From the pulpit: Four windows and a hope

Guest column by Mark Labberton.

Window One: A Global Cry

We are at a crossroads, a time of almost unparalleled personal and global turbulence. Nations, institutions and habits are undergoing extraordinary redefinition and realignment. Personal expectations are imploding under the weight of economic loss and confusion. Religions are prominently on the horizon but often seen colliding with one another, adding confusion and disappointment to the scene. Where are we going? Where should we go?

In biblical terms, that is a cry for wisdom. Of course, that is not what most would say or recognize as their hunger. Even many in the Church wouldn’t see or put it that way, because we, too, think what we need is something more pragmatic and realpolitik than we expect wisdom to be.

Biblical wisdom, however, is not sage, religious advice that leaves action as an option for overachievers. Biblical wisdom is character in action in the face of life’s most real needs; no action, no wisdom. God’s wisdom is not a pathway of escape but a road of faithful engagement.

Window Two: A Personal Hunger

His neck tattoos were spectacular. I had seen him in our worship services for a few weeks but had not yet had the chance to meet Tim when we ran into each other one morning in Berkeley.

“I’m checking out churches and wondering about something,” he said. “I go to some churches, and I hear a lot about Jesus but very little about the world. I go to other churches, and I hear a lot about the world but little about Jesus. I’ve been going to your church lately because I hear a lot about Jesus and a lot about the world. … It’s easy to find people in Berkeley like me. We’re a dime a dozen. What I want to know is this: If I hang out at your church, will I meet people that are like Jesus?”

Now there was a question to start a pastor’s day.

Tim was hungry for spiritual reality. He suspected that the real thing would be measured by lives that imitated and portrayed the Jesus we claimed to follow.

To be people of “The Way” is to be people who walk in wisdom. Tim was right to ask if that showed up in ordinary, visible actions.

Window Three: A Confused Church

Many speculate what “church” will mean and be as we move further and further into the 21st century. New Atheists would argue that the Christian enterprise should simply shut down and cease its deceptive story. Whether there is much that is new in their arguments is moot. Their voices are prominent and may typify aspects of a cultural mood that is both religious and religiously disaffected.

Mainline Protestant denominations continue to decline and divide, though some of the congregations thrive and grow. Even where things are going well, there is more and more a feeling in mainline churches that they are participating in the vestiges of an institution that is meaningful, but meaningful in ways more like a comfortable old sweater than a useful search engine.

Pop-churches — congregations whose pastor or ministries, or both, are large, renowned and accessible 24/7 via the Internet — retain a certain draw and fascinating charisma. In their desire to be culturally relevant, however, they give a shelf-life to their messages. What is offered can seem more and more akin to a religious extension of our mortgage problems — defaulting on promises seems likely as not.

Window Four: A Pastoral Necessity

In 28 years, the pastoral issues morphed. Yet day by day, however varied or similar they were, what I would say I needed most was always the same: wisdom.

As a pastor, and now professor, I easily can recall the need for wisdom in pastoral conversations where someone’s capacities for life’s challenges ran thin, or where decisions were being made. At many a hospital bedside, especially when the diagnosis was threatening, it is wisdom we seek. It happens, too, in financial discussions, prayer gatherings, personnel meetings. It occurs when walking down the street and being overwhelmed by the complexities of peoples’ lives. It happens when trying to get beyond the devouring smallness church life can become. It lies behind the longing to rescue the gospel from the Church for the sake of the world.

Rehabilitating Wisdom

From a New Testament perspective, wisdom means living the counter-intuitive, counter-cultural life of Jesus in the midst of all the lives, relationships and places God loves. To name wisdom that way places it in real time and does so with life-altering implications. It means the church doesn’t just celebrate the good news of eternal salvation. It also celebrates the good news that the same God who died for the world’s redemption showed what life-giving love means on ordinary days, in places of comfort and of desperation.

When Christians affirm that wisdom is who God is and how God acts, we affirm that wisdom is what makes, explains and redeems the world. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever should believe in him should not die but should have eternal life” is not a mere religious claim but a reality claim. To stake your trust on that affirmation means to live wisely, or to live in ways that correspond with reality. Or, if “God is love,” then to love is to embody reality. Talk of love may be true, but actually loving is wise: God’s truth and character lived.

In biblical terms, wisdom leads people to acts of courage in places of need. Wisdom moves into a neighborhood school and serves with humility. Wisdom does business with honesty and humility, even when it loses you clients. Wisdom pursues the rescue of victims of sex-trafficking, even when it is slow, invisible and dangerous. Wisdom seeks the shalom of your city or town, especially with your enemies. Wisdom gives money away with joy. Wisdom confesses and lives out of weakness.

In a frantic culture of desire and power, one that seems to feed on itself, the way of biblical wisdom holds out hope.