Wisdom in a Traffic Light

This was from a series of sermond my pastor was preaching through the book of Proverbs called “I Need a Sign”

7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  How to Win Friends and Influence People.  How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less.  Never be Sick Again: Health is a Choice, Learn How to Choose It.  Millionaire in 365 Days: The Daily Plan to Getting There.  How to Make a Woman Fall in Love with You: The Fail-Proof Fool-Proof Method.  Every culture has a wisdom tradition—a corpus of writings that pass down from one generation to the next a societies tips of the trade for everything from love to business, health-care to homemaking.  Wisdom is simply the art of living well, and every society has a way of teaching this art to their children.  The ancient Greek wisdom tradition evolved into what we now call Western philosophy.  Our wisdom tradition is represented primarily by the books I just mentioned and magazine and newspaper columns like Dear Abby

The Hebrew wisdom tradition is recorded for us in Proverbs and other books of the Bible that scholars call wisdom literature.  The fundamental assertion of the Hebrew wisdom tradition is the recognition of God as Creator.  God created the world with a certain sets of rhythms boundaries.  The sun rises every morning and sets every evening until summer gives way to winter, winter to spring, spring to fall, and the whole thing starts over again.  Rhythm.  And boundaries: He says to the oceans you can only go this far, no farther.  Even our own bodies are bound within our skin giving us certain limitations in space.  It is the wise man, says Hebrew wisdom literature, who learns to recognize these rhythms and live within these boundaries.  This is a categorical difference between the Hebrew wisdom tradition and ours.  Proverbs are not methods or techniques.  There is no such thing as a fool-proof proverb.  Hebrew wisdom is contextual, it applies differently within different rhythms and boundaries. That’s why contradiction is characteristic of Hebrew wisdom literature.  What is wise in one situation in foolish in another, and vice versa.  So you have to be wise to use wisdom.  Or, Solomon’s way of saying this is: “like a lame man’s legs…is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.” 

So wisdom in the Hebrew tradition is about knowing the rhythms and boundaries in the world of God’s creation.  And we cannot rightly know God’s creation until we know its Creator.  Hebrew wisdom literature, then, is first and foremost about a right relationship with God, which the wisdom literature calls The Fear of the Lord.  And as we are drawn into right relationship with God the Creator, we begin to understand His creation, and as a result we begin to master the art of living well within that creation.  

That’s what Hebrew wisdom tradition has to offer us, and today as we continue to look at the book of Proverbs, our investigation will be centered on three truths.  And these three truths can be illustrated with the three messages of a traffic light.  If we are to be wise, say the Hebrew sages, there are some things we need to stop doing; there are some places in our lives where we need to slow down; and finally there are those places in our lives where we need to move forward.       


Stop Acting Like the World Doesn’t Exist

So we said that the first realization of Hebrew wisdom literature is the recognition of God as creator.  That is to say that God is intimately connected to his creation.  But in the gospels, the revelation goes even further.  Not only is God Creator; he is a participant in creation.  Jesus Christ, God from God, Light from Light, leaves the throne rooms and courtyards of heaven, to join the world of his creation as a squalling little baby.  And that revelation has not always been easy to swallow.  Some people just won’t have this particularity, human ordinariness, bodily fluids.  Birth is painful.  Babies are inconvenient and messy, and there’s a lot of trouble associated with having a baby.  God having a baby?  It’s easy to think of God as Creator of the majestic mountains, roaring oceans, and delicate wildflowers.  But when it comes to the sordid squalor of being human, surley God would keep his distance from that.

Well, it turns out that the ink was barely dry on the stories of Jesus’ birth when people began to put out other stories, more “spiritual” than the ones we find in our gospels.  These stories are recorded in what are called the Gnostic gospels.  The Gnostic gospels were immensely popular in the times of the early Church and people are still writing them today.  In these “gospels” the hard-edged, historical facts of the incarnation are dismissed as crude—God with dirt under his finger nails?  And they’re replaced with something more palatable to sensitive souls.  Jesus was not truly flesh and blood, the Word made flesh, but entered into a human body temporarily to give us the inside scoop on God.  The body taken from the cross was not Jesus at all, but just a costume he borrowed for a few years and then discarded.  That’s the sort of things the Gnostic gospels say.  Jesus was not human at all, not really.  God couldn’t be so closely connected with creation.  Could he?

