© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
Many of you have seen and remember the recent Academy Award nominated movie “Precioius.” It is not an easy film to watch. It portrays an overweight, African-American girl, living in a housing project with her embittered, welfare abusing mother, who regularly beats and taunts her daughter. Precious has already given birth to a Down’s syndrome daughter – the result of being raped by her father. And she is once again pregnant – also the offspring of her own father. Precious is functionally illiterate, an un-wed mother, overweight, a sexual abuse victim, poor and trapped in a life that seems to have nowhere to go but further down. As a final punch in the viewer’s gut, we discover along with Precious that she has tested HIV positive – also a result of being raped and sexually abused by her father. I still choke up when I think about this young girl asking plaintively of her teacher, “why me?” This dark and horrifying portrayal of life in an urban hell is not pretty nor is it unrealistic. There are young girls like Precious who walk by these very doors. Pete and Ginny Patterson worked with girls like Precious and she is like the homeless young adults at Anthony House we help to serve.
My point in reminding myself and all of us about the reality of such pain and suffering is to partially rebuke the easy and simplistic message I have offered and one might take away from my message series this month. In this series, entitled “The Times of Our Lives: Spiritual Awakening, Transformation and Wisdom”, I discussed over the last two Sundays the concepts of awakening and then being transformed by the realization that life is not about us. Our purpose in life is not to serve ourselves but to serve and love others.
As I have contemplated that ideal over the past week and in my research for today’s message on spiritual wisdom, I realized that it is so simple and so nice to dispense such platitudes like the importance of forgiveness and sacrifice. How nice and yet how utterly arrogant that message is to those – to any of you – who have truly suffered. How dare I, or anyone else, tell someone like a Precious Jones that life is not about them? There are people in this world – perhaps in this very room – who have never had the opportunity to feel like one moment of their lives was comfortable or enjoyable or even remotely about them. For many of us, including myself, the facile platitudes and messages about life that often come out of Scriptures or spirituality are what make us cringe when we consider organized religion. “Let go and let god” is one such platitude. “Die to yourself” is another – both of which I too easily offered the past two Sundays. Try offering those messages to a starving, homeless child in Haiti or to a poor, unwed mother living just blocks from here!
And yet, I find I cannot totally reject the seemingly simplistic notion of self-sacrifice or serving others. Indeed, that is the one beautiful moment in the film “Precious” when she embraces her Down’s syndrome daughter and her newborn son and finds strength, redemption and, I think, spiritual wisdom in her decision to love and care for them. Precious chooses to love and care for her children while she also embarks on an effort to educate herself. She refuses to be a victim much like her mother had become. As the film ends, Precious walks into the future as a survivor and as one possessing innate wisdom. Perhaps, then, platitudes have elements of wisdom within them which, when spoken in the right context, have meaning and truth.
What, I ask you then, is spiritual wisdom? If my simple platitudes of service and sacrifice and forgiveness can ring hollow and yet contain a germ of truth, are they wise? Can they enlighten us? At some point in our lives, I believe we all find a certain imperfect spiritual wisdom about life and meaning. We are awakened to a new reality that life is not about us, we transform our lives to act out that new understanding and then, after living some years as a newly changed person, we often realize all of our conclusions are not so easy, so simple or so perfect. We find wisdom to be something complex, elusive and holistic.
In my messages the past two Sundays I encouraged us to deny ourselves and to love and serve others as our purpose in life. Yet, even Jesus said that we should love others as we love ourselves. How can we love someone else if we cannot love our own selves? How can we serve another if have not first met our own needs to give us the strength to give? Buddhists encourage gentleness with the self in terms of recrimination or self-denial. In serving others, we must find context and nuance. By encouraging, fostering and meeting our basic individual needs, we can better serve, love and care for others. We find, then, that true spiritual wisdom regarding serving others is not so easy. Dying to the self must be undertaken within the context of dying to selfishness. It must then be coupled with a holistic appreciation for our Divinely inspired abilities to help others.
It is the very complexity of finding wisdom that I believe brings us here every Sunday. Such is one purpose that the Gathering serves and which I believe makes this congregation unique. Andre Gide, a famous French philosopher, once said “Believe those who are seeking wisdom; doubt those who find it.” Such a statement humbles me. As a Pastor, I have no more insight into what is wisdom then any of you. What I offer on any given Sunday is, I hope, more thought provoking then it is conclusive. It is in our collective wisdom and in our continuous search for it that we find glimpses of profound insight.
Spiritual wisdom is also inclusive. It is multi-faceted. It incorporates many traditions and many beliefs. It is NOT exclusive. True wisdom must, I believe, be open to many sources of insight. Those who are wise have learned and listened to many people, they have read and considered many books and pieces of knowledge, they look to the secular and to the religious, they accept inspiration from the Muslim, from the Hindu, from the conservative and the liberal. Wisdom accepts the ironic possibility that it is not always right and that it is not yet perfect.
