February 6, 2008

Count Your Days

Every day is a journal page
Every man holds a quill and ink
And there's plenty of room for writing in
All we do is believe and think
So will you compose a curse
Or will today bring the blessing
Fill the page with rhyming verse
Or some random sketching

Chris Rice, from the album Smell the Color 9

Back in the days before Microsoft Outlook and cell phones with built-in datebooks, my father had on the wall of his electrical engineering office one of those daily tear-off calendars—a promotional freebie from some low-bid contractor, I'm sure. I remember it held 365 thin sheets of paper, each one with the day of the month emblazoned in big, bold numbers. Every morning, someone in the office would tear off another day now gone and reveal its successor. As the year went by, the stack steadily diminished in size—an uncomplicated symbol for the continual passing of time.

Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

The psalmist's prayer (Psalm 90:12) causes me to wonder: What if each of us had a giant tear-off calendar on our wall, with one piece of paper on it for each day of our life still remaining? What if we could see so tangibly, so readily, the precise number of our days? To daily experience our own finitude by tearing off one more slip—What effect would that sobering gesture have on the way we live our lives? (Not too long ago my concept became reality when I discovered for sale in a knick-knack catalog a little battery powered clock that does just such a thing. Based on an estimated life-span, it sits on your desk and counts down the minutes, hours, and days till your end!) How grim, right?

Perhaps. But then there's the psalmist, who has lived long enough to know that in the arithmetic of living before God, regularly counting up all your days equals, of all things, wisdom. Wisdom: knowing the truth and living accordingly. Add up your remaining days, say a prayer, then tap the equal sign on the calculator of your life. The result should not be depression, but differentiation.

When I am acquainted with my own finitude I also come to know God's infinitude, and I am therefore less likely to confuse the two. I am creature; God is Creator. And having settled that matter one more time, life—real living, with faith, hope, and love—can begin again. The vastness of God's mercy (see Psalm 139) relieves me of the terrible burden of a never-ending life, even as I am embraced in my contingent flesh by the Eternal One who is, who was, and who is to come (Revelation 1:8). That I will not go on forever is either a terrible load or terribly liberating—it all depends on your worship.

Since about the eighth century, Christians have gathered on this fortieth day before Easter (not counting Sundays) to place gritty ashes on their foreheads and have the stark Biblical truth recounted in their ears. "Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). It looks to be one big trick for staring mortality right in the face, which itself seems a strange and rather morbid thing to do.

Then again, maybe our forbearers in this communion are on to something. Maybe this is what Jesus was talking about when, speaking in his typically inverted way, he counsels: "Those who lose their lives for my sake will find it." Maybe it is akin to what people mean when, usually after they have