Wisdom is Waiting

Kneeling, by RS Thomas

Moments of great calm,
kneeling before an altar
of wood in a stone church
in summer, waiting for God
to speak; the air a staircase
for silence; the sun’s light
ringing me, as though I acted
a great role.  And the audience
still; all that close throng
of spirits waiting, as I,
for the message.
                        Prompt me, God;
But not yet.  When I speak,
though it be you who speak
through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

I have this poem, by RS Thomas, written out in the front of the notebook I use when I am jotting down thoughts for sermons.  It reminds me that the space before the words come together is precious, even if terrifying.  What feels like emptiness to me has the potential to be God’s inspiration…

“Prompt me, God
But not yet…
The meaning is in the waiting.”

I have to admit, though, that at 7 o’clock this morning my anxious bleary-eyed prayer was “Prompt me God, and now would be great!”.

When Janet Morley spoke at the last Library evening about the poems she has gathered together in her collection for Lent and Easter, she reminded me of the beauty and power of poetry.

Poetry is a mystery to me.  I have several poetry books on my shelves but I find it very difficult to open them and read them.  There are many reasons for this, but I think Janet helped me to recognise that one of the reasons is that they demand a lot from me.  The richest poetry isn’t instantly accessible.  We may have to read it several times in order to digest it.  We may have to speak it out loud, or hear it read, before we get a sense of its meaning.  And even then, the meaning is often quite elusive.  Whose meaning do we seek?  Are we looking for the poet’s meaning or are we waiting for it to resonate with something deep within us?  The beauty of poetry is in the way it slows us down, makes us engage with the present and yet draw from all the experience of our lives so far…

When I was a student I used to enjoy visiting my Great Uncle Ben in Stoke-on-Trent.  My own grandparents had died and Ben was my grandfather’s youngest brother and had been practically brought up by him.  I never met my grandfather but Ben had adored him, so through Ben I got a glimpse of Harold.

Ben was a down to earth working class man from Stoke.  He used to encourage me to pray for wisdom, and I did.  I didn’t realise what I was praying for though.  It is easy to confuse knowledge and wisdom.  As I prayed for wisdom I hoped that my heart would be filled with insight but instead my heart was broken.  It made no sense to me.  I was praying for a deeper sense of God’s presence in my life but it just seemed that I was being abandoned.

The meaning, it would seem, is in the waiting…

But it isn’t passive.  We have to engage fully in all that’s going on in our lives, slowing ourselves down to be as attentive as possible, to become as aware of the present as we can be, open to what we can learn from the past and expectant for the future but alive right now.

“Wisdom”, Joan Chittister writes, “is the gift of living the present to the utmost and learning from the now whatever we will need to respond with integrity to whatever our future brings. But, if that’s really true, wisdom is going to give most of us nothing but trouble.”

Eric Hoffer wrote: “The wisdom of others remains dull till it is writ over with our own blood. We are essentially apart from the world; it bursts into our consciousness only when it sinks its teeth and nails into us.”

Wisdom literature is poetry.  It demands our attention,

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out, ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.’”  Proverbs 8.1-4

Wisdom is to be found in the essence of our everyday lives.  It is not locked away in poetry or theology books, high up on shelves.  This is one of the extraordinary things about poetry – the poet uses concrete life experience, often something very familiar, mundane even, but lets it shine in a different light revealing to us deep insight and truth.

But the wisdom of others has no purchase on us until it pierces our defences, “until it sinks its teeth and nails into us.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God”

Do you understand those seventeen simple words?

I have preached at least twice on this passage, the Prologue of John – and the mystery is still intact.

For me, this is its beauty.  It is a metaphor and as such doesn’t need to be broken into its component parts and digested, but understood, as poetry…

The meaning is in the waiting…

“In the beginning” inevitably draws us back to the opening words of Genesis –

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void… while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

I am familiar with the feminine noun for the Spirit of God (although I rarely hear God’s Spirit referred to as “she”) but I am not so conversant with wisdom literature; I was not instantly reminded of this passage from Proverbs where the voice of Wisdom speaks:

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.”

This isn’t the time to explore the depth of the resonance between Divine Wisdom, Sophia and the eternal Word, Logos but clearly the echoes are strong.

But I am delighted that in our readings this morning we have the feminine and the masculine side by side in the Godhead, in the beginning, before all things were made…

I refuse to conflate the masculine and the feminine, and I refuse to allow them to be exclusively identified with gender – each of us has word and spirit, each of us gains from our knowledge and our understanding, each of us has masculine and feminine traits.  Neither will I enter into the unnecessary word-games of whether masculine or feminine is dominant – I believe that in Christ there is both eternal wisdom and pre-existent word:

Male and female God created us and God saw all that She had made and said, “It is good, very, very good.”

I am not interested in women bishops any more than I am interested in men bishops – but I am horrified that the church is still divided over gender.

I read something in the Church Times this week which struck me.  It’s from the writings of Margery Kempe at the turn of the 15th century…

“The Lord answered me in my mind and said: “As it is appropriate for the wife to be on homely terms with her husband, be he ever so great a Lord and she ever so poor a woman when he weds her, yet they must lie together and rest together in joy and peace, just so it must be between you and me, for I take no heed for what you have been but what you would be, and I have often told you that I have clean forgiven you all your sins.

Therefore I must be intimate with you.”

In poetry the meaning is intimate, it is in the words and yet beyond them, it is in our experience and yet not contained by it, so too wisdom is found in the intimate call of life, in the quest for knowledge and truth and in the mystery of our partial understanding.

Wisdom is not a gift but a vocation; wisdom costs.

“Wisdom calls us to know ourselves, to squeeze out of every moment in life whatever lessons it holds for us, whatever responses it demands at that time.
It is wisdom that calls each of us to be everything we have the capacity to be.
It is wisdom that is the internal force that drives us to become the fullness of ourselves.” 
(Joan Chittister)


Prompt me, God
But not yet.  When I speak
though it be you who speak
through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

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