In the Way of the Wise How

joys of homeworkI have been thinking lately about “goals,” probably due to the sense of accomplishment I recently felt with the publication of a new book – one that had been a goal of mine for forty years!

I’ve also been thinking that we live in a time when the setting of goals has become a big thing. A career change. A post-grad degree. A wife. A husband. Two children. An adoption. A new car. Acquire three new clients. Start my own business. Publish an article or a book. Lose forty pounds. Create a website. Run for public office. Make that Olympic team (well, maybe just the college team). You get the picture. Any list of things to get or places to be would run as long and as varied as the people asked.

Leaving aside a discussion of whether a goal is dubious, or whether such and such a person ought to have set such and such a goal, I’m going to assume, here, that the goal is a good one, and doable, for the person in question. Even so, the question of how to reach the goal then becomes is crucial for anyone, especially for Christians, who serve a God who is certainly interested in the end result!

The ways we travel
The God of the end, however, is also the God of the way. God is keen not only about the omegas we seek but also with the ways we travel to get there. This is a huge theme of the book of Proverbs, especially in 3:17, which speaks of the “ways” and “paths” of wisdom. The decisive use of the plural must not be missed. Wisdom, here, is being presented not just as one way but as having many ways (paths). This use of the plural may seem counterintuitive because we Christians follow “the way” (John 14:6), Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). Doesn’t Proverbs 3:17 contradict that? How can there be many paths of wisdom?

the better angels of our natureUnlike John 14:6, Proverbs 3:17 is not a soteriological passage. To put it another way, whereas John 14:6 is about God’s way of salvation, Proverbs 3:17 is about God’s ways for directing our travels through life’s daily grinds, which are many and varied. For different goals in this world are, and must be, reached via different methods. When three people have three different goals, or even if one person has several goals, they are reached via different methods. You don’t hunt for a house to rent, or to buy, in the same way you plant your garden or run for an elected office. You don’t use the same method to get your post-grad degree as you would to court your future spouse (I hope not!).

The book of Proverbs admonishes us to come under the discipline of the yoke of the wise how, to let wise ways, not foolish ways, direct our steps.

The first nine chapters of Proverbs, for instance, may be summarized as a test of wills between those who will choose to follow the wise ways of Lady Wisdom, which lead to life (Proverbs 3:18), or the foolish ways of Lady Folly, which lead to death: “Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths…. Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death” (Proverbs 7:25-27).

So that is the first thing: choosing and then traveling a way, a path, of godly wisdom for reaching a particular goal we have set. The question then becomes: What is a way, a path, of godly wisdom toward a particular goal? How do we come under the discipline of the wise how?

I pose this question because a huge industry, populated with self-help gurus and ultra-achievers, among others,  has arisen devoted to offering many and varied methods for reaching goals.

When following a method, how do we discern if anything is biblically unacceptable in its ideas, values, means, strategies, and steps to fulfilment?

The answer will depend on how much time, effort, and resources we put into thinking biblically about how we will get to a goal and what is taking place along the way. Admittedly, discrimination of this kind – between the biblical and the unbiblical – can be a tricky business for any Christian. After all, how does one think biblically about choosing a PhD program or running for election or buying a new car? If the teaching arm of our church has not given us the tools for learning to think biblically about the importance of our methodologies, well then…. Non-biblical ideas, attitudes, and values will fill the vacuum.

I want to draw attention to what I call two inconspicuous essentials of God’s wisdom, which can help us recognize if our travels toward a goal has the feel of a wise how.

Peaceableness
One of these essentials is peaceableness. To return to Proverbs 3:17: The ways of wisdom are pleasant and her paths are paths of peace. The word “ways,” here, is about the means taken or the procedures followed to an end. In short, it is about method. The word “peace” is the venerable Hebrew word shalom (well-being; flourishing). And in the New Testament, the epistle of James (also at 3:17) indicates that the wisdom that comes from above is peace-loving, as well as considerate, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. That kind of wisdom is contrasted to the kind that is bitter, envious, and filled with selfish ambition, strife, and disorder (3:14-16).

I think the message, here, is that if God’s peace is setting the spirit and tone of whatever method we are applying to reach a goal, then patience, sympathy, mercy, good fruit, even-handedness, and sincerity are traveling with us along the way.

It would be a good practical exercise, then, to spend time answering questions about whether those qualities, or the ones James calls envy, selfish ambition, and strife, are refereeing a particular method we are relying on. It’s not that we will be perfectly consistent epistles of the qualities of a godly wisdom, but surely we ought to be making progress with them. Is their influence pretty strongly felt as we work toward fulfilling a goal?

