November 19, 2023
A Heart of Wisdom
I want to focus on the psalm from today’s lectionary readings largely because it happens to be one my favorite passages of scripture in the whole Bible. It is so, in part because of the depth of wisdom and meaning it embodies, but also, frankly, because it is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the English language – at least as it’s rendered in the King James version. Now, I have to say that I don’t recommend the King James Bible to anyone. It is really a terrible translation. But nothing can beat the majesty of the psalms in the King James. The council of scholars appointed by the king in 1604 to draft this version may not have understood Hebrew as well as those of today, but there were some in their midst who certainly knew how to write poetry.
If you want to know what poetry is, you can ask a teacher of English literature. Or, if you want know what poetry is, you could read this Psalm. You heard it this morning in the New Revised Standard version. Let me share it with you in the King James:
“Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting thou art God. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return ye children of men. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as asleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down and withereth. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told. The days of our years are three score years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow, for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath. So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
That’s poetry. I almost feel that I could stop the sermon right here, and simply let us all dwell on the beauty of that piece of literature. It might be enough for one day – but there is so much more.
I looked into the mirror the other evening and my reflection in the glass seemed to jump out at me. I almost gasped: “Who is that?” I’m not sure why, but it struck me in that moment that this face of an old man with thinning hair and a white beard was the same person as the little boy I used to see in the mirror. And then I looked again, and realized that no, it’s not the same person. Most of the cells that made up the body of that little boy no longer exist. In fact, none of the cells that made up my skin two months ago still exist. I have been almost completely remade over and over, one cell at a time. And, yet, I am in some mysterious way, still the same person – just more worn down and closer to the end than I was. I don’t advise getting into such a line of thinking just before going to bed, it can keep you awake staring at the ceiling for a long time.
Shakespeare did justice to the thought in As You Like It:
“‘tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ‘twill be eleven,
And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.”
We expend a lot of energy from day to day denying the truth that “hour to hour we rot and rot.” It’s a subject that we rarely bring to consciousness, let alone talk about. My wife Dadgie once told a marvelous story of an after-church, adult education session she attended back in the late sixties. It was during the time in this country when cancer was the disease that nobody discussed in public. It was as though there were some sort of shame associated with the disease. Well, on this particular Sunday, a group of older women were seated at one end of the table absorbed in a whispered discussion of the sad situation of a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer. Gloria glanced around and whispered to the others, “It’s true; they say she’s terminal.” And Lucy, a small, mild-mannered, elderly woman, blurted out for all the room to hear, “Hell, Gloria, we’re all terminal!”
One of the wonderful things about the Bible is that it’s like dear old Lucy. It won’t let us tiptoe around and avoid the hard truths of life. The Psalmist says that we are like the grass that grows up in the morning and is cut down in the evening; “we spend our years as a tale that is told.”
So, what are we supposed to do about this deeply troubling existential truth? I suppose one approach is to make light of it. A sense of humor is a great resource, especially in the midst of the weightier matters of life. Rabbi Sam Skinner of the Holocaust Center tells of the Jewish tradition of referring to the span of 120 years for anything desired to last a long time (such as in the expression, “may it last 120 years”). This is the length of Moses’ life. One man said, “I’d like to live 120 years and 3 months.” He was asked, “Why the 3 months?” He replied, “Because I don’t want to die suddenly.”
Or, the story told by Sam Proctor of a little girl alone with grandpa. She looks around and realizes they are all alone, so she flies across the room and lands in his lap with eyes full of anticipation. She says, “I’m going to give you a ‘grandpa inspection.’” She grabs his ears and pulls down hard, takes hold of his nose and wiggles it, pulls his chin down and looks in his mouth, then says “now croak!” He says, “I can’t croak.” She says, “Sure you can, grandpa.” “No, I can’t,” he insists. “I’m not a frog.” “Yes, you can, grandpa. Now, croak!” “Where did you get all this croaking business? I don’t know how to croak!” “I know you can croak,” she said, “Mommy said ‘as soon as grandpa croaks we’re all going to Disney World!’”
It’s great to laugh in face of the grim reaper. It does indeed help. But when the laughter dies down, we’re still left with the troubling image of ourselves in the bathroom mirror. So for those nights of lying awake staring at the ceiling, this magnificent psalm with the soaring poetry gives us ancient and wise counsel. After eleven verses of laying out in soul-stirring poignancy the human predicament, the psalmist comes to this phrase: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
Avoiding the issue or laughing it off may help us get through, but a heart of wisdom comes from looking at our mortality squarely in the face. The psalmist says we get a wise heart by “numbering our days.” In other words, by living in each moment with the awareness of how brief our life is, how few are the days that we have on this earth. I decided to try “numbering” my days. I figure that, using generally accepted insurance actuarial tables, I have a total of something like 30,660 days in my life span (I’d like to think I have more than that, but who knows?). I have already spent 26,645 of those days. That leaves me with a balance of 4,015 days in my account. Now, about four thousand days sounds like a lot, until you consider how quickly that odometer clicks them off. Our 2013 Toyota Camry still seems like a relatively new car to us. But one mile at a time, day by day, we have piled up enough miles on that car to drive well over half the way to the moon – true, about 158,000 miles. They click by so quickly.
So, the implied question the psalmist poses to me is: you’ve got about 4,015 days. What are you going to do with them? Or, perhaps, even more significantly, what are you going to do with this one? Because, in truth, for all I know I might only have one day left. If I could somehow live each moment of my life with that question starkly before me, I suspect in time I might gain a “heart of wisdom.”
Have you ever thought of “numbering” your own days? How do you think it would affect you to look at that number and ponder it for a moment? It could lead you to more questions, like: how are you using the days that remain in your account? How much does it matter if you have 10,000 days remaining, or only 10? What about the one you have before you in this moment? What will you do with it? Do you allow your moments to be filled up, one after another, with “the merely urgent,” while pushing “the truly important” off to another time?
As we each reflect on these ground-shaking questions, what is there to hold onto? What is there to guide us in our discernment? The Psalm offers something for us here as well. It’s right there in the first line: “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.”
In my finest and best moments I have an experience of being connected to the eternal, to everyone and everything, to the Lord of Hosts who is the Divine Power of Love itself. I call that finest and best experience the pinnacle of “Joy.” Joy is, in the words of the Psalmist, finding our dwelling place in the Lord. Joy is not happiness. Happiness is transient and fickle. Joy abides and sustains even in the midst of pain and sorrow. The experience of connection to the Divine can live in your heart and soul and fill you and lift you through the desert places.
Commenting on this psalm, Walter Brueggemann notes that God being our “dwelling place” (or “home”) is a powerful notion. It means that none of us is or can be homeless. He says that we can’t make such a home for ourselves, but that “real home is always a gift.” Brueggemann says that gaining a “wise heart does not refer to knowledge, skill, technique, or the capacity to control. Instead, it seems to mean the capacity to submit, relinquish, and acknowledge the decisive impingement of Yahweh [God] on one’s life.1
If we are honest with ourselves, alive and present to the experience of Joy – of connection to the Eternal, we can see more clearly what we might give each one of our precious days to, and what are the truly important matters in our lives.
I hope I have been able to convey to you some of the ways this magnificent psalm has taken hold of my heart. If nothing else, I hope you will come to appreciate its soaring poetry. But, mostly, I hope that each of us can move closer with each of our days to gaining a heart of wisdom.
1 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg, p.111.