A reflection on the readings for Proper 20B: Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
The last powerful rays of the setting sun streamed through the hospital windows as we walked down the corridor. My little two-year old self walked between my parents, holding their hands. It was 1959 and I was about to have my tonsils removed at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. I was going to spend the night in the hospital, have my tonsils removed in the morning, and go home sometime the next day. My parents settled me into my room, changed me into my pajamas, placed me into the crib and read me a story. Then they kissed me goodnight and left. Parents were not allowed to spend the night with their children.
The next several hours must have been a nightmare for the hospital staff. I stood in the crib and cried. I shook the crib across the room. I said, over and over, “I am not a baby! Get me out of this crib.” (I had a one year old brother at home; I knew what a baby was). I figured out how to climb out of the crib and did so repeatedly. When I refused to drink the night-night juice, which surely held a sedative in it, the nurses must have been at their wits end. Finally it was dark outside and I was growing weary from my efforts to escape, but still unable to fall asleep.
About that time my uncle, my mother’s younger brother arrived. He was 17 years old and came to the hospital with a couple of his buddies from church. These three clean-cut young men leaned over my crib, placed their hands on my head, and prayed for me. They prayed for the upcoming surgery, the doctors and nurses, and for my healing. I remember being soothed by his presence, his hands on my head, and his words. I fell asleep before he left the room. The next thing I remember is my parents taking me home the next day, tonsil free.
Our readings this morning point us to consider how we: manage anxiety, engage the world around us, recognize God’s presence, and grow in wisdom.
As a two year old child, left alone in the hospital, I was understandably anxious. I reacted with what is known as the “Fight or Flight” response. My survival instincts kicked into gear and I tried to run. My uncle’s prayers made God’s presence real to me and I calmed down. Engaging in and trusting God’s presence enabled me, even as a two year old, to respond to the situation instead of reacting.
Reacting is always emotional and defensive – we feel threatened, we react. We function from what is known as our reptilian brain, the limbic brain at the base of the head.
It is a part of the brain that enables us to survive in the face of danger. The limbic brain does not think, it’s impulsive and reacts.
In contrast, responding is thoughtful. When we are able to manage our emotions and allow the initial reactivity to settle down we are able to engage the part of our brain known as the neo-cortex. This is in our frontal lobe, a part of the brain that has developed over time. The neo-cortex matures when we are in our twenties – as young adults we become less impulsive and more thoughtful. The neo-cortex is the part of the brain that thinks, it is where wisdom is formed. The neo-cortex enables us to engage in abstract thinking, it’s the part of the brain we access as we develop our spiritual selves. It is the part of the brain that manages ambiguity. As a result of being able to manage ambiguity a relationship with God can be formed. The neo-cortex enables the spiritual qualities we call faith, that leap into the unknown.
Our reading this morning from Proverbs is curious. At first glance it’s kind of prickly, an ancient description of a faithful wife. But when one reads carefully a more thoughtful description unfolds – a good wife is wise; she buys land and uses it well. She is strong, organized, and capable of managing her household. She has a keen business sense and a compassionate heart. The description in Proverbs of the wise wife is a metaphor for the wisdom of God. God’s wisdom is like a wise wife: compassionate, thoughtful, resourceful, and strong. It is a powerful, earthy metaphor – when we are filled with God’s wisdom we are thoughtful, resourceful, and compassionate. The ancient Israelites believed that God was justice and justice was God. Justice in this case meant everyone had their basic needs met. Living a God-focused faithful life meant tending to the social justice issues in one’s community –the most vulnerable in the society were cared for.
Our reading from James reinforces the idea that thoughtfulness is the core of wisdom. For James this is a spiritual process built off of noble qualities of behavior. This noble behavior is held before the early Christian community (and us!) as an invitation to engage in a conscious decision making process. We can choose to react – “conflict and disputes cause a war within.”
Or, we can choose to respond – “to be pure, peaceable, gentle, yielding, merciful, fruitful, and non-partial.” The outcome, whether we react or respond, determines the harvest. Responding is thoughtful and as such our behavior yields “a harvest of righteousness” that is “sown in peace for those who make peace.”[i]
James is describing our behavior when we respond from our neo-cortex, when we act wisely.
Portions from the Gospel of Mark stand in sharp contrast to the description of wisdom in Proverbs and James. The disciples are arguing about who is greatest. It is possible to argue thoughtfully, listening and responding wisely. But sometimes when human beings argue we revert to our limbic brains, we become reptilian, we want to fight and prove our point. We want to win the argument. I can just hear the disciples each arguing their point. Jesus walking along with them just rolls his eyes….
What Jesus recognizes in this exchange is how vulnerable we human beings are.
I was left to spend the night alone and vulnerable in a hospital room without my parents. Jesus has been teachings his disciples that he is going to die and they will be left alone –they too feel vulnerable. No one likes to feel frightened or threatened, regardless of whether the fear and threat is real and physical or implied and verbal. Regardless of whether our perspective, our environment, or our bodies are threatened, we feel vulnerable. It’s no wonder the disciples were arguing over who was greatest – it was their first response to fear and grief at the risk of losing Jesus. Feeling vulnerable, fear kicks in and the disciples function from their limbic brains.
Jesus honors the disciple’s vulnerability when he asks them to consider children. In other words, he is listening to them. In any society children are the most vulnerable. No one wants to be or feel vulnerable. Becoming vulnerable, embracing our vulnerability is counter-intuitive. And yet Jesus is asking us to authentically, intentionally, embrace our vulnerability – and the vulnerability of others – as a means to acquiring wisdom.
In this reading Jesus suggests that our ability to embrace vulnerability is how we will move from our primal instincts, from reacting to responding, from our limbic brains to our neo-cortex, from defensiveness to wisdom, from conflicts and disputes to resolution, from the cravings that are at war within us to reconciliation, from wanting to be first to caring first for others.
Embracing vulnerability opens us to the possibility of God’s presence and wisdom is formed.
Embracing vulnerability leads to wisdom like welcoming Jesus leads to God.
Grant David Smith, Process and Faith Lectionary blog for Sept. 23, 2012 @processandfaith.org