October 21, 2020

Another Look: Wisdom and the Fog

Foggy Tennessee Lake (2012)

Wisdom and the Fog
By Chaplain Mike (from 2012)

Many plans are in a man’s heart,
But the counsel of the Lord will stand.
What is desirable in a man is his kindness…

• Proverbs 19:21-22, NASB

• • •

I stand on top of a rise in the road. Before me, a valley stretches, still shrouded in fog. Behind me, the sun has burned its way clear and I can see the ways I’ve come. I can make out a few of the sharper turns, various forks and crossroads where I chose this way or that for one reason or another, spots along the way where the road disappeared into a dark wood, then emerged on scenery wholly new. Well past halfway on my journey, I’ve forgotten more than I remember, and some of what I recall I don’t trust. In some ways I’m more sure of my path, in other ways I’ve never been less able to plot my course.

This week I will officiate the funeral of an old friend. Several years ago, our families attended the same church and we were part of the same social small group. We spent New Year’s Eves together, played cards, laughed a lot, and talked about our families and work. A simple guy, he didn’t talk much, and wasn’t much of churchgoer. We weren’t close, but I was there as a pastor and friend at some important times, and he always seemed genuinely happy to have us in his home. About my age, now he’s gone. Over the years, we’ve only seen each other rarely, and he and the family have had their struggles: finances, house problems, mental illness in the family. Last I heard he and his wife were getting divorced, he had a girlfriend, and it wasn’t pretty. Complications from a chronic health condition took his life suddenly and unexpectedly last week.

And I get to speak words of “wisdom” to comfort his family and friends at the funeral.

Which is a funny thing, because at this point in the journey, I’m not sure I know what wisdom is. I have some hindsight, for sure, and plenty of experience. Maybe that qualifies. I have a deeper trust in the sovereignty of God than ever before, but it is not the kind of trust that can be expressed in “answers.” The thought of God’s sovereignty is like the fog in the valley ahead of me — a mystery that envelops the world but obscures my view. To think that I would appeal to such a concept as comfort for myself or others seems kind of crazy, to tell the truth. People don’t generally expect the guy down in the mail room to be able to delineate the intricate decisions of the CEO. About all I can say is, “I have no idea how to explain it, but I guess he knows what he’s doing.”

Recently we saw another couple who had been members of a congregation where I served on staff in the past. We haven’t really talked for about ten years. They’ve been to three different churches since then. Their son now tours with a punk band and they didn’t seem interested in going into details. They did want to discuss how the husband is making plans for retirement, and since they have been very diligent about money matters, it looks like they’ll move to the Rockies and live the dream. They seemed reasonably happy, but you never know.

On one level, I’m not a big fan of the book of Proverbs. Read in certain ways, it cannot help but promote self-righteousness. Dividing the world into “wise people” and “fools” leaves little room for nuance. Pharisees love it because it organizes life neatly into divinely demarcated divisions and makes the rules and rewards clear. It is elder brother theology par excellence. It scoffs when the silly, sentimental old man loses his mind and runs out to welcome home the wastrel.

A guy with whom I used to coach Little League told me the other day his son and girlfriend and new baby are moving into their house for awhile. It will be a crowded situation with many opportunities for irritation, conflict, and hurt feelings. Been there, done that. I know they didn’t expect this, and I’m sure they are wondering where this will all lead. They have a good spirit about it (or at least they put on a good face about it), and I hope to spend more time with them in days to come. They are some of my favorite people in the world, and I’d love to be a friend and an encouragement if possible.

In the end, I guess that’s what I will say at my friend’s funeral. The world is broken, and I don’t have a lot of wisdom to offer. I won’t pretend to tell you what God is doing. But I know that love is real. I’m here to be your friend today, and I want to encourage you to be friends to each other. That’s how Jesus showed his love to us — by befriending us and laying down his life for us. We’re here to do the same for one another.

It’s foggy ahead, and the way is not clear.

Take a hand and let’s enter the fog together.

Don’t let go.

