“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom,” we recently sang in church (Psalm 90).
This brought to mind the final sermon given by my favorite seminary professor, Rev. Dr. Walter R. Bouman. It was May, 2005. Walt had been diagnosed the previous month with late-stage colon cancer. We knew things were off when, the previous November, he began skipping happy hour. This was a man so devoted to his cocktails that he carried a portable bar with him when he traveled. And laugh–did he ever have a wonderful laugh, as deep and wide as the trove of theological insight that informed everything he did. But Walt didn’t like doctors, and he refused to see one until it was clear something was very wrong. When he finally relented, he was given four to five months to live. He died in four at the tender age of 75.
This verse from Psalm 90 was the heart of that last sermon. Weakened as he was, in typical form Walt talked back to this very verse with a big grin. “I’m counting! I’m counting!” he said in mock exasperation. And then after confessing that he knew the end was near, he added, dissolving the room in laughter, “Does this mean I don’t have to floss anymore?”
What is the psalmist really saying? Or better, let Pastor Luke Powery of Duke Divinity School phrase the question for us (“These Dry Bones,” The Christian Century, October 6, 2021): “How should this notion of finitude shape our living?”
Now that it has turned colder here in southeastern Pennsylvania, the nights are clear and the “stars” sparkle brightly. Of course the brightest are really planets–our old friends Jupiter and Saturn, who have accompanied our nighttime walks all year, and now Venus, brilliant as a diamond in the west at dusk and soon to hit an eye-popping magnitude of -4.7.
These views in the darkness illuminate our place in the cosmos better than anything we could hope to see in the daytime. Each of our lives is but the merest whisper of the thunderous mass of life energy that has enlivened our beautiful blue-green planet for billions of years, that planet being just one tiny stitch in the vastness of the ever-spreading tapestry that is the universe.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
With this truth before our eyes, how then can human beings indulge themselves in petty squabbles over political power utterly without purpose? How can they allow their lives to be consumed by territoriality? Literally consumed, as in burning up from the inside without even realizing the house is on fire?
These people have lost perspective, and Psalm 90 helps us to set that right. God has breathed life into us, we human beings who are inexplicably created in God’s image (ah, how hard we work to prove God wrong about that). With this mere whisper of life that we have been given, why would we therefore not employ all the means at our disposal to lift each other up, to help others realize the fullness of life that God desires for us all? Why in the world, why in the cosmos, would anyone dedicate their minuscule sojourn on this planet to denying fellow human beings basic human rights? To suffocating the voices of the oppressed? To twisting laws for their own aggrandizement while the mass of humanity around them sinks deeper into poverty and hopelessness?
Those who do these things commit the ultimate sin of apostasy. They are trampling on the very face of Jesus Christ himself.
Instead, with the psalmist let us sing:
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
Pastor Nancy Raabe