A Wise Heart – On Discernment

“The wise in heart are called discerning…”  Proverbs 16:21

“Wisdom reposes in the heart of the discerning…” Proverbs 14:33

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  Discernment and wisdom feature prominently in the book of Proverbs, often going hand in hand.  Discernment is a virtue that our society does not spend much time pursuing.  We are a people of snap-judgments, spur of the moment ideas, spontaneity.  None of these are necessarily bad, but when they become our modus operandi, we lose out.  Our lives move so quickly that we are becoming servants of instant gratification.  We text a friend and want immediate replies.  We order food out of our car window and by the time we pull forward we are being handed a bag.  Successful businesses are run by people who can most quickly survey the situation, make a judgment and make things happen.  This fast-paced frenetic mode of doing life comes at a cost.  We are frequently decision-weary.  And almost always just plain weary.

This is not the way of wisdom.  Wisdom calls us to slow down, to ponder.  Ponder is not a word we use much anymore.  To ponder is to weigh our options carefully, to thoughtfully consider, mull over, meditate on, contemplate, reflect on, deliberate about. To ponder is to discern what is right.

Discernment takes time.  It takes quiet.  Discernment asks hard questions of trusted friends.  Discernment requires prayer, reading, listening. Discernment means doing all of these things and listening for the still small voice – the gut feeling, the peace about a decision.  I don’t do this enough.  To sit still and just think is so foreign in my life that it can almost be anxiety producing.  There’s so much to do.  Laundry, school work, house work, spouse work, kids, bills, dinner, exercise, carpool, ad infinitum.  I get tired just thinking about it, so the easiest thing is to DO not THINK.

Jesus had some friends who lived in a little town called Bethany, two sisters and a brother (who isn’t featured in this mini-drama).  So Jesus went to visit these dear ones, and one sister – let’s call her Me – was so caught up in DOING – that she became agitated and angry and resentful of the other sister – let’s call her Who I’d like to be –   who just sat at Jesus’ feet and listened, discerned, learned wisdom.

Me: Hello?  Jesus?  Could you please send Who I’d like to be in here to help me out?  There’s a lot to do-oo!  (pregnant pause, followed by a shrew-like shout) Like RIGHT NOW!!!!

Jesus (kindly, gently):  Why don’t you come in here and sit awhile. The work will keep. Who you’d like to be has chosen what is better – to sit at my feet and listen.

Hmm.  Who I’d like to be seems to have more wisdom, more scope for choosing the right thing than ME. More discernment.  Simply by sitting, pondering, with Jesus.

Our society gives value to busy-ness.  But that is not what is important in God’s economy. To sit and listen.  To learn.  To hear the voice of the Dear Friend giving us wisdom and insight and knowledge and discernment.  So that we can learn what is true and noble and right and good.

Maybe one of my Lenten practices should be to be still.  And when someone asks me what I’m up to is not to answer “Oh, crazy busy” but to say “I’m working on sitting.  I’m learning how to be still and know God. I’m discerning.”

Back to our original question: Which comes first? Wisdom or discernment? Or must they go together, each constantly feeding the other? And how to get them both? It’s time to re-embrace being still as a virtue.

“Ponder anew what the Almighty can do.”

Joachim Neander (1630) translated by Catherine Winkworth (1863)



Serpents and Doves: On Innocence

In Matthew 10, Jesus is sending his disciples out on a mission.  He tells them to go to their own people, the lost sheep of Israel, to take nothing with them but the clothes on their backs, and to heal the sick and preach the news that the Kingdom of heaven is near.  Basically He is sending them to do the work He Himself is doing, but on a broader scale than can be reached by one man alone.  In the middle of His instructions, He offers the disciples what seems at first glance to be contradictory advice.  He tells them to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

This is an interesting statement – historically we associate the snake with sin and Satan, and a dove with the Holy Spirit.  So how do we reconcile these two opposing ideas?  Jesus gives credit where credit is due.  Satan has always operated in a calculating manner, Satan is shrewd. He targets the spots where we are most vulnerable, most innocent.  Jesus never makes the mistake that we often do, of underestimating what Satan is capable of.  One of the biggest lies of our time is that we have turned Satan into a goofy looking character dressed in red with pointy little horns.  We create humor about him. “The devil made me do it!”  Pretty shrewd way of operating, if you ask me.  Webster gives us two definitions of the word shrewd:

1.  marked by clever discerning awareness and hardheaded acumen

2.  given to wily and artful ways or dealing

Satan, as he always does, takes what is good and perverts it.  Jesus warns his disciples, not to be wily and artful – the corrupt distortion of shrewdness, but to be marked by clever discerning awareness.  He’s advising them to be on their guard, to be prepared for whatever may happen.  Jesus is not instructing them to be like Satan, but to use the same tools in a right and correct way to help defeat him.

