James 3:13-17 Rev. Julie Yarborough
Romans 5:1-5 Christ Church
Who is the wisest person you can think of? What makes them wise? (I invite you to take a few moments to discuss this with your neighbor)
Caroline often begins her sermons with a confession; and this morning, I have one of my own: I turned 50 recently, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be entering this phase of my life.
I have to say that turning 40 was much harder than entering my fifties. A few weeks before my 40th birthday, I spoke with a single friend who was celebrating her 40th birthday by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. I had young children at the time and was feeling frazzled and like my life was not really my own. Our travel plans that year consisted of a trip to Disney World.
For me, turning 40 was much harder than turning 50. Entering my 50’s feels like a time of new possibility and growth, a time for gaining wisdom.
So, I’ve been asking myself, “What does it mean to be wise?”
Our first scripture reading from the book of James gives us some clues about wisdom: Being wise is as much about actions as it is about knowledge. Wisdom is about how we live out our lives in the world. Saying that you’re wise doesn’t make it so – in fact, if you brag about your wisdom, or twist the truth in order to sound wise, it’s the furthest thing from wisdom. Real wisdom “begins with a holy life,” is spiritually grounded, and is characterized by gentleness, humility, kindness and love.
The passage from Romans also gives us some clues. “…Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us…”
Paul is not saying that we should seek out suffering in our lives in order to be more holy; only that in order to gain wisdom, we must go through some form of suffering - and all of us will suffer at some point in our lives, but not all of us will grow wiser. The outcome depends on whether or not we allow our suffering to change us. The type of suffering I’m talking about might be the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a health crisis, a divorce or a near-death experience. It could be some form of abuse or humiliation. It could be forced upon us or we could bring it on ourselves. Whatever the cause of the suffering, if we allow it to become an opportunity for spiritual growth, we will be opened to a deeper form of living.
Father Richard Rohr speaks and writes often about the two halves of life. In the first half of life, we are busily (and necessarily) building up our identities by working to achieve success, climbing to the top in our personal and professional lives. But these outer concerns will not serve us well as we grow older. The challenges, mistakes, suffering and tragedies that we encounter in our lives are necessary forms of suffering that shock us out of our comfort zones into a more life-giving way of being. The heartbreaks, failures and disappointments of life are necessary for the spiritual journey of transformation into what Rohr calls the “second half of life.”
The two halves of life may be better described as the two “tasks” of life. They are not meant in a strictly chronological way. “Some young people, especially those who have learned from early suffering, are already there, [in the second half of life] and some older folks are still quite childish.”
The second half of life, then, doesn’t depend on chronological age, but on how much we allow our suffering to be transformed through a spiritual journey of awakening to the true self.
This idea is not unique to Richard Rohr. Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, also wrote about the notion of self-examination as a spiritual journey, which enables us to grow closer to the heart of God; and many other renowned thinkers and writers in our time talk about self-reflection and vulnerability as integral to living a deeper, more meaningful life. Brené Brown is one example, and Krista Tippett is another.
A journalist with National Public Radio (and, I might add, a former classmate of mine from Yale Divinity School) Krista Tippett’s syndicated program and podcast, On Being, airs on WNYC every Sunday morning. Tippett interviews people from all walks of life – scientists, religious leaders and scholars from many faith traditions, poets, and activists. She asks questions and engages in conversation about what it means to be human, living together in this world with all of the challenges and struggles we face, and how to do that with wonder and grace. Recently, she was interviewed on her own show by Pico Iyer, an author and essayist, about her new book, “Becoming Wise.”
[You can find that show on-line here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/krista-tippett-an-inquiry-into-the-mystery-and-art-of-living/8644]
Since her book was published, a lot of people have been asking her to define wisdom, and she responds in this way: “One core aspect of wisdom, when you experience it in another human being, is that there is an integrity, a connection, between inner life and outer presence in the world.”
Her description echoes the passage from James that we hear earlier this morning: “It’s the way you live, not the way you talk that counts.”
Pico Iyer commented that when you focus attention on the inner life, your outer life will also thrive; but it doesn’t work the other way around – if you focus your attentions on building up your outer life (what Rohr would call the “first half of life”) your inner life will be puny. For a balanced life, we must focus on the inner landscape.
Later in the interview, Tippett talked about the role that suffering plays in wisdom, “So there is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong…. But then there is also this paradox that, ‘We are so often made by what would break us.’ And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary because this is the place in life that honors the fact that there’s darkness but also says ‘and you can find meaning right there….’ To come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it: it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes … who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed, not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.”
To gain wisdom, we must experience suffering and allow ourselves to be healed by allowing that suffering to become part of who we are, not by denying it or anesthetizing ourselves to the pain, but by living through it and coming out on the other side.
When people who have lived through difficult times, and have integrated those experiences tell their stories, others can benefit from knowing that they are not alone and gain knowledge about how to maneuver through the darkness and suffering that will inevitably come their way.
Lin Manuel Miranda (the writer and lead actor in the Broadway hit, Hamilton) spoke at U Penn’s commencement ceremony last week, and he shared a story about a time of suffering in his own life that became a time for transformation.
