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Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Wise and Foolish": A Chapel Talk at EMS

As a former part-time teacher at Eastern Mennonite High School from 1964-1987, I had the opportunity to speak to middle and high school students at an EMS chapel service today on the subject of "Living Wisely". I introduced it with a condensed version of something I posted on an earlier blog about an auto wreck I had, then proceeded with the following:

I've come up with my own simple definitions for "wise" and "foolish". Wise is what you do that we’ll feel the least possible regret about--and for which we’ll experience the greatest possible satisfaction. And foolish is what we’ll feel the greatest possible remorse over, where we’re most likely to say afterwards, “What was I thinking?”

I wrote a piece some time ago about all of the education I got in the school of experience outside the classrooms I’ve attended. And one of the things I’ve learned the hard way is that I don’t want to learn everything the hard way.

Believe me, I’ve made plenty of dumb mistakes that God has used to teach me things I was too foolish to learn the easy way. Those mistakes didn’t entirely go to waste, of course, since all mistakes are to learn from, but I’ve tried to live by the simple truth that “An ounce of prevention is worth pound of cure--and is so much better than ending up with a ton of regret.” So a head and a heart full of good wisdom can be our best friend, as in the stuff you learn from the experiences of other good people, along with the good rules for good living taught by Jesus and the prophets, and handed down from Mount Sinai many years ago. Like, “Listen to your mom and dad.” “Don’t steal.” “Don’t lie.” “Don’t commit adultery.” These aren’t just good suggestion, but wise commands handed down from the greatest source of wisdom ever, our Creator.

When I was teaching here at EMHS, one of the questions I was often asked by students was “Is this going to be on the test?” or “What’s going to be on the final exam?” That used to bother me a little, because I wanted my students to learn everything I taught, but they were being smart. They knew that tests were something you want to be well prepared for ahead of time for. Learning only by experience means we’re taking a lot of tests we’re not prepared for, that we haven’t thought through. So we're left to learn too many things after the teacher hands the exam back to us covered with a lot of red ink, reminding us all the of things we should have learned before we took it.

In a Dear Abby column about a year ago, a 29-year-old who signed herself “DEPRIVED OF MY YOUTH” laments the loss of the boy friend with whom she had lived since she was 16 years old, but they had never married. And then for some reason he abruptly breaks off the relationship, leaving her with their child and the memories of 13 years of loving and living together.

She writes,

“It has been over nine months and it seems like my heartache is getting worse. It feels like my heart has been ripped out of my chest and stepped on. It hurts even more because he started dating someone else immediately after the breakup.... I cry every day.”

I not only felt incredibly sad for this young woman, but lamented the fact that so little is being said these days to discourage young people like her from becoming prematurely, emotionally "married” and then premaritally and emotionally "divorced".

One more example of how applying good wisdom can make such a big, big difference.

I know many parents and even some preachers have pretty much given up on young people these days staying celibate into their 20’s and 30’s. There’s nothing we can do to keep them from going to bed with each other, they say, and ultimately it's their decision as to whether they will wait until they’re married. And that's true. But the price people often pay for their hookups and breakups, and sometimes with premature pregnancies--in what I call premarital “marriage”--can be huge.

On this same topic, I posted a blog last December called “Why Wait Until Christmas?” in which I noted a rule we pretty much all agree on about waiting until December 25 to open our Christmas gifts. It’s a tradition that isn’t just about drawing an arbitrary red line somewhere, but our wisdom tells us that it’s just a lot more pleasurable to prepare well and then enjoy fully.

I believe that’s even more true when it comes to God’s gift of physical intimacy, in spite of the fact that in our culture many are as likely to “go all the way” on their first date as on their wedding date. They may not realize that by unwrapping their priceless “presents” prematurely they are are in fact already experiencing an unforgettable form of “wed-ing.” What they risk in not having the once customary real wedding come first is some of the blessing of all their friends and family, and all of the once-in-a-lifetime first-time ecstasy they've always dreamed of.

I know a lot of people believe that if they just put off having a legal, documented marriage and just go ahead and live together without it, that they can avoid all the pain of a later separation. But the fact is that they risk going through the very same kinds of gut-wrenching "emotional divorces" (or worse) as their married counterparts do if and when they break up.

I know contraceptives can keep us from getting pregnant, but no one has yet invented something to keep us from experiencing a powerful kind of bonding when we with another in this most vulnerable and passionate way possible. We conceive something new, give birth to an emotional union we can’t just walk away from without experiencing some kind of tearing. And often a lot of tear-ing. Over and over again I have people coming to my counseling office people who would give almost anything to be able to hit some kind of reboot or rewind button and be able to go back and make some different decisions they can now never undo.

Is there forgiveness for our indiscretions and foolish mistakes? Of course, as with any other kind of regrettable choices. But God, like a good parent, wants us to have the best life and the best “Christmases” possible. That’s why we’re given such simple rules as “Wait until you’re wed--then celebrate for a lifetime.”

Sure, some people may call us prudes, but you know what? That word comes from the word prudent, which means careful and smart, wise instead of foolish. There’s just no down side to going with wise.

And there are so many other wise rules for good living your parents and teachers and the good people in your congregations are trying to teach you. It just pays to think carefully and prayerfully about the best possible ways to “happily ever after”, about what’s really in our own best interests.

For example, Jesus also had a lot to say about the wisdom of investing our money in ways that will do lasting good--to enrich and bless the lives of people in need--rather than in short-sighted investments in more stuff that will eventually end up in the landfill. So when he tells the story of a man who  tore down his barns and built new ones to store up enough for a luxurious  retirement, he didn’t call the man greedy, or selfish. He called him foolish. He was making unwise financial choices. We still call him “the rich fool.”

And at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, containing some of the greatest wisdom you can find anywhere--on money management, relationships, dealing with our enemies, and other important things--the Master Teacher concludes by saying, “Whoever hears these sayings of mine and lives by them will be like a wise builder who builds on a solid rock foundation. When hard, hurricane winds come along, that house will stand and everyone will be safe. Whoever ignores this wisdom from God will be like a foolish builder who builds on sand, and that same storm will demolish the house and everything comes to ruin. A tragedy. What was I thinking?

I then gave a condensed version of a blog post about a former neighbor who died recently and demonstrated her wisdom in simple but profound ways.

I close with some words from Proverbs 3:

Blessed are those who become wise—who come to have understanding...16 Wisdom offers you long life, as well as abundance and honor. 17 Wisdom can make your life pleasant and lead you safely through it...(so) hold on to your wisdom and insight.... They will provide you with life—a pleasant and happy life. 23 You can go safely on your way and never stumble. 24 You will not be afraid when you go to bed, and you will sleep soundly through the night. 25 You will not have to worry about sudden disasters... The Lord will keep you safe.
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