It’s a personal thing
The other inconspicuous essential of God’s wisdom is its personal-relational quality. In Proverbs 8:25-31, wisdom is described as having some sort of personal, or personal-like, relationship with God, with the creation, and with human beings. Note also that this triune relationship is described as one of delight, of rejoicing, and of pulling together:

“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 mankind” (Proverbs 8:25-31).

Due to its ontological difficulties, this may be the most debated passage by scholars in all of the wisdom literature. We’re not going to enter that debate here. I just want to underline the fact that wisdom is being presented here as having some sort of personal relational presence with God, with creation, and with human beings. (This is assumed repeatedly throughout the biblical wisdom literature in a wealth of images and contexts.)

skill in wisdomIn other words, wisdom is not presented in Scripture as any sort of abstract edifice of thought, such as an ideology or an -ism but, rather, as personal and relational. 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.)

Since our relationships with others give us a big clue as to whether the peace of God is present in them, the relationships we have with those who are assisting us toward our goals can help us discern if we are in the path of a wise how.

If the triune relationship that Lady Wisdom has with God, creation, and human beings is enjoyable, delightful, and pleasant, are those qualities present within biblical boundaries in our pursuit of a goal?

This is not to suggest that struggles, disappointments, setbacks, failures, and suchlike will not befall us. It is to suggest being conscious of what kind of fruit we are bearing through our relationships with those with whom we are traveling to reach a goal.

If your children are suffering due to your training schedule for running the marathon; if your marriage is falling apart because of the way you are pursuing that PhD; if your bull-in-a-china-shop method for getting a promotion is making enemies of fellow employees; if you’re running out of patience with your guitar instructor; if you have become chronically unhappy with your fiancé … You get the picture. Is it time to hit Pause and admit that a course correction is necessary?

This short article on a complicated topic probably evoked more questions than solutions. But maybe it’s a start.

When we mis-prioritize “goal” as being the main thing, it is easy to de-prioritze the essentiality of learning and applying a godly wisdom for getting there.

It is a governing theme of Scripture that God is particularly concerned with wisdom, and wisdom is to a large degree about method, about how we get somewhere. For the follower of Jesus – the supreme example of the peaceable, the personal, and relational – the way of wise how must be recognized and prioritized when traveling to get somewhere or something.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images by permission of Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

When Our Wisdom Amounts to Nothing

human eyeA long time ago through the prophet Jeremiah, God gave a word to the people of Jerusalem about the condition of their social life. Even though that word was the result of a divine finding, it didn’t sit well for a people who had concluded that their social life was pretty darn good. But in the eyes of Yahweh, according to the prophet, the people’s social life had become generationally organized around deceit, dishonesty, and greed; from the top down they were a shameless, wayward community, a false witness to the law of the Lord:

“Why is this people–Jerusalem–rebellious
With a persistent rebellion?
They cling to deceit.
They refuse to return.
I have listened and heard;
They do not speak honestly.
No one regrets his wickedness
And says, ‘What have I done!’
They all persist in their wayward course
Like a steed dashing forward in the fray….
My people pay no heed
To the law of the Lord….
From the smallest to the greatest,
They are all greedy for gain;
Priest and prophet alike,
They all act falsely.”
(Jer. 8:4-10; JSB, Tanakh translation)

From the top down, the people had created and followed huge edifices of religious and political thought that justified sins that were not only tearing their social fabric apart but also making them so delirious that they could not see that they were about to face the death of their culture. The human capacity for self-deception being without limit, the people are not conscious of their movement toward the cliff. Instead, relying on edifices of thought based on distortions of the law of the Lord, they have a different way of seeing their social life. They believe all is well. But Yahweh sees things quite another way. And you would have to be pretty numb indeed not to hear the breaking heart of God for the people in a very intimate moment Yahweh has with Jeremiah:

“They dress the wound of my people
As though it were not serious.
‘Shalom, shalom,’ they say, where there is no shalom.
Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
They do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
They will be brought down when they are punished.”
(Jeremiah 8:11-12, NIV)

As one season of the year surely follows another, the word “wisdom” in Scripture is meant to put us in mind of the strong influence that our ideas and beliefs exert over our behaviors and our actions. In other words, “wisdom” in Scripture, among other things, denotes a way of seeing life and living in it. And of course St. Paul and St. James remind us that there are different kinds of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:9; James 3:13-18). Jeremiah is saying that at the heart of a culture’s social sins lies a bogus way of seeing life and living in it, a bankrupt wisdom. It becomes a way of life for the people, and it has been spread by both the writings and the speeches of religious authorities and political leaders in particular, as the following words of Jeremiah indicate.

