Quick, what day of the year is it?! Easy, right? And easy tomorrow if I ask the same question. Indeed for the next 31 or so days – all of January – it will be easy. By February, however, some of us (most of us) will have to pause and add it up. And 2016 is a leap year too, so the same question by March or April will be akin to asking me an algebra equation.
Quick, what day of your life is it? How many days down? That’s a harder one. For me it’s 17, 638.
How many days to go in your life? Will you make the next 365/366? Will I make 18, 000 days? For me that’s another 362 days away, just after Christmas 2016.
Today, the last day of 2015, I am going in to visit my father in his dementia ward. I will be telling him that as of five days ago, he is the last surviving sibling of his family. Dad’s brother Joe died in Belfast this past week, taken out by a heady cocktail of alcohol and Alzheimers.
Dad is the last of the six siblings that survived into adulthood. Another 7 didn’t, including a set of twins and one twin of another set, who all were still born or died soon after birth. It’s a wonder his mother survived all of that herself. Dad is also the youngest of his siblings, so there is a melancholy symmetry to it all; last to arrive, and now, last to go.
Last to arrive, last to go. That’s not only a melancholy symmetry, it’s actually one we all hope to emulate. There’s something comforting about those predictable figures. That’s the way it should be.
But how often it is not. How often death takes people in an untimely fashion. Haphazard even in the midst of the tried and true pattern of ageing and dying. There’s nothing sequential about it at all really, as if the exception proves the rule. The rule has been broken and cuts across not just sibling relationships, but mother/daughter, father/son, husband/wife boundaries. Grief sidles up to us when we least expect it.
Psalm 90:12 says “Teach us to number our days, that we might have wise hearts.”
As one year ends and another begins we resolve, set ourselves resolutions, establish or re-establish patterns. For many of us the idea of living better, of living wisely, or more fruitfully in 2016 is high on the agenda. We’re going to train ourselves to be better.
This verse makes us pause for a moment, however. The wise heart we seek is not something that emanates from within. There’s a process involved, and it begins with something external – “Teach us“.
As with anything to do with the Almighty Creator and his creation, enlightenment, wisdom, knowledge is not inspiration from within, but revelation from without. Psalm 90:12 is a plea, a prayer, that God would do something in us to enable us to be wise in the coming year, or at any time really.
Now what might that be? What could God possibly teach us to have that sort of wisdom? A new set of laws? An initiation into an exclusive club? More education?
Nothing so erudite or highbrow actually. Hence nothing expensive or secretive. The Psalmist calls on God to help him “number his days”. In other words to realise that he is finite, that there is a limit to life, and that it must, inevitably end. Knowing he is going to die is the key to how to live.
Not that this is requested in any maudlin sense, but rather in a sober-mindedness that leads to wisdom. Nihilism never leads there, merely to self-indulgence or self-loathing. This is neither the despair of the nihilist, nor the distraction of the materialist.
And note too that the Psalmist has earlier reminded us not treat all those days we have as equal. Look at verse 10:
Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
Oh boy, how do they quickly pass! For my dear old Dad, he’s gotten to 73, but the past couple of years have been definite trouble and sorrow. Dad has exactly the same 24 hours in a day as I, but as far as he is concerned, each day is a blurry mix of prescribed meals at prescribed times, with prescribed medications, locked doors, and an increasingly locked mind. Longevity of days is not the nirvana our culture had hoped.
And 73 doesn’t sound all that old, does it? Especially if like I, you are a mere 623 days away from turning 50. I want to ensure I reach it, that’s why I ran 3097km this year. There’s something reassuring about all of those figures!
Yet even then, a former Premier League football star of my age, dies just two days ago. Pavel Srnicek of Newcastle United and the Czech Republic? How? Out boozing? Out drugging? In a car accident? Out running actually. Dying trying to stay healthy. Dying doing the wise thing.
You see knowing figures and dates won’t give us wise hearts, as if wisdom comes with age and life experience. I have met many an old fool. Let’s not forget too that many people – many men especially – suddenly come to a point in life when they number the days they may have left, all without revelation from God, and end up with foolish hearts, not wise ones.
So, like so many lemmings, they dump their long-term wives for better, upgraded models. They throw in the faith towel and give up striving for godliness. Why? Because they realise – outside of God’s revelation – that their days truly are numbered, that they quickly pass. And they feel cheated by that. Sadly, such realisation outside of revelation does not lead to wise hearts, but cheating hearts. They know they can’t cheat death, but they can cheat on their wife. They fly away hither and thither with grim determination, before they have to fly away for good.
Ok, maybe it’s not a new spouse, and maybe it’s not just men, but our materialist, post-Christian population is trying to suck as much marrow out of life as it possibly can: whitegoods, holidays, new cars, more and better experiences. One last roll of the dice, hopefully loaded in our favour.
But no one has ever cheated death. Not even Jesus. But then again Jesus didn’t cheat death because he didn’t have to. Jesus played the straightest game with death possible. He looked death in the eye, spread his arms wide and said, “Do your worst”. Death had the upper-hand, Jesus had no ace of spades up his sleeve. He took the force of the blow with no protection at all. And beat death without cheating because death had no hold on a man who truly does not deserve it. Beat death for cheats such as I, of whom all of my 17, 638 days have been death-deserving ones.
Day 1 of 2016 starts tomorrow. Day 17, 639 of my life is tomorrow – if I make it through today. The odds say I won’t double that alarmingly small figure. But Jesus, the truly wise heart among us has promised us this for almost 2000 years: “The one who keeps my word, will never see death.” (John 8:51). And that’s the primary reason to say “Happy New Year” for 2016.