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James opens this passage with a very good question if you ask me: Who is wise and understanding among you? It is a question I’ve been asking a lot these days. James was asking it as well. His reasons?
Well, he was dealing with a church filled with conflict and disputes. Arguing, namecalling, rancor. It was not the kind of church you’d like to join. In my mind’s eye I wonder if I were to ask James what this church was like, he might describe something that looked like one of those town hall meetings we saw held in congressional districts last August. The church is caught up in a heated debate…-the emails are flying… the gossip is rampant… people are taking sides and arguing. It feels like an ugly scene to me. It feels like a debate crying for someone to speak a word of wisdom.
It is then I hear James, leader of the early church, stand up and ask:"Who is wise and understanding among you?"
Good question James. I’ve been asking the same question these days. And I’m praying God will send us a few wise and understanding people. I listen to the news… I watch far too much of the cable shows and heard some of those talk radio shows- and I turn off the radio and TV and I get sort of discouraged. I find myself asking the same thing James was asking: "Who is going to offer us wisdom as we face the complex issues with healthcare reform, the economy, war? Who has a word for us that is not simply parroting some talking points given by their political party? Who, in the midst of a debate filled with slanders, lies and accusations… who will offer us wisdom and understanding?" Sometimes as I turn off my TV or radio, that is the question that lingers. Who? Who will offer us wisdom and understanding?
Will it be the wizards of Wall Street? The voices from the Pharmaceutical companies or the insurance companies or one of the lobbyists protecting their clients? The politicians who do not look for wisdom but are preparing for the next election? Is it Oprah or Dr Phil or Rush or Keith? Or preachers and religious leaders who bring their own ideological biases to the conversation?
How is all of that working for us these days?
"Who is wise and understanding among you?" Wise and Understanding. Good question James.
And a hard question. And James knows it. As he thinks through the answer he wants to tell us that there are at least two kinds of wisdom in the world.
There is wisdom from below and wisdom from above. There is human wisdom or conventional wisdom and then there is God’s wisdom.
Conventional wisdom bases its advice in envy, selfish ambition and will abandon the truth in order to win. It is the kind of wisdom that says, you better stand your ground… don’t give an inch… hold to your position until the other person gives in. Conventional wisdom says, there is only one way to deal with conflict in our world-through strength and power. Don’t be weak. Look out for number one. Make sure you don’t lose your benefits and make sure you don’t get hurt… no matter what happens to someone else. Conventional wisdom… from below says rather than get involved, just sit back and cynically talk about how bad everyone and everything is… and make sure you get yours…Conventional wisdom says, if you want to succeed or win in this world, you use every legal means possible… don’t worry asking if it is moral or ethical or not. Be sure to use the phrase and use it often: well, it was legal.
That, may I propose is the wisdom you will hear from below in our world. Wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual and devilish to quote James And there is no shortage of people offering that sage advice.. Wisdom I think that leads to our destruction. Sometimes we are fooled by the wisdom of the world.
The wisdom of the world is not always as wise as we think. I think of the story Tom Long, who teaches preacher in Atlanta, told. He caught a television interview with Alex Hawkins, the legendary former NFL football player, who was far better known for his exploits off the fileld than on it. In the 1950s as a college student, Hawkins was a football standout for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, where he played literally all over the field: end, halfback, linebacker, safety and on special teams. After college, Hawkins played ten pretty good seasons of professional football, mostly for the Baltimore Colts, but in those days he made headlines more for the way he played the field in the bars after hours than for the way he played the field at game time on Sunday afternoons. Even though Hawkins was married at the time to his long suffering first wife, Libby, he often stayed out reveling all night long and one exchange with Libby has been burned into the lore of country music.
According to one sportswriter, Hawkins strode into his house one morning at 8am and Libby, frantic with worry, shrieked, "Alex, where have you been?" "I have been out in the hammock all night. The moon was so beautiful I didn’t want to leave, " Alex replied.
