Two Kinds of Wisdom

In a confusing time, in an overstimulating world, it is no wonder that we often yearn for life to be easier, our path to be clearer, our decisions more obvious. We can feel like there’s so much struggle, we try so hard, we make so much effort, and all that effort may or may not bring about what we are hoping for. With multiple versions of reality swirling around us daily and our emotions and thoughts on overload, what we really, deeply need is peace. And wisdom. And God.

I mentioned last week that at the prompting of William Penn, I have been starting my mornings reading the book of James. I like his style, his clarity. He takes concepts that can be difficult to understand and makes them crystal clear, putting them in the context of what Jesus said and did. Take for example our New Testament scripture for today, from James 3: 3-18:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But it you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

This is so clear, isn’t it? You can probably think instantly of a half dozen examples of people you’ve seen—maybe in person or on social media—who demonstrate each of these types of wisdom. There are those who cause upset and agitation and conflict (and we know in order to act like that, they must be full of anger and upset and agitation themselves, which must be a horrible way to live). And there are those who seem to stay calm, and work for peace, and do kind and helpful things in the world. Most likely they have peaceful hearts, also congruent with their outward actions.

Where there is envy and selfishness within, there will also be disorder and wickedness in the outward life. James says those are the natural fruits that come from following the wisdom the world offers, a kind of Survival of the Fittest mentality that is blind to the needs and value of others.

“Worldly wisdom” sometimes inadvertently sows division and lacks a desire for unity because it is based on a system of fear. That fear tells us that there’s not enough of what we need in the world and we are pitted against one another in pursuit of it. Someone will be the winner, and someone else will be the loser. That’s just the way it is. We’ve got to be crafty, and powerful, and maybe devious, we think, to stay alive. That worldview knows nothing of the all-encompassing, generous kindness of grace, the security of peace, the value of goodness. There is very little hope there. It is all about feeding conquest, power, and self-gain to the idol of fear.

Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi teacher from the early 1900s, said that, “Reason is learned from the ever changing world, but wisdom comes from the essence of life.” He, like James and Jesus and the psalmist, point us inward toward a deeper knowing that tells us something true and real about the nature of Life and its unlimited potential within and around us.

The fruits of looking inward for God’s wisdom and letting it guide our lives are dramatically better than the results we find when we’re motivated by fear and self-interest. When we seek God’s wisdom for things large and small in our lives—and allow it to shape the way we see and experience the world—God helps us become more gentle, to care about others, to choose to live with compassion and to extend forgiveness, and to do our best to add goodness to our world, wherever we feel it’s needed. If we’re listening, God’s wisdom will make us honest and teach us to act with integrity in all we do. All these ideas are important for Friends: You can hear our Quaker testimonies in the fruits of Godly wisdom: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship.

In fact, when the Religious Society of Friends first started, back in the mid-1600s, Quakers were seen at first as a kind of dissenting religious group, meaning that they had separated from the Church of England. But George Fox’s purpose was much more simple and clear than simply pushing back on the accepted religious practice of the day—his heart yearned to discover a true way of worshipping the living God. His discovery that Christ comes to teach His people himself—something he experienced directly—was the clear, true note of Godly wisdom that is still at the heart of all our faith and practice today. The fact that this wisdom is so precious to us—it’s the seed of idea that makes a Quaker a Quaker, I think—it is one of the unique and beloved characteristics of Friends worship.

In fact, our forms of worship arose to protect and preserve that clear note of Godly wisdom. Silence was the setting for all worship among the earliest Friends. Worship services might go on for hours, as Friends sat in stillness together—men on one side of the meetinghouse and women on the other (or, in the earliest times, men and women worshipping separately). When Friends spoke, it was Spirit leading them to do so for the good of all. Even Bible study was simple and focused on Christ’s leading—a Friend would open the Bible to a verse that was resonating within, stand, read it, and then sit back down. Very simple. No editorializing. Friends in meeting would then reflect on the verse Spirit inspired to be spoken out of the silence. Quiet was treasured because it kept hearts focused on the deepest intent: to create the openness within that God might be heard in the individual life and speak and teach and lead. The silence preserved the gift of Godly wisdom Friends had discovered.

As we look back on generations of Early Friends we see that there have been splits in our tradition and different ways of worshipping have evolved from those earliest days. Today we have unprogrammed meetings, where Friends still sit in silence together waiting for Spirit’s leading, and we have programmed meetings, which resemble more traditional Protestant styles of worship. There are also semi-programmed meetings, which is the category we fall into, where we sing hymns and pray together and have a message, but we also include time for silent worship and we value the quiet, welcoming God to speak through it all.