Comments

  1. “Which is a funny thing, because at this point in the journey, I’m not sure I know what wisdom is.”

    Seems to me coming to terms with the unknown is what real wisdom is. Just like an expert in a field is the one who knows how much they don’t know.

    Wonderful photograph.

  2. David Cornwell says

    The fog always speaks to me of mystery — the unknown. The only two ways I know to cope with fog is to either enter into it and proceed slowly and carefully. Or to wait until it lifts and the ability to see clearly returns.

    I grew up along the Ohio River. Fog in the mornings was a normal occurence. Once in high school English we were given the assignment of writing a poem. I wrote one on fog. It wasn’t great, but it tapped into some feelings. A few years later when I was 19 I had an early morning appointment. The fog was very thick and I could barely see the street in front of the car. I missed my left turn and drove to the very edge of the Ohio River where the street ended.

    Many times in my life since that time I’ve come close to the river’s edge. Life can become very foggy and very confusing regardless of one’s age. Attempts to see ahead are useless, and it becomes good sense to wait and wait.

    • Curious thing, fog.

      If you don’t have to travel through it, it’s beautiful, peaceful. I mean, look at that picture! Gorgeous!
      It’s easy enough to walk through. It can even be pleasant, or soothing, letting its wispy tendrils of light moisture encircle you as you go.
      However, once speed enters into the picture, look out. Great care must be taken in proceeding. If driving, your entire focus has to be upon the road ahead–the immediate road ahead. There’s no looking around at the world, at the sights…your entire focus is upon the road immediately in front of the vehicle, whether there are turns ahead, or traffic, animals…whatever. And one must be prepared to STOP with little warning.
      And then there’s the combination of speed and AIR. If you’re flying it’s impossible to land in without instrumentation, and even then airlines will divert if it’s too thick.

      There are maybe some parallels to draw here with just plain “living.” I’ll give it a go. When it begins to get foggy, slow down, maybe even stop. When it gets foggy, see if you can find the beauty in it, the soothing nature of it. Focus on the immediate, the important. And whatever you do, don’t accelerate, and don’t try to fly through it.

  3. Several weeks ago, a young man who grew up near us and grew up with my children died in an accident. 27 years old.
    I randomly saw his brother a few days ago and again expressed my sympathy. “I wish I had some words of wisdom to give you,” I said. “But I have no words. None. But I am sad, we miss him, and none of it seems real.”

    Yes, indeed. You summed it up.
    “The world is broken, and I don’t have a lot of wisdom to offer. I won’t pretend to tell you what God is doing.”

    • The words you expressed seem exactly right to me, Suzanne. I’ll try to keep them in mind myself when I encounter someone going through something similar.

  4. –> “I have a deeper trust in the sovereignty of God than ever before, but it is not the kind of trust that can be expressed in ‘answers.’ The thought of God’s sovereignty is like the fog in the valley ahead of me — a mystery that envelops the world but obscures my view.”

    This! A thousand times, THIS!

  5. This type of honesty in writing and thoughts on life and faith in the Sovereign is what I’ll miss so much. In the early days I posted in the comments a fair bit, as time wore on not so much. However, I have come at least weekly to read and to ponder both the contributions and the comments.

    I discovered this blog in early 2002, I was younger, healthier and my children were children still at home. My family was in a post modern type church and our little world for the most part made sense. Michael Spencer was a voice to the nagging feelings of a storm on the horizon so to speak. When he died, I thought there would be a sad trailing off of his blog. I was quite wrong, I’m happy to say. You and all the others have a been a warm meal at days end in what has become my wondering in the wilderness.

    Life has much unexpectedness some, good, some challenging, a lot somewhere in between. Hindsight as you say, having lived a while, brings that more into focus more than earlier in life. It certainly has for me, I’m 7 years in with rheumatoid arthritis, it changed my path rather drastically. My youngest dropped out of university and has drifted, losing yet another job in a distant city. My wife and I are guardians of her 95 year old mother with end stage dementia. My oldest and his wife are having their first child in this pandemic, far from us, and with me immune-compromised, it’s difficult to know when my wife and I will be able to see them.