Libby arched an eyebrow, ‘You don’t expect me to believe that , do you? We took the hammock down two week ago.’"Well," said Alex, "that’s my story and I’m sticking to it."
Hawkins is now in his seventies, a crinkled-faced, smiling ghost of the athlete he once was, and the TV interviewer was hoping to extract some mature wisdom, some seasoned remorse, from him, something from the reflective prodigal that would be a moral lesson for youth today. "Alex", he said, his brow creased in earnest concern, ‘as you look back over your life, a life in some ways wild and wasted, what lessons have you learned?"Hawkins, equally earnest, leaned forward, ‘I have learned,’ he said slowly, ‘that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that sports builds character."
Tom Long says he nearly fell off the sofa. Hawkins had spoken the truth. Tom says, "I suppose there are modest lessons about discipline and teamwork to be learned on the field, but the notion that sports builds morality has always seemed to me to be a slogan with everything going for it but the facts. After all, I live in a town where our most celebrated athlete was in federal prison for dog fighting and animal cruelty.
There are saints in the sports world and scoundrel, too, but their ethics were almost surely formed somewhere other than between the chalk lines. Alex Hawkins had it right: there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that sports builds character.
I am reminded of a famous scouting reports about a notorious player on the 1953 Baylor football team:
Name: Wilbur Whosit,
Position: left tackle, Height 6’4", Weight 265#
Will do anything, legal or illegal, to win.
Will gouge, bit slug, and spit.
Ordained to the Baptist ministry:June 1951" 1.
Well, there is the wisdom of the world at work… wisdom that can appeal to our baser natures-our envy… our ambition… our ego and pride… There are a lot of people willing to share such wisdom with us.
But James would have us listen to another kind of person. A person who is wise in God’s ways with wisdom from above. A person "that 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."
A wise person from God does not stir up debate for interest or self sake… rather, a wise person offers the kind of gentleness and grace that eases conflict and promotes the welfare of all. James wants us to listen to those people. Listen to the ones that work for peace and speak from a gentle and loving heart-working for the good of all.
Sometime you can find such wise people in the sports world as well. In this case, sports did not build virtue, but provided the arena for the display of wisdom as James spoke of wisdom.
I’m thinking of the story of a baseball umpire, of all people. Chuck Meriweather, a man who is gifted at his work, a gentle person, and a person who is a faithful member of a Baptist church in Nashville. Meriweather was calling balls and strikes one day when Joe Simpson, an outfielder for the Seattle Mariners and now an announcer for the Atlanta Braves, came to the plate. At the time, Simpson was mired in a deep hitting slump, a troubling and frustrating experience for a professional ballplayer, a time when one doubts one’s abilities and fears for one’s future.
Beyond desperate for a base hit, Simpson dug in and readied himself for the first pitch. It came, and, in Simpson’s eyes, it was way out of the strike zone.
"Strike one!" Meriweather alled.
Simpson couldn’t believe it. His weeks of failure at the plate spilled over into fury, and he lost it. Simpson screamed a string of noxious obscenities, spittle spewing toward Meriweather.
As Simpson said later, ‘ I am mortified by what I did that day. I called Meriweather names I had never said to any other human being.’
Meriweather ripped off his mask and glared at Simpson. Simpson shrank back, expecting to be thrown out of the game or worse. "Joe," said Meriweather gently, "I’ll try to take a better look at it next time." 2.
Simpson remembered this as one of the most gracious moments of his life. How to describe this? Perhaps James could describe it for us:
"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"
To me, Meriweather showed the wisdom that is rare… so rare it comes only from above. He had the power, he had the legal right as an umpire to throw Simpson out of the game and could have listened to earthly wisdom. Instead, he saw past the rage and saw Simpson’s fear and frustration and with a gentle word, he transformed the moment into one of mercy and reconciliation.
James, would say, that is a very wise person. Listen to those people in your life. Listen to them, and you will be listening to the kind of wisdom and understanding that can only come from above.
1. From the Presbyterian Leader