Just Enough Wisdom

591965465When the dynamic movement of life leads us to the point where the lessons of yesterday are not enough, it is the Holy Spirit who whispers the wisdom that will take us into tomorrow …. Gospel of John 16:12-15 …. sermon for Trinity Sunday …. click image to link, courtesy of IAISI, gettyimages.com

Have you ever tried to teach someone something before they’re ready to learn it? For instance, I’m in the church office with someone who wants to photocopy a document. I start to tell them how they can print two-sided copies, or staple and sort. But all they really want is to know is which button to push to get one copy. My daughter calls to say that she and her husband are buying a house. I start to tell her about contract contingencies, house inspections and maintenance considerations, negotiating a good loan rate and terms. But all she really wants is to share her joy about the neighborhood, the yard, and the spacious covered porch.

Before you laugh too much, let me suggest this is a common phenomenon.  We all know there are people who read the instructions before they start anything, and people who read the instructions only as a last resort.  People in the first group give people in the second group instruction manuals, and lists of detailed directions.  But until the people in the second group feel the NEED to learn, they will not. From my perspective as an habitual reader of instructions, I’m starting to see that it’s ok NOT to know ALL the instructions, it’s ok to have less than a firm grasp of ALL the details.

When I consider the context of the words recorded in the 16th chapter of John, I believe that if the disciples had known ALL the details, it would have been more than they could bear. It was Passover Eve, and what was going to happen during the next three days would turn their world upside down. Jesus had shared a meal with them, and washed their feet. Judas had departed for a fateful meeting to betray Jesus. In the calm before the storm, Jesus offers guidance so loving and so true that later, after the shock, someone will be able to remember most of it, and commit it to writing. In the Upper Room, Jesus  says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”

There are different layers of meaning in Jesus’ words.

At one level, Jesus is saying, “You cannot understand now.”[1] This is the level of thought and rationality, where we often function when talking about God revealed in scripture as three persons of one substance. It’s as if Jesus is saying that God, who exists independent of time, must convey information slowly to disciples constrained by time. As God has been revealed through the person of the Father, and is revealed through the person of the Son, so God will be revealed through the person of the Holy Spirit. You cannot understand now, but when the Spirit comes, the blank will be filled, the light will snap on, and you, my disciples, will finally get it.

At another level, Jesus speaks with knowledge of resistance in the hearts of his disciples, who filter out what does not fit their expectations.  Not so long ago they had witnessed the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Just days earlier, they had entered Jerusalem, met by crowds singing praises to the one who had performed this mighty sign. Now Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure, and he is saying it was going to be messy. How can he tell them about the trials to come? How can he tell each of them the places to which God’s call will lead them, the sacrifices they will make to share Good News, and the physical suffering they will endure from God’s enemies.  It would have been more than they could bear.  Eugene Peterson, in the Message Bible, translates Jesus’ words this way: “I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now.”

That’s the way it is with us. We sacrifice and save, work and wait. Then:

  • After the glory of the graduation, no job can be found;
  • After the magic of the wedding, there’s no harmony;
  • After the joy of the birth, there’s the responsibility of parenting;
  • After the excitement of a new home, there’s making repairs and paying bills;
  • After the prestige of the promotion, there are the long hours of work at night and on weekends;
  • After the satisfaction of retirement, a health crisis emerges;
  • After the excitement of our facility design development, there’s still the prospect of sorting, selling, recycling, moving, storing, abating, demolishing, and figuring out temporary routines of weekly worship and daily ministry.

If, at the moment of our baptism, confirmation, or conversion, God would reveal all the challenges in our future, then it would be more than our fragile emotions could stand.

The schedule of lectionary readings for today presents us with the eighth chapter of Proverbs. At first glance, it may seem like an odd choice for Trinity Sunday, the second Sunday in Pentecost.  But a deeper look into Old Testament studies reveals the way in which wisdom is assigned a female gender; in the poetic language of Proverbs 8 “Wisdom” is personified in a way comparable to a goddess in other traditions. A deeper look into church history reveals the ways in which Wisdom has been closely associated with the Holy Spirit.  It’s probably not correct to draw an equal sign between “Holy Spirit” and “Wisdom,” but certainly there is a strong connection between the two. When the sentences Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago are not enough to guide us, it is the Holy Spirit who is able to lead us into all the truth. When the dynamic movement of life leads us to the point where the lessons of yesterday are not enough, it is the Holy Spirit who whispers the wisdom that will take us into tomorrow.

Earlier this month, I sat down with all the notes I’ve been taking from meetings about the many details related to moving out of this building and into a new one. It took time and energy, but eventually I arrived at a bare outline of the major tasks and order.  I rely upon many people like Jerry B. and Dave L. to take that skeleton of an outline, and put flesh on it.  As they do, they remind me of things to be done that I haven’t thought of, perhaps haven’t imagined. I believe it will be that way for all of us: each of us will be able to understand well some of the work for which we are gifted and empowered, but none of us will be able to understand all of it.

As I said earlier, I’m starting to see and feel that it’s ok NOT to know ALL the instructions, it’s ok to have less than a firm grasp of ALL the details.  Like the disciples, I couldn’t bear to know about all the instructions at once, or endure too many details in rapid succession.  But given the partial picture we do know, we move forward in faith, trusting in the One who knows all, who will declare to us the things that are to come when the time is ripe for us to learn them.

In life, as in church planning, prayer is a key to discerning the voice of the Spirit: an attitude of humble openness and trust in God’s provision opens our ears. We may find the Spirit in moments of clarity and certainty, but also in moments of doubt.  We may find the Spirit not only when we know success, but also when we experience failure.  We may find the Spirit not only in times when everything seems perfectly pleasant, but also, says the text, in times when going is painfully difficult.

That’s enough to ponder for one day.  Jesus has many more things to say to us … but we cannot bear them now.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol 29A in The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1970, p. 707.


~ by JohnH1962 on May 24, 2016.