle that Jesus makes about himself and John the Baptist. Jesus has been having a rather difficult time talking to a mixed audience that just doesn’t get John, and you can feel Jesus’ frustration building. He’s tried various ways to help them “get’ John, but to no avail.

To what shall I liken you, then? Jesus finally replies. You’re like silly children. We played dance music but you did not dance, so we played a funeral dirge but you did not mourn. John came fasting both wine and bread, like a holy, saintly man. But you say John has a demon. On the other hand, I’m eating and drinking and you say I’m a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

His frustration then boils over in a cryptic comment, which he leaves with the crowd to solve: “But wisdom is proved right [vindicated; justified] by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

If you want to know who can be seen responding wisely to wisdom, “Wisdom is proved right by her actions,” which is the way Matthew’s Gospel ends the riddle (11:19). Simply put, Jesus seems to be saying, look at what people do. This echoes a prominent teaching of Proverbs, that by their actions people will be known as being wise or foolish. One wonders if that crowd ever figured out that wisdom is available to all sorts of people, including sinners, apparently. As David Ford writes Christian Wisdom, an exceptionable book, wisdom has many children. To explain further, Ford notes that the little word “all” in Luke 7:35 stresses “the diversity of the children and how hard it can be to see the family likeness” (p. 15).

There is also this affirmation of wisdom in relation to human mutuality in the epistle of James, a letter attributed to a brother of Jesus: “If any of you is deficient in wisdom, let him ask God for it, who gives with open hand to all men” (1:5; Weymouth New Testament). This epistle carries so many features of the Hebrew wisdom tradition that its author, says wisdom scholar Ben Witherington, “has a commitment to a typical Wisdom agenda” (Jesus the Sage; p. 237.)

I think I’ve said enough for now, to get some conversation started, about the wisdom norms of peaceableness and human mutuality. See “Leave a reply,” below.

So far in this series of posts on the wisdom tradition, we have seen that its literature reveals wisdom as an agency of shalom (well-being, wholeness, flourishing) and of human unity-in-diversity. This has helped me immensely to understand why reliance on wisdom is a vital means to enable Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others to work cooperatively and peaceably together in their communities, nations, and international relations.

In the next few posts, I would like to move this discussion from the realm of ancient ideas to the contemporary street in order to illustrate some of the challenges that will be faced in our day when trying to actually implement wisdom’s peaceable (shalomic?) way.

WISDOM AND HUMAN MUTUALITY part 4 of 5

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

wisdom traditionIn the previous post, we looked at one of two instances in Proverbs 8 that are noteworthy for understanding the wisdom norm of human mutuality and that raise urgent questions about why we limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. Here we will look at the second instance. The passage is remarkable in its implications.

Wisdom, again speaking in the first person, reveals: 1) her presence with God before the process of creation, (2) her presence during the process of creation, and 3) her presence in the inhabitable world among human beings.

I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. . . . I was there when he [God] set the heavens in place . . . when he gave the sea its boundaries . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth. . . . I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in [all] mankind [bene ‘adam] (8:25-31).

Among scholars, this may be the most debated passage in all of the wisdom literature. We’re not going into that debate here, but it does seem safe to conclude that the creative task wasn’t any sort of drudgery! The image is one of the great joy that Lady Wisdom had in God and in creation, and in the great delight she took in human beings. How contrary this is to some words from Hamlet on the subject. Having just brilliantly praised man as “the quintessence of dust” – How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! How like an angel! How like a god! – he suddenly turns and declares with disgust, “Man delights me not.” Apparently he was in a bit of a blue funk in that scene. But whatever else the passage in Proverbs conveys, it is not Hamlet’s view.

But what we really need to see is that, in the text, wisdom is being depicted as both personal and relational: to God; to creation; to human beings. In other words, wisdom is not being presented here as any sort of abstract idea, or abstract entity, or as ideological, or as any sort of -ism but, rather, as personal and relational. Again, there is no scholarly consensus on just what this means, and this short post is not the place to start down that road. Ontological difficulties aside, the fact remains that wisdom is portrayed with an otherness that is somehow both personal and relational to God, to all of creation, and to all humankind.

I like the way Hebrew scholar Alan Lenzi puts it. When discussing Proverbs 8, Lenzi writes that wisdom is a personality; she is a “me” (Proverbs 8:22) who speaks at length in her own name, about having been created by God before the beginning of the world, about her primacy in nature, and about her delight in all human life. Lenzi concludes that wisdom is no “intellectual tool or abstract instrument.” She is, instead, a “personal presence” in the world. (Lenzi, “Proverbs 8:22-31: Three Perspectives on Its Composition,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 4, 2006: 687-714; his emphasis.)

diversityIt is both assumed and repeatedly indicted throughout the biblical wisdom literature, in a wealth of images and contexts, that wisdom has a personal relational presence with all human beings, with all of creation, and with God. Because of this strong emphasis, I have summarized this in my writings, elsewhere, as the “wisdom norm of relations.”

It is also important to grasp the kind of mutuality that is being implied in the text. It is not, for instance, uniformity. Neither are human distinctions considered illusory. Nor is the text indicating that human diversity is in a process of being eliminated, such as by being subsumed into a universal sameness. Rather, paradoxically, one might even say miraculously, the text indicates a oneness of humanity in its diversity, and that she, Lady Wisdom, is God’s agency (means) for handling that. Human difference and diversity is a good and praiseworthy thing.

In other words, because wisdom is a vital agency in the holding together and sustaining of a multifarious, variform earth, she is also a vital agency supporting the good, creational unity-in-diversity of human life. As a huge fan of human mutuality, not of uniformity or sameness, wisdom delights in “all humanity” (Proverbs 8:4, 16, 31; 9:4).

As an aside, and although I’m not a expert on the Qur’an, it seems somewhat to correspond in at least two places to the good unity-in-diversity being depicted in the Proverbs 8 text. Surah 5:48, for instance, reads: “Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works.” And Surah 49:13: “We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another” (Pickthall’s translation). (If I’m amiss in recognizing this correspondence, someone say why.)

In the next post we will look at ways in which Jesus and the New Testament affirm the wisdom tradition’s norm of human mutuality.