A Wise Heart


While meditating on Psalm 90 again today my ears were tickled by verse 12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Other translations say “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” What does it mean to have a wise heart? Conditioned as our western minds are by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” philosophy that locates the seat of knowledge in the head, the notion of a wise heart seems anatomically incorrect.

Perhaps even attempting to discuss such a concept from a rational-logical mindset is the height of foolishness, but so be it. The traditional Psalm (51) read on Ash Wednesday also speaks of the heart: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” And later it says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That Psalm is often understood as King David’s plea for God’s mercy after his sins of adultery and murder are exposed to him by the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12). While that connection helps us appreciate the depth of David’s need for repentance and forgiveness, the danger is that if we interpret that Psalm in too narrow a historical context we can deflect its relevance to our own hearts.

We have 20/20 when it comes to seeing the speck in David’s eye. If anyone needed to have a contrite heart it is he—a wealthy, powerful ruler who abuses his position to take whatever he wants without regard to the rights of others. But lent is a time to look in the mirror and see the logs in our own eyes. Where have I fallen short of the glory of God? Where have I failed to love my neighbors as myself? Where have I failed to treat the least of my sisters and brothers as I would treat Christ himself? (Matthew 25).

The biblical record is crystal clear about humility as a key virtue of a faithful person. Micah plainly says that what God requires of us is “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (6:8). Second Isaiah describes the Messiah as a suffering servant, and Jesus teaches by word and action that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12). How many of us ever aspired to be someone’s servant when we grow up? Lent’s a great time to wrestle with those hard questions.

The wise heart is a humble heart, but what about that reference to a broken heart in Psalm 51? Anyone, and everyone has, known the pathos of a broken heart—a rejection or abandonment by the person one’s world revolves around. The death of beloved pet or a lifelong dream shattered. We all know of stories or have personal experience of a spouse literally dying of a broken heart when a life-long partner dies. I still remember the poignant opening lines of the 1970’s movie “Love Story”: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” Why would a loving God wish that kind of pain on us?

We don’t have to blame suffering on God to appreciate its depth or its universality. Loss and suffering are built into the human condition because this life is fragile and temporary. Psalm 90:10 reminds us of that just before the line about a wise heart. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” And I don’t quote those to be a Debbie Downer, they are just honest words about life and death that wise hearts learn to accept and embrace.

A wise heart that has known sorrow and is willing to face it head on instead of dodging in denial and distraction is a heart that is compassionate. It is a heart that leaves the comfort of complacency and works for justice for those who are oppressed. It is a heart that loves the unlovable with a simple gesture that needs no words.
They say wisdom comes with age but I don’t believe that age is prerequisite for having a wise heart. The wise hearts of children who have not yet learned the stereotypes or prejudices of their elders are the kind of wise and humble hearts God gives us all, and sometimes little children are the best at teaching us how to be.

Two stories come to mind. A mother saw her young son sitting on the front porch with an elderly neighbor who had recently been widowed. Bobby was there for 30 minutes or so, and when he came back home his mother asked him what he and Mr. Brown had talked about. Bobby said, “Oh, we didn’t talk. I just sat there and helped him cry.”

The other is more philosophical and illustrates the beauty of deep knowledge that weds both heart and head. A pilgrim asked a wise old guru, “When is the moment when I can tell the darkness from the dawn? Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog? “ “No,” said the wise one. “Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?” The guru shook his head and after a silence said, “When you can look into the eyes of another human being and say ‘You are my sister; you are my brother’ that is the dawn. Until then there is only darkness.”

O God of grace and wisdom, help us to count these holy days of Lent that we may gain humble, wise and compassionate hearts. Forgive any pride, judgment, and arrogance you find within me, and may I open myself completely to you so you can “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Amen

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Prayer Inspired by Solomon’s Request, I Kings 3:9

God, I bet you get tired of my whining and begging and calling it prayer. You don’t need a laundry list of all the things I think I need or deserve since you already know what I’m thinking, what I’m coveting, even when I wish you didn’t. We worry a lot these days about privacy and who has access to our information when we really should be more concerned about what you know about the secret desires of our hearts and minds.