In an age when our social life is so often associated with deceit, dishonesty, greed, and a lack of shame, from leadership right the way through the citizenry, maybe we ought to take to heart these words of Jeremiah about wisdom, that God may have mercy on us, that our social policies may be those of a godly wisdom, that we may be spared the death of our culture:

“How can you say, ‘We are wise,’
And we possess Instruction from the Lord?’
Assuredly, for naught has the pen labored,
For naught the scribes!
The wise shall be put to shame,
Shall be dismayed and caught;
See, they reject the word of the Lord,
So their wisdom amounts to nothing.”
(Jeremiah 8:8-9, JSB, Tanakh translation)

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Cesar R, permission via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

“Odd Man Out” is Out

odd-man-out-cs-bk-coverAfter a year of steady writing and then several unexpected publishing delays, I’m glad to  say that Odd Man Out has now been published. You’ll find that its style is a departure from what you are used to reading from me. None of my previous books were autobiographical, nor are most of the articles I write, including what appears on this blog. Instead, Odd Man Out is a short, honest, true story of what was by far the strangest ten-year period of my life.

It begins in Detroit, my hometown, in the late 1960s, when I had lost all faith in the American Dream. In its place, I turned to the spiritual values and interests of what was then called the Age of Aquarius, becoming one if its staunchest practitioners and preachers. That lifestyle sent me into strange places of the spirit, where I made major life-decisions that seemed sweet but turned so sour.

I was often on the road those years, and by July, 1976, the month that Americans were partying big time, celebrating the nation’s bicentennial, I was living like a hermit in southern California and had only the flimsiest grip on reality. Odd Man Out recounts those years when I was an Aquarian dreamer and how that lifestyle eventually left me in bitter disappointment on the beaches of southern California where, to my complete shock, I found myself in the throes of a conversion that revolutionized my life.

Okay, Strohmer, enough of the sales pitch! I’ll shut up now and end here with this short bit from the book, which describes one of several turning point events that shaped big decisions I made. This event took place when I was nineteen years old and have decided to begin what I called “the search for Truth with a capital T.” Following that path over the next several years will take me far away from participating in the American Dream. But at nineteen I’m still waffling, considering certain costs. There was much less waffling after the morning I totaled the Corvette. From the book:

“It is the autumn of 1969. I now have six siblings, three brothers and three sisters, all younger, and my parents have recently moved the family to southern California. But there are two exceptions to the familial upheaval, myself and a sister; we continue living in Detroit. For several weeks following the big move, our gray brick house on Kinloch in Redford Township remains empty, and I still have my key to the place. One Saturday morning I meet a friend there.

“Rick is helping me cart off what remains of my possessions to my new digs, a cheap but roomy four-bedroom flat on Telegraph Road in west Detroit. The empty house is strangely quiet. Rick and I are upstairs in my bedroom, a long rectangular space with wood floors that is now empty. Almost.

“I find the car, thick with dust and cobwebs, stashed deep within the rafters behind a wall of the bedroom. I had forgotten all about it. I haul it out, along with other objects from my childhood, which, if memory serves, included a small wicker basket, a beat up old suitcase, and a shoe box containing kiddie Valentine cards, some baby photos, and whatnot. The heavy baseball bat I do remember.

What about this? Do you want to take it? Rick asks, shoving the car, which skids along the hardwood floor into the middle of the empty room.

I don’t know.

“Today, that large, scale model of a white 1953 Corvette roadster is a sought-after collector’s item, itself loaded with symbolic value of the American Dream. I had received it as a gift when I six or seven. The sleek white convertible with its red interior stretched about a foot-and-a-half long, from its big, toothy chrome grille to its two tiny round tail lights. At one time it had working headlights and other ‘real car’ features that made me the envy of childhood friends.

“I wiped the dust from Corvette with a piece of old cloth and pondered its fate. Clearly it is the one thing of material value of mine that remains in the house.

“We see the heavy baseball bat at the same time. Like some Old Testament prophet acting out a piece of performance art, I grab it from the doorway and walk back to the center of the room and stand over the car. The American Dream scatters into a million pieces on the hardwood floor.”

To see more about Odd Man Out, including the current Editorial Reviews, in the US, please go to this page on Amazon.com. In the UK and Europe, please see this page.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

“I Have a Vision”

child reading a BibleI Have a Vision
John R. Peck

    Of a church whose worship seeks out all the resources of its members and utilizes all their skills.

Where the hymns are sung with zest, perception, and expression, and accompanied by every instrument anyone can play, including hands, and feet, and smiles. And where the unfamiliar music of another generation is learned until it is loved.

A church witdiplomacyh liturgies that are never mechanical, and spontaneity that is never trivial.

Where the least of its meetings are conducted like royal appointments, and its greatest days are marked with solemn hilarity.

