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"Grant us Wisdom, Grant us Courage" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on March 17, 2019 by Kathy Miller

“Grant us Wisdom, Grant us Courage”

Luke 4:1-13

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

March 17, 2019


I’d like to ask you to take a minute to think about your favorite hymn or two and think about why you like it. 

Is anyone willing to share their favorite hymn?

Of course, if we heard from everyone, I suspect we’d hear some Amazing Grace’s, some On Eagle’s Wings, some Here I Am Lord’s, maybe a few Easter or Christmas hymns.  Hymns with catchy tunes or which get sung at important moments like funerals or baptisms or confirmations or holidays. 

Sometimes I am asked, often by people who don’t think they are good singers, about why we bother with singing in worship.  They understand why we have a choir or special music and like that well enough, but why do we all stand and sing together?  Of course, there are those who would say it gives everyone a chance to stretch their legs between listening to the pastor.  But of course, there is more to it than that. 

Recently I’ve been reading theologian Walter Bruggeman’s newest book A Glad Obedience which is on this very topic.  Brueggeman says we sing hymns for 4 reasons which he says in beautiful, but very academic language.  He says:

  1. We sing to affirm a gracious sovereignty that moves in, with and under our life against a self-contained, self-preoccupied world.  (translation: we sing to recognize and remember God)
  2. We sing to affirm that truth telling is the clue to well-being against a culture of denial that pretends it’s happy when it’s not. (translation: we sing hymns that talk about the reality of our world)
  3. We sing to affirm glad community solidarity against an ideology of privatism that refuses the common good. (translation: we sing to remember we are not alone, that we are part of a community)
  4. We sing as an act of hope against a culture of despair. (translation: we sing as an act of hope against a culture of despair).

So, we sing hymns together: to recognize God, to tell the truth, to remember we are not alone and as an act of hope. Hymns have the ability to touch our hearts in different ways than just words and to teach us something more about God.  I don’t know about you, this might be more of a pastor problem, but just like what happens with songs on the radio, I often get different hymns stuck in my head after worship, or sometimes for the whole week, or sometimes for longer.  There was a time when I regularly had Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing in my head for more than a year. 

And, another hymn that has been a bit of an earworm for me is the one we’ll sing right after the sermon today - God of Grace and God of Glory.  It’s become a favorite of mine in the past few years and one I imagine most of you will recognize.  In fact, let’s open up the hymnal and just look at it for a minute – then you can have it bookmarked for after the sermon.  Page 307.  I think you’d recognize the refrain “grant us wisdom, grant us courage,” yes?

Bruggeman spends a chapter on this hymn in his book and I’ve learned a bit of its history that I want to share with you.  This hymn was written by a preacher named Harry Emerson Fosdick who was a bit of a celebrity in the 1930’s - a progressive minister in New York at the Riverside Church built by the Rockefellers and as a professor at Union Seminary. 

Bruggeman says, “Fosdick’s hymn was written in 1930 in the midst of the Depression.  The moment was an instant between the two world wars when the international community struggled with systemic disarmament.  Thus, it was, for one with the celebrity status of Fosdick, a moment when great challenges were to be faced and great issues had to be faced in faith.  The repeated refrain, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,” while cast as a petition to God, was as well an assertion that this is no time for “business as usual.”  This moment, so Fosdick insists, is no time for reliance on old certitudes or old formulations.  It was a time for courage to think new thoughts and risk new actions.  It is also a time for wisdom that paid attention to the facts on the ground, that took seriously the gospel call to obedience, and that was informed by alert critical thinking.”

Bruggeman goes on to make the case that this hymn was written at a time when wisdom and courage were particularly needed in our country, in our world.  But I thought as I read this, wouldn’t all moments in human history benefit from these two attributes – wisdom and courage?  And especially, more and more so, as the world becomes ever more globally aware, as we experience a faster and faster pace in every arena of our lives? 

It is this refrain, “grant us wisdom, grant us courage,” that has really been the earworm that’s stuck with me these past several years.  This refrain has become a regular part of my personal prayers.  There are many things I want to ask God to grant me or to help me with personally, as well as plenty of world situations I lift up in prayer and ultimately all of them, personal and communal seem like they would be greatly improved, or even solved, with the right amount of wisdom and courage. 

