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30th October 2022

Life Skills

Passage: Proverbs 3;1-8


In a Stella Gibbons’ novel “Cold Comfort Farm,” a well-organised young lady called Flora Poste goes to live with her relations on a farm in Sussex. This farm is in a state of utter chaos, chiefly because most of its inhabitants have mental conditions of utter chaos. Aunt Ada, head of the family, has never recovered from “seeing something nasty in the woodshed” when she was a child. Cousin Amos, although nominally in charge of the farm, is far more passionate about preaching hell fire sermons in the church of the “Quivering Brethren.” His son, Seth, totally bored with farm life, spends his time seducing every young girl within a radius of ten miles, whilst his daughter Elfine, equally bored with farm life, plays the part of a wood-nymph, dancing through the trees, wearing weird clothes and writing very bad poetry.
Flora, with the aid of her favourite book: “The Higher Common Sense” sorts them all out. Amos is persuaded to leave on a preaching tour; Seth is found a role as sex-symbol in the film industry; Elfine is safely married to the local son of the manor; and even Aunt Ada decides finally to leave behind whatever was nasty-in-the-woodshed and head for Paris to enjoy a few nice things. The farm is taken over by the more sensible members of the family, and all ends well.

There is a lot to be said for common sense. It is a form of what science calls “cause and effect.” If you do this, then that will be the result. If you spend your life doing things you do not like, you will become frustrated and destructive. If you channel your energies into worthwhile things you love, you will be happy and productive. In a world where chaos is always lurking, we need cause and effect. We need common sense. Which is why just about every human civilisation has had its teachers of Wisdom.

After all the passion and drama and unpredictability of our earlier Bible stories, what is known as the “Wisdom Literature” comes as something of a relief. Those verses from the book of Proverbs sound remarkably like plain common sense. No-one is being told to go to faraway places or stage a revolt or face a giant or take over a kingdom. They are just being told to do what wise parents tell them and everything will be OK. This is not just about the nation of Israel. It is universal advice about living life wisely in order to gain success and divine approval. Israelite culture had actually started to appoint “Wise Men” to advise the King and to teach the young. It was from this group that what we call the “wisdom literature” developed.

I guess our modern equivalent would be the self-help manuals which advise us on how to sort out chaos in our minds, our relationships, our businesses, our wardrobes, our personal fitness, our cat… not sure cats want chaos sorted out… whatever the chaos in your life, there will be a self-help manual for dealing with it. And that is great. We are free human beings with a right and a duty to be responsible for our lives. And we are blessed in having wisdom and experience offered to us as we need it.

But even three or four thousand years ago, those “wise men” were wise enough to recognise that life is not always so simple. In the book of Ecclesiastes, a man who has everything: honestly acquired wealth; power with integrity; vast knowledge, huge family is still asking “is this it? What is this all FOR?”
And in the book of Job, you have a man who behaves impeccably, yet still suffers widescale tragedy, financial ruin, serious illness. Why?
Common sense alone does not give us total control over chaos and I see the ultimate challenge of wisdom as how to answer the unanswerable.

There are two serious challenges to common sense. First, is that it is based on “cause and effect:” if you take this action then that situation will result. But that is not always the case and, more to the point, it never can be. Because life is a continual process, an unfolding, a developing. There will always be new knowledge. You cannot guarantee that what looks like common sense in 2022 will still be common sense in 2052. Job’s story is of a good man who did everything the book of Proverbs told him to: he was honest, hard-working, God-fearing. And all the rewards promised by Proverbs came to him: he was well-off, highly respected, strong and healthy, with a family of strong, healthy children. But then it all went wrong; Job lost virtually everything and everyone dear to him. The cause-and-effect system had failed, and he asked “why?”
His friends, deeply religious men, were determined at all costs to protect God. As they understood it, God had set up a system in life which ensured that those who obeyed him would prosper and those who disobeyed would suffer. Therefore, Job must have done something wrong, or he would not be suffering. Job argues this out with them through 38 chapters of the book and declares finally that he wants a showdown with God himself. God answers Job in a magnificent verbal panorama of life and the universe as a vast, ongoing, ever-developing existence which even God himself cannot control because to control it would drain it of its lifeforce.

The second challenge to common sense is that it is also heavily reliant on self-help and the greatest limitation to self-help is “self.” No matter how sensible the advice, we are not always capable of following it. Anyone who has struggled with a highly destructive addiction will tell you that. We have limits to our knowledge, to our strength, to our wisdom and anyone who has not at some time in their lives thrown a self-help manual across the room in a temper has quite possibly never opened a self-help manual at all….. So no, the simple instruction to “do good and nothing too bad will happen” is never, ever going to be enough. And where does this leave God? Is there a God who can be of any serious help to us?

Common sense can still get us a long way in life but when chaos does strike- and it does- what gets us through then? Most of the people I have talked to, say relationships: having people around who stand with you, hold onto you, help you find a way through. The apostle James, living in a chaotic world and struggling with a very new church, talked about the kind of wisdom which co-operates with one another and is not about personal ambition or a spirit of competition. He talks about solidarity, kindness, compassion in the face of chaos and declares that this is the wisdom God gives.

Then, moving on to what Jesus said, we go still further and learn that this is not just wisdom God GIVES but wisdom God IS. God does not just say “love one another” in the face of a chaotic world. God comes right into this world with us and gives himself in love. Time and again we have seen that the chaos caused by war, by natural disaster, by disease, by bereavement can only be faced and overcome when people work together in love, in solidarity, in self-sacrifice. So, this is surely where God most needs to be?
The god of the magic wand who can crush life in order to make it what he wants does not work for us. The god of cause and effect who tells us it is our fault if we suffer does not work for us. The God who became human and entered our world in Jesus Christ, taking on the deepest darkness and the most destructive chaos with a love so powerful that it overcame death itself; pouring out love to us so rich and deep that it fills our lives and makes us children of God and people of hope in our world- that is the God who works for me and the God I try to proclaim to you.
God’s love is far more than that of a kind friend sitting beside you through a bad time. God’s love is a power poured into you and, through you, into the world so that tragedy becomes a place of hope; sickness a place of healing; destruction a place of renewal; guilt a place of forgiveness. Chaos will remain but, through faith in Jesus Christ we are given the means of facing it, working through it, and seeing it become something new and lovely.

Wisdom means accepting that neither life nor faith can ever be made neat and tidy.
Wisdom means accepting that mystery and chaos are part of the very nature of life.
Wisdom means trusting the ultimate power in love.
Wisdom means living in the love of God as seen in the power of Jesus Christ who can make us-as St Paul put it- “more than conquerors.