"Wisdom is to the soul what health is to the body."
There is this thing called a Fitbit. I clip it to my belt everyday and have done so for a year and a half. The Fitbit measures the number of steps one takes in a given day. I am not forced to wear a Fitbit, but I do anyway. The actual data is not that important. What I mean is that a physician doesn’t review the data nor do I get special prizes for walking more steps. A trainer doesn’t affirm me when I reach a certain number, but this little device motivates me to take the scenic route or walk up the stairs or to take an evening walk around my neighborhood. The Surgeon General recommends that everybody walk 10,000 steps per day. For some people that is an easy task. For instance, a postal carrier would have no problem getting that many steps by doing his or her job. For a priest (at least this priest), it is more challenging. There are hours in every day when I accumulate only a handful of steps. My average number of steps per day is only 5,000. That means that there are some days when I take a measly 2,500 steps and other days that I get 6,000. And on occasion, I hit the Surgeon General’s goal.
That is why it was amazing that in the week that I was the program director at Camp EDOW, I took105,000 steps. That was, by far, the most steps that I have had in one week. Hitting that kind of number is pretty exciting for someone who wears a Fitbit. Now, as I said, I am not forced to wear it, but I do because it is motivates me to a healthier lifestyle. There are many other health choices that we all make including the foods we eat, the drugs we consume, the activities we choose, the amount of television that we watch, and many other things.
It is culturally positive to consider the many ways that we can improve our health like, for instance, Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign and the Surgeon General’s step recommendation. Generally, no one is going to think less of you for taking the healthy path; they might consider you a role model. There are an ever-growing number of ways to take care of our physical health. Look around when you drive (or walk, run, or ride) around town and notice the many different ways that people spend time and money making their bodies trim and healthy. You might see a jogger, or people playing tennis, or the neighborhood dance and yoga studios, or the fitness clubs, swimming pools and diet centers tucked into buildings and between houses. We have been taught from the earliest age what is and is not healthy and many of us choose relatively healthy habits that will allow us to optimize our life span.
At the same time, there are just as many people who overlook the many needs of the soul. There are an ever increasing number of people who are willing to voice the view that religion is a waste of time (I am not saying that there are less taking care of the soul, just that they are more willing to say so. The culture is accepting of that way of life.) Some see Sunday morning or other times spent in religious institutions as time not spent making money, exercising the body, sleeping, or being entertained. And there are few places (at least in the Episcopal Church), which keep track of attendance, so there’s no guilt in skipping in favor of something else. There are others who discount religion because it boils down to a faith that is too hard to grapple with in a scientific world. And there are still others who point to psychology, video games, social media and other cultural phenomena as the new medium for taking care of the soul.
If wisdom is to the soul what health is to the body then why is the care of the soul so abysmal. I’m not saying that it was ever really good (in recent history). Granted that there was a time when a higher percentage of people attended church or another religious gathering every week. But attendance is not the measure of soul fitness that I am talking about.
I don’t want to point fingers at the reasons people don’t practice religion because I see the point. I don’t agree with them, but am convinced that the Church has failed to adequately describe what it means to believe, why it is important, and what are the most foundational understandings of God. If people today don’t understand the benefit, they won’t do it. They are too busy to think otherwise. For the sacramental churches, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, Christianity is boiled down to major transition points marked with religious ceremonies like baptism, confirmation, marriage and burial. The spiritual development that takes place between these moments is rarely conveyed and therefore people lose interest.
In addition to not teaching the faithful practices and their benefits, Christians have also been defined by certain Christian mouthpieces who try, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to speak for all Christians. The most famous ones focus on personal salvation and defining a moral framework with the goal of feeling superior to the great unwashed. This Christian framework avoids struggling with the difficult questions and avoids the modern and ever changing culture that surrounds the Church. In other words, it is cut and dry and clean in an era filled with ambiguity and nuance.
For both the sacramental and the more fundamental churches, eternal salvation is the overarching goal. Whether it is attained through an infant baptism or a more mature commitment. Being saved is neither the end of the religious experience nor the culmination of Christian development. I was baptized as an infant and Confirmed in my adolescence. If that were as good as it got, I would have lost interest long ago. I would have found an excuse to avoid worship; I would have passed on reading the scripture; and discerning God’s call. I would have lived into the cultural paradigm of religious practice in the 21st century. And that is why I think the Church and the faithful practitioners have failed, because we have not done enough to share the great benefits of finding God’s active role within our soul and passing on the ancient practices that help us to prayerfully discover God so that we can transform our lives. If spiritual practice and religion were all about salvation (marked by the sacrament of Baptism), then those who wait to be baptized on their deathbed have it figured out.
We need to escape from trying to save our soul for eternity (because Jesus already assures us of that), so that we can discover the vastness that exists in our soul.
Our lessons today are trying to teach us to take this longer view of religious practice. In the Old Testament passage, Solomon, thousands of years later still remembered for wisdom, asks God for insight instead of wealth or long life or success against his enemies. Consider what wisdom is. It is not knowledge (in the sense of factual information), wisdom can’t be learned by reading a book or visiting a library. Experiencing life and reflecting on the breadth and depth of that experience is the path to wisdom. We as a Church should be pointing to wisdom as one of the expressions of God in our lives. Wisdom can be gained through prayer, reflection, and worship. It exists in the well of our soul. Spiritual practice, religious practices are the key to unlocking this insight in our lives.
How many people out there bounce from experience to experience without any sense of direction because they lack wisdom? And the follow up question is: How many, like Solomon, would choose the joy of wisdom and the subsequent fulfillment if offered the opportunity? God provides that if we are willing to jump into a relationship with God that we can connect to our soul.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the bread of heaven. It is a somewhat uncomfortable passage because, if taken literally, it sounds somewhat cannibalistic. Of course that is not what Jesus is talking about. He is speaking about the power of returning to the well of community and worship to find the sustenance that will allow us to grow. Yes, some say that it is the call to share communion in remembrance of Jesus, but it is more than just the outward sign represented by the bread and the wine of our communal worship, it is about taking into oneself the power of God, touching the depth of the soul and taking that nourishment out into the world. Yes, Jesus is referring to wisdom. Someone said that:
"Wisdom is to the soul what health is to the body."
Religion, and Christianity particularly, has the methods to discern this wisdom just like the Fitbit can help in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. Religious practice takes a lifetime and more. It is about carving out time for prayer and reflection, it is about seeking the wisdom of scripture and of the community, it is about living one’s life in response to what we learn and being willing to adjust our practices as we come to know more about who and whose we are.
We need to escape from saving our soul for eternity, so that we can find our soul, today.
Forget about the what’s, the rules, and the cultural expectations and discover and share the whys of religious practice. Care for the soul as much as you care for the body. Encourage yourself to take on new practices, to take the scenic route, and delve deeper. Throw a wide net and discover the many ways that God is active in your life. Be in community and love your neighbor. If you do, you will discover the elusive wisdom that comes directly from touching the soul. It is what we offer in this church, it is why we seek the faith, and it provides the fulfillment that we deeply desire. If embraced, it will transform. That is what God has to offer. Who is willing to spread that Good News? Lets do it together.
The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
John 6.51-59, 1 Kings 2.10-12; 3.3-14
August 19, 2012