Where organisational efficiency is always at the service of caring love.

Where even poor efforts are done with painstaking diligence, and commended with tolerant hope.

Where brilliance of mind or skill only serves to light up Jesus Christ and His Gospel; where no one can hog the limelight, no one gets too much attention, and no one gets left out.

Of a church were outsiders get as much welcome as old friends; were no one stands alone unless they need to; where the awkward ones are accepted, and the pleasant ones are disturbed by hard realities.orange flower

Where the first to hear a complaint is the offender, and the last to air it is the sufferer.

Where people’s interests are worldwide, without being worldly, and personal without being petty.

I have a vision of a church which shares an invincible passion for learning and giving, whose life is energised by a glad acceptance of the Cross as a way of life.

Whose self-critical humor puts people at ease, and whose self-denials disturb and brace them.

flower starWhose sympathy is so warm and imaginative that no one has the nerve to indulge in self-pity; and whose ideals are so high that slightly soiled notions are shamed into silence.

Whose convictions are firm without being rigid; whose tolerance extends even to the intolerant; whose life is a admonition, whose love learns even from its opponents, and whose faith is infectious.

I have a vision of a church that is like that because from time to time it hears its John Peck smilingRedeemer’s voice speak with such authority that nothing will do but obedience, nothing matters but God’s love, and others coming in can only wonder, and wish, and ask. . .

John R. Peck, B.S., A.L.B.C.
March, 1979
Earl Soham, Suffolk, England

 

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons permissions. John Peck photo by Ann Horn.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

“There Are No Ordinary People”

refugee tent city [Klaus Reisinger]These are demanding times for Christians who are committed to loving neighbor as they love themselves. It is becoming increasingly easy to slip into less exacting paths. I am glad that our pastor has been addressing this theme in various ways in a number of sermons in recent months. C. S. Lewis, a highly regarded Christian thinker and writer, also took it on. In a sermon titled “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis offered a stunning insight about loving neighbor, which he delivered during a period of world history when division, conflict, and war offered a steady diet of hate for the soul.

A similar diet is being dished out to our generation – and you know that what you eat you are. Having eaten enough to hate our enemy, we are now being fattened to ignore another of Jesus’ commands: love of neighbor. Why bother loving our neighbor and loving our enemy? Indeed, if we are not being loved I return, why bother? Lewis grappled with this during World War Two. Here, in that inimitable way he had, are his concluding remarks in “The Weight of Glory”:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

“All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image of Tent City by Klaus Reisinger via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

“The Snow Forgives Us”

snow in backyardSeveral inches of snow blanketed the ground and it was still falling as I drove to the Wednesday evening fellowship. The forecast called for 8-10 inches by midnight, and I believed it. But suburban Detroit is virtually bereft of hills and S-turns, and the large fleet of salt trucks with their huge plows had cleared the main roads. So no one who grew up in Detroit, as I had, fretted about driving here in this weather. You learned to drive cautiously and pay attention. If you did, most likely you would get there, and back again, on the flat terrain. And you remembered the enormous salt mine under the sprawling city.

I expected the usual crowd at Jeannie’s spacious house, and wasn’t disappointed. She lived there with her very cute, precocious 4-year old daughter, Heather. Fifty to sixty people could worship and fellowship comfortably in the large basement. I parked my rusty old Chevy 4-door a block away and crunched along through deep snow that was everywhere sparkling at me from the ground.

Sometime during the worship or preaching – I don’t remember why – I left the basement and went back upstairs. Nobody was there. But as I crossed the dimly lit living room, I saw Heather standing in rapt silence by the large sliding glass doors that looked out into the backyard. I slid quietly alongside to have a look.

What a sight met my eyes! Twelve hours earlier while driving downtown to work, I had seen the world differently. Roads soiled by the traffic of cars that dripped oil. Fast food debris discarded along curbs. Lawns yellowed in dormancy awaiting their green spring. Sidewalks cracked through neglect. Cigarette buts stubbed out and flicked aside. But, now! Snow covered all the ugly. Man’s detritus – indeed, all earth itself – lay covered. And it was still being covered.

Millions of snow flakes were falling gently and quickly past the bright outdoor lights that lit up the yard. They glittered and twinkled like I imagine the wings of angels will sparkle with colors when I see them.

I too now gazed in rapture. This was another world. Not just covered but adorned.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I whispered.

“The snow forgives us,” she said.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by David Pinkney via Creative Commons.

Puzzled About Making New Year’s Resolutions?

puzzled

Thinking about resolutions for the new year? Thinking: Nah, they never work for me?

Here’s a talk by John Peck that just might be your solution: http://revpeck.com/2016/12/29/good-resolutions/