I really love today’s psalm and I encourage you to come back to it from time to time this week. It’s a poem that sets two ideas or images side by side: on one hand, God’s eternity; and on the other, the short span of our own lives. A thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday past, like a watch in the night. God sweeps the ages away like a dream. While we humans, like a dream, fade at the dawn. Our breath departs like a sigh and God brings us back to the dust from which we came.
“The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty,” but they pass away in labor and sorrow and are swiftly gone.
I grew up in a house where mortality was a topic of everyday conversation. A friend of my brother’s came over for dinner one night and asked him, “does your family always talk about death at the dinner table?” I don’t think my brother had noticed. It was just there all the time. Not in a morbid way but just as a fact of life.
I’m convinced this was a blessing. When the psalmist says to God, “teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom,” I hear it. Even a long life is like an evening past when it is over. When I was much younger I used to really obsess about this. Life is short, so make the most of every day; seize the opportunity for goodness or joy or an experience you may not get another chance to have. Enjoy the crescent moon visible just before dawn over the Central Expressway when you wake up early and can’t get back to sleep so you go for a run. You only get so many of those moments, only so many crescent moons, if you live to be a hundred. And when you miss one you can’t get it back.
Now I hear these words differently. Life, with all its toil and sorrow, will have an end. Stick with it today, not because life is so unbearably short but because the moment will come when you can lay your burden down and enjoy your rest.
Mortality is on many minds right now, as we crash into what may very well be the bleakest and most dangerous months of the pandemic. And one theme I hear, from myself and others, is that we are burned out on fear. We don’t want to let it dictate our lives. There are so many ways to die and this is just one more.
And this is true, as far as it goes. Maybe because of my age or my generally sound health, I don’t really worry about dying from Covid-19. I will admit that I worry more about the stranger, less final outcomes: needing a lung transplant. Chronic exhaustion. Even losing my sense of smell without recovering it, as apparently some have, would make the world a very odd place and probably affect me in ways I couldn’t possibly predict.
More than that: I worry about passing the virus on to someone who may have those symptoms even if I don’t, or who may die alone and uncomforted. Who may stretch a hospital staff to its breaking point. Who may drive hospital staff home with exhaustion or sickness or burnout. Who may pass it on again to more people.
There is something foolish and dangerous about our society’s pursuit of longevity at all costs. As we’re learning, there are factors we simply can’t control. And more than that, our resources for making life meaningful and good have not kept up with our power to add years to its span. We are technologically very gifted but culturally very impoverished. Our pursuit of health and life and longevity must be also our pursuit of truth and goodness and solidarity with each other. Because however long we live, our days pass away quickly in the end. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”
This is so powerful because you can pray this at any moment in your life. “Teach me to number my days.” Impress upon me, God, the fact that my life has a limit. They may be many. They may be few. But in a sense it doesn’t matter. They will mean something, many or few, if they belong to God.
The master in the parable Jesus tells us today says to two of his slaves, “you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
There’s a lot going on in this parable that I’m not going to talk about today. But those words--you’ve been trustworthy in a few, you will be put in charge of many--are especially powerful if we imagine that the “few things” we’ve been given are not our money or our abilities but the days of our lives. However many or few they may be. We are accountable for them. We will render them back to our master.
This is not a morbid image, I hope. At least I don’t find it morbid. It’s a beautiful image. Days numbered for wisdom. Gifts invested to be multiplied. All our days together are like a watch in one single night. And it’s amazing that this is an insight the Psalmist had before we knew that the time in which humanity has existed is a tiny, tiny fraction of the history of Creation. But today, this day, is infinite. It is full of possibility. And you, who have devoted a part of this day to the word of God and to the gifts of God, are not here to be afraid. You are not here to surrender to the inevitable. To become nihilistic in the face of suffering. You are here to be made wise. And to enter into the joy of God that has no beginning and no end. Amen.