Guardrails on mountain passes
Folly destroys, but wisdom beckons
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A memory of my mother and my childhood self in an Oriental garden in a queue of tourists instructed to take turns striking a Buddhist gong with a heavy mallet: once for wisdom, twice for beauty, or thrice for money: Mom strikes three times, and a titter runs through the crowd.
Wisdom is a joke in the prime of life: “Fools despise wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). By the word “despise” imagine something not even rising to the level of intense hatred but a casual discounting.
The subject of wisdom may become more interesting as we survey post-prime-of-life damages: serial broken relationships, ever-increasing defilement, high misery index, people adapting to the misery and not even realizing it: “Strangers devour his strength, and he knows it not; gray hairs are sprinkled upon him, and he knows it not” (Hosea 7:9). The day is long in the tooth, but he soldiers on in his folly (Isaiah 57:10).
One Bible scholar sums up Proverbs’ teachings as “skill in living.” As a child learning of Elizabeth Taylor’s five trips to the altar, my unarticulated sadness was the sense of some lacked skill in the poor woman.
It is hard to watch someone who has no wisdom, especially a young person you love.
Jane Russell (not to pick on movie stars) made it into the kingdom of God, but what a rough ride. Recuperating in her mother’s house after a botched back-alley abortion, she writes: “Every morning as I looked out on her beautiful garden, all I could see was the good Lord and how much He loved me in spite of myself. Mother said, ‘Daughter, the Ten Commandments are like the guardrails on the mountain passes. The Lord puts those white guardrails there to protect you, not to restrict you. … If you give Him all the pieces, He’ll put you back together’” (Jane Russell: An Autobiography).
No wonder King David rhapsodizes that he loves God’s law (Psalm 119:97). What kind of fool would “love” rules? The kind who wants to live wisely and not fall into the same pit again and again.
It is hard to watch someone who has no wisdom, especially a young person you love. It’s like watching the middle of a movie you know the bad ending to, while it’s still in the happy parts. Or like Proverbs 7 when the youth is halfway to the prostitute’s house. This year two friends of my sons died of drug abuse, one age 37 and the other age 29. I now drive past one’s fresh grave on my way to Lowe’s, peremptory coda to the warnings of wisdom and folly.
Wisdom beckons in the open squares and city gates (Proverbs 1:20-21), in every tawdry business deal gone bad or upright plan gone right. “Surely there is a mine for silver. … [Man] opens shafts in a valley away from where anyone lives. … But where shall wisdom be found? … God understands the way to it. … For he looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens” (Job 28).
Long before there was a Brookings Institution the Bible told us that poverty is avoided by hard work and faithful marriage. That too is wisdom. But fools will look for blame.
Like a friendly chuckle in the dark, Wisdom discloses her secret from scattered Scriptures with peek-a-boo repetitiousness: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” (Job 28:28). “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Commandments. For the Savior is also the good Master. His commands are designed to take us on a journey that will teach us wisdom. How it works is that the security of knowing we are His allows us to engage in risk-taking—risking failure; risking rejection; risking loss; releasing control; going first in loving; forgiving one who might not forgive us; forgoing transient pleasures for the better ones in heaven. It’s what freedom feels like.
And Mom, she pays better than money.
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