Numbering our days
“Teach us to number our days, that we may receive a heart of wisdom.” One of my favorite phrases in one of my favorite psalms that was put to poetry in what has become one of my favorite hymns from which we sang a fragment just now. “O God our help in ages past.” What does it mean, “teach us to number our days”?
“Your days are numbered.” We hear that sometimes in the movies; it’s usually a threat. I don’t think that’s the meaning here. We sometimes say, I’m counting the days until [fill in the blank]—I can drive; or I can drive again; or he’s released on parole. I’m counting the days until my vacation starts, or until retirement. It’s sort of a way of saying I’m arching my gaze above and beyond whatever’s immediately in front of me, toward something further down the road, downplaying everything in between, at least for the moment. I don’t think that’s what the psalmists mean either.
During the pandemic, this verse in the psalm reminds me of a certain string of words that has become an ominous household phrase for us: “the daily count.” The number of new Covid cases diagnosed on that given day in our city, and in our nation. And we pray weekly, daily, even hour by hour, for those whose lives and families are most deeply affected by that grim statistic. But counting our days is not the same as the daily count. What does it mean?
I know many of you have found your way to the prayer wall on the corner here that we have constructed since Easter. And many of you, many in the community, hundreds, have come by and tied a ribbon, whispered a prayer, during that time, what we’ve called our Covid year. I often linger there, and sometimes I discover not only ribbons tied to the lattice, including some of my own, but also small tokens that children have left behind, presumably as their parent is tying a ribbon, whispering a prayer. Once, I found a small stuffed animal, a little yellow pig. What would you be praying for if you placed your small stuffed animal pig at the prayer wall? For haven, for security, a certain gentleness to find its way into the world, for softer edges to all our words and all our signs and all our behaviors?
Another time, a child left a transformer sitting by the prayer wall. Transformation is of course at the very center of the spiritual endeavor. Perhaps placing a toy there was a way of praying for our world to be changed from sickness to wellness, from arguing to listening, from being afraid of each other to being unafraid to love each other.
Just the other day, I found this at the prayer wall—a refrigerator magnet in the shape of the letter “A.” I don’t know if it was the first of 26 installments, we’ll have to wait and see. We may just get an “A” to put on our fridge. It was about the time I was pondering the question of the meaning of our phrase, and it was just the help I needed to nudge me off, center, help me solve that equation of numbering our days as a path to wisdom.
A is for APPRECIATION.
Among other things, the psalmist is beckoning us to realize how precious our days are, each one a temporal treasure. “I thank you God for most this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky.” Those are children’s words from the poet, but E. E. Cummings was also inviting grown-ups to practice noticing the world in such wonder-filled ways until those words become second-nature to us too; that way of seeing the world as our way of numbering our days through cherishing, and savoring, and listening, and rising to every infant’s and toddler’s little voice; as holding the key, the note, for us of living our lives fully open to the grandeur of God, right here, right now. San Antonio is known for its blue true dream of sky. I want to invite you in a little while to go find your way there, or later in the week, and maybe over and over as a way of practicing numbering our days through appreciation and wonder.
Amy Grant is a pop artist and a person of faith, and has written that every morning, rain or shine out there, brooding or contented in here, either way, regardless, she makes her way to the front door, opens it, and announces to the world, to the universe, to nobody in particular, maybe mainly to herself: “This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” Every day, come what may, that is her start to the day. That’s Psalm 118 verse 24, by the way, and if any of you might want to add that to the ways you might number your days.
A is for APPRECIATION.
A is for ACTION.
The psalm as a whole, beyond that phrase, impresses upon us that our lives are fleeting, sprout up in the morning and are gone by dusk; and so numbering our days must mean, among other things, making each and every day count. Barbara Brown Taylor put it fairly bluntly: “We don’t have forever to figure out what it means to be human.” By human I’m sure she means, at least in part, humane—noticing and responding to the ordeals and dilemmas, the hurts and heartaches of others; learning sympathy, empathy, and courageous, even sacrificial response. Children often do this better than we. Maybe they learn it from us before we forget it; and then hold the knowledge and practice it themselves until we’re ready to learn it again from our young.
Liz was teaching preschool in Dallas when one day, on the playground, a little boy fell and scraped his knee. She knelt down to tend to this wailing child, and as she did, another little boy came over holding up a tired-looking Band-Aid in his fingers. It was tired-looking because he had just peeled it off his own scraped knee. He said to his teacher, “He can borrow this.”
We don’t have forever to learn how to care for each other in such beautifully self-forgetful ways. Maybe it’s not gently used Band-Aids, necessarily, but maybe gently used coats and scarves and gloves. A listening ear. A card in the mail. A gift on the porch or at the apartment door. We don’t have forever to figure out what it means to be human, humane, together.
On my grandparents’ wall hung a framed poem attributed to the Quaker missionary Steven Grellet. You may recognize it: “I expect to pass this way but once.” What if we changed the words to that poem just slightly, in light of the phrase that we’re exploring from the psalm today? I expect to pass through this day but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do, any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass through this day again.
Not tomorrow, not some day, today. Today, there is a child who waits for your blessing; maybe it’s your own. Today there is a child who waits for your advocacy or intervention to lift or protect them from hurt or harm; as in the good work of CASA and Methodist Children’s Home; a child waiting to blossom in spirit and mind and intellect, waiting for a book, waiting for a reading buddy; Project Transformation, children’s books for CAM this season. There is maybe somewhere a relationship that is overdue for the hard but necessary work of reconciliation; of extending or accepting forgiveness; of embrace and surrender.
There is a God who waits to be known by us, waits to be in our company, in intimate and personal and life-giving, life-revealing ways; in silence and solitude and stillness; when we go there to be present, to bless us in that relationship more and more with those extraordinary gifts of presence and power, and purpose for our living, perhaps in ways we never dared to hope for.
Not tomorrow. Not some day. This day.
Wisdom, it seems, comes to those as a premium gift; see it as an opportunity, see it as an invitation to live and love and lead and serve more deeply, faithfully, openly, intentionally, more trustingly than ever before, who see the day in just that way. Maybe wisdom, after all, is just that—seeing.
A is for appreciation. A is for Action.
A is for “Let all God’s people say Amen.”