Which has led me to think quite a bit about what wisdom and courage really are and how one develops them.  And in looking around I’ve found I often disagree with what gets called wisdom and courage these days.  I think instead many situations are actually examples of the shadow sides of these attributes.

Let me explain.  A very prevalent shadow side of wisdom these days is self-righteousness. The great temptation to believe our own experience is the best experience, our own beliefs are the best beliefs, and so, name our experiences as wisdom. Wisdom gets named as anything we believe we know for sure. This self-righteousness comes around a lot in politics and religion, but can sneak in plenty of places.   Like these days, one place I see it happening a lot is with parenting “wisdom.”  What is passed off as “parenting wisdom” - whether or not to co-sleep or breast feed or how much screen time to allow or different educational or discipline models, is really people passing along what has worked well for them, thinking it is therefore the best, and calling it wisdom. 

So, what’s the difference between self-righteousness and wisdom?  Well, it is often about the tone and always about the source.  The tone of self-righteousness carries with it a sense of moral superiority or the belief that one’s own experience is the best experience.  A good measure of tone is how defensive it is.  If defensiveness is your immediate response to being challenged, then there is a good likeliness that belief is rooted more in self-righteousness than wisdom. 

Because the source of wisdom is always God and God does not need our defending. Wisdom comes from God to us, yes in our experiences, but also through the practice of contemplation and discernment.  Contemplation as we spend time in silence with God, and talking to God.  Discernment as we look for examples or guidance in scripture and as we consider other people’s perspectives, even, perhaps especially, those who we believe we disagree with.  Wisdom may be one of those things you can’t describe well, but you know it when you see it.  A few tell-tale signs of wisdom: wisdom understands right and wrong are often not as clear as black and white.  Wisdom is open to new revelation.  Wisdom is curious and cares about others.  Wisdom is knowing we have a great deal to learn and being open to God’s showing it to us.  Wisdom, far more than self-righteousness, can offer real solutions and possibility for our lives and our world, while self-righteousness tends to feed off egos and create animosity.

And what about courage?  When many talk about courage these days, they are really speaking about a shadow side of courage that’s more about thrill seeking.  And I’m not passing judgement on thrill seeking – I love a good roller coaster, but it is different than courage. Thrill seeking does not always consider the potential consequences and has no meaningful purpose beyond just the sake of the experience.  Our culture allows for many contained experiences of thrill seeking – haunted houses, amusement parks, jumping out of an airplane.  And, of course, there are the uncontained experiences - experimenting with drugs or other dangerous possibilities with no safety nets in place.  Thrill seeking is not courage.

Courage is the action you take after you weigh the possible consequences, know you are taking a risk, and have determined you are willing to live with the consequences.  Courage is action, or sometimes not acting, with meaning and purpose, on behalf of God.  And so, it is action that always brings more of God’s love, justice, good into your life, the life of others or the world.  And courage inspires others to act with purpose and meaning in their own lives and to see God in your actions. 

When true wisdom and courage, with God as their source, come together, there is no end to the possibilities.  In fact, they must come together, because wisdom without courage is all in our head and courage without wisdom quickly becomes reckless and dangerous.  But when they come together, well, you get situations like what we read in the gospel this morning.  Jesus, alone in the desert, out there to prepare for his ministry, is confronted by the devil.  The devil is there to tempt him; to draw him away from God’s call on his life; to test his trust in God and try to find his weak spots.  And Jesus needs wisdom to discern the temptations for what they really are and courage to refuse.  This story is an introduction to who Jesus is and will be throughout the gospel.  When Jesus faces difficult situations, personally or in community, he takes time for contemplation and discernment and then he acts with purpose and meaning for the good of God.  And it is having practiced this often that allows Jesus to use wisdom and courage in the greatest test of his life, as he goes to the cross. 

So, during this season of Lent, let us look for examples of true wisdom and courage in our midst. Let us examine our own words and actions to see if they are self-righteous or if our courage is only thrill seeking and then offer the simple prayer “grant us wisdom, grant us courage” believing that God will grant them.  Amen.

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