If wisdom is open to other insights, then it is reasonable to assert spiritual wisdom is ever evolving and ever changing. John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. Those who look only to the past or to the present are certain to miss the future.” And Kennedy has perfectly stated the progressive ideal in which I believe true wisdom lies. I do not assert a political statement but an attitude we must all seek. Progressivism moves into the future with confidence and not fear. It accepts new knowledge and new traditions and new sources of wisdom without necessarily throwing out all of the old. This is an ideal for us here at the Gathering as we move into unchartered territory of change and growth. If we choose to remain as we have been, we have chosen safety and comfort over the potential for finding new sources of wisdom. Many of you heard and appreciated Lisa Blankenship and her sharing last week. She and her partner Genevieve are relatively new members here. If we forestall progressive but reasonable growth, and seek instead to hold onto what we have now, how many future Lisa’s and Gen’s and Bob’s and Dick’s and Debi’s and Donald’s – and their wisdom – might we be closing ourselves off to hearing from and listening to? I believe genuine wisdom is therefore open to change.
Those who have arrived at a point of being spiritually wise are also listeners more than they are talkers. They appreciate silence and reflection. On this point philosophers and prophets throughout history have agreed. One anonymous author wrote, “To appear wise, one must talk; to be wise, one must listen.” D.J. Kaufman, a noted contemporary thinker, says, “Wisdom is the reward for a lifetime of listening.” And the Biblical book of Proverbs asserts “Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who listen and take advice.” How often do we consider those who dispense lots of facts or opinions as wise? In truth, we frequently discover that it is the person who listens more than speaks who holds the key to wisdom. Listening and appreciating silence is an attitude of our hearts that involves a desire to be present and to seek enlightenment. Tom Nauer wrote in a wonderful poem of his, entitled “The Beauty of Silence”, “Within my being resides a knowing, which is only now in the process of showing. Tranquility, serenity, mental fertility, the beauty in a silence of knowledgeability.”
As Tom noted in his poem, in our silence we find an inherent knowing of wisdom. In silence we can hear and feel the Divine. She speaks to us without sound and without words. Her voice is found in the stillness of our souls as we ponder and sense the universe all around us and within us. In this manner, as I spoke last week, we find the imageo dei – the image of god – who is us. We are god and she is us. What profound feelings of love and beauty and oneness with all creation are found in being still? Genuine spiritual wisdom therefore involves a choice to listen, to be still, to be present and to be silent.
I believe the wise are also those who know themselves. They are self-aware. With their flaws, the wise understand where they need to grow and to change. They are therefore quick to know when they have acted inappropriately – with anger, neglect or cruelty. They readily offer apologies and seek reconciliation. They are emotionally stable in that they are empathetic, compassionate, joyful, peaceful and lacking in complaint. The wise also have inner confidence and they understand their innate gifts. They are the truly humble, knowing where they are imperfect and where they are strong. True wisdom, I believe, does not need to boast or show itself for it is secure both in what it does not know and what it does.
For Buddhists, wisdom additionally incorporates non-violence and a lack of anger. To be wise, according to the Buddha, is the highest attribute one can obtain. Wisdom involves being calm, free of fear, content and lacking the desire for material wealth or fame. The wise understand the things that are important in life – friendships, family, peace of mind, health, self-awareness and compassion. Spiritual wisdom for the Buddhist therefore includes an ability to discern one’s true interests from those of the ego and the selfish “me” found in all of us. Such a message is echoed in the Biblical book of Ecclesiates which declares, “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity. All the pleasures that people desire fail to give meaning to their existence.”
While there are as many qualities to being wise as there are opinions on the subject, my final thought on wisdom includes the ability to know when to act. The wise are not merely contemplative or silent. Qualities such as diligence, optimism, hard work and perseverance are evident in the wise. They are not impulsive but wisdom involves sensing when action is important and when it is not. The wise understand the value of action and of work.
Implicit in this message about spiritual wisdom is the danger that I have offered ALL of its qualities. I have not. Inherent in being spiritually wise is being one who is fascinated with the big picture of life, who senses things that are important, who knows what is ethical and what is evil, who understands meaning and who is able to apply wisdom for the enhancement of life for all people and all creatures. But those are merely my thoughts. Spirituality in general is ineffable and mysterious. It is known through the heart and in the soul. It is felt and not known. Spiritual wisdom is much the same. Indeed, wisdom is never the same as mere knowledge. One can be vastly informed and know many things without being wise. And, one can be profoundly wise without having multiple degrees or a mental storehouse of facts and figures. I have known people who are deeply religious because they have exhaustively studied theology and the Scriptures but they are not wise. They can recite the doctrines of all the world’s many faiths and they can quote by memory from the Bible, but they lack spiritual wisdom. Of Popes, Bishops, Doctors of Divinity, Pastors, Rabbis and Imams, these are all titles with worthless spiritual meaning. They are, in truth, false wizards hiding behind a curtain. Instead, we are all Pastors. We are all spiritual persons. We all have the imageo dei written on our hearts, indicating we have inherent spiritual wisdom within us. As much as we can be still and hear the Divine, we can also be still and hear the spiritual wisdom of all eternity – to feel, to love, to walk humbly, to work, to be at peace and to be joyful.