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Navigating Life’s Messy Places

She didn’t mean to do it. And I’m pretty sure she’s not aware even now that she did. But my friend Jan Brown caused a tectonic shift in my thinking about what wisdom is, why we need it so desperately, and how to grow in it.

Jan and I were members of the Episcopal Church’s task force for addressing the opioid crisis. She is the Executive Director of the SpiritWorks Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is to provide peer-to-peer recovery and wellness services. I’m the Bishop of Western Louisiana.

We were at a pre-pandemic face-to-face meeting of that group. Jan was talking about the stress, the heartbreak, the chronic worry, and the agonizing choices faced by parents of addicted daughters and sons. 

For years, the dominant view was that parents should exercise tough love. They should give their sons and daughters a choice. Get clean or get out. Offering financial support of any kind would, on this view, perpetuate what is a progressive and ultimately fatal disease. To be honest, that had been my view before that meeting.

Jan said something that day that shifted my thinking. It went something like this:

“It’s easy for a bystander to insist on tough love. But each parent has to ask themselves this question: Am I willing get that midnight knock at the door? The notification that my daughter or son is dead. There is not one right answer.”

As I heard her, Jan wasn’t suggesting that those of us with the required strength of character to do the right thing should cut the less spiritually fortified group a break. Instead, her point was that no two human situations are exactly alike. There is a rich granularity about our lives. And we need the skill to navigate the particular, changing, and uncertain circumstances of the everyday.

Let me be clear. I believe that there is an objective, universal moral law. A set of general principles that apply to all human beings at all times and places. Love your neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Respect the dignity of every human being. 

You get the point. We should make our choices as best we can using the law as a guide. But the challenge is precisely that the moral law gives us general principles. Each day presents us with very specific circumstances that give us more than one moral path to take.

It’s like this. I understand that Jesus teaches us to love. Period. But what does love look like when finding the best way to respond to my relative who is struggling with an eating disorder, a mental illness, or addiction?

We would all like a manual. A set of rules to follow. But what we actually need is wisdom. Here’s how I have defined wisdom elsewhere:

“Wisdom is the art of doing the loving, God-shaped thing in all the varied, changing, and nuanced situations that life hands us.”  (Looking for God in Messy Places, p. 110)

There is no life-hack for becoming a wise person. We acquire wisdom one step, one day, one messy situation at a time. It’s that 10,000 hour thing you might have heard about. You master an art like playing guitar, writing poetry, or kicking a soccer ball by doing it over and over and over. 

Acquiring wisdom takes 10,000 hours (or more, like eternity more). It also takes a mentor. Someone to show you how to do the thing you’re trying to master. Someone who cares enough about you to stick with you, to be supportive, and also to be lovingly candid with criticism.

When it comes to wisdom, Jesus is our primary teacher. As Paul put it, “Jesus became wisdom for us from God.” (1 Corinthians 1:30)

You’ll find one of Jesus’s most condensed and yet comprehensive wisdom lessons in what commentators often call The Sermon on the Plain. (Luke 6:17-49) Jesus opens with a series of blessings (or beatitudes) and woes.

The poor, the hungry, and the weeping are blessed. They possess the Kingdom of God, will be filled, and will laugh.

By contrast, the rich, the well-fed, and the carefree are in for eventual distress and heartbreak.

This is Jesus’ first principle in the wisdom curriculum. Some hear him saying that the former are God’s favored group while the latter are in for judgment. Jesus, they believe, is drawing a moral distinction here. 

And it does seem clear to me that Jesus has a thing for underdogs and outcasts and resists those who use other people like doormats to improve their own lot. But I also believe that he has another lesson for us here.

Let me put it this way. Life is always changing and unpredictable. Try as best you can, you’re not always going to get the results you want. Good intentions and hard work can still land you in a wrenching mess. Jesus wants us to know that when we’re flat on our face, he’s still with us. And that his loving presence will ultimately make a difference. 

At the same time he also wants us to realize that, when we’re on a roll, it’s awfully easy to forget that we need God. It’s best to keep in mind that things can go south with shocking speed. Besides, the death rate remains one hundred percent.

So whether we are rich or poor, weeping or letting the good times roll, we need wisdom. Life inevitably gets messy. And wisdom is the art of navigating messy places.

Farther along in the Sermon, Jesus lays out the practices needed to grow in wisdom. We have to exercise these practices day in and day out. Sometimes we’ll do them admirably well. With humbling frequency, our efforts with be flawed and halting.

Here’s are some the practices assigned in Jesus’s wisdom school:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.

Give to those who would rob you, give to all who beg.

Be merciful, do not judge or condemn, forgive.

Life is messy. Everybody is imperfect. And we are all in this together. Love is how we’ll make this planet livable. And wisdom is the art of loving. The art of navigating the messy place that is human life.


Looking for a Lenten study for individuals or groups? This post contains a list of suggestions. Also, my two latest books include reflections questions and a study guide:

Click here for Looking for God in Messy Places and here for A Resurrection Shaped Life.
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