Finding Life: Thoughts on Wisdom

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Friends: the link to our March 15th, 2020 Sunday morning service is here.

Note: this is the first time we’ve ever done this. We didn’t have good mic placement on the piano, so Mary’s beautiful playing doesn’t come through well. We’ll be working on this and other glitches during the week to improve the overall delivery for the coming weeks.

Here’s the test to the homily:

“At the first, before the beginning of the earth…. / Before the mountains had been shaped, / before the hills, I was brought forth…. When he marked out the foundations of the earth, / I was beside him, like a master worker…. / Happy is the one who listens to me, / watching daily at my gates, / waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life.”[1] The voice of Chokhmah, in Greek Sophia, Divine Wisdom, as reported in the Hebrew book of Proverbs. “Whoever finds me finds life.”

Our March ministry theme is wisdom. My goal in this homily is to offer some thoughts on wisdom that will hopefully serve us well now that the coronavirus has upended our lives.

I offer my reflections fully aware that none of us here—and virtually no one on the planet—has ever lived through a true global pandemic. Anyone alive today who lived during the Spanish flu of 1919 would have been baby or a young child at that time. In response to the coronavirus there’s a lot of good advice out there, and a lot of bad advice. There are people taking it seriously. There are people taking it not so seriously. I’m wondering this morning what Divine Wisdom might have to say about our situation.

The ancient Israelites had multiple traditions of wisdom or chokhmah. At its most basic—what scholars often call traditional Jewish wisdom— chokhmah enabled the ancient Israelites to live with righteousness, justice and equity, as well as shrewdness and prudence.[2] Chokhmah counseled the fear of God and the avoidance of sin.  “My child,” admonished the author of Proverbs, “ if sinners entice you, do not consent.”[3] So, in the very least, traditional wisdom had something to do with knowing right from wrong, with living a moral life.

But Chokmah is more than this. She’s a character, a personality, an entity, a presence, a spirit, a prophetess. In Proverbs she “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.… at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.”[4] She issues warnings and threats to those who fail to heed her call. “But those who listen to me,” she says, “will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”[5]

She says she’s been around since the beginning. “When he established the heavens, I was there,” she says. “When he marked out the foundations of the earth, / then I was beside him, like a master worker;”[6] She’s an ancient divine being. Divine wisdom. Lady wisdom. She’s got power and authority. And she’s got answers. “Whoever finds me finds life!”

I love this assertion that wisdom has been present since the beginning. I imagine that if wisdom is an ancient power, a primordial force, a source of life, it must be pretty simple, pretty basic. It must flow with the regular patterns of nature; it must align with the cosmic order; it must speak to the heart. If wisdom was there at the beginning, then she must also reside in the sun and stars, in mountains, oceans, deserts and jungles, in rivers and rocks, bees, bison and birds. And she must reside in us. I imagine that even as life evolved and grew more and more complex, eventually producing us, still that simple, basic wisdom must have persisted, must have been there all along, must be there still, waiting for us to come to it.

To find wisdom today—the wisdom we need in this moment of global pandemic—we must get back to basics, return to simplicity, notice the obvious, notice what has been with us all along. We must peel back all the complex layers of our modern lives—the busyness, the frenzy, the stress, the competition, the need to get things done—peel it all back and rediscover the simple, pristine truths that lie beneath.

As much as we are unnerved right now; as much as we are frightened, as much as we are anxious, this quarantine time, this social distancing time, this lock-down time, this shut-down time is forcing us to pull back the layers, is forcing us to live more simply, is forcing us to be creative, is forcing us to get back to basics. The 20th-century Chinese writer-philosopher Lin Yutang said something helpful for a moment such as this: Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.[7] He is right. We need to keep things simple now. We need to front only the essentials. That’s the wisdom we need now.

Here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic. So much is cancelled or postponed. So much, including our congregation, is closed down to help prevent the spread of the virus. Many of us are just home now, hunkered down, trying our best to self-quarantine, waiting, figuring out how to pass the time, leaving a great many important things undone. We have very little choice. Though this is truly a crisis, can we also encounter this moment as an opportunity to live wisely?

The Unitarian Universalist religious educator, Lynn Ungar, beautifully expressed this opportunty in her poem, “Pandemic,” which she published this past Wednesday.

 

What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath—

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now, 

on trying to make the world

different than it is. 

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.

 

And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

 

Promise this world your love–

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

 

So what are the basics? The essentials? Perhaps now that we cannot be in each other’s physical presence, now that we must practice social distancing, we will learn, in a very pure and simple way, the wisdom of making and sustaining deep connections with each other, with family and friends, with neighbors. Perhaps now we will come to understand, in a new way, why our connections matter so much. Because surely they will carry us through this crisis.

Perhaps now we will learn, in a very pure and simple way, the wisdom of centering and caring for the most vulnerable people in our midst, such that simple actions like washing our hands, bumping elbows, coughing into tissues, disinfecting surfaces, and simply staying home, are all expressions of our most profound love and compassion for our fellow human beings.

Perhaps now we will learn, in a very pure and simple way, the wisdom of paying attention to the present moment, the wisdom of really knowing our surroundings, the wisdom of being patient, the wisdom of going slowly, relaxing, resting, settling in.

Perhaps now we will learn, in a very pure and simple way, the wisdom of truly valuing our time, making it sacred, making every moment matter.

Perhaps now, through this learning, we will find life.  

Friends, we cannot escape this time of pandemic. So in the very least, let’s not squander what it has to teach us. Let’s listen for Chokhmah, for Sophia, for Divine Wisdom. May we now get back to basics, to the essentials: Connections, compassion, presence, patience, treating our time sacred.

In doing so may we feel that ancient breeze blowing from the foundations of the world. May we find life.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Excerpts from Proverbs 8: 23-35a.

[2] Excerpts from Proverbs 1: 3-4.

[3] Proverbs 1: 10.

[4] Proverbs 1: 20-22a.

[5] Proverbs 1: 33.

[6] Proverbs 8: 27-31.

[7] The quote appears here: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/5894-besides-the-noble-art-of-getting-things-done-there-is. It comes from his book, The Importance of Living. Learn more about Lin Yutang at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lin-Yutang and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lin_Yutang.