Counting Our Days
By JIM NICHOLS
The devotional scripture for the morning was from Psalm 91. It read, “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. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So, teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
Ignorant of the way God’s wrath and blessings mix, I struggle with the complete meaning of this passage. However, the concept of counting (“numbering”) our days reaches out to me.
The man was gray and balding, surely a grandfather. The restaurant was busy and noisy as restaurants often are. Despite the organized confusion, the man sat motionless in a chair holding the baby. He was not doing anything with the baby, just holding it. This was a true newborn, surrounded by a blanket, but clearly visible. It was resting in the man’s two hands as he held it before himself. Onlookers waited for the man to talk to the baby, to touch it in some way, but he just sat there holding it and looking at it. Five minutes went by; ten minutes went by. This man was not going to do anything except look at the baby. We all knew his mind was working rapidly because we too have each held a baby in just that way.
Working in or visiting a hospital is a locale and stimulus for “counting” our days. There we often see the depression of patients considering the apparent futility of life. As attempted followers of God, we are taught to accept the unknown before us with the trust that God has good in mind for us. But we also know that “good” in God’s eyes is not necessarily what our temporal bodies might desire. Furthermore, that trust is on our better theological days; on our darker theological days doubt pricks away at our belief. We are together with that tension.
A newborn amplifies the beauty and tragedy of life for many. Clearly fragile, innocent, and dependent, this new child needs us older to survive. Yet, despite this freshness and bright future, when our own personal clouds creep in we recognize that great difficulties are in this child’s future. This child is a human and is destined for human blessings and joy; the child is also born into a world of danger and illness. He/she will move from this stage of life to a more confident and physically self-sustaining life. But that will not last. It will be replaced in many cases with a return to a fragile and dependent stage near the end of life. Clearly life begins and ends in dependence.
Is this all too dark for us to ponder? Do the difficulties of life overwhelm its miracles and unexpected and unmerited delights?
Two thoughts occur to me. One is that my charge from God is to live realistically, but also in wonder and thankfulness. I have some choices to make. I can choose to fill my mind and heart with problems (as real as they may be) and let those weigh me down in self-pity and despondency. On the other hand, I can make conscious decisions to direct my problems to God and leave them in his hands. There have been times in our lives when we have done this successfully, but we have failed to let those times strengthen our resolve to live consistently there. I am speaking to myself here.
Another advantage we have in avoiding a holding pattern in darkness is to play with the team we have been given. An old friend of mine in Arkansas told of growing up harvesting potatoes. He would walk through the field with others, all carrying burlap sacks for the gathering. Eventually, his sack wore a hole in the bottom; others had the same problem. Rather than discard the now-inadequate sacks, they simply began putting one sack inside another sack. Since the holes were in separate places, they now had a functional unit.
In our human community, we each have sacks with holes. However, your holes are in different places than mine. Perhaps if we combine our sacks, we can continue gathering. We can gather as we count our days together toward a wise heart.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain