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Foolish Wisdom

Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm. That it stands first in the Book of Psalms suggests the importance of wisdom to the people who compiled that book.

Every religion, we have reason to believe, every church, every denomination, certainly, has a notion of what it means by wisdom, what it means to be wise.

For example, Wisdom is in the very order of the universe itself, which the wise man or wise woman can discover. Or in quite a different vein, wisdom--at least the wisdom of this world--is foolishness, and foolishness is true wisdom. The wise man or wise woman is a fool.

Behind each of these notions of wisdom is a notion of how the world works, and behind each of those is a picture or a vision of how God works in the world--even of God in God's self.

Wisdom is in the order of things because God has created the world. God has made the universe beautiful, and beautifully, according to a blessed harmony in which all works together for good. Thanks be to God, for example, for the laws of physics. I am thankful, whether I voice it or not, I'm thankful every day for the law of gravity that allows me to swing my legs out of bed knowing that I can place my feet on the floor. I'm not about to be wafted ceilingward, nor am I about to crash into the basement.

Wisdom is in the rules that govern society and history because God governs the world, the human world, in particular, according to certain laws. This is close to the vision of the Psalmist, at least at first reading of the Psalm. One commentator says of Psalm 1 that it "encourages wisdom as the way of life," following the law as a path to a just reward.

But if wisdom is foolish and foolishness wisdom, it is because God is foolish. I don't mean that God is foolish in God's self. God is not simpleminded, but God acts foolishly. God loves foolishly. God is lavish in God's love, extravagant. God throws God's precious, precious love around as if it were nothing. God spends the gold and silver of God's love as if it weren't even brass.

Wisdom is in the order of the world because God is the source of the world's wonderful order. Wisdom describes the rules that govern our lives in society and in history because God rules the world and God has rules for our living. True wisdom is foolishness to the world, for God is a fool. We tend for the most part--depending in no small part on our religious tradition--we tend, I think, to hold to one or another of these views, excluding the others, but in our best moments we know that all are true.

We know that God has created a world marvelous in both its order and its possibilities. We are excited by the order itself, by what geologists and biologists and physicists and chemists and geophysicists and biochemists can tell us about it. We're excited by the universe, about what astronomers and astrophysicists and astrochemists, if there be such a thing, can tell us about it. Knowing these marvelous things opens marvelous possibilities for us. We can build bridges and tunnels over rivers and through mountains; we can sail across the oceans and fly across continents. The laws of motion, of gravity, of thermodynamics, Newton's principles, and Einstein's' Theory. We know God orders the universe and that this order is good. It is good for us.

We know that God governs humankind, and according to certain precepts, we know by experience to be true. If we go to war, for example, instead of praying for our enemies, we know that there will be casualties. The innocent will die along with the guilty. Rebuilding will be a long and painful process. If, on the other hand, we pray for our enemies instead of going to war, well, we don't know what will happen, as we've never truly tried that. We know, though, to get back to the point, that God governs humankind and that the sins of the fathers do visit themselves on the sons to the third and fourth generation. The sins of the mothers infect the daughters, the granddaughters, and the great-great granddaughters.

But! We also know that God loves us extravagantly, and we know that not just because he has created an orderly world in which we may live faithfully and well, but...and this is the unhappiest and, at the same time, the most joyful part of the story, isn't it? We know that God loves us extravagantly, prodigally, foolishly, because God has given us his only Son "that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

God has given his only Son and given up his only Son for us, so that now we are not bound to the sins of our fathers and our mothers, but we have been set free to begin again.

We are not even bound by our own sins. So we know that God loves us, and in our hearts, we know God is a fool for loving us so much.

But to be foolish is not also to be hopeless, in the sense of without hope. Happy are those, Psalm 1 begins, or blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD....

And that is a statement, if I understand it correctly, of God's hope. For the Hebrew word translated "blessed" or "happy" derives from a verb that means "go straight," "go on," "advance." The happiness described here is not, then, happiness in the sense of elation; it is that kind of happiness that comes with a sureness of purpose.

This is the kind of hope that God desires for us.

Our delight in the "law of the LORD" is not, then, in the 632 rules of Leviticus or the 6632 in the Books of Church Order that govern many of us--not in law or laws in that sense--our delight is in the way God leads us. "Day and night," the Psalmist says, "in the way of the righteous"--across time and through space, along a journey.

A journey of hope!

Human hope in itself is fragile. It doesn't really spring eternal, as Alexander Pope would like us to think. Byron, who loved Pope, is more accurate when he describes hope as withering, fleeing in the face of...of fear.

A close friend of mine was returning from a concert in Chicago. He was a student at Northwestern at the time, in Evanston, and he'd come in to the city to hear his teacher play with the Chicago symphony. He'd been invited backstage to meet members of the symphony, and he'd gone out with them afterward, and he was on his way home by train, thrilled with what he'd heard and people he'd seen and the conversations he'd had. It was late and the train car he was riding in was completely empty, but it was full of his thoughts and his excitement and his hope--maybe he'd play for the symphony...or he wasn't sure--but a grand future stretched out before him. Then the train stopped, and someone got into the car at one of the doors behind him. And that someone walked the length of the car and sat down directly behind him. And all thoughts of what was going to be went right out of his head and out of his heart, and his stomach plunged. And he thought, "Well, that was nice." But this is this. And he thought, "I'll never even get back to Evanston."

He did, of course, or I wouldn't know the story. Still, human hope in itself is fragile. And fear casts out hope. But God's hope for humankind for us is not. It's not fragile. And, fortunately, God's hope finds its strength not in what we human beings can do, but because it is God's hope. And God knows what he has done and what he will do.

Human hope is fragile, but the hope of the righteous, of God's righteous ones, those made right by God--those who are like trees planted--or transplanted the original suggests--transplanted by streams of water...their leaves do not wither. Nor does their hope flee, because, because they're happy in the sense we talked about. They are sure in their purpose, which is to be led by, and only by, the law of the LORD, to be led always toward God. This is the Psalmist's invitation and his encouragement. Come! Be led along the way toward the LORD, the God who has created the world in all its wonder, the God who rules the world and the affairs of men and women even now, the God who loves us so extravagantly, so utterly, so...foolishly. Come.

Gracious God, in Jesus Christ, for this world we are thankful. Because of your presence among us, we remain hopeful. Teach us to love with the wisdom of the gospel, foolishly! Amen.