My parents met Liz for the first time just a few weeks after we had started dating.
They were immediately smitten.
We had all gone out to lunch and then I had to scoot a little bit to get Liz to the train back to New York City, so there had not been my family’s usual time to debrief afterwards.
But when I got home there was already a message from my mother waiting on my answering machine.
“She’s great,” said my mom on the message. No “Hi honey, it’s mom…,” mind you. No warm-up about how nice it had been to see me or how much fun we had all had at the restaurant.
My mom was all business.
“She’s great,” she said. And then she continued, “Your father says don’t mess it up.” Click. The line went dead.
It’s not exactly the nicest advice I’ve ever received…but it is certainly among the best advice I’ve ever received. I have been trying to keep from messing it up for years now. But it was and still is good advice.
Through the years, I have also received my share of bad advice.
Early in my teaching career, I really struggled with the humdrum task of recording grades in my official grade book. The teachers among us may well remember those — the brown spiral bound book with the alternating green and white columns and all those little squares.
I don’t know why but whenever I opened that book to write down grades, my heart just sank.
And so my grades were recorded on all kinds of other things — the backs of envelopes, a flyer for a new car wash someone had put under one of my windshield wipers…you know, that kind of thing. And all these scraps lived somewhere in the trunk of my car…except for the ones that had become bookmarks for things I was reading or what have you.
I am not saying this did not need to be addressed.
I knew it needed to be addressed.
The question was how.
Finally, someone told me that I just needed to come clean to my department chair.
I remember it vividly. My friend said to me one of those things that people always say, “Come on, what’s the worst that could happen?”
I heard that. The next day, when the bell rang for lunch, I gathered all my scraps of grading and my empty grade book and I went to her classroom to confess.
…So let me just say that God’s house is not really the right place to share the specific words that my department chair selected on this particular occasion.
I am someone who believes that confession is good for the soul, but that was 1998 and this is the first I am sharing this story, so let me just say: while confession is good for the soul, it isn’t always good for the soul right away.
Nobody quite tells you that when they tell you that you ought to go confess something.
I am living proof of that.
Our days are punctuated endlessly by all kinds of challenges, and the advice, both good and bad, that we receive in how best to meet those challenges.
The world is not short of opinions, is it?
Yet the art of discerning true wisdom from among all those opinions is an art that is not easy to master.
Dale Carnegie taught us, famously, “how to win friends and influence people.”
There’s a kind of wisdom in that.
More controversially, the screenwriter Robert Greene has compiled a book called “The 48 Laws of Power.” Does anyone know it? I think I’ve mentioned it before.
The first law is “Never outshine the master.” The second is, “Never put too much trust in friends, and learn how to use enemies.” Law Seven is “Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.” Law Ten is, “Infection: Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky.”
And let’s admit something that is hard to say from the pulpit. There is wisdom in this too.
Those of you who toil faithfully in offices surely know people who operate this way, and the fact is, they often succeed.
Worldly wisdom endures for a reason.
But let’s not forget that, if that’s so, it’s because there is so much that is so fundamentally broken about our world.
Let’s not forget that if all our lives are about is learning to navigate and mitigate that brokenness effectively, we aren’t actually living for much at all.
That’s what the Apostle Paul thought.
And so he believed that the wisdom of the world was something we needed to handle with great care.
He worried that, convincing as it was, that kind of wisdom all too often led away from God.
For one thing, he saw that Scripture warns us about that. At the beginning of his words for us this morning, he quotes Isaiah, writing:
“For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’” (1 Corinthians 1:19; Isaiah 29:14).
Don’t misunderstand him here. Paul does not hate wisdom, and he does not hate the world.
But he worried that the wisdom of the world, the advice of the world, such as it was, was not enough.
And so what he wants the church to understand is that the wisdom of God turns out to be a very different kind of wisdom.
And because it is, Paul also sees it as no accident that the people who seemed to sense this first are a very different kind of people than the ones the world would be quickest to look to for its own compromised kind of wisdom.
Paul cannot help but note that, when he looks at the church, the people he sees gathered there are not, by and large, the straight A students, or the president of the local bank, or — I’ll date myself — Marcus Welby.
He didn’t see the kind of people that the poet Edward Arlington Robinson once described as “good looking and imperially slim.”
Paul says to the church at Corinth, “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”
Again, as he sees it, this is no accident. In fact, he suggests, it is actually part of God’s plan.
As he explains: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1: 27-29).
What Paul means is that God wants something much deeper for us…something that success as we usually think of it can’t offer us…something that success as we usually think of it might even make it harder for us to find.
And so God “shames” us in the sense that we have to get over our own way of valuing things, and begin to see the world in terms of how God values things.
Second, this is also shameful because when we begin to be transformed, as our lives begin to look and sound different than they once were, not everyone is going to understand.
He wants to urge anyone in that situation not to give up, not to turn back, not to lose heart.
What does that mean for people like us, who have their foot in both camps, as it were?
I don’t think Paul is trying to tell us we’re bad. I think he’s trying to acknowledge that it’s hard.
This is why the advice we listen to, the success we seek, and the wisdom we follow are so important.
Because if standing up for what you think is right is stupid, then the world needs a lot more stupidity.
If thinking about the people who need help and encouragement means we’re weak, then let’s get an army of wimps together.
If talking about the world as we want and hope it will become is foolish, then let’s be the clown car that leads the parade to the future.
We need to hold on, and hang in, and have faith.
The world has a lot to teach us. It’s a beautiful and complicated place. And we are beautiful and complicated people.
But we’re God’s people, and in the end that’s more than enough.
It’s the only success there is. And it’s free for everyone.
In a world where so much passes for profundity, in a world awash with good and bad advice, we often have to strain to hear the wisdom of God.
But our lives can be lived in ways that turn up the volume.
Paul says, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Co 1:23).
May each of us be living proof of that bold declaration.