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Wisdom and meaning in these worst of times

Conference Minister Mike Denton

In the last PNCUCC News, I wrote a column called “Worse.” I used to say that things are going to get worse before they get better but now I simply say things are going to get worse. Period. My opinion hasn’t changed. I know this isn’t a hopeful idea, but I’d rather be wrong than to present a false hope. We’re facing some difficult decisions as a church, a country and a world. I sit with this reality everyday. I’m learning as I pray about what it might mean to focus on “wisdom” and “meaning” in these times

Much of what is leading to more devastating days is the collapse of unsustainable systems. Our use of natural resources are unsustainable. The “isms” and their related ideologies of supremacy are unsustainable. Political fractiousness is unsustainable. The world has been addicted to unsustainable practices and we’re hitting bottom. Collectively, we’ll have to choose between death or a withdrawal that may last for a few generations. The question I’m asking is whether we love the great, great, great grandchildren we will never meet enough to try and make a way, now, for a better day for them in the future.

Iroquois wisdom suggests that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world for those seven generations out. When “generations” are mentioned biblically, it’s almost always about the covenants and practices that were designed to last for “all generations.” In contemporary thinking, we use generational thinking to look back at the acts of previous generations or as a tool for creating differentiating generational critiques. We rarely use it within the context of considering the responsibility we have to future generations. The UCC’s Constitution and Bylaws include the words: “The responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” I love this phrase and have tried to live into ministry using this lens. I’m also seeing how incomplete and self reverential it can be. Don’t I also have a responsibility to do my best to try and make sure the Church is a gift and not a burden to future generations?

This wisdom thinking is best passed on by elders—those trusted people who a community believes have accumulated so much wisdom in their lives that they are asked to dedicate the rest of their lives to sharing/relinquishing the wisdom they’ve accumulated, as well as identifying those times wisdom bubbles up. Self-identified elders rarely work out because they’re not really looking to relinquish anything but to gain power, instead. The wisdom accumulated may come in the form sage words but its as likely to come in the form of stories, jokes, songs, art and many other forms of expression. Although wisdom is frequently most quickly identified by elders, we don’t need to be elders to know it, share it or express it.

Wisdom is different than information. Information tends to have limited contexts and applications. There is that saying, “Information is power.” It’s so true. Information tends to be stockpiled or shared selectively and, in a way, is a currency like money. There has been more information gathered about those living right now than any previous generation. The amount of documented information available to us is increasing exponentially and although parts of it have made a difference in our lives the overwhelming amount of it leaves less room for meaning and wisdom. The tendency we have toward the accumulation of information is also unsustainable and buries us in its weight.

The flattening of leadership structures happens because of the more democratized access to information today. The specialists used to have more power be they a doctor, a mechanic, a politician or a minister. Some of the richest folks in the world today, are focused on material accumulation but wealth is more related to the information they have access to or the information they’ve commodified and stockpiled. “Information is power” is the way it’s weaponized. Information often is honed down to one or two small points used to kill or subjugate others. Sometimes it’s used as an intentional avalanche to overwhelm any information that may somehow run counter to the dominant one.

Wisdom is too slippery for a price tag. It heals, not hurts. Sharing wisdom is an expression of love, not power. When people try to package it, its placed within a limited context that turns it into just one more piece of information to be bought and sold. Wisdom is so valuable and so expansive that its beyond a price. The cost was paid by the lived experience of the generations that discovered it. So, right now, maybe we have to look at these times as moments we are paying a significant cost. Can wisdom emerge out of it?

How might we find and make meaning out of this moment? Meaning is a seed for wisdom. I believe the crucifixion of Jesus was, in and of itself, a meaningless moment. It was an attempt to kill the love of Jesus, the healing works of Jesus and the liberating movement of Jesus and when Jesus died, these things died, too. Those trying to kill these things, won.  All that had been done up to that moment became meaningless. But then Christ’s resurrection came as this singular event of killing meaning was overwhelmed by the multiplication of meaning that began to flow out of that moment: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 1 Cor. 15:55

Meaning began to emerge out of that moment of meaninglessness. This singularly meaningless moment was recontextualized and meaning was resurrected.

These days, I pray for wisdom and meaning. I have no expectation that things are going to become quickly resolved; that we’ll have a great awakening moment to wisdom, or that the emergence of meaning is a guarantee, but this isn’t a reason to give up. Yes, things are going to get worse. Our collective unsustainable practices and ideas are catching up with us and the collapse of these expectations are going to be hard and inevitable. 

So, I pray. I listen. I wonder. There are days I feel like giving up hope. And yet, most days it becomes so clear that hope has not given up on me...


Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ News © February-March 2018


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