Dancing with Wisdom
May 22, Trinity Sunday:
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
Draft text of the homily, please forgive all grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Pastor Jack’s church was a truckstop. Actually it was a whole string of truckstops, cafes, and late-night joints that rise up out of the Great Plains.
Pastor Jack’s parish was the transit arteries that linked the cities to the cow-towns, the farmers to the factories. Like his parishioners, he traveled the long and lonely roads of Eastern Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska, but also further afield when the Spirit led him.
He was big, bearded, and burly, with more than a hint of mischief in his clear-blue eyes. He’d been in a few scrapes as the missing fingers of his left hand testified, and as he himself would tell you if he thought that his story could help you out. He’d been in at least one war of the foreign variety, and several more of the emotional kind.
He said his first wife spent half of their marriage doing everything she could to get him to change his ways, and then when he did, spent the last half shaking her head and saying, “you’re not the man that I married.”
He married again after several years and said he spent the rest of his life learning about grace and forgiveness with his new companion.
He never set out to be a truck-stop preacher. Never entered his mind. But then how many of us are exactly where we thought we’d be, doing exactly what we thought we’d be doing? A few maybe. Certainly not me. And certainly not Jack. “I was supposed to have been a Jesuit priest, or a naval academy grad,” he’d say with a trickster’s twinkle in his eyes, hoping his conversation partner both would and wouldn’t notice that this was a line from one of his favorite songs and not the strict truth.
But then he’d go on, in a voice filled with the deep wisdom that comes from hard experience and say, “I’ve made a lot of wrong turns in my life, but I always turned back to God, and somehow by doing that, I’ve ended up right where I’m supposed to be.”
Jack used to tell a story about a young man he ran into one night who, after a long conversation about life, the universe and everything suddenly asked: “So what’s the secret to happiness?” “There’s no secret to happiness,” says Jack, “all you need to be happy is good judgment.” The young man thinks then says, how do you get that?” “That’s easy,” says Jack, “to get to good judgement all you need is a whole lot of experience.” “Alright,” say the youth, “how do I get that?” “That’s the easiest one of all,” says Jack. “The only thing you need to get experience is,” and here he motioned the kid closer and said, “all ya’ need to get experience is…bad judgment.” [This is actually a Nasrudin Tale that exists in many forms; I think I came across it in the wonderful Joel ben Izzy’s book The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness]
Jack would never himself claim to be wise, but he has become for me a personification of wisdom—someone calling out “on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads—even at the truck stops.” He is, for me, an avatar of Lady Wisdom—Holy Sophia—that we hear from today in Proverbs. Like Lady Wisdom, Pastor Jack is a mercurial amalgam of many of the wise women and men I have known. Like them he’s broken and brave, vulnerable and unvanquished. The wisdom he shares, like all Holy wisdom might be counterintuitive, but it’s not hidden and esoteric. It’s open and available to all. If we have ears to hear it.
Jesus says today: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for she will not speak on her own, but will speak whatever she hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
God is still speaking to us. Through nature, through our neighbors, through poetry and song, through teachers and technology. Who are the wise ones in your life?
Who are the ones you turn to for wisdom? Who have been for you the personifications of that open-hearted, faithful, wise living?
For me it’s those who can speak honestly and with humility about suffering producing endurance, and endurance producing character and character producing hope. Not because they think it sounds like a motivational poster and we should follow, but because they themselves have have suffered and endured, have fallen and been hurt, have walked through the muck, and have gotten back up, learned more about themselves and the world, and tried again. The people who not only have character, but who often are characters themselves. Those who understand that hope is not rosy-eyed optimism. That hope is an orientation, a way of thinking and being in the world.
And who understand that wisdom is a way of speaking hope into the world in ways that we can bear.
When the Spirit of truth comes and speaks as wisdom at the crossroads of our lives it most often arrives and speaks through people and places that we are in relationship with.
Wisdom is something that arises between people who trust one another. Wisdom resides in relationship.
“Just like the Holy Trinity itself,” Jack said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The Holy Trinity,” he said again.
“You’re going to explain the Holy Trinity to me?”
“Pssht. Have you ever been out dancing with someone you really love?” he asked.
“Well, of course,” I said, “it’s been awhile, but sure.”
He leaned in..
“Do you remember the feeling you have when you’re out there looking into their eyes; your bodies moving together?”
I may have blushed a little…“Sure.”
He gave me one of those—you’d better think real carefully about what you say next stares—and said, “that feeling…can you explain it?”
I took a breath and started thinking about pheromones, and brain chemistry, and all the bits and pieces of pop psychology about attraction I thought I knew, but he interrupted me and said, “of course you can’t.
“You can’t explain it, and I can’t explain it. But you know what it is when it shows up. When you’re in it. You know how the earliest theologians of the church described the Trinity? As a dance—Perichoresis is the fancy Greek term, but it means dance.”
He paused a far away look passed over him, and his eyes seemed to turn a deeper shade of blue, “Someone told me once that God is a dancer, and we are the dance.” “How bout that?” he said. “I’ll have to think about that, “I said.” “You do that.” He got up to leave, and then stopped and turned back toward me. “I think that’s what the Trinity is. I think that’s what this all is…it’s a dance. Just a dance. And it’s beautiful, ain’t it?”
And all I could say was, “It sure is, Jack. It sure is.”
Note: Pastor Jack contains parts of real people I have known, but Jack himself is actually too good to be true. He is an avatar of Wisdom. He first visited me at a preaching conference in seminary, and continues occasionally to visit me and the parishes I’ve served over the years.