(Video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewHcsFlolz4 story is from 6:03 – 7:45)
“I am 20 years old, finishing my sophomore year at Wesleyan, and my girlfriend of four and a half years is home from her semester abroad. I cannot wait to see her again—she is my first love. I dread seeing her again—I’ve grown into my life without her. In her absence, with time and angst to spare, I have developed the first draft of my first full-length musical, an 80-minute one-act called In The Heights. I have also developed a blinding pain in my right shoulder, which I can’t seem to stop cracking. My girlfriend comes home. I am so happy to see her, even as my shoulder worsens. My mother takes me to a back specialist, ranked in New York Magazine, so you know he’s good.
He examines me, looks me dead in the eyes, and says, “There’s nothing wrong with your back. There will be if you keep cracking it, but what you have a nervous tic. Is there anything in your life that is causing you stress?” I burst into tears, in his office. He looks at me for a long time, as I’m crying, and get this… - he tells me the story of Giuseppe Verdi. A 19th century Italian composer of some note, who, in the space of a few short years, lost his wife and two young children to disease. He tells me that Verdi’s greatest works—Rigoletto, La Traviata—came not before, but after this season of Job, the darkest moments of his life. He looks me in the eyes and tells me, “You’re trying to avoid going through pain, or causing pain. I’m here to tell you that you’ll have to survive it if you want to be any kind of artist.”
Miranda said that he broke up with his girlfriend that night and spent that summer going through therapy.
The sufferings of our life, when combined with introspection and an examination of our inner lives, lead to spiritual growth, artistic expression and wisdom.
We have to do our interior work in order for suffering to lead to wisdom. Listening to ourselves and for the voice of God within us is a necessary step. Sitting in silence, listening, meditating, praying, even going through therapy – all are ways to help us integrate our experiences of suffering and help us transform them into wisdom that can be lived out in the world. Having knowledge without doing our inner work may be informative, but it is not transformative. And, as Richard Rohr often says, “If we don’t transform our suffering, we will transmit it.”
Let me say that again: “If we don’t transform our suffering, we will transmit it.”
So doing our interior work can help lead to wisdom, but NOT doing our interior work can lead to harm, and the result will be more suffering in the world.
We often associate wisdom with age, because those who are older have lived longer and been through so much more - but just because someone is older it doesn’t mean that they are wise. “We live in a world with many elderly, but very few elders,” observes Richard Rohr.
At Christ Church, our “Aging and Sage-ing” group meets from time to time to explore what it means to grow wiser as we age. Leigh Rosoff (one of our own wise women!) started the group about 5 years ago and this is the way she describes it: “The real essence of the group has been to wake up to the possibilities of this end part of our lives. There’s kind of a myth that one diminishes, but that is really untrue. And there is a deep natural calling to the interior, to our heart space, in order to awaken to a higher consciousness and see the connectedness of everything…. It is indeed a time of wisdom, wholeness, love, joy, which balances the natural things that will be happening because there is this diminishment.”
As we grow older we experience even more loss, rejection and humiliation. More of our friends are dying, our health declines, we are no longer able to do everything that we used to be able to do. Staying open to the spiritual possibilities for transformation becomes even more important, and sharing our experiences with others allows us to find purpose and meaning, while also passing on wisdom that we have gained throughout our lives – not by passing on advice, but by telling our stories, by witnessing in the world, by “eldering.”
Mary Fraser explains: “Eldering invites another to take a look for oneself, to live the examined life, to consider the possibilities of seeing and listening with the heart as much as the head, and to understand the potential of one’s own life for transformative experience and service. Eldering is a way of carrying oneself in the world that shows the scars and the mystery of healing. Eldering makes visible the weathering of love, how it softens and strengthens at the same time. Eldering is the skin of faith over time.” (emphasis mine)
We who are growing older have an opportunity to be elders. The world is in need of wise ones, who have suffered and allowed their suffering to lead to spiritual growth, who then share their wisdom with others through the telling of stories. We need to “show our scars and the mystery of healing.” We are called to open up to our heart spaces; to be vulnerable and open to the leading of the Spirit; to be open to Mystery, and yet grounded in reality; to transform our suffering, and be people of wisdom and hope, for hope does not disappoint. Amen.
O God who goes before: Give us wisdom enough to live this week in places of communion with you. Give us courage enough to follow you into the difficult places we’d rather avoid. Give us love enough to bear patiently with the hurts and struggles of our friends. Give us peace enough to accept and nurture our own selves. Amen.
Found on http://pilgrimwr.unitingchurch.org.au/?p=256 Rohr, Richard, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011)
 Rohr, Richard, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011) p. xvi
Video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewHcsFlolz4 (story from 6:03 – 7:45)
Richard Rohr, daily meditation sent from The Center for Action and Contemplation, November 6, 2014 http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation--Eldering.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=mkNEWPgh32c
 “Eldering as Invitation,” by Mary L. Fraser, in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Life, Volume XXXI, Number 3, May/Jun/Jul 2016, p.6.