Listening Hearts in Los Alamos

A sermon preached by the Rev. Roger Scott Powers 
at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, 
on Sunday, August 16, 2015.

1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Psalm 111:1-10
Ephesians 5:15-20

There is probably no other person in the Bible, and perhaps no one else in human history, who has been more associated with wisdom than King Solomon.

We read in I Kings 4 that:

“God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt.  He was wiser than anyone else . . . ; his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations. . . . People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.”

This morning’s scripture reading from earlier in First Kings tells the story of how this came to pass.

Solomon had gone to Gibeon, an important worship center about six miles northwest of Jerusalem. Gibeon was a so-called “high place.” “High places” were open-air platforms or shrines, where sacrifices and other religious rites were performed. The Temple in Jerusalem had not been built yet. That would come later in Solomon’s rule. So the high places were where Israelites would sometimes go to offer sacrifices to their Lord. The city of Gibeon was the principal “high place.”

While there, Solomon has a dream in which the Lord appears to him and basically grants him one wish. “Ask what I should give you,” God says. And Solomon, faced  with the new and demanding task of governing the people of Israel, humbly asks for “an understanding mind . . . able to discern between good and evil.”

Literally, Solomon asks for a “listening heart.” In the ancient Near East, the ability to listen was seen as a source of wisdom. And the Israelites considered the heart to be both the seat of the intellect and an organ of perception. A listening heart was a heart open to divine direction.

It pleased God that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked for understanding to discern what is right, and have not asked for long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, I now grant you your request. I give you a wise and discerning mind. I also give you what you have not asked for: both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. And, if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David did, then I will also lengthen your life.”

Solomon wakes up from the dream, returns to Jerusalem and celebrates, for God has blessed him not only with wisdom, but with fame and fortune as well.

Last weekend I was in New Mexico for a national conference on nonviolence. The conference dates – August 6-9 -- were timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

On Sunday, August 9, the day Nagasaki was bombed, 300 of us went up to a “high place” – the town of Los Alamos (elevation 7300 feet).  We gathered at Ashley Pond Park, the original site of the laboratories where the first atomic bombs were designed and built. We joined together in a silent procession along Trinity Drive. (“Trinity,” a word Christians associate with God, was the code name chosen for the first test of an atomic bomb on July 16, 1945.) Once we neared the entrance to Los Alamos National Laboratory, we all sat down along Trinity Drive, we put on sackcloth and spread ashes on the ground, which are ancient symbols of mourning and repentance, and we sat in silence for 30 minutes, in prayer and contemplation.

During that half hour of silence, I thought about the horror that our country reigned down on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago -- the fireballs, the mushroom clouds, the death, the destruction. I thought back to the documentary film footage I had seen in college, haunting black and white images that are ingrained in my memory. The human silhouettes left behind on walls -- shadows of people who had been vaporized by the atomic blast.  The hospitals filled with radiation victims, severely burned and scarred.  The total destruction within a mile of ground zero -- city block after city block completely leveled.

In Hiroshima, some 70,000 people were killed instantly. Another 70,000 would die by the end of the year from burns, radiation, and related disease. In Nagasaki, an estimated 80,000 people died by the end of 1945 as a result of that explosion.

The victims were, for the most part, civilians, noncombatants, men, women, and children going about their daily lives. If any other country had done such a thing, we would call the atomic bombings acts of terrorism. But because it was the United States of America that did it, we justify it. It saved lives, we say. It meant we didn’t have to invade Japan. It ended the war.

It would be one thing if atomic weapons were simply old relics of the past, a chapter in 20th-century history books that is now long behind us. But the fact is that nuclear weapons research and development in Los Alamos has continued ever since. The U.S. has several thousand nuclear weapons, as does Russia. And in spite of President Obama’s pledge to "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," his administration has proposed that we spend more than a trillion dollars over the next three decades to modernize our nuclear forces, rebuilding thousands of existing nuclear weapons and buying new missiles, submarines, and bombers to deliver them.

Some of the greatest minds in our country work at Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, applying their vast knowledge to the continued development of these weapons of mass destruction. But is it wise?

Knowledge and wisdom, of course, are not the same thing. Someone once said that if knowledge is a process of piling up facts, then wisdom lies in their simplification. Perhaps that is why wisdom is so often conveyed in short, pithy sayings. Wisdom cuts to the chase. It helps sort out what is more important from what is less important, what is more significant from what is less significant, what is essential from what is inessential. Wisdom gets to the heart of the matter.

The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said this about wisdom:

“To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best informed person is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of things. And so the wise person will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.”

Can we acquire wisdom like we acquire knowledge? I’m not sure we can. It seems to me that one does not simply sit down one day and resolve to become a wise person. It’s not simply a matter of reading the right books or listening to the right teachers, though that may help prepare the ground. We can certainly cultivate our desire for wisdom. We can pray for wisdom. We can take the time to look and listen, to reflect and contemplate, in a search for wisdom. But in the end, I think, wisdom is a gift. When a precious new insight comes to us out of the blue, when we hear something or see something in a radically new way, it comes to us as a gift. Wisdom -- being able “to perceive the essential nature of things,” “to recognize the significant in the factual” -- is, I believe, ultimately a gift from God.

So, like Solomon, let us pray to God for the gift of wisdom, for “understanding mind(s). . . able to discern between good and evil.” For we need “listening heart(s)” open to divine direction.

Our other two scripture readings also touch on wisdom. The Letter to the Ephesians counsels us: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” And the Psalmist says: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”

God created this earth and all the life upon it over billions of years of evolution to the point that we human beings emerged and human civilization developed. I cannot believe that it would be the will of God for us to destroy the world as we know it in a nuclear holocaust. We human beings may have the power to do it, but only God has the authority.

Historians have debated for decades whether or not it was necessary for the U.S. to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to force Japan to surrender and bring an end to the Second World War. But wherever we come down on that question, surely we can agree that the United States bears more responsibility than any other nation for bringing an end to the nuclear threat. The United States has more nuclear weapons than any other nation. We invented nuclear weapons, and we are the only country to have ever used them. We led the world into the nuclear age. We have a moral responsibility to lead the world out of it.

And so, let us pray, in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick: God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power. From the fears that long have bound us, free our hearts to faith and praise. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days, for the living of these days. Amen.