Friday, September 18, 2009

When Crisis is Opportunity

Our new table of readings brings to us portions of the Bible we have not heard on Sundays. Our first reading today is an example, from the Book of Proverbs, part of the wisdom literature of Judaism. As long as there has been a Christian Bible, the Book of Proverbs has been in it—but you wouldn’t necessarily know that, from Sunday-morning use.

It is a short book about Wisdom, capital W, the wisdom of God. Bringing this wisdom down to earth, the Jewish Bible puts upon wisdom the personhood of a woman. Not a compliant reserved woman keeping her place in a society ruled by men, but a bold, vocal, purposeful, confontative presence like that of a prophet.

She takes to the street and the public square to speak to her world. She tries to shake the simple-minded out of their love for what is easy and nice. She wants to shake the cynicism out of the cynics, and the complacency out of those who reject information and who resist insight that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions.

Hers is an awesome voice. I’m here to confess that I need her to shake me down. I resist change more than I realize. And she got hold of me, last week.

It was the week of changing all our old fluorescent and incandescent fixtures, to accept energy-saving bulbs. St. John’s was the last application to slip under the deadline for 70% funding by the National Grid. God bless our Vestry member Charles for his perseverance and attention to detail.

In a few places, the workers faced modest challenges getting at the old fixtures. No place was quite as resistant to their creative placement of ladders as my office.

You may or may not know my office. Many things have come to roost in my office, over the years. The paper trail of 23 years of pastoring here is extensive, and if it isn’t to be found in Madeline’s office, it’s to be found in mine. And there I have very careful places for crucial records like background checks and Five Wishes end-of-life documents. But when it comes to archiving, my filing system is, you might say, apocalyptic: I figure that on the last day, all that truly matters will rise, as the earth and the heavens shake.

Well, on Thursday they did. On Wednesday, the youngest of the work crew, a fellow named Andrew, drew the straw to confront me with the message that by mid-morning the next day, my desk needed to be cleared off because his crewmate would need to stand on it in order to reach the fixture overhead. And by the way, the piano needed clearing off, too. And the chest of drawers.

Wednesday was busy enough that I got away with sheer denial of what awaited me. Thursday, I read Morning Prayer and then I bit the bullet.

Because I knew approximately, if not exactly, where most things were, I felt as if my dikes were springing holes—or like a sand sculptor who’s watching the tide wipe away first this section, then that.

Wisdom was at work in the lighting upgrade project: we’re now a good piece greener than we were, a week ago, and in the first year we should recoup our co-payment.

Wisdom was at work in young Andrew, who broke the news; and in his more senior partner, who wanted to avoid one disaster or another (and was wise enough to delegate the truth-telling to young Andrew).

And I now have what I have so often admired in other colleagues’ offices: an amazingly tidy desktop.

And that’s what spoke to me. That’s when I heard Lady Wisdom inviting me to ride this opportunity and let what matters most start rising now.

So on the chest of drawers I’ve placed my two volumes of the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, side by side, with enough room to open them both.

And on my desk, a short shelf of the books that are basic to each day and week: Bible, Prayer Book, hymnals.

And on the piano, my Bible concordance, and nothing else, yet.

Lady Wisdom had been calling me to clear the decks of my workspace, but I didn’t heed until I had to. And while panic struck like a storm for a brief while on Thursday morning, and I can easily picture Ms. Wisdom laughing at the calamity that descended on my office like a whirlwind, I must tell you how pleased I am to be tasting the fruits of wisdom, to be seeing central before me the ageless resources of the Word that I am called to steward, and enough sweet open space to spread out one or two priorities at a time.

I’ve just told you a little story about grace, about how an unwelcome responsibility morphed into an inviting opportunity.

Interesting, isn’t it, that while the Hebrew Bible’s fascination with wisdom dresses her with the personhood of a woman, our Christian scriptures tell the story of the Word become flesh in a man who perfectly embodies the chief characteristic of God, and that is grace. Grace, a name for Godly power that also connotes a woman. Grace, the transformative love of God unmerited and undeserved by us, by which God confronts with harrowing mercy our waywardness, our weakness, our cynicism, our dread, our resistance, our sin.

The disorienting grace of God is at work among the disciples whom we hear struggling over Jesus’s identity (and their own), Jesus’s mission (and their own). “Who do people say that I am?” he asks the twelve.

First, they offer him all the answers of the wisdom of the day, how some think he’s a new and improved John the Baptist, while others swear that he must be a ramped-up prophet like Elijah.

Jesus doesn’t want the dime-a-dozen wisdom of the street, which is shaped by preconceived notions and geared to resist change. He wants to know how Lady Wisdom is speaking to them.

They swallow hard and say the barely-imaginable: You, who have taught us fishermen to fish for people, you are the anointed one of God. You the carpenter from Nazareth, who have hammered us together into an outpost of your kingdom, you are the Messiah.

But they still need the fear shaken out of them; the dread, the rejection of the utterly new, and the resistance to the unfamiliar. All this is still being confronted by the grace of God that shows the fire of Lady Wisdom as Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on the human and familiar, while what is being offered him is a complete clearing of the decks for the primacy of the Word.

What is being offered by grace works simultaneously through choice that is invited by wisdom. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help. Self-sacrifice is my way to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”

What God offers by grace reaches us in the same moment when we take the step that is invited by wisdom. I learned something of that this week in my office, where what came to roost was a necessity rising from wisdom.

Perhaps in your life right now, some necessity presents itself. Be open to Lady Wisdom as she stretches out her hand and calls you to make room for new knowledge. Be open to God’s grace, always able to transform what is asked of you into what you have been longing for.