We may not buy it to that extent, but I’ve gotta tell ya Gnosticism is still a pervasive problem in the Church today.  We’d still rather think of Jesus as someone who came to teach us about our Spiritual lives than someone actually having an effect of the flesh-and-blood-world in which we live and move and have our being.  Because anyone who buys into the Gnostic version of Jesus, is free to live according to that version. 

We do not have to take seriously—that is with eternal seriousness, God seriousness—either things or people.  Anything we can touch, smell, see is not of God in any real or direct way.  We can save ourselves an enormous amount of inconvenience and aggravation if we do not have to take materiality and everydayness so seriously.  Mountains are great if they inspire loft thoughts, but if one gets in the way of my convenience, a bulldozer can take care of that.  People may be glorious, if they are beautiful, well-mannered and boost my self-esteem.  But if they smell badly, don’t function properly, make less money than I do, or don’t even come to Church.  Well there’s no sense bothering with them.  We’ve got more spiritual duties to attend to around here.  So we get to strut our stuff and feel spiritual attending to our souls while the world around us is wandering and lost from Jesus Christ.  And all the while, God screams out to us from the pages of Hebrew wisdom literature: STOP! Look up the light is red! You got to stop pretending that the world does not exist.  We live right here in the one world of God’s creation, and it is the wise man or the wise woman who recognizes that fact.

Slow Down

Author and pastor, John Ortberg tells a story about bathing his kids one night when they’re young enough still to be bathed together.  And any of you who have multiple kids, you know the drill.  There was one kid still in the bath tub, one out and safely in her pjs, and John’s middle daughter, Mallory was out of the tub, but doing what had come to be known in the Ortberg house as the “Dee-Dah Day Dance.”  This consisted of her running around in circles singing “dee-dah day, dee-dah day.”  It was a relatively simple dance, but it expressed great joy!  When little Mallory was too happy to contain herself, when no words could give voice to her euphoria, she had to dance to release her joy, so she did the “Dee-Dah Day dance.”

Well, on this particular night, Ortberg was irritated, so he prods his daughter: “Mallory, hurry up!”  So she did.  She began running around in circles faster and faster and chanting more rapidly now, “dee-dah day, dee-dah day.”  “No,” John shouts, “that’s not what I mean.  Cut the dee-dah day stuff and get over here so I can dry you off.  Hurry!”  And then little Mallory asks her father a profound question: “Why?”  To which he had no answer—he had nowhere to go, nothing to do, no sermon to write, no meeting to attend.  He’s just been so used to hurrying, so stuck in a rut of moving from one task to another, that here was joy, here was life abundant, here was an invitation to the dance, and he was missing it.

John was suffering from a disease, which in our culture has reached the degree of pandemic.  We have hurry sickness.  We don’t just have microwaves, we have a popcorn button on the microwave, because it takes too long to dial 2-0-0.  Not only do we have all the world’s libraries and what used to be a life-time’s worth of research at our finger tips with the internet, we had to have high-speed internet, because we were just wasting too much precious time dialing up.  We eat at McDonalds and Wendy’s, not because they sell “good food” or even “cheap food,” we like it why?  Because it’s “fast food.”  Even when fast food restaurants were introduced, people had to park their cars, go inside, and and take their food to a table.  But now we have Drive Thru Lanes, so families can eat in their vans like nature intended.   We are the culture who invented TiVo, because we couldn’t wait for the re-runs; and instant messaging because email just takes way too long.  We are a culture of Cliff’s Notes, multi-tasking, and liposuction.

But interestingly, our efforts don’t seem to have produced what we’ve been looking for.  An article in Time Magazine recalled that in the 1960s, expert witness was given to a subcommittee of the Senate on time management.  The gist was that in a few years, because of all the advances in technology, people would have to start drastically cutting back on the number of hours per week they worked, or take more vacation, or else retire sooner.  The great challenge, they said, would be for people to find something productive to do with all their free time.  But now, forty years later, I wonder if any of us here would say that the greatest challenge we have in regard to time is what to do with all the excess?  Now matter much we hurry and how fast we move, we have not found ourselves able to grasp the elusive feeling of “timefullness.”

Instead what we find ourselves with is superficiality.  You cannot hurry your way to deep thoughts, deep relationships, or deep prayers—depth always comes slowly.  The most serious symptom of hurry sickness is a diminished capacity to love.  Love and hurry are fundamentally incompatible, because love always take time, and time is the one thing hurried people do not have.  That’s why hurry in one of the greatest enemies of the Christian life; it renders us unable to love.  “For many of us,” writes John Ortberg, “the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith.  It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it.”

