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Seekers of Wisdom: On Paying Attention

January 14, 2007

Proverbs 2:1-11; I Kings 3:5-15

We began a sermon series last Sunday entitled Seekers of Wisdom and considered the question of Job, “Where can wisdom be found?” and his own answer, “It is found in the fear of the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Today, we continue our series and take our scripture from the second chapter of Proverbs, beginning at Verse 1 and continuing through Verse 11.

In the story I shared with you just before Christmas, December Light, perhaps you remember that Eli Solomon was the keeper a lighthouse. One Saturday, he makes his way into Georgetown. There, he is able to attend the synagogue. In his heart, Eli desires to be a faithful Jew; and during worship, he finds himself renewed. At the conclusion of the service, he encounters the synagogue president who says, “You must be new to town.” Eli, of course, is rarely able to come to the synagogue because of his job as keeper of the lighthouse, located thirteen miles out in Winyah Bay. Eli answers, “No, I have been here for fifteen years.” The president of the synagogue responds, “Oh, I see. You are not an observant Jew.” His comment stings Eli’s heart because he desires nothing more than to be a devout Jew. As Eli makes his way on the thirteen-mile journey back out to the lighthouse, he ponders, “What does it mean to be an observant Jew?” Wanting peace within his own soul, he decides that his faith does not necessarily mean keeping the letter of the law. It means paying attention to what God is doing in the world.

In the Navy, a call goes out, “Now hear this! Now hear this!” The essence of the teaching we read in Proverbs 2 is the same: “Incline your ear to wisdom. Incline your heart to understanding. Pay attention.” If you are a seeker of wisdom, you find wisdom by being observant, by paying attention. These words of Proverbs 2 may very well have come from Solomon. They certainly are ascribed to him, and it is true that he wrote many of the proverbs. Look at how this message finds application in Solomon’s life. Turn with me to I Kings 3, beginning at Verse 5.

At Gibeon, the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.

Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.

“Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have you asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for both riches and honor – so that in your lifetime you will have equal among kings. And if you walk in my ways and obey by statues and commands as David your father did, then I will give you a long life.” Then Solomon awoke and he realized it had been a dream.

Solomon prayed for the wisdom of a heart inclined to listen. The Hebrew words mean a heart with skill to listen, the wisdom of a listening heart.

I read a very interesting book during our vacation this summer, a book by Parker Palmer, Listening to Your Life. It is an autobiographical account of some of the struggles Palmer faced in his own life. He felt God was leading him to go to seminary, so he enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He was there for only one semester when he realized that was not what he was to do with his life. He then transferred across the country to the University of California at Berkley where he worked for a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in sociology. Following that academic work, he returned to the East coast and worked as a community planner among some of the poorest communities in Washington, D.C. His work was so impressive that Georgetown University asked him to join their faculty to teach sociology students and to give them field experience. Parker Palmer worked in these difficult areas of Washington, D.C. for eight years.

Then Palmer experienced what amounted to burnout. His teaching schedule and the load of being a community planner exhausted him. He decided he needed a time of restoration – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He entered a small Quaker community in Pennsylvania, where for one year, he thrived on Quaker wisdom and the Quaker life of devotion. At the end of the year, those Quakers asked him to consider becoming their administrator, the director, of their retreat center. They recognized in him gifts of administration, leadership, compassion, and understanding that equipped him well for this work. He accepted that position and worked there for twelve years before a small college approached him about taking the position of president. Palmer interviewed with the Board of Trustees and members of the faculty.
Before he made his decision, however, he returned to the Quaker community. He had learned enough from the Quakers to know that the wisest way to make important decisions was to convene what he called a committee of discernment, a procedure practiced by Quakers. The committee members may not give any advice; they may only ask questions. For about the first forty-five minutes, the committee asked such questions as, “What goals do you have for this college if you become president?…What curriculum changes would you like to see?…What is your vision for this college?” Parker was able to answer all of those questions quickly.

Then one older woman asked, “Parker, why do you want to be a college president?” Parker answered, “I don’t look forward to the faculty meetings. I know how difficult the faculty can be. I don’t really look forward to glad-handing all the alumni, and I do not look forward to the fundraising.” This woman interrupted, “Parker, let me repeat my question. Why do you want to be a college president?” He replied, “Well, it is not because of the Board of Trustees. I don’t look forward to meeting with them…” He continued to talk about the duties of a president he did not look forward to doing. He realized he was skirting the issue and said, “Wait, a minute. I am coming to it. I know I will get to the answer in a minute.” The woman repeated, “Parker, why do you want to be a college president?” He grinned rather sheepishly and said, “I just like the idea of having my picture in the paper with the word president under it.” His committee of discernment did just what you did; they laughed. Then this dear lady said, “Parker, can’t you find any easier way to get your picture in the paper?” He turned the job down.