Jesus tempers this instruction by also warning his disciples to be as innocent as doves.  Doves were so innocent that they were considered (along with a lamb) to be an acceptable sacrifice for purification and for sin atonement following the birth of a child.  If one couldn’t afford a lamb, two doves were acceptable.  This is the sacrifice Mary made following the birth of Jesus.  A dove also signifies the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and a dove descended on him.  Mark tells us that the disciples weren’t called until after this event, but it is possible one of them witnessed it.  Or certainly they may have heard about it.  The dove is part of the beginning of Jesus’ life, and of His ministry. The symbolism would not be lost on His followers.  Jesus is asking them to be clean, to be pure.

In our era, we associate innocence most often with children.  What I like most about the innocence of children is their transparency.  They speak and act without filter (sometimes to the horror and embarrassment of their parents).  But children, at least the innocent ones, aren’t trying to be malicious or mean.  They just state what is on their minds.  You can almost see the cogs turning in their little brains.

The transparency of children is really like a window.  If the window is clean, the light can shine through.  I think Jesus is asking that of His disciples when he asks them to be innocent.  Be pure and clean – get rid of the winter muck and dirt – and let the light shine through.  Let those you go to know what and who you stand for.  Paul puts it this way in Romans 16:19, “I want you to be wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil.”

The disciples (and we are now counted in that number if we love and follow Jesus) are cautioned, admonished, encouraged and challenged to go into the world and to cling to wisdom and innocence together.  Without shrewdness or wisdom, our innocence is like a target for Satan’s arrows.  Even if he may not make a bulls-eye every time, without wisdom moving the target farther away from him and closer to God, he is likely to hit something.  We are warned not to let innocence be equated with gullibility,  but rather to let innocence be more like the clean window the light can shine through.  This is not something we can do alone as sinful fallen creatures that are so easily caught up in the wily shrewdness of Satan.  The only way it can happen, the only way we can be made wise and innocent again comes through the redeeming sacrifice of something pure, someone truly innocent, Jesus.









An All-Consuming Fire: On Reverance

During the season of Lent, our church is exploring the quieter virtues, based on a book Awakening the Quieter Virtues by Gregory Spencer.  I confess that I have not yet read this book, not because I don’t want to, but because they have been sold out everywhere I’ve looked.  It’s on order.  As my Lenten discipline, I’ve decided to explore each of these virtues myself here on this blog.  The first virtue is Reverence.

For the sermon on Sunday, Pastor Eric chose a scripture from Hebrews 12:28.  Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.  I continue that with verse 29: for our God is a consuming fire.

I’ve been mulling that over this week – what does it mean for God to be a consuming fire?  It sounds frightening.  I’ve seen a fire consume a place very dear to me, and it was terrifying.  We tell our kids not to play with fire.  Perhaps in this context it is appropriate – God is meant to be held in reverence and awe.  As C.S. Lewis says of Aslan in his Chronicles of Narnia: “He’s not a tame lion!”  He is not to be toyed with.

Our generation has been raised with the idea that God is love and our friend (a doctrine I refer to as bumping butts with Jesus), which He is.  There is no doubt about that. But God is also God.  And I think we like to make God fit into some prescribed box of our own choosing, to make Him safe and comfortable for us.  We forget that God is also majestic and awesome (not in the casual way we bandy this word around in our generation, but rather Awe-full).  When we try to contain God into a neat tidy description we defeat the purpose of believing in God, and kind of makes ourselves God.

A fire is an amazing thing.  It can warm us, cook our food, provide protection, bring us joy.  But it can also consume and destroy.  One treats fire with respect.  We used to have a neighbor who said “You burn, you learn” when referring to the natural consequences of treating fire with care.

This is one way this verse can be taken.  God is all-powerful, and must be treated with awe.  Which I think is true.  But I also believe that we can look at this verse from another direction.

God wants all of us.  He doesn’t just want our Sunday best, or the remnants of our busy lives.  This is a trap I frequently fall into.  Does God receive my first, my last, my worst, my best?  Or do I just throw the crumbs of my existence, the times when I don’t have anything else to do, His direction?  He wants to consume it all.  He wants to take the fire and purify us, to burn the dross and leave the gold, to incinerate the chaff and leave the wheat.  That may hurt.  But the end result is worth the pain. If we emerge from the fire finer and purer, we become shiny.  God may then be reflected in us and away from us to others.

Another thing I’ve noticed – the more time I spend with God the more I want to.  Could this be one more interpretation?

To revere God, to live a life of reverence, does not mean to live in fear.  It means to know that God is wild and unpredictable like a forest fire, but also safe and life-giving like a campfire.  While we may think we can contain or control fire, that is not always true.  We fight fire.  We also fight God.  Or we can respect fire, and benefit from the good things it gives.  And respect God, and benefit from the good things He gives.