“So teach us to number our days, that we may bring to You a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
The spirit of our day and age pretends that death does not exist. It shocks us. It’s so rude. We plaster pictures of the young, the immortal, all around us. Creams, lotions, pills, and syringes full of Botox promise beauty and youth forever. We pack our old and sick into warehouses and care facilities, out of sight, and out of mind. There is no place for the befallen. No quarter for the dying. No airtime for the most natural and sure human experience there is: breathing our last and passing away.
The Lord will sometimes bless us with sight of the end of our lives. Anyone who believed they were about to die, experienced something profound. Some never recover from it; unable to live when they realize they are going to die.
As a young man, I was confronted by this reality. I had graduated from college, and I had joined the Army. It was 2005. America was actively engaged in two theaters of war—Iraq and Afghanistan. After training, I was sent to a unit, and we geared up for deployment. And then, we went to Iraq.
I was fortunate enough to be in a Field Artillery unit, which had been tasked with controlling 100 square kilometers of battle space. It meant that as a young officer, I was leading a platoon on all kinds of missions outside the relative safety of the Forward Operating Base (FOB). We were out in the thick of it, engaging in combat operations.
There were more days than I can count, where I woke up, and I knew. I knew, in the pit of my gut, that my life would be required of me that day. I knew there was a jagged piece of steel with my name written on it, and it would be tearing through my body with explosive force. I knew, with absolute certainty, that my number was up, my life was over, and that day would be my last. I had lots of days like that.
It was hard to come to grips with. I lost lots of sleep. I immersed myself in prayer and petition. I wanted to live, but, I was ready to die. I had made peace with my Maker. I asked that God would help me to be brave, for my life to be worth the spending, and I dutifully carried out my orders without hiding behind my rank or position.
But, I did not die. Eventually, I came back home, and I got out of the Army. It was a hard transition. How do you leave that environment, and get back into frivolous life? There have been more men than should be, who came back with me, and could not make the transition. Some of my fellow veterans are killing themselves in this world we moved back to: this land where death is unthinkable, and meaning is hard to find.
Moses, that Biblical figure, is the voice of Psalm 90. He speaks this incredible line, “Teach us to number our days, that we may bring to You a heart of wisdom.” I’ve been pondering that line. There is a wealth of wisdom that comes from knowing, for certain, that our time on this Earth is not unlimited. We only have so many days to spend, and we don’t know when our lives will be over and done.
Since getting out of the Army, and making the transition back to this foreign home, I poured myself into doing God’s work. I joined the pastorate, and have dedicated my life to God’s cause: the Gospel. Now, I’m the one called when a person is in the hospital, or when a loved one has died. I have the honor, and the responsibility, to hold hands with the flock as they pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Those times are filled with holy silence and tears: reverence for the mystery of death and life.
I can say for certain, there are only two reactions to being reminded of our finite lives. On the one hand, people go crazy. They can’t handle the terrible reality. They don’t want it, they don’t like it, and it is out of their control. They react in anger, in fear, in hatred, or they react in unmitigated grief, sorrow, or self-destruction. The cancer, the car accident, or the gunshot; is a cold slap to the soul’s face. One will either get drunk with the numbering of days, or get sober.
This is the other way; the way of life. When seeing life is short, people can also be inspired to greatness. Not the greatness of achievement and promotion, but the greatness of love and thankfulness. All of a sudden, one will be filled with the wonder of human friendship, the goodness of those cherished relationships, and the importance of truth. The frivolity of pretended youth, of monetary wealth, social standing, and political propaganda become loathsome to the soul. Selflessness, joy and genuine cheer, and recalling wonderful memories become important. Most often, people who have numbered their days speak out all of the unspoken I-love-yous, and communicate how important people are to them. Their lives become a fountain of unmitigated love. Love without worry of social awkwardness.
Today is a good day. We are yet living. We still have today. We should number our days, and so be a people full of wisdom. Let us live today, looking for meaningful ways to be a true friend, and to communicate how much we cherish the people we love.