in which God gets my attention through textual insight.
I love taking photographs just before or after early- or late-day sunshowers: the rich, angled light hits its subjects full in the face, and the sky is a dramatically dark backdrop. The devil is beating his wife, in fact, just now – the sun and its blue sky are full in my eastern window, but I hear the rain beating on my roof as I tap this out.
That Southern explanation for a sunshower played in me when I was a kid. I remember thinking that the devil probably didn’t beat his wife that often despite the other bad things I had heard about him, so I thought I was witnessing an astronomical event as rare and as metaphysical as a solar eclipse.
It’s the mind up to its tricks, wanting to find animals and people (and devils) in things. The poet Charles Wright, whom I’ve been enjoying recently, plays at it as he nudges the reader from the physical to a physical/metaphysical world. Consider the hints at personification from the opening of “Images from the Kingdom of Things” (though these examples are really more zooidal than anthropomorphic):
Sunlight is blowing westward across the unshadowed meadow,
Night, in its shallow puddles,
still liquid and loose in the trees.
The world is a desolate garden,
No distillation of downed grasses,
no stopping the clouds, coming at us one by one.
“Liquid and loose” makes me see night alternatively as a puddle and a panther; it sort of never settles in my mind into one or the other and therefore reverts back to language and sound, which I think Wright wants. And the inexorable clouds: person, animal, or thing?
It’s like the biblical conception of wisdom. Wisdom is an abstract noun in the Bible, as it is everywhere you find it, but there’s this overlay of personification from the Book of Proverbs’s first section that can color wisdom when you’re reading about it elsewhere in the Bible:
Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding. (Proverbs 9:1-6, King James Version)
Even more significant for my faith is Paul’s assertion in First Corinthians that Jesus himself is my wisdom:
By God’s act you are in Christ Jesus; God has made him our wisdom, and in him we have our righteousness, our holiness, our liberation. (REB)
But it’s been awhile since I’ve read those verses. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the devil in sunshowers or seen Jesus in wisdom. But I started to see something I hadn’t seen about wisdom in the New Testament’s epistle by James, probably Jesus’ brother and a practical guy who writes in a practical way and from whom I wouldn’t expect to receive much new insight after a few readings.
James describes what wisdom looks and feels like. Here’s the entire passage, taken from the King James Version of chapter 3:
Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.
Until last month, I thought James was describing how I can know that a decision I would make would be a wise one. Maybe, but now I understand that seeing the passage only that way would not only take it out of context but make it into a decision-making tree or a kind of blueprint for a biblical Magic Eight Ball. (One of my biggest hangovers from my Charismatic days is the notion that, as big as I claim God is, he puts his money on only one horse; he endorses only one decision. This passage back then was my way to know how that right decision would feel to me – was it pure? peaceable? etc. – so that I’d end up backing the right horse, too.)
While reading James last month, instead of the usual decision tree I’ve extrapolated from this passage, I began to see, flickering in and out Charles Wright-like, an animate wisdom. James is describing how a wise person interacts with others. (I don’t know why I’ve never seen that before: the passage comes after James’ remonstration against his readers for cursing other people and comes after a similar remonstration about fighting other people. So he’s been talking about conduct all along. The passage even refers to the “meekness of wisdom.” People, not decisions, are meek, after all.)
Here’s another translation of my chief text from the passage, this from the New Revised Standard Version:
Bur the 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.
James is describing a way of interacting with others over an issue that wouldn’t necessarily reach a single, predetermined end. If I have wisdom, I – I, and not the right answer – am “easy to be intreated” (KJV), “willing to yield” (NRSV), “reasonable” (NAS), “open-minded” (REB). The wisdom the passage refers to isn’t in an answer or in a direction or decision. It’s also not the fruit from having the the person I’m talking with following what I think is my wise counsel. The peace the passage refers to is in the relationship; it is in the faith that, even if the other person can’t marshall enough wisdom or even see beyond the nose on her face, I am willing to yield to her. In other words, this passage isn’t about getting the right answer or getting the mind of God on a subject, if God is indeed that singleminded about it. It’s about how to lose like God.
I beat God frequently, and he takes it, just like the devil’s wife. When the Spirit indicates something to me that doesn’t make sense, I often go with what makes sense, and circumstances show me how things would have been better had I gone with my indication. More to the point, I’ll also often do things I know are wrong. God, wise as he is, yields to me and loses every time.
So the wisdom from above is receiving other people’s perspectives, getting out of their way, letting them win, knowing that God has been likewise willing to lose to me. “Easy to be entreated,” then, doesn’t mean willing to have others grovel before me like supplicants before some kind of potentate. If I’m willing to be entreated, I’m willing to be persuaded, willing to give up my position, willing to let the other’s perspective carry the day, willing to play God only to the extent of being willing to lose, willing all the more to lose because of my broken perspective.
The more I read this passage, journaled about it (a lot of this post is verbatim from my journal), and thought about it, I knew where this was going. When I get some insight into the Bible that I think is significant, I’m usually assured that I’ll have to learn some hard lessons to get it functioning under my hood. I’ve learned that biblical insight (humble as mine is) comes with a price; theology alone is a parlor game. For the sake of our future relationship, I would have to put my heart behind my words: your college decision is your decision, Bethany, and not mine. I know you’ll make the right decision, and I’ll be thrilled for you whatever you decide.
God knows how to get to me. It was a bittersweet feeling – the excitement of being reoriented to one of my central biblical passages while knowing deep inside that the timing of that reorientation would require that I give up any claim I had to pushing Bethany toward a particular decision. I would have to be “willing to yield” – willing to lose like God. With three weeks to go before Bethany would have to accept only one college’s invitation, I knew I was nowhere ready to do that.
Previous post: Part 1, in which I process Bethany’s growing up
Next post: Part 3, in which Bethany selects a college
[Above photo is of Granny’s farm just before a sunshower. (Granny is Bethany’s mother’s mother’s mother, now 92 years old.)]
In celebration of SoloPoMo (Solo Poem Month), I hope to blog every day in May using Charles Wright’s poem “Images from the Kingdom of Things” from his 2006 volume Scar Tissue. I’m not sure how many of these posts will explicitly refer to the poem, but I hope there’ll be some connection with the poem each time, if only felt.
Posted May 10, 2010.