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Sermons: “How Wisdom Comes

I recently attended a conference that turned out to be more like a retreat. But not a silent or solitary retreat. There were over a hundred and twenty of us present—mostly ministers and religious educators. And we were gathered to spend four days learning about Native American spirituality.

It reminded me that there is a paradox in all human endeavors that touch upon the divine, all temporal efforts that become conscious of the timeless, all particular stories that try to express something universal. In part, it's the paradox bound up in any form of seeking. And since we are all seekers here, we should remind ourselves of it.

All seeking starts with some sense of absence. You don't go searching for what you already have, have present and know as present. But on the other hand, no one can search for what has always been totally absent, unknown and unknowable. Put negatively, the point is an old one. Plato put it this way:

"No one can search for what he knows, for since he knows it, there is no need to search for it. And no one can search for what he does not know—because he does not know what to look for." (Meno, 80e)

Put positively, it's the point of the Wizard of Oz: what the pilgrims on the Yellow Brick Road sought, they already had, but didn't fully recognize or always practice. And this is the paradox in all teaching or preaching. Socrates drew students even though he said he had nothing to teach—that he was only a midwife for wisdom, and the most ignorant man in the city of Athens. Our leaders at the conference I attended were equally unpretentious.

One was a woman from the Tewa People of Tesuque Pueblo, in New Mexico, a pre-school teacher. The other was a chief of the Winnebago of Wisconsin, where our retreat took place. Dislodged long ago, and moved more than once, they are now confined to a small reservation near Omaha, Nebraska.

They were sent to us by an inter-tribal group—the Traditional Council of Elders and Youth. We had to be judged receptive. As one of the Council's leaders, Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation and spokesman for the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy puts it, "You think we send our Wisdomkeepers to just anyone? We guard them like pure spring water. If what you seek from us is secrets, mysteries...I can tell you right now, there are no secrets. There's no mystery. There's only common sense."

Or perhaps better put, the uncommon sense to sense the uncommon in the common, the holy in the ordinary. And isn't it this sense which we too often have lost? Lost not only to the detriment of our individual souls, but to the detriment of the planet—our Mother, the Earth.

"We never lose the soul," writes the feminist philosopher Susan Griffin. But we do lose knowledge of the soul: we cease to know ourselves, we become ignorant [not in Socrates' sense, but because we ignore] we cease to know others. We begin to believe the world is soulless, and our belief makes this true."

"Think not forever of yourselves, 0 Chiefs, nor of your own generation. Think of continuing generations of our families, think of our grandchildren and of those yet unborn, whose faces are coming from beneath the ground." This wisdom, spoken a thousand years ago, came from the traditional founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, called ‘the Peacemaker.'

But for the last half of the intervening millennium, we who dominate this continent have scorned its original inhabitants. We have seen ourselves as ‘civilized', them as ‘savage.' Ourselves as knowledgeable, them as ignorant. Ourselves as successful, them as defeated. And dominant illusions can even keep nightmares seeming true.

I am no sentimentalist about these matters. Neither are the Wisdomkeepers of the indigenous people. They are familiar with irony, and forthright about their motives. "We have been subjected to physical and cultural genocide," said Reuben Snake. "The Grandfathers and Grandmothers are dying out. Some of us have to go out to them, record their words, take their photographs, learn their songs and their stories, then pass them onto those of you in the dominant culture who may have ears to hear and hearts to understand."

As Matthew King of the Lakota put it, in the book called Wisdomkeepers:

"It's time [we indigenous people] tell the world what we know about nature and about God. So I'm going to tell you what I know and who I am. You guys better listen. You got a lot to learn."

Of course, there's something ironic about trying to capture wisdom in a book. Socrates would have understood. So would Thomas Kempis. As Vernon Cooper, healer among the Lumbee people of North Carolina said for the book, "Everything I know I learned by listening and watching. Nowadays people learn out of books instead. Doctors study what man has learned. I pray to understand what man has forgotten."

Not even Socrates, or Jesus, or St. Paul could have differed. "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life," said Paul [II Cor. 3:6]. "It is the Spirit that gives life," said Jesus [John 6:63]. "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life." And Socrates, speaking of the invention of writing [Crito], said that it was supposed to help people remember. The irony, he said, is that so often it helps them forget.

"These days people seek knowledge," said the Tewa woman who was one of our leaders, "not wisdom. Knowledge is of the past; wisdom is of the future." She was no grandmother; she was younger than I. And at first that bothered me. But it also served to remind me that wisdom is not necessarily a function of years. There are plenty of old fools who miss the knowledge or experience, power or prestige, and racing past wisdom.

Not Delores. She spoke slowly, sometimes referring to what she was telling us about her people as "information." At first the pace tried my patience. Then I began to see how what I seek, I too often want instantly and easily—insight without responsibility, spirituality with duties—while this woman knew better. She would laugh and say she identified with her elan animal, the Turtle, as she goes about her work—tending to future generations at the Pueblo, helping preserve the language and stories, but also carrying them out, to people like us.

"Beware of instant medicine men," said Reuben. "Those who exploit, who have no real power. Real power comes from the Creator. It comes in the form of wisdom. Its strength is not power-over, but power-with. It works with people and with the Creation. It refuses to exploit either people or the Earth. For these are our times and our responsibilities. Every human being has a sacred duty to give thanks, and to protect the welfare of our Mother Earth, from whom all life comes. In order to do this, we must recognize the enemy. Not in others. The one within us. We must begin with ourselves..."

"Let us live in peace and harmony to keep the land and all life in balance," added Delores. "Only prayer and meditation can do that. The native peoples of this land have suffered much. Have suffered nothing less than a great crucifixion. So has the land. But as I came away from prayer and meditation with them, I knew more deeply than ever that the Great Spirit within both abides, and can yet give wisdom. For how is it that Paul put it about another crucifixion? He told the people of Corinth that sophisticates wouldn't understand, but "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." And then he told those same sophisticates not to be resigned, but to consider the call that was upon them, and to live guided by the Spirit, "the hard way." But it would be foolish and cynical to think that it can only come too late. Let us be wise enough to see how foolish we often are. Let us be open even to that Spirit which sometimes stops and shames us in our foolishness—listen to its promptings, taking time to hear its warnings, to be awakened by its reminder that even the soul that seems dead within us can yet be revived, simply by acknowledging the soul in others, and Soul of this world itself. Let us do so even now. And let us pray:

For this good earth, and for the wisdom and will to conserve it; let us pray to God.

For the first peoples of land, and for all who have suffered; let us pray to God.

And for ourselves, who must remember to be humble if we would be wise, and good stewards of all the gifts we so freely use; let us pray to God.

May we find this earth so beautiful, and life sometimes so rich and so meaningfully shared, that we shall want this to be true, more often, for more people, everywhere. Amen.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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