    I didn’t intend to write most of what I have now. I only wanted to say you have a wonderful gift of writing and insight and that you are most certainly a kind person with which to enter the fog.

    • Beautiful comment. Deep, honest, heartfelt. Thanks for sharing your experiences and current “struggles.” God be with you.

  6. Michael Bell says

    “I have a deeper trust in the sovereignty of God than ever before”

    I take the opposite view. If God is sovereign, then God is a monster. I could not believe in a monster God, therefore I can not believe that God is sovereign.

    I can however believe in a suffering God (in the form of Jesus). And I can take comfort in that he understands my suffering.

    • –> “If God is sovereign, then God is a monster. I could not believe in a monster God, therefore I can not believe that God is sovereign.”

      Until recently, my view of “sovereign God” has been skewed by the Calvinist version of sovereign, which frankly fits the “God is a monster, then” kind of sovereign. Thus, like you, I’ve always bristled at that notion, that idea of “sovereign God.” But recently, I have come to believe in some sort of OTHER sovereign, some kind of Hands-off sovereign, or a “Don’t worry, you will be with me eventually” sovereign. As Chap Mike suggests, it’s a “mysterious” sovereign.

      Suffering God… yes. I came to believe in Him because of his willingness to suffer. Yes.

    • Mike,

      when you’re ready to think about it, go to Fr Stephen’s blog and search for his posts on Providence (search box is way at the bottom on the right side). There may be some help for you disentangling the words “sovereign” and “God”.

      Dana

  7. This is some of your best writing. You have captured the essence of growing older and facing the daring night.

    Your last line,”Don’t let go.” reminds me of Van Morrison’s song Daring Night.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMPR1bHdtY8

    • St. John of the Cross and others of the great mystics say that there will eventually come a time when your senses and your spirit will feel as if God has let go your hand, not in the fog but in an absolute darkness. When God does that, it is not a punishment or cruelty, but so that you may know God in God’s essence, and in “naked faith,” not according to the blessings or comforts God gives you, but in the purity of the divine being that seems to offer nothing but its insensible presence as known in faith, in trust, “naked faith”. Until that happens, you are always really holding on to the gifts God extends to you, not relying on God’s very being.

  8. I know I’m going to be asked to officiate the funeral of a relative. I have been at a loss and worrying about it. If you could let me, I would appreciate being able to use some of these thoughts. I would certainly mention this blog and not try to pass it all off as my own.

  9. Thanks for this, Chaplain Mike. You have put into words a lot of things I think about as I get older (I was born 4-ish months before you). Please do keep writing, at least a pen-and-ink journal for your family to treasure.

    Dana

  10. David Cornwell says

    Exactly right. The day in the car I was driving extra careful. I thought my left turn would be easy to spot. But I went a few blocks beyond and found myself at the river’s edge. Strangely the street just drove off into the river without a curb or barrier to stop a car.

    I do like walking in the fog. At one point we lived near a city park. I’d walk there to walk and take photos. There is a lightly wooded area that was foggy one morning and I was able to get some decent photos The sun was just beginning to come through a bit, but the fog was a long way from burning off. I love the mist and the mystery.

  11. Daniel Jepsen says

    Fog is something I have grown to love more as I get older. For me, I guess, it has come to symbolize how I sometimes experience God.

    Fog both reveals and conceals. You can see the trees or hills, but often only a hint of them. Sometimes you cannot see them at all, and can only go by the memory of when you could see more clearly.

    And that is God. I never see God fully; I see hints and allusions. And sometimes I don’t even see this. But I remember that just because the fog conceals something doesn’t mean that something is not there.

    Spiritual fog always leaves me wishing I could see more…but it’s better than pitch dark.

  12. morning fog
    on the meadow
    stop a while

  13. very old advice

    when you can’t see that far down the road,
    go as far as you can

    from there, you will be able to see further