Monday, November 17, 2014

Teach Us to Number Our Days

A burial litany in the Book of Common Prayer begins, “In the midst of life we are in death.” It seems a bit morbid to us. But for most of history, it would have rung true. People died of things that today could be taken care of by simple first aid. A small cut would get infected and you would die. 50 was considered old age. Half of all children did not make it to age 5. And of course a plague could wipe out large swathes of the population. It it estimated that the Black Death killed as much as 2/3 of the people in Europe. So the words “In the midst of life we are in death” were not morbid but a plain statement of fact.

Today things have changed. If you get a small cut, you simply use Neosporin and a Bandaid. People are living a lot longer. Infant mortality is down. More people die from lightning strikes than have died of Ebola—here in the US. There are still parts of the world where not much has changed in regards to the death toll.

Our psalm today, Psalm 90, is a meditation on the brevity of life. Surprisingly for such an old piece of writing, it does speak of a life span of 70 or 80 years. But that's the maximum limit, not the expectancy. According to the actuarial tables, the average person born this year can expect, barring accidents and illness, to live into their mid- to late-80s. But that's an average. If you are poor, if you have a family history of heart disease or cancer or mental illness, if your job involves manual labor, or danger, you may not get to the age the numbers crunchers say you could.

Our lives are relatively brief. Certain tortoises live a couple of hundred years. Civilizations might last for several hundred years. Certain trees live for millennia. And according to the age of the universe, our whole existence as a species has lasted for but a tick of the cosmic clock.

Some people take from that fact that our lives, like anything that is in limited supply, are precious and that our reaction should be to savor each moment. And there is much to be said for that approach. For most of us it means to seek good experiences and build up good memories of family and friends. But for some it means grabbing for all the good things you can get, with little or no regard for others. Some people use the expiration date on life as an excuse to be greedy, to be aggressive, to be self-indulgent, to break the rules because—Hey! What will it matter when we're all dead? YOLO: You only live once. So why hold back on anything? Why deny yourself anything? Why do anything you don't have to?

And if there is no afterlife, no judgment, no squaring of accounts, those people have a point. It is from Isaiah 22:13, after all, that we get the saying, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die.” There is a whole genre of Hollywood comedies which depict a cautious, conformist person learning to cut loose. And rarely do they suffer any dire consequences. Funny ones, yes. But not death, disease or the devastation of their lives. Indeed, the person is seen as happier and healthier in the last scene of the film.

But just as that saying from Isaiah designates an attitude the prophet sees as perverse and foolish, most of us realize that such a lifestyle would sacrifice stable, long-term relationships for selfish pleasures. We all know people who are well-known for having a "good time" on a regular basis, though those good times are punctuated with fights with their friends and lovers, inability to hold or advance in a job, drug or alcohol abuse and periods of incarceration. I meet a lot of them at the jail. The consequences of such a chaotic life never seems to dissuade such folks from repeating the same patterns of behavior. Living in the moment apparently entails forgetting about past moments that might be instructive for the present and not taking into consideration future moments that are readily foreseeable if one acts in certain ways at the current point in time.

Most of us know that savoring each moment is not a license to do whatever pops into your mind. We accept limits on what to enjoy when and how. So why don't we?

One thing that interferes is the busyness of life. We have been swallowed the myth of multitasking. And I call it a myth because science tells us we really can't do two or more things at a time; we just rapidly switch between the various tasks and as a consequence do none of them well. Yet some jobs expect multitasking. Nursing for instance. Since in Florida you can legally be assigned up to 40 patients per shift at a nursing home, you are expected to not only pass all meds but also answer the phone, handle numerous small crises, order tests, answer questions, do any new admissions that come in and not make any mistakes or forget any details. Is it any wonder that vital things get overlooked and critical errors are made? Is it any wonder that so many nurses leave the profession? If you went into nursing to help people and find yourself barely able to hold a meaningful conversation with a patient who is crying, depressed or has a complex problem, because you have literally hundreds of pills to push and dozens of things to document, you find yourself tempted to go into another line of work. Other jobs are similarly asking people to do an open-ended number of tasks in a limited amount of time. We are losing a lot of people who used to be passionate about their professions because they are being asked to do the impossible: produce huge quantities of top quality work quickly.

