"Gaining Wisdom"

June 7, 2009                                                                                                                   Psalm 90:1-6

            A Presbyterian minister in Atlanta (Tom Long) was heading to the hospital to visit a member of his congregation.  Since his parents lived on the way, he stopped by their house to say "hello."  As he was preparing to leave, his mother asked where he was going.   He said, "I'm going to Emory Hospital to make some visits."

            "Perfect," she said, "one of our neighbors is in Emory Hospital.  I know she would appreciate it so much if you would drop in and see her."

            You can imagine his reaction.  "Mother, I am the pastor of my own church.  I am a very busy man.  I do not have time to go visit every one of your bridge partners in the hospital."  That's what he was thinking; but that was not exactly how he put it to her.  It was more like this: "Why, Yes, mother, I'll be happy to see her."

            He drove to the hospital, and when he came to the room of his mother's friend, there was a sign on the door that said: NO VISITORS. FAMILY ONLY.  He walked over to the nurse's station and explained the situation.  The nurse said, "Let me check."  The nurse went into the woman's room and then came back out, and said, "She would like to see you." 

            He went into the room and found her sitting up in the bed with pillows behind her head.  He told her his name and said, "You know my mother, I'm the pastor of McElroy Presbyterian Church..." and before he could finish his sentence, she said, "What is the meaning of the Biblical name, 'Elisha'?"

            His brain shot into high alert! He scrambled back over his fading Hebrew vocabulary, and finally stammered out, "Elisha - El means God - ish means man, ­El-ish-ah: Man of God."  That's not correct, Elisha doesn't mean that, but it was evidently satisfactory, because she said "Sit down, I've been looking for a minister who knows something!"

            What he found behind all that bluff was a lonely and frightened woman who was seriously ill.  He visited with her for awhile and she asked if he would read some of the psalms to her.  He read a few psalms, said a prayer, and told her he would see her again. 

            A few days later he went back, and the sign on her door now read: NO VISITORS. FAMILY ONLY and then in crayon it said, "Please."  He went to the nurse's station and the nurse checked for him.  She came out of the woman's room and said, "She would like to see you."  He visited with the woman, read a Psalm, had a prayer, and said he would come back.

            The next week he went back to the hospital, and the sign on the door said: NO VISITORS. FAMILY ONLY.  AND THIS MEANS YOU!

            He went to the nurse's station, she went into the woman's room and then came out and said, "She doesn't want any company today."  And later that night, she died.  From a great company of people, to a few people, to one pastor, and then finally, all alone.1

            She kept shutting people out of her life.  She kept pushing more and more people away.  I don't know which psalms the minister read to her, but I would guess he read the ones which are most comforting: The 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want..."  Perhaps the 121st Psalm: "I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth."  I wonder if he read the 90th Psalm.  It contains words of comfort, but it also has an edge to it.

            How do you handle adversity?  Do you - consciously or unconsciously - push people away and try to go it alone?  Do you think it's best to suffer privately and not bother others with your burdens?

            The 90th psalm was written for people who were experiencing very painful times.  It opens on a reassuring note.  "Lord, you have been our dwelling-place in all generations."  Since the existence of the first humans, God has been there for us.  Regardless of the specific plot of land upon which people have lived, God has always been the One in whom we live and move and have our being.  I'm afraid that the woman in the hospital knew this, yet she did not know it.  She knew it in her mind, but she did not believe it in her heart.

            "The Lord is our dwelling place."  This is a vital affirmation for all people in all times, but it is especially significant for people who feel cut off from all that is familiar.  Some Old Testament scholars believe this was the context in which this psalm emerged.  Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people had been dragged away to a foreign land.  In that context, this would have been a very powerful psalm for the people to sing.  Imagine the Hebrew community of faith gathered for worship and singing together while choking back tears: "We have been ripped away from our homeland, but you, O God, are our true home.  Regardless of where we reside, you are our genuine dwelling place, and no one can sever our tie to you."

            There are 150 psalms in the Hebrew Psalter.  How many of you knew that?  Raise your hands.  This is the only one of the 150 that is attributed to Moses.  How many of you knew that?  Scholars do not believe that Moses actually wrote it, but rather that it was written centuries later as a song that imagines how Moses must have felt shortly before he died.  Remember that after he personally escaped slavery in Egypt, God directed Moses to return to Egypt to free the Hebrew people from bondage and to lead them to the Promised Land.  After struggling with Pharaoh and successfully freeing the people, Moses led them on a tumultuous journey through the wilderness lasting 40 years.  And then, when they were on the brink of finally stepping onto that promised turf, when they were so close to it they could see the rivers and smell the cedars, Moses died.  Nearly his entire life had been wrapped up in leading the people to the Promised Land.  With the constant criticisms of his leadership and the numerous obstacles along the way, he had been tempted to give up on the dream of ever reaching it.  But with enormous fortitude and immense faith, he kept forging ahead; pushing and pulling his bickering fellow Israelites to their destined home.  And then, when the finish line of his ultra-marathon was in sight, his body gave out.  He never set foot in the land to which he had been journeying most of his life.

