Elusive and Challenging Wisdom

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It was one of my favorite rooms in the entire library, tucked away on the third floor. This small space with a table, four chairs, and one enormous chalk board. I lived there every Saturday, when I would go to map out the formulas and diagrams for my biochemistry classes.

I would fill up the entire board with rough drawings of molecules, of chemical formulas, and physical structures. I even bought colored chalk that would help me see the connections. It was a room where my true science nerd self could just let go…

Of all the chemical and biological processes I explored, none caught my eye like photosynthesis. That light can be converted into the physical structures of functioning and living plants—I was—and remain—completely transfixed.

I mapped all this out, so I can explain it to you. It really is neat. So, plants need light, water, and carbon dioxide to live, to synthesize glucose and tissue. Light enters in the form of photons, these little ‘particles,’ if you will, of light energy…that travel for eight minutes and twenty seconds from the Sun to reach Earth. When it reaches us, there are pigments in the leaves of plants that absorb the light on certain spectrum points. Red and blue are absorbed while green and yellow are reflected—hence, plants are green to our eyes.

The light enters the plant and effects these structures called chloroplasts, within which there are these structures called thylakoids and a fluid filled space called the stroma. The thylakoids convert the energy from the light into chemical energy, which them is carried in molecular form into the stroma where the chemical process takes place for the formation of…glucose, and then starch and cellulose. These sugars and structures, then, make up the leaves, stem, roots of the plant…and it grows. From light, water, and carbon dioxide. Oh, and the waste of this reaction is oxygen, which is very convenient for us.

I can see this entire reaction mapped out on that chalk board. It is so very elegant. That a plant can take light, water, and carbon dioxide and, through chemical reactions, convert that into the stuff needed for living. Elegance.

It is awe-inspiring in its complexity. But, I have to tell you, as elegant as photosynthesis is, and as remarkable as it is in explaining how plants function, it pales in comparison with the beauty of the purple salvia and white calla lilies that my wife carried on our wedding day.

It is a mere shadow of the beauty of the single red rose I placed on my grandmother’s grave when she died.

It doesn’t hold a match to the beauty of the dandelion weeds and clover blossoms that our daughter brings in and puts in little jars in the kitchen window.

Having the knowledge of the complexity of photosynthesis is one thing—and it is a wonderful thing. But delving into the rich, poetic, and beautiful wisdom of the meaning of flowers is another thing entirely.

***

Solomon could have asked for anything. He was the king. Land, riches, glory, conquest, power. But he went another route: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people…”

In Hebrew he asks for a leb shama, a “listening heart.” Above all the things he could have asked for, he asks for this: the ability for his heart to be attuned to the presence of God and the needs of his people. He asks for wisdom.

And, because of this, God was very pleased, giving him more wisdom than any one person had ever “had.”

Wisdom is a tricky thing, I think, because knowledge is so very seductive. Being able to explain things, rationally, is so appealing, especially in our world today where, we hear, “knowledge is power.” But knowledge can also lead one’s ego to jump for joy because, hey!, I know the answer!

But I always wonder: do you know the answer to my question, or do you know the answer to the question that you think I should be asking? Are you really listening to me? Or, are you telling me what you think I should know? This, we know, is a space in which only wisdom can guide—a leb shama, a listening heart.

St. Paul knew this as well, when he wrote his letter to the Ephesians. “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time.” And, “do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

I like the King James Version better on this one. Instead of “Be careful how you live,” the translators of the KJV put in “See then that ye walk circumspectly.” Be diligent. Be mindful, one might say.

“Foolishness” to St. Paul here in this letter is a state without reflection, without mindfulness, without that cultivation of awareness…without that leb shama, that listening heart.

“Understanding,” to St. Paul here is that practice of holding together these parts of ourselves, of our world, that maybe seem to outright contradict each other.   Holding a space for this with our hearts open to seeking the presence of God that flows in us and guides us. This is the essence of discernment, and it goes far beyond a mere rationalistic explanation of how things work. It is indeed the journey from photosynthesis to the beauty of a wedding bouquet.

I love what Rabbi Laurence Kushner described in an interview once (with Krista Tippett), when he was reflecting on the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabalah. He said, “Religion must be more than rationalism, and mysticism offers a space to reflect on the deeper, more complex.” To those who would say that only a certain class or group or order of folks can delve into this space, Rabbi Kushner argues, “a mystic is a person who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, and contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.”

Oh, that’s beautiful. And so true.

Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

And, rather than sit in this space of poetic imagination and leb shama, that space of a listening heart that knows we have to go beyond merely explaining things, those gathered (God love them), ask “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

And look what Jesus does. Rather than stay there in that space of rational explanation, he keeps inviting them in…further and further into the rabbit hole one might say. “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

Oh, boy…..we’re cooking with gas now, as my grandfather would say!

You know, sometimes it does seem that we get thrown in to the deep end of the pool. Life is complex, hard oftentimes. We struggle to make sense of the world around us. Why is my sister so ill?   How do I make sense of his illness? Of why our child was born “this way” rather than “that way.” Of why this happened to her—or me—after she lived a great life. Our faith gets shaken. Sometimes it is reduced to just a wimpy candle in a dark corner in a huge dark room. And we doubt.

But let us never forget that the opposite of faith is not doubt. It’s fear. What if, what if…we’ve been settling for knowledge when wisdom has been reaching out to us—calling out to us—all along? What would happen if we began to explore cultivating our own leb shama, our own listening heart, that is honest, true, not afraid to speak about our pain or confusion or doubts or searching….in other words, to be honest about how we really feel. And, we know that God can take it. More than that, that God wants us to be honest!

What if we listened to Rabbi Kushner, describing how a mystic is “any person who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, and contradictions and discontinuities that assault us every day….might just conceal a hidden unity.”

He’s got the whole world in his hands.

Perfect love casts out all fear.

My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed, says the Lord.

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 15, Year B
I Kings 2; Ephesians 5; St. John 6:51-58
August 16, 2015

 

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