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On Numbering Our Days and Getting a Heart of Wisdom


Psalm 90*,  Genesis 33:27,  Romans 2:4,  Hebrews 6:5,  2 Corinthians 6:10,  1 Corinthians 15:58


I: — “I’ll take you upriver for salmon fishing in the new year”, said the church elder to me in my first congregation, “if we are spared to see the spring.” Whenever this man spoke of his plans he always added something like this. He had been a lumberjack, had seen mishaps and accidents and tragedies without number, and knew perfectly well that life is always uncertain; life can never be domesticated; life is always riddled with the unforeseen and the unforeseeable; life can take a right-angled veer at any moment, even as it can end without warning.

My generation of affluent suburbanites, however, has virtually no appreciation of this. We do not admit that life is riddled with risks and accidents and surprise. There are many reasons why my generation does not. In the first place my generation has grown up with the least physical danger and the best health-care the world has seen. The lumberjack may have been crushed by a log, but the white collar office worker is merely going to sustain a paper-cut. If the paper-cut infects, one visit to the family physician will fix it. In addition, no younger or middleaged person is going to die of pneumonia today; and whereas our foreparents died of something as treatable as appendicitis, today the inflamed appendix is removed.

In the second place our society removes (out of sight, out of mind) everyone who is not a paragon of health. As a result we don’t have so much as to look at anyone who is infirm in body or mind. The paralyzed go to Lambert Lodge, the deranged to the provincial hospital, the senile go to the nursing home. What’s left in our midst are all those whom accident and misfortune, even old age have left unmolested. Whereas our foreparents greeted friends of the deceased in the family living room, we leave it all to the undertaker who manages never to pronounce the words “dead” or “death”. No wonder my generation of affluent suburbanites regards life as endlessly rosy: as rosy as it is endless.

In the third place as affluent people we unconsciously assume that we can purchase anything we need. If I need (or merely want) a two-week holiday in Hawaii, I can have it. I may have to forego leather seats on my new car in order to get to Hawaii; but still, what I need or want I can get somehow.

Because there is so much that we can control today (unlike our foreparents) we assume there is nothing that we cannot control.

At least this is what we assume until — until “it” happens. Then we react as if something utterly alien, utterly ununderstandable has descended upon us and upon us alone.

I regularly go along to the funeral home to meet with a family whose 93 year old granny has died. More often than you think someone fumes, “Why did granny have to die? She was in good health!” Yes she was. The assumption here is that if granny had been in poor health then her death would have been all right. But granny was in good health, and had been downtown shopping only yesterday. It’s not fair, I am told next, not fair at all that granny died when she was in good health — even though she was 93. Is life ever ours?

We assume today that the ease we enjoy, fostered by our affluence, is an ease we have a right to. If it ever appears that our ease might evaporate, then we scramble and scheme to make sure that our “right” stays right. When it finally must be admitted that our scrambling and scheming cannot guarantee the ease which we think is ours by right, we wail that we have been victimized. Life isn’t what it is supposed to be: obstacle-free, accident-free, risk-free, anticipatable to the last detail, and of course endless.

Before the rise of modern medicine waves of disease plucked off people of all ages in a kind of chilling lottery: smallpox, tuberculosis, diphtheria — and further back, plague. Then we came to feel that all of this was behind humankind forever, the lottery having been put out of commission. It seemed, according to some people, that advances in public health had even advanced the human condition: we modern folk were advanced specimens of humanity. Then came AIDS. Suddenly no sensible person could believe that the human condition had advanced at all. In fact humankind can’t even complain of being victimized blindly by a bacterium (as was the case with tuberculosis); instead we must admit that the new affliction is self-inflicted. When I overhear people talking about AIDS their agitation and anger border on panic: they know that the disease is humanly self-bestowed, and they are afraid that their fellow human beings are going to bestow it on them.

And yet there is something deeper still in us. Deeper than our apprehension that danger lurks in life is the feeling of rootlessness that we cannot get rid of. In our innermost depths we are afraid not that this misfortune or that calamity might overtake us; in our innermost depths we feel that we are transients in life. We feel that however vast the cosmos there is no corner of it we can honestly call “home”. Deep down we know that we have no fixed address. It’s not that we fear something; rather there is nothing we can seize or do or make which will let us feel that our home is here. Myself, I am convinced that our society’s preoccupation with TV, mindless amusement, sport (any distraction will do) is one more way of trying not to come to terms with the human condition.