Every time we pray you offer us the same deal the young King Solomon got – to ask for whatever we want. And if we ask for the right thing, the answer is guaranteed. But if we ask for wealth, status, power, comfort or other selfish rewards, no matter what the prosperity gospel advocates say, the answer will be ‘No, try again.’

Solomon could have written the great old hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.”* It says “Be thou my wisdom and thou my true word…. Riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise, Thou mine inheritance now and always.” Solomon doesn’t ask for riches or power, he asks for the wisdom to govern God’s people, “an understanding mind…able to discern between good and evil.” O how we need such wisdom in our troubled world today, O Lord!

God, you know that we need the real necessities of life. Help us to trust you to provide those while we seek after the truth that sets us free from our worries and cares and concerns. Don’t let us confuse knowledge with wisdom. This isn’t about education and degrees – but true insight and discernment. As you blessed Solomon because he humbly asked for wisdom, the prayer of our hearts is that you will also “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.”** Amen and Amen.

*Old Irish hymn, translated by Mary E. Byrne, 1905 (original poem attributed to St. Dallan Forgaill, 530-598 C.E.)
** From “God of Grace and God of Glory,” by Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1930.

Christ Candle Drama

Narrator: During the 4 weeks of Advent we have had some interesting people from modern and Biblical times help us light the 4 candles on our Advent Wreath. I’m sorry to say that the guest we hoped to have tonight will not be able to be here. We wanted to have one of the Wise Men light the Christ Candle for us, but as you may recall from Matthew’s Gospel, the Wise Men didn’t actually arrive to give their gifts to Baby Jesus until he was almost two years old. So I guess we will have to get by without their wisdom tonight.

Shepherd: [enters from off stage with an attitude] Wait just a minute, please. You don’t think the Magi were the only wise people in the Christmas story, do you? I get pretty tired of those three kings getting all the publicity with their fancy robes and big camels, and expensive gifts. If it hadn’t been for a lot of other smart people the whole Christmas story would never have happened.

Narrator: Excuse me, who might you be and what are you talking about?

Shepherd: Oh, I had a small part in the Christmas story, too; I’m Eli, one of the shepherds who came to the manger.

Narrator: Oh my, I didn’t recognize you, Eli, I mean without your sheep and away from the Nativity scene and all. I’m so sorry. But what were you saying about the other wise people in the Christmas story?

Shepherd: Well, think about it. The story begins with Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. They had to be wise enough to believe God when they were told they would have a child in their old age. And their son, John the Baptist, prepared the way for Jesus and even baptized him. And what about Mary’s fiancé, Joseph? He was wise enough to believe the angel who told him Mary’s baby was really God’s son. Believe me; most guys would not have believed that story.

Narrator: I see your point. These were common ordinary people who were smart enough to trust God with some incredible ideas.

Shepherd: And that’s not all. Think about us shepherds—we didn’t have college degrees, but once we got over the shock of seeing all those angels, we were wise enough to pay attention to the biggest birth announcement in all of history. Everybody else in Bethlehem was too busy to even notice. But we heard God’s message and came running; so we got to be the very first people ever to worship the Christ child.

Narrator: You’re right, that was very wise. And now that I think about it, we’ve left out a very important wise person in this story. There was a certain young peasant girl who got some very shocking news about becoming the mother of God’s son. Mary must have been scared to death!

Shepherd: Yes, I’m sure she was. She told us she didn’t think Joseph or anyone else would believe such a wild story about her baby’s father. But she was smart enough to go to Elizabeth for advice. Mary was wise beyond her years to have the faith to say “yes” to what God was asking her to do. And because of all the wisdom from all those people the history of the world was changed forever. [Pause]

Narrator: Eli, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. Would you do us the honor of lighting the Christ Candle tonight, as we celebrate again the birth of Jesus Christ, the light of the world? [Eli lights the Christ candle and both exit.]