Even when we are trying to have fun, we never seem to be concentrating on one thing at a time anymore. Instead we try to do 2 or more fun things at once and lose a lot of the pleasure each normally affords. We try to read Facebook and watch our favorites shows simultaneously. We try to play video games and talk to a friend at the same time. We have dinner with family and spend it looking at our phones. It is now acceptable to ignore a person who is physically present to talk to anyone who happens to call.

There are so many inhuman things which attract our attention away from people: computers, phones, games, and TV shows. Even when we are present for something important we tend to miss it by trying to video it. We don't see life's big moments through our own eyes but through the lens and screen of a device.

An older reason we don't enjoy our limited earthly lives is that we let low tech stuff get in the way. Like anger and resentment and thwarted expectations. We hold grudges. We get lazy. We let our thinking get warped by greed and lust and envy and arrogance. We create fantasies and then get upset when people and reality don't follow the scripts in our heads. We bring terrible baggage to our encounters rather than start afresh.

Verse 12 of our psalm says, “Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” A key part of wisdom is getting your priorities straight--realizing what is essential, what is important and what is neither. Since we have a limited time on this earth, knowing what has the most value will keep us from wasting time on what has the least value.

The Bible says that a healthy respect for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. What are God's priorities? Jesus spelled them out: loving God and loving one another. And that means being fair and being courageous and being faithful and being truthful. That's the way you act with those you love. Recently a husband and wife team of psychologists who have been researching couples for years said that they've discovered that the 2 things that matter most in the survival of a relationship are kindness and generosity. Those are two aspects of the fruit of the Spirit.

So our top priority is maintaining healthy relationships with God and with our fellow human beings and doing so by behaving in loving ways. Believe me, no one on their deathbed will ever say they regret not playing more video games or not watching more TV or not posting more things on the internet. They will regret letting those things, or the emotional and spiritual problems we create for ourselves, get in the way of spending more time actually being present with the people we love.

And don't think because God offers us eternal life, it means will have plenty of time later to do what should be done in this life. Your time in the womb is a mere 9 months, a tiny fraction of your 70 or 80 years of life. But it is absolutely crucial in laying the groundwork for the body and brain you will be using for those subsequent decades. Similarly, the first 4 or 5 years of life are vital in the development of your social self. Your ability to trust and form attachments are largely determined then. Just so, this life sets the trajectory of your afterlife. Now is the time for course corrections. Now is the time to learn to love and to forgive and to reconcile and to restore trust. The strictures of this life are like the stakes one ties a sunflower to so it will grow tall and straight and so its head will face the sun.

And if you think this is just a much more elaborate way of saying, “Call your mother” or “Play with your kids” or “Bury the hatchet with your sister,” so be it. Our God is a God of love. Healthy stable relationships are important to him for our Triune God is the ultimate healthy stable relationship: the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit throughout eternity. He created us in the image of that love, And he wants us not only to enter into that divine relationship but to model all other relationships on it.

What is getting in the way of loving your neighbor or your child or your parent or your coworker or your sister or your brother or your friend? Is it more important than that human connection which will delight and warm and stay with you long after the game ceases to interest you or the novelty fades or the feud ceases to make sense? With what would you rather spend eternity—your regrets and bitterness and anger and resentments or your family and your friends and your God? Jesus said he came to give us life in abundance. Life only comes from life, not from things that aren't alive or which negate life. And life is only truly enriched by our connections to other persons. Make connections. Repair or restore broken connections. Maintain those connections. We were made to love by the One who is love. In the end, love is all that matters. 

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