Numbering our days . . .
(Written Wednesday, August 25, 2021) . . . Monday, while waiting to take Linnea to school, I read a tweet from Father Thomas McKenzie saying it was his first day of sabbatical and the first order of business was taking his daughter to school in New Mexico. He said they were hoping to make it to Shamrock, Texas the first night. I’d never heard of Shamrock, Texas and went to the trouble to look it up on a map.
When I got home Monday evening I looked at Twitter again and discovered the shocking news that he and his daughter were killed in a car wreck, probably thirty minutes after he posted his tweet. I told Susanne about it and told her I was pretty sure it was my friend Andy’s pastor, which was confirmed the next morning in a Facebook post by Andy’s wife Jill.
I didn’t know Father Thomas. Andy said something once in a Gullahorn Happy Hour (Andy and Jill’s great Facebook and Instagram live concerts) about Father Thomas. He sounded like a fascinating man so I did some Internet sleuthing and found him. And I suspected he was the priest Tish Harrison Warren referred to in her excellent book, Prayer in the Night. That also turned out to be true. I didn’t know him, but I had followed him on Twitter the past few months and always appreciated what he wrote.
It reminded me of another instance eight or nine years ago. I was looking at Facebook on a Friday afternoon and Leah Sams Webb was expressing concern over a car accident near her little town in Kansas and the fear that it was a very bad wreck with lives lost. Twenty-four hours later she herself was dead from a motorcycle accident. I had not seen her in years, but we knew the Sams family well. Our fathers worked together and their family had kids in three of my siblings’ classes. And she was a cousin to my brother’s wife.
Both situations, one involving someone I didn’t know and the other involving someone I hadn’t seen in years but sometimes interacted with on Facebook, were shocking. It’s part of the effect of social media making the world smaller. The actual circumstances have been going on for as long as there’s been life on the planet. One moment someone is here and the next moment they’re gone. I recall my little sister’s shock years ago when she talked by phone with a foreman for the construction company she worked for and minutes after they hung up he was killed in a construction accident. It leaves you disoriented.
It’s scary to consider how uncertain life is. Yet trying not to think about life’s uncertainty won’t help us at all. It takes a lot of energy to live in denial and the best you can hope for is a cheap imitation of joy, a sense of joy that you’ll know you created yourself. It takes an ever-increasing amount of energy to sustain a manufactured joy. Maintaining it will require me to live a lie, and I’ll have to work harder and harder at drowning out the voice that shouts “this isn’t real!”
Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message as, “Oh! Teach us to live well! Teach us to live wisely and well!” In a note about this Psalm Peterson says, “Death isn’t a popular subject. We live in a society characterized by the denial of death. This is unusual, because most people who have lived on this earth have given a great deal of attention to death. In fact, in every century except our own, preparing for a good death has been a goal of life. For millions of Christians throughout the centuries, Psalm 90 has been part of that preparation. We will learn to live well when we learn to live wisely. And we will learn to live wisely when we learn to realize that our days here on earth are numbered.”
To be sure, numbering our days does not mean to collapse in hopelessness at the fact that our lives will one day end and the end could come anytime. No, Paul says that because of the Resurrection we live with hope and that, “if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Perhaps it means to live with a sober realism that today could be my last day on earth, along with the sweet assurance that death does not have the last word. That knowledge produces hope and joy and living fully into whatever the day brings, knowing we do it with a God who has said there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from his love, including death (Romans 8:38-39).
I recently started using an organizational tool called Timestripe (timestripe.com). It has several interesting tools, including the one that tells me down to the second how old I am. Another window has a grid showing all the years I’ve lived so far and future years as well. I’ve noticed it only goes to age 79. I’m hoping if I make it to 70 it will add a few grids. When I scroll over the grid it shows interesting facts about things other people did at the age I’m scrolling over. If I scroll over an age in the future it will tell me how much additional money I will have by that age if I start saving $5 a day beginning today. I scrolled over age 71 and it included the detail about money, along with the notable fact that by the time I’m 71 30% of my classmates will be dead. I saw that and wondered who it will be. And then I wondered, will I be one of them? It’s sobering, yet it also helps me number my days, to consider what’s yet left undone and what still needs to change about me in order to develop the kind of character I want to mark my life.
Living wisely and well requires aligning ourselves with love, for God is love and a life that matters must be in tune with what he says is most important. Mind you, it’s not a shallow, anything goes, understanding of love, but one that is robust, just the way Jesus loved. A regular practice of examen can help us with that, perhaps the one suggested by my pastor, Barry Jones: “Lord, where did I love like you today? Lord, where did I fail to love like you today? Lord, help me see ways to love like you tomorrow.”
I didn’t know Father Thomas McKenzie. Since I started following him on Twitter I always made it a point to read his posts. Over the past few days I’ve read the things people who knew him are saying, including that he was the same person in public or private. He didn’t have a preacher’s voice that he put on in the pulpit. It was just the same as if you were having a private conversation with him. Several talked about how at the end of panel discussion about the arts he broke his long silence to say, “None of this matters without Jesus. He’s the point of all of this. If he’s not, what are we doing here?” Warren, who talked about how instrumental Thomas had been in her own life, including her decision to enter pastoral ministry, said she was recently in a Zoom meeting with him and he had finger puppets on and kept making them peek on the screen during the meeting. “So funny and irreverent,” she said.
A life well-lived.
Lord, teach us to number our days.