As times have changed, the world has increased in volume and speed, but Quakers still turn inward to encounter the spirit of Christ, who faithfully and lovingly teaches each of us Himself. The peace and clarity that Friends have found is often a comfort and a help to those around us, whether they are Quakers or not. This story from the Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Abraham Lincoln and the Quakers, is an example of that:

A pious, lovable old Quaker woman, Eliza P. Gurney, widow of the famous English Quaker minister, Joseph John Gurney, came to the White House with an address of thanks and prayers of hope for the future. She was accompanied by three other Friends, John M. Whitall, Hanna B. Mott, and James Carey. Their meeting with President Lincoln was arranged by the Quaker Isaac Newtown, the first Commissioner of Agriculture. Not one of them sought anything for himself or herself, and since they came only to give spiritual support to one who sorely needed it, the President responded with unusual warmth, even encouraging his visitors to stay much longer than the fifteen minutes originally intended, sharing with them in both silence and prayer. He was accustomed to hearing words, many of them boring, but he was not accustomed to group silence. The tears ran down his cheeks and when vocal prayer was offered, he reverently bowed his head.

Lincoln would later say that many representatives of religious groups came to visit him with their own ideas and agendas, but Friends were the only ones who brought silent, loving support and prayed for his discernment and peace. Friends trusted that there was that of God at work in Abraham Lincoln, and rather than trying to sway his decisions in a particular direction, their prayers simply lifted him closer to the heart of God so that he might hear truly the Godly wisdom meant for him. What a comfort that must have been in such a raw and difficult time.

In the dark days of World War II, Quaker professor Rufus Jones said,

“There must be amidst all the confusions of the hour a tried and undisturbed remnant of persons who will not become purveyors of coercion and violence, who are ready to stand alone, if necessary, for the way of peace and love among men.”

We Friends are still that tried and undisturbed remnant who choose peace over conflict and God over war. That is the fruit of the clear, true note of Godly wisdom in our tradition. Today the word undisturbed might not seem to fit as well—because we can get swept up in worry as much as anyone– but we Friends do know what to do when that happens. We can remember that the fleeting, upsetting headlines may be broadcasting the wisdom of the world, but our faith is rooted in something real, sustaining, and true that the chaos of the world cannot touch. Our trust is in the One who leads us daily, in the Christ who teaches us Himself with the warmth of love, the light of truth, and the balm of understanding. Friends value returning to the Source. It’s where we go—to listen, to learn, to find rest, to be understood, to understand ourselves. It’s in the comforting company of God that we remember what’s true, what’s wise, what’s lasting. We remember we are Loved, and nothing this world could ever do can separate us from that Love.

In our Old Testament reading for today, Psalm 139: 2-4, the psalmist talks about the sense of deep intimacy and trust he shares with God:

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O LORD, You know it all.

This is key to our trust in the Godly wisdom that arises in our hearts and minds: God is so close to us that God recognizes and understands our intentions before we even know them ourselves. God can see—and understands–whether we are acting from worldly or Godly wisdom. God knows we are all works in progress and that our learning happens gradually, experience by experience. God understands our motivations and our needs and Christ leads us step by step as we grow in faith and Light. In Rufus Jones’ 1934 book The Trail of Life in the Middle Years, he wrote,

 "The essential characteristic of [mysticism] is the attainment of a personal conviction by an individual that the human spirit and the divine Spirit have met, have found each other, and are in mutual and reciprocal correspondence as spirit with Spirit. In short, mystical devotion means direct first hand fellowship with God, and the deepened life-results which emerge.”

Our tradition is all about that. Our spirits have met God’s Spirit in the Light of Christ. We develop trust and come to depend on the leading of Godly knowledge in the common circumstances of our days. Each moment is an opportunity to know God better and to welcome God’s leading more and more in our lives.

The outcome, the result, the “deepened life-results” Rufus Jones mentions, is a more peaceful, safe, supported life that shows the fruits of Godly wisdom: peace, gentleness, honesty, compassion, a willingness to yield, a care that God’s goodness and love and hope might find their ways in our world. So many people need a touch of God’s grace today. Our intentions, our actions, and our prayers can help with that, as we Friends lift those who need it closer to the heart of God.

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