United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“A Wise Heart”

October 29, 2023

Rev. Susan Friedl



Meditation:   For the last 6 weeks, I’ve been struggling with a “lingering pneumonia.”  To quote my doctor, “Your pneumonia lingers.”  If you, like me, are dealing with an illness – any illness – whether it be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual – you know that “lingering” casts a long shadow. 


When our personal miseries are coupled with news of national infighting (congress and culture wars), occasions of extreme violence (I’m thinking of the most recent mass shooting in Maine), and the “not so foreign” threats ( Russia testing nuclear weapons), terror, and wars in Ukraine, Gaza and beyond…. Well, it’s a lot.  We, like the psalmist are prone to ask, “O LORD! How long?” Even when the earth isn’t shaking so hard, in more the mundane times, we plead  “Turn O LORD! How long?”


Lately, as a source for courage, I find myself quoting Julia of Norwich.  “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well…  For there is a source of love moving through the universe that hold us fast and will never let us go.”  


St. Julia is known for her optimistic wisdom.  She was one for keeping the faith and even seeking joy in the eye of the storm.  Her answer to suffering was trust in God.  Hers was trust that expressed itself in the hope of divine wisdom.


This morning, the focus of my message is the protective cover of wisdom in all manner of things unravelling.  The wisdom of Psalm 90. 


Psalm 90 is the only poem-prayer associated with Moses. It is a meditation that explores the relationship between the eternity of God and the “reality” of being human.  Psalm 90 looks at God’s majesty along-side the afflictions and evil we suffer.  It is ultimately a trusting prayer of hope in creator God for deliverance from futility as well as the storms in life.


The Christian writer Kathleen Norris told an interesting story about an ancient Christian monk in her memoir entitled “Acedia and Me.”  She discovered this story when reading The Institutes by John Cassian from the fourth century.  The story is about a monk named Abba Paul that devoted his life to prayer while living in the desert. 


Abba Paul, like many early Christian monks wove baskets while he prayed.  All day long, day in – day out, he simultaneously prayed and wove baskets.  Abba Paul lived deep in the dessert, a seven-day journey from the closet towns and villages where he might have sold the baskets for money to purchase necessities - if he could have afforded the cost of transportation.   But transportation was too expensive, and he had no other work, so he subsisted on food from his garden and a few date palms.   Still, he wove baskets and prayed each day.


Abba Paul always labored a full day just as if weaving were his means of support. When his desert cave was filled with a whole year’s work in baskets, he would burn up what he had so carefully created and start over.  Everything he had to show for his labor literally went up in smoke.


Was his effort a colossal waste of time; or the irrational behavior of an isolated desert hermit that knew whatever he produced made little difference in the long run; or, the devout act of worship of one humble man in prayer to God in whom he was totally dependent? 



Fast forward from the fourth century into the twenty-first century.

A group of women went on a weekend-long spiritual retreat at a convent in Litchfield, CT.   In a quiet room on a table were small bags filled with play-sand that was dyed in bright colors – red, blue, yellow, purple, green, magenta.  There was also a flat piece of cardboard on the table to hold the sand. 


The activity was for the group to create one large multi-colored circle-design or mandala out of sand on the cardboard surface.  Think of this project as spiritual sand art.  Throughout the weekend, woman after woman silently created the design, adding sand bit by bit until a huge delicate colorful design was created.   At the closing of the retreat, the women carried the intricate sand art outdoors and flung the cardboard into the air.  The collaborative work, the spiritual art, vanished, literally sand on the wind.


Was their effort a colossal waste of time; or the lunacy of too many menopausal women gathered in one place; or a symbolic act of hope in the providence of God as fundamental as sand on the wind?


Backtrack now to Moses. Long before Christian monks lived in the desert or spiritual churchwomen went on spiritual retreats, he led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 long years.  Generation after generation traveled; never settling down; never finding home.  Children grew up; young people married; babies were born; grandparents passed on; and still the people traveled with no destination in sight and with nothing to show for their effort.  Life for the Israelites was unstable; both futile and stormy.   Finally, Moses died and was buried in an unmarked grave.  He never reached the Promised Land.


Was the 40-year wilderness journey a colossal waste of time for Moses and his followers; or the stubbornness of a misinformed autocrat who refused to ask for directions; or the determination of a weary and faithful leader who devoutly trusted God for deliverance into the Promise Land?


In the way of Moses, you and I spend a great amount of energy and time lost, looking for deliverance from the wilderness of living in the 21st century world.  This wilderness for us – sadly  - includes mass gun violence, nuclear tests and threats, and military family members leaving home because they’ve been called up to defend the nation’s allies ( group of soldiers left New Jersey for the Middle East last week), personal illness.  For some, the wilderness includes food insecurity, inadequate housing, if any, and loneliness, despair, grief. 


You know the wilderness you walk in your own life.  Maybe you are weary from a lingering memory that haunts you or an unreconciled relationship.  All the while, in the wilderness, we walk in circles in search of lasting peace, wholeness, wellness, security.  


What are we to make of the wilderness?  What are we to make of the afflictions and evil we suffer?  This is an age-old dilemma that never seems to be fully reconciled and put away.  The psalmist prayed for wisdom in order to know how to live more faithfully and more fully in the midst of the earth shaking.   His was a prayer was one of hopeful optimism. 


As Julia of Norwich showed us, wisdom can be manifest with joy and trust in the worst of times – as waters swirl around us, and as the nations rise and fight.  Trusting something, some force of love, greater than ourselves for deliverance calms the heart and the mind and gives us hope.


I believe faith-based, trustful wisdom serves as an antidote to the hard times in which we live:

        A wise heart trusts “God to be our help in the time of trouble.” 

A wise heart finds courage in the faith that “there is a source of love moving through the universe that hold us fast and will never let us go.”

A wise heart receives the good news that God, in order to be with us, entered our afflictions and evil, and suffered along with us.  For his presence, and for his message of hope, Christ Jesus was judged; first by people with wrath, and eternally by God with grace.

A wise heart trusts God’s divine plan of deliverance and salvation, fulfilled by Christ, to unfold in humanity in God’s own time – not despite, but because of and in the midst of our current reality. 

A wise heart hopes for what cannot be seen.

A wise heart enjoys what can be enjoyed; perseveres through what must be endures, and offers it all up to God in faith and trust.


A wise heart actually enters the Promised Land in the fulfillment of the law “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love is the relationship land of milk and honey.


May God bless us all as we pray for the gift of increased wisdom, trusting with St. Julia that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”