Thursday, July 1, 2010

Are You Wise?

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” But wisdom is proved right by her actions. (Matthew 11.19)

An Unanticipated Question

During my years at a global marketing agency, it often fell my lot to interview job applicants. The majority of them involved people seeking entry-level positions—recent college grads trying to get a foot in the door. Most of them had been superbly schooled in responding to the predictable questions: why this business, what do you bring to it, where do you see yourself five years from now, etc. The answers tended to be succinct to the point of glibness, which commended the interviewees for their earnest preparation but revealed little about them or their talents. What I wanted to know, however, was how quickly they could think on their feet and how coolly they reacted to unexpected challenges, because, as any marketing or advertising vet will confirm, clients have a penchant for throwing ridiculous curves that make or break you.

So I’d let the interviews roll along, feeding prospects the usual fodder until their confidence reached full bloom. Then I’d yank the rug from beneath them with an unanticipated question: Are you wise? I admit to a tinge of sadistic glee as panic fell across their faces and they tried to gauge what the “best” answer should be. Was my question genuine, or some sort of test? It was both. I wanted to assess their maturity and assurance, as well as their deftness at handling surprises. The best answer I ever received went something like this: “Yes, I am wise, though not enough to understand your reason for asking me. That comes with experience, which is what I hope to gain here.” I stopped the interview, personally escorted the young lady to our HR officer, and said, “Hire her immediately!”

Evidenced Over Time

When Jesus dispatches the disciples to minister in His name without Him, He says, “I am sending you like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10.16) The King James Version renders His counsel as: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Emphasis added.) He asks much of them with this, as shrewdness and innocence—or wisdom and harmlessness—make for strange bedfellows. So do snakes and doves, for that matter. Innocence is self-evident in the moment. It avoids doing harm at all costs as a means of self-protection, eluding unfamiliar and potentially unhealthy situations much like doves refuse to light in muddy places. Wisdom, on the other hand, is evidenced over time. Like snakes, it makes its home in dangerous environments, often disguising its presence by taking on the colors, textures, and even the postures of its surroundings.

But wisdom doesn’t assume attributes of its vicinity merely to become part of it. Wisdom enters unfavorable situations cautiously in order to gain insights and experience to address them. Laying low, observing the dynamics, just as snakes do, permits wisdom to discover opportunities and challenges as they surface. Wisdom waits, knowing its time is well spent to increase understanding so its efforts will not be wasted. This is Christ’s message in Matthew 11.19, when He issues a blanket rebuttal to critics who accuse Him of licentious behavior: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” Rather than protect His innocence by distancing Himself from social pariahs and outcasts, Jesus wisely enters their world. Judging from what’s said of Him, as well as His own admission, He appears to behave like them. Yet despite what seems so obvious, Jesus knows the true reasons for His actions. He’s joined them to understand their challenges. He’s there, waiting on opportunities to show them a better way. In the end, the strategy proves the wisdom and innocence of His actions.

Agents of Redemption

Christ’s example teaches us how best to follow His discipleship directive. He sends us into the world as sheep among wolves. He charges us to be as wise as snakes and as innocent as doves—in other words, to live wisely with those around us while maintaining our commitment to His principles. We must never be fearful of being seen or identified with “the wrong people.” We must never buckle to social pressure and religious prejudice, simply to escape criticism or questions of our innocence. At the moment, distancing ourselves from pariahs and outcasts may seem like the best option. Over time, however, the wisdom of embracing them, joining their feasts, and sharing their lives will become evident. It will bring new understanding of their needs and create opportunities for us to show them a better way.

Besides, our critics can never be satisfied. That’s the bigger point encircling Jesus’s rebuttal. He prefaces His response to His critics with this: “John [the Baptist] came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’” (v18) John leads with innocence—sequestering himself in the desert so as not to be identified with the wrong crowd—and still he’s blasted for his actions. Protecting our innocence will not shield us from unjust criticism. Neither will it benefit those who need our light. By teaching and example, Jesus demonstrates living in the world is how we change it. Willingness to sacrifice reputation is how we become agents of redemption. What is wisest for us to do may seem dangerously foolish now. But that shouldn’t worry us. Wisdom is proved right by her actions. Gained experience and knowledge will guide our work. Time will tell the integrity of our motives and behavior. Are you wise?