II: — The psalmist is wiser than this. In stead of trying to deny the human condition (fragility, vulnerability, transitoriness), only to have the denial break down anyway, he recognizes it and owns it. Life is fleeting; our plans do fragment; we can’t fashion something permanent and impregnable in which we can then take refuge. The psalmist owns all of this, and is able to own it, just because he looks to God eternal. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations; from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” “Before the mountains were brought forth, or even you had formed the earth and world, you are God.” The human condition doesn’t find its resolution in any creaturely entity (the earth and the world); it doesn’t find its resolution even in something which appears as old and stable and immoveable as the mountains. The human condition finds its resolution in God and only in God. We cannot alter the human condition, despite our efforts to do so and our self-deception at having done so. We can only look to him who has made us for himself and therefore is himself our only dwelling place.

I am moved every time I ponder the last public address of Moses. He has endured unspeakable frustration for decades in the wilderness. His people bickered, complained, fought, fell into superstition, and railed against him as they unravelled throughout the nerve-wracking sojourn in the wilderness. Now the promised land is in sight. To be sure, the promised land is God’s gift; it is meant for their blessing. But of course, like modern affluent suburbanites, they confuse the gift with the giver himself; they think that enjoyment of the gift is a substitute for intimacy with the giver. Moses tells them on the eve of his death that not only is their ultimate dwelling place not the wilderness (they were never tempted to think this); it isn’t even the promised land (they are tempted to think this). “The eternal God is your dwelling place”, says Moses, “and underneath are the everlasting arms”.

To say that God is eternal is to say that God is qualitatively different from his creation and any aspect of it. If God were merely quantitatively different then he would merely live longer than we do. We might think that if we want to live a long time ourselves we should get on board with him. But of course it is not the case that God lives longer. God is not subject to time at all. God is eternal. Herein is our blessing, for merely adding years to the life of any of us or all of us will not alter the human condition. To be sure, over the span of 180 million years carbon and sulphur, nitrogen and hydrogen will form oil. But 180 million years will do nothing for the human condition. In God, however, we have what no time-extension will ever give us. In him we have that dwelling place which we need and crave, in view of the human condition, but which we can articulate only feebly and give to ourselves not at all.


III: — Because what we need most urgently and crave most profoundly is found only in God, God urge us to “turn back”. “Turn back, you mortals”. It’s a summons to repent. The summons to repent is reinforced by the psalmist’s awareness that God himself “turns us back to dust”. God does not let us forget, ultimately, that we are finite, fragile creatures. We came from dust, and to dust we shall return. We are not superhuman; we are not gods; we are not immortal; we are “frail creatures of dust”, as the hymnwriter reminds us.

How fragile are we? How transitory are we? How quickly do we pass off the scene? Three times over the psalmist tell us. We are like a leaf floating on a stream; in thirty seconds the leaf has passed downstream out of sight. We are like a dream; as soon as the sleeper awakes and gets on with the day, the dream is forgotten. We are like grass; lush and green in the morning, but after one day’s heat brown and withered by nightfall. The psalmist doesn’t keep on reminding us of our short span on earth to depress us. He wants only to render us realistic about ourselves. We aren’t here for very long, and in whatever time we are here life is uncertain.

Then the psalmist reinforces God’s summons to us to turn back, repent, by reminding us that not only is life short and uncertain, judgement awaits us inasmuch as we are sinners who have provoked God’s anger. “We are consumed by your anger”, he cries to God on behalf of all of us, “we are overwhelmed by your wrath.” To say that we are consumed by God’s anger is to say that nothing about us is exempt. And “overwhelmed”? “Overwhelmed” translates a Hebrew expression with a rich background. The Hebrew word is used of an army which is facing disaster and knows it. Suddenly its strategies, its tactics, its proud record, its confidence: they all mean nothing now. An army facing annihilation has nothing to say and nothing to do.