And what the Hebrew wisdom tradition has to say to us at this point is just what Mary read for us this morning: turn your ear and be attentive, incline your heart toward wisdom.  Or in other words, look up, there’s a yellow light.  It’s time to slow down.

Here’s a simple test to see of you have hurry sickness.  If you answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, you may be suffering from the symptoms of hurry sickness.

  1. Do you find yourself constantly speeding up daily activities? (counting the number of people in grocery lines, or trying to determine which car will pull away from the red light fastest, talking fast, walking fast, chewing fast).
  2. Do you multi-task? (talk on the phone, or put on make-up while driving).
  3. Do you have too much clutter in your life? (People with hurry sickness are often the ones with datebooks the size of Montana, and they buy all sorts of time-saving gadgets that they never have the patience to figure out how to use).
  4. Are the majority of your relationships superficial?  Think about how many people there are in your life around whom you can let your guard down.
  5. Do you find yourself rushing when there’s no need to?  (Comedian Mitch Hedburg says I get up in the morning and make a bowl of instant oatmeal and then I sit around for a couple of hours.)
  6. Do you set up mock races for other people?  (Come on kids let’s who can who can get dressed the fastest).
  7. Do you experience a loss of gratitude and wonder?
  8. Do you indulge in self-destructive escapes from fatigue (for instance, alcohol abuse, watching too much TV, or downing caffeine).

But here’s the good news!  God has given us a prescription for treating hurry sickness.  It’s called Sabbath rest.  The Bible says that after God created the world, he rested.  And if God can take a day off every once in a while then so can we.  So God concentrates one day out of a week for holy rest.  Sabbath rest takes us back again to the first point of Hebrew wisdom literature.  It teaches us to recognize that God is the creator, and we are not.  On Sabbath, Jews do not create words on a page where there were none.  They do not create a casserole where there wasn’t one.  For one day out of every week, they refrain from creating anything.  And do you know what?  When they wake up the morning after the Sabbath…everything’s fine.  The would can go on with your rushing around to get stuff done.  God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, you’re not!  Take a break.  Kick your feet up for a while.  Look up, there’s a yellow light.

We need to move ahead in our search for wisdom.

Well in our rush, we’ve traded wisdom for information.  So the last thing the wisdom literature has to say to us today is that it’s time to make us the lost ground.  We have to accelerate in our pursuit of wisdom.  Our passage for today reveals one of the most prevalent themes in wisdom literature when it says of wisdom that we are to “seek it like silver, and search for it as hidden treasures.”  I like when Solomon puts it more bluntly and says “Get wisdom!  Whatever else you do, get understanding!”  In other words, look up!  The light is green.  Let’s get a move on.  Get wisdom!  So how do we do it?  How do we get wisdom and understanding?  Well, here are a few pointers.

  1. Read great books.  Not just Mitch Album or John Grisham, but great books, the books that have been time tested.  Read Hemingway and Dickens.  Or better yet, read Luther and Augustine.  Set a goal in 2009 to read ten great books.  Or choose a goal that reasonable for you and your schedule.  Read just five, or two, but listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before us. 
  2. Along the same lines, listen to the elderly.  We do not value the elderly in our society.  We’re quick to put them in nursing homes rather than taking them in.  We right off as senility what once would have rightly passed as wisdom.  But we have a great deal to learn from those who have trod these paths before us.  If anyone knows the rhythms and boundaries of of this world of God’s creation it is they.  We would be wise to listen to them.
  3. Practice.  How will we ever know how to make wise choices if we don’t make some bad ones every now and then?  So take a risk.  I think in church we’re often tempted to relieve our responsibility to action by saying that we’re just seeking God’s will for our lives.  But we know God’s will for our lives don’t we?  God’s will for us is right there in scripture:  Get wisdom!  Whatever else you do, get understanding.  And in order to do that we’re going to have to make some of our own decisions, and even make a few mistakes along the way.
  4. Pray.  James says if you lack wisdom, ask for it.  And like a good Father, God will give us what we need.  Just don’t be surprised if part of that answer is not bailing you out of the consequences of your mistakes. 


So do you need a sign in your life?  Well look up.  There is wisdom for us this morning in the traffic light.  Stop pretending like the world does not exist, because we do live in the world of God’s creation.  And remember that it is God’s creation, not yours, so take a rest.  And finally, get wisdom!  Whatever else you do, get understanding!


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