I read that account of the way he made that decision and thought, Everybody needs a committee of discernment.

I thought about my own committee. About eleven years ago, I made the difficult decision to leave a church I loved dearly and come to this church. Before I made that decision, however, I selected five people – all beyond the age of seventy – to talk to individually. I told them about the possibility of coming to Morningside and asked them their opinion. Three of the five have now gone to heaven. Those five people, all elders, gave me very sound advice. I want to suggest to you that in your committee of discernment, you need to include some elders.

Who are the members of your committee of discernment?

The flowers here on the Lord’s Supper table have come to us from the family of Virginia Bobo, who died this week. The family asked permission to place flowers at Morningside in memory of Virginia. Virginia Bobo was a charter member of Morningside. She died at age ninety-three. Years ago, she left Spartanburg as a single mother with two daughters and moved to Washington, D.C. Those years were not a popular time for single mothers. I am not even sure people referred to single parents in that way. This courageous woman worked as a guide in the United States Capitol for many years, placing her in a unique situation to see history made. At her funeral service yesterday, I told her family, “Do you remember seeing the movie Forrest Gump? Forrest was just an ordinary person from Greenbo, Alabama, a man with limitations. Virginia, like Forrest, seemed always to be in the right place at the right time.” Virginia had the privilege of attending the private service in the Rotunda for President John F. Kennedy following his assignation. She knew congressional representatives and senators by name. In her later years, she had dementia, so her death in some ways was a blessing. The death of a person like that is like a library burning down because so much wisdom, so much experience, is lost. Elderly people are a repository of wisdom.

We need to include the elderly in our committee of discernment. A familiar proverb says, “Blessed is the generation in which the old listen to the young for it follows that in such a generation, the young will also listen to the old.” That proverb reminds us that we find wisdom from several sources, both the elderly and the young people.

Some years ago, one of our sons was trying to earn a Cub Scout award. He needed to take a five-mile hike. Being the handy, dandy daddy that I was, I decided to take him on a hike down a railroad track. It had been a long time since I had done that. We came to a place where a siding went off into a grove of trees. The further we went down the siding, the taller the saplings grew between the railroad ties. Down in this stand of pine trees was an old Southern Lady railway boxcar, the kind with just one door. I noticed the rust on the wheels and the rails. I went around one side of the boxcar, and my son went around on the other side. When we met again at the back of the car, this Cub Scout said, “Dad, this boxcar has been here a long time.” How wise, I thought. He is paying attention. I asked, “How do you know that?” I thought he would talk about the saplings growing between the railroad ties or the rust on the wheels or rails, but he said, “Look, Dad, on the ladder. There’s a bird’s nest. Dad, a bird cannot build a nest on a moving train.”

I was a busy man. I was on many committees, always on the go. I listened to my Cub Scout son say, “Dad, a bird cannot build a nest on a moving train,” and his words went straight to my heart. I thought, Kirk, you cannot raise a family on a moving train. You cannot build your home on a moving train. You have to take the time to slow down and stop.

The Lord Jesus brought children into the midst of his disciples because of their words of wisdom. He knew his disciples were so caught up with being big that they missed the wisdom of the young.

Colleagues should be on our committee of discernment. This series of sermons on wisdom actually came as a suggestion from one of our staff members, Carole Johnson. Carole said to me last fall, “Dr. Kirk, I don’t think you have ever preached a series of sermons on the wisdom of the Old Testament.” I knew right then I had to do it. I try to pay attention to this suggestion and to the needs of others. One of our church members commented last week, “Some of our Sunday School classes need to consider forming new classes.” My column in the Morningside Messenger this week came right out of the mouth of that church member. Our colleagues can provide wisdom if we only pay attention.

The colleague I depend on most is Clare. She is not only my colleague, but she is also my best friend. Sometimes I do not listen to her very well. Have you ever listened to the music in an elevator or the music in the grocery store? Acoustic experts call that music sonic wallpaper, background noise. Over the course of years, our marriage partner’s voice begins to sound like sonic wallpaper. I wish I had a nickel for every time I had said to Clare, “Tell me again. I am listening this time.” She does not let me get away with inattentiveness. She insists that I listen. Clare is a very wise person. When I pay attention to her, I can avoid some bad mistakes. God gives us marriage partners to complete us. I suggest that you include your own marriage partner on your committee of discernment.