The same Hebrew word, “overwhelmed”, is used of Joseph’s brothers in Egypt when Joseph discloses himself to them. They had envied him, mistreated him, sold him into slavery in Egypt, lied about him to their father. Then famine came upon them. They staggered off to Egypt knowing they had to wheedle grain out of Pharaoh’s highest-ranking civil servant or they were going to starve to death. They go to Egypt confident that they can smooth-talk their way into food. They are granted a meeting with Pharaoh’s highest-ranking civil servant. Just when they think they have won the day the civil servant quietly says to them, “Do you know who I am? I’m Joseph, your brother, the one you treated shabbily and contemptuously thought you had disposed of forever. You are looking at Joseph, the one you wrote off as dead. What do you say now, fellows?” They don’t say anything. Speechless. The game is over and they know it. “Overwhelmed”.

I trust that you are overwhelmed, as I am. If you and I are overwhelmed today then we are admitting that the time of glib superficiality is over. The time of trifling with the gospel is over. The time (whatever time God’s patience and mercy permit us); the time of hearing and heeding the gospel is upon us. Jesus begins his public ministry with the declaration that in him God’s effective rule has come upon the world. Following this declaration Jesus utters the first imperative of his public ministry: repent. He is only repeating the cry of his Father 1000 years earlier, “Turn back, you mortals”. Turn back in the sense of return to the one who can be your dwelling place just because he alone is this.

Our Lord’s word is reflected faithfully in the witnesses he has gathered around him. Peter says that God delays executing judgement upon us the overwhelmed precisely to make time for us to repent, to return to him from whom all humankind has departed. Paul speaks of the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience. Then he adds, “But don’t trade on God’s kindness and forbearance and patience; don’t presume upon it. Don’t you know it is meant to lead you to repentance?”

No wonder the psalmist asks God to “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom”. “Teach us to number our days.” It means, “Startle us with the importance of our days, since we have so few and so many of them are already behind us. Grant us to see our days in the light of your eternal truth and purpose and mercy; and grant us henceforth to walk in your light.”

I am aware of how important it is for me to number my days; especially aware every time I bury someone younger than I. I have buried dozens of people who were no older than I. And therefore I am always aware that the sermon you are hearing from me now may be the last one you will ever hear from me. Then I must not waste so much as one of the twenty minutes you allow me to magnify God’s truth and purpose and mercy in order that you may turn, return, to him.


IV: — As the psalmist himself turns to God he finds that his heart soars and his heart sings. He exults three times over.

In the first place he finds himself satisfied morning by morning with God’s steadfast love, with the result that he will rejoice and be glad all his days. There is no substitute for one’s own experience of God, is there. Those who have “tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come”, in the words of the author of Hebrews, know with a conviction and an assurance that will never desert them. There is no substitute for our own experience of grace. The psalmist doesn’t say that believers like him are going to be rendered healthy and wealthy. He insists, rather, that every day God’s steadfast love soaks into them so thoroughly that they can taste it. Taste it even in the midst of the rigours of the human condition. Despite the rigours and rejections and dangers of their existence as apostles, Paul speaks of himself and his fellow-apostles as “having nothing, yet possessing everything; poor, yet making many rich; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

In the second place the psalmist, dwelling as he does in that dwelling place which is God, discerns manifestations of God’s own work and glory and power. The early church was aware of two especial manifestations of God’s work and glory and power. One is the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead. The other is the triumph of the gospel as Jesus Christ (whose gospel it is) quickens faith in men and women and enlarges their faith and fosters life-long love and obedience and adoration.

To have numbered our days and to have got a heart of wisdom is to have come to know that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is therefore set forth for all the world to hear and heed; it is also to find joy in the triumph of the gospel as the life-giving Word of God penetrates even the most affluence-insulated suburbanite and leaves his neighbours perplexed.

In the third place the psalmist knows that God is going to prosper the work of the psalmist’s hands. To number our days is certainly to be aware that we don’t have many days; yet it is also to know that the few we do have will bear kingdom-fruit insofar as we are about the king’s business. While our days are few, the eternal God will render the kingdom-work of our hands eternally fruitful. Paul tells us that we are to abound in the work of the Lord, since in the Lord our work will never be in vain.

Our confidence in it all is rooted in the truth that the eternal God is our dwelling place. The human condition, after all, is unchangeable. Life is short, death is sure, the unforeseeable abounds. To wail about this is futile; to think, titanically, that we can get ourselves beyond this is foolish. We are creatures of dust whom God keeps turning back to dust precisely in order that we might get a heart of wisdom and return to him. For then his steadfast love will find us rejoicing ourselves and praising him all our days.



                                                                                            Rev. Dr. Victor A. Shepherd

2 June, 1991