Hanging with “the wrong crowd” may not seem wise at first. But over time, the experience and knowledge we gain reveal why our presence there is essential. (Image: "RSVP" - The Journeys Project.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Say No More

He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46.9-10)

Strange Tendencies

I have strange tendencies I imagine many of us share. When crises exhaust everything I know to say, I keep talking. I repeat the same statements over and over, as though my complaints and reasoning were magical incantations that, when recited in proper combination, will unlock the mystery of my dilemma. It’s a crazy take on tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—or better yet, something very close to the delirious scene in Being John Malkovich, in which John Cusack tries to discern Catherine Keener's name by sounding out random syllables. On an intellectual level I know if there’s nothing more to say, it’s time to say no more. But having nothing to say somehow fires my emotional synapses. Inability to explain what’s going on feels like the problem’s got the upper hand. And it does—for the moment. So, since I’m obviously on hold, I kill time talking.

The same goes when I’m out of options and don't know what to do. I get real busy. I run myself ragged trying to find a proper solution or, if the problem seems unsolvable, an exit strategy. If nothing feasible arises, I may even try kicking down a door or two. Eventually, of course, I wear myself out. I’m sick of hearing myself. I’m too tired to push. I shut up. I sit down. I become still. Without fail, once I’m still, I discover the real problem and its only real and reliable answer. I’m the problem; God is the answer. I knew that all along. But what stops me from knowing it while “all along” is underway?

The Trouble with Trouble

“Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46.10 tells us. It’s such obviously sound, concise advice most of us can quote it from memory. Yet when trouble comes and we most urgently need to remember this truth, it’s far from mind. Why is that? The trouble with trouble is it masquerades as our trouble. It challenges us. If it overtly challenged God’s wisdom and power, we’d immediately dismiss it as a situation He could easily handle. We’d take a seat to watch Him work. The more impossible the problem got, the more we’d smile, knowing nothing’s too hard for God. We’d relax, exchanging unbearable stress for pleasurable suspense, sitting on the edge of our seats like theatergoers spellbound by an incomparably masterful playwright. We’d savor every fresh impossibility as an exciting chance to be dazzled by the breathtaking dénouement.

But trouble never appears as what it finally turns out to be—an unexpected plot twist God deftly resolves. It thunders onto the stage as a full-blown drama that turns us into unwitting actors. We’re woefully unprepared for the role it forces on us. We don’t know our lines; so we keep talking. We don’t know how to act; so we keep doing things. We haven’t seen the script, because there isn’t one. Each new complication catches us by surprise and wrings us deeper into a drama that writes itself as it goes. Regardless how we heroically try to rise to the occasion, we’re flummoxed and humiliated. No matter how many times trouble thrusts us into this position, we can’t resist believing this time we’ll figure things out—when the whole while God waits in the wings, ready to take control of the role we’ve bungled so horribly. For some reason, trouble’s false threats to our pride disable our propensity to see—to know—God is there. It sometimes takes getting perilously close to the final curtain to realize this isn’t our challenge. We’re not meant to star in this drama. We’re not clever enough to pull the pieces together. But we know Who is. At last, we see Him poised to enter the scene, and we notice the front-row seat He’s reserved for us to be still and know.

Author and Star

Psalm 46 reads like the rave review of an epic masterpiece. It leads with plaudits for the unfailingly triumphant Author and Star: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (v1-3) In the midst of fearsome chaos, God is there, ever-present. Verse 8 serves as the review’s “Not to be missed!” quote: “Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth.” And then verse 7 gives us a taste of the stunning reversals He stages: “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.” Where are we in this turmoil and tumult? We’re watching it unfold. It’s what we came to see! What should we say? What does God expect us to do? Nothing. “Be still and know that I am God,” He says, gently reminding us this is His show. He’s the Master. Imposing our ideas, opinions, and actions adds nothing to His performance.

There’s a great old gospel song that says, “He’s God all by Himself. He don’t need nobody else.” That checks out with what He tells us after showing us to our seats: “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (v9) God is the Author and Star here. Our drama may be overrun with trouble. It may surge with wave after wave of potential destruction. But He is ever-present. He has total command of the situation. That’s what we must remember as His epic masterpiece unfolds. Though the ground beneath us vanishes, mountains crumble, and tsunamis rear up with such force that entire ranges tremble, we will not fear. It is He Who defuses our conflicts. He disarms our adversaries. He destroys their defenses. Inviting God into our drama is how we escape it. When there’s nothing we can do, we do nothing. When there’s nothing more to say, we say no more.

Trouble creates drama and calls us to the stage. But our challenges are actually God’s opportunities. He takes center-stage, while we're in the front row, still and knowing He's in command.