            If this psalm did indeed emerge centuries later, when the people were in exile and had no idea if they would ever return to their homeland, we can see how this psalm could express their grief and sorrow, and at the same time provide them solace.

            Their anguish spews out in much of the psalm, and anyone in her final days in a hospital bed can relate to their words.  "God, you turn us back into dust.  You sweep people away as if we are merely a dream.  We are like grass that pops up in the morning, but by evening, it withers.  We might live to be 70, and if we are strong, maybe 80, but life is a struggle and in what seems like the blink of an eye, our time is up.

            The psalm assaults us with word after word intended to remind us of the passage of time.  "Mortals, yesterday, a watch in the night, morning, evening, days pass away, years come to an end."  It is the ticking of the clock, constantly reminding us that time is running out.

            Yet all of these words of lament are bracketed by the opening two verses and verse twelve.  Verses one and two: "Lord, you have been our dwelling-place in all generations...Before you even created the earth, you have been our home.  From everlasting to everlasting, from Alpha to Omega, you are our firm foundation."

            Despite the trials of life and despite the brevity of life, God is our bedrock.  No matter what life throws at us - and for some life can be especially cruel - God is always with us.  And knowing that in our minds and in our hearts can enable us to endure any trial.  Then, after cataloguing the troubles and transitory nature of life, we reach the "Therefore" of verse 12.  "So teach us, God.  Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart."

            What does it mean to gain a wise heart?  It does not mean to simply accumulate more knowledge.  Knowledge can be a wonderful attribute.  Today we are celebrating the accomplishment of our graduates.  They have focused on learning and gaining the required knowledge to earn a degree.  They deserve accolades. I love to learn and I constantly seek new knowledge, but I also know that knowledge is not the same as wisdom.  I know, as I'm sure you know, some well-educated people with numerous degrees who are not very wise. 

The Dean of Duke Divinity School wrote an interesting essay on parenting.  In it he refers to a conversation he had with a friend who described her approach to parenting as "I just want my children to be happy."  He suggests that "I just want my children to be happy" has become a mantra, a kind of catch-all imperative promoted by marketers and makers of children's products.  But it's not simply what parents want for their children; it is also what many adults want for themselves: "I just want to be happy." What could be simpler?  And, what's wrong with wanting to be happy?  Nothing.  Unless it becomes our primary focus, our overriding passion, our god.  When that happens, something is wrong in our heart and our soul.2

We need more than happiness in life and that is what the 90th Psalm is telling us.  The psalmist wants us to know the importance of wisdom.  Wisdom teaches us that our time on earth is brief, and therefore too valuable to squander.  The Buddha suggested that we should have a little bird sitting on our shoulder that periodically whispers in our ear, "Is this the day?  Is this the last of your days?"3

Our time on earth needs to be more than just happy, it needs to be fulfilling.  Wisdom recognizes that life can end in an instant.  Ask the families of those who were on the Air France flight that never landed in Paris this past week.  Since, for most of us, our end comes before we are ready, we must live each day as fully as possible.

            Through Moses, God gave the Hebrew people the Law in order that they could live rewarding lives.  And perhaps the pronouns in this Psalm offer another clue.  They are all plural.  "Lord, you have been OUR dwelling place...Teach US to count OUR days that WE may gain a heart of wisdom."  The pronouns remind us that we do not live in isolation from one another.  We live in community.  Life is rich and full when we are connected to each other and when we care for each other.

            Susan Cartmell, the daughter of Peggy Cartmell  and former Westminster pastor, John Cartmell, is now a pastor in Needham, Massachusetts, where she volunteers at a dinner for people living with AIDS.  The dinner is held in a Roman Catholic Church in the South End of Boston.  Susan says it was started by a nun, a priest and a woman named Mary Ann, whose son died of AIDS.  After her son died, Mary Ann was lost.  And then one day she heard about this program run by Catholic Charities.  Although she lived 40 miles west of the city and did not have a car, she volunteered to put on the dinners for people living with AIDS.  This meant she had to purchase the food, bring the food into the city in large bags on the commuter train each month and then cook it in the church kitchen.  It was not easy work. But after her son died, she had to make a decision.  She could push everyone out of her life and suffer privately or she could reach out in compassion to others.  She decided to see if God could transform her sadness into something new.  After she had tasted the bitterness of her child's death, she focused her energy on alleviating the suffering of others.  At the moment when she was tempted to pull back and push people away, she found that a greater involvement with others saved her.4  You might say she gained a wise heart.  She knew she would not live forever, so she focused on living fully.

            If we gain wise hearts and live fully by extending ourselves to others, when we come to the end of our days, we will have few regrets; and we will be ready for a loving embrace from the One who is our dwelling place in this life and the next.




1. Thomas G. Long, "Individual Spiritual Journeys."

2. John Buchanan, "The Lesson of Mount Moriah."

3. William Willimon, "The Time of Our Lives."

4. Susan Cartmell, "It's Your Call," in Lectionary Homiletics, June - July, 2009, p.12.