I also recommend that we pay attention to people we do not like. Tomorrow, the nation will celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King. I can remember the work of Dr. King. Many people in our region who did not like him only saw him as a troublemaker. His life was not perfect, but he got some things right. Opinions about Dr. King have changed over the years. Many now know what a great leader he was. His private papers are now available for people to read. One of the most remarkable items in that collection is the speech he gave in Washington, D.C. Nowhere in his notes did he have the words, “I have a dream.” That idea was extemporaneous, a thought that came to him in the moment he was speaking. Do you think that came from the rarified air of Washington, D.C.? Do you think it might have come from the Spirit of God? God will speak to us in many ways, sometimes through people we do not appreciate. The Bible tells us that the wise will learn from the foolish, but the foolish will not learn from the wise. If we are wise, we have to learn from people we do not especially like.

Then we must include a chairman in our committee. Of course, the chairman is God Himself. God spoke to Solomon in the passage I read from I Kings 3 through a dream. God spoke to Joseph of the Old Testament and Joseph of the New Testament through dreams. Elijah, who stood on a sacred mountain during the chaos of an earthquake, wind, and fire, heard the voice of God in what he called “a gentle breeze, a still, small voice.” The voice of God encouraged him, and he paid attention. God speaks to us through dreams.

Do you believe that God wants to speak to you? A wise teacher of mine once said, “God is probably not going to say a lot more to you until you pay attention to what He has already said.” This Bible is God’s Word. This what He has already said to us. We need to heed this Word, to hold it in our heart and make it lamp unto our feet.

God comes to us in other ways. I talked with a pastor this week who said, “Sometimes I just wake up in the middle of the night with somebody or something on my mind. Since I cannot go back to sleep, I get up, kneel by my bed, and pray about whatever God has pressed on my heart and mind.”

Young Samuel was asleep when he heard a voice. Each time he thought the voice was that of the old priest Eli. Eli told him, “Samuel, when you hear that voice again, you must answer, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’” Samuel returned to bed. The next time he heard the voice, he answered, “Speak, Lord, your servant is answering.” God spoke to him.

Do you tell God, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”? I do not know where we got the idea that prayer is talking. I do not know where we got the idea that prayer is a monologue where we do all the talking and God does all the listening, that prayer is a soliloquy. I hear people say, “I do not like to pray aloud. I just pray to myself.” Praying to yourself is like a dog chasing his tail. We may pray silently, but we do not pray to ourselves. We pray to God. Prayer is not talking; prayer is participating in a relationship. Most of all, we have to pay attention to God. “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

Early in my ministry, years ago, I had a conversation with a man who has, still to this day, a very difficult speech impediment. He stutters. It has gotten better, but it is still a problem for him. This man was trying to talk to me, but I was impatient in my listening. I would rush ahead and fill in the blanks for him. Hearing him struggling with a word frustrated me. Finally, he stuttered through the sentence, “Dr. Kirk, you are doing a very unsanitary thing. You are putting words in my mouth.” I have never forgotten his comment.

Sometimes I think we do the same to God. Instead of listening, we put words in His mouth. We do not pay attention to what God has to say to us. The wisdom of the proverb says, “Incline your ear to wisdom. Tune your heart to understanding.” It says that we will desire wisdom as if it were silver, as if it were a hidden treasure. Then it says that God will grant us wisdom and knowledge. That means that we will get to know God.

How long does it take to get to know a person? It takes a long time. You have to spend time with a person through several seasons, over several years. This search for wisdom is the same. You cannot obtain wisdom quickly. We cannot just talk to God and give Him our agenda. We must get to know Him and enter into a relationship with Him. We must attune our ears to God. Even more importantly, we must attune our heart to God. In order for that to happen, we must fall silent. Sometimes silence makes us very uncomfortable. All kinds of noises, including the noise of our own spirit, start flooding into our lives. If you will make silence a part of your prayer, I am convinced God will begin to impart His wisdom in your life. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist shares. Be still, quiet. Stop striving. Incline your ear. Tune your heart to hear God.

Solomon asked God for the wisdom of a listening heart, and God responded in a dream. I Kings 4:29 provides God’s response: “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.”

Do you want wisdom? You must first establish a relationship with God. When we do that, we can hear what He has to say in many ways. We want to extend an invitation to you. Some here know that God has led you to this place. This is to be your church home. We invite you to make that decision. Perhaps a person here does not know Jesus as their Savior. If you have never accepted Christ as your Savior, this is the day. We want you to make that decision today. Come as we stand together and sing a beautiful hymn, “Open My Eyes That I May See.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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