A little more than twenty years ago Philip Simmons died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: ALS – or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was a young professor of English at a Chicago college, married, the father of two children. At the same time Philip Simmons was dying from the cruel ravages of ALS, he was more alive than he had ever been. [i]
He writes about learning to fall. He speaks of falling, quite literally, because of the ALS; he also writes about falling as a figure of speech. We fall on our faces, we fall for a joke, we fall for someone, we fall in love. He asks, in each of these falls, what do we fall away from? We fall from ego, we fall from our carefully-constructed identities, we fall from our reputations, from our precious selves. We fall from ambition, we fall from grasping to control… And what do we fall into? We fall into passion and compassion, into terror, into unreasoning joy. We fall into emptiness; we fall into oneness with others whom we realize are likewise falling. Ultimately it’s a falling into grace, falling into the real presence of God.[ii] The name for this falling, the gateway into this mysterious presence of God, is humility.
In our Gospel lesson appointed for today, we hear Jesus speak of humility: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond all the people whom we find inadequate. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. The autumnal leaves falling from the trees compost into humus, which is essential to life.
We all have moments when our hearts our troubled, the kind that makes our guts churn, saps our resolve, and makes us turn inward.
We mess up. We fail. Like Peter, in the passage before today’s Gospel, we make lofty promises—“Lord, I will lay down my life for you”—only to fall short.
Or we look at what is going on around us—in our community, in our country, in the world—and we despair. We despair at our helplessness and powerlessness, at all that we know to be wrong but that is beyond us to rectify.
We have here two prodigal sons, the word “prodigal” from the Latin meaning “wasteful.” The younger son having wasted his share of his father’s resources and his family’s good name; the older brother being wasted by resentment because life is not fair. This is a made-up story which Jesus tells, not because it is historical, but because it is true. I suspect most everyone can relate to both of these two brothers, how we can get so twisted up in life wasting all kinds of time and stuff, and harboring resentments towards others. It is comforting, is it not, that Jesus obviously knows this? Is this story about the sons in any way Jesus’ own story? We don’t know. The story is certainly autobiographical when Jesus speaks of the magnanimous father who knows and loves both sons, without qualification.
The church has remembered this story down through the centuries because the story rings true. This is our story. We are these two children, sometimes more one than the other. And the father in the story represents the God whom Jesus calls “Father.
Learned people were already impressed by the knowledge of this precocious Jesus by the time he was age 12, maybe earlier.[i] Now there is something more. He is age 30 or so, and now people are asking, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”[ii] In the New Testament epistles, Jesus is named “the wisdom of God.”[iii] He is called the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”[iv] Wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is about one’s breadth of information; wisdom is about one’s depth of understanding. Jesus had become wise.
The English words “wisdom” and “vision” come from the same etymological root. Wisdom is a kind of deep seeing, an “in-sight,” what Saint Paul calls “the enlightening of the eyes of the heart.”[v] Wisdom is not a skill, nor is wisdom learned from a book. Wisdom is a gift from God, a seedling implanted in our soul at birth that needs to be cultivated. Here are two practices that cultivate the gift of wisdom.
When I first began to study the lessons appointed for today, I couldn’t help but to think back to one of my favorite commercials from the 1990’s. The setting is just outside a desert fortress where a criminal is tied to a pole and is facing a firing squad. The chief executioner questions the condemned man: “Would you like a blindfold, Messieur? The man answers quickly, “No!” The executioner then asks, “Would you like a cigarette?” Again, the man answers, “No!” Finally, he is asked, “What do you want on your tombstone?” The man pauses briefly to think before answering resolutely, “Pepperoni and cheese!” The commercial was for Tombstone Pizza which not only offered you convenience: a full sized frozen pizza served piping hot in just minutes with all natural ingredients, but also a panoply of choices suited for all tastes.[i] As Americans, we LOVE choices! We do not like to be boxed in with no options. We want to make the decision with the most concise information and with as little serious discernment as possible. We are highly individualistic and want to feel like every option is personal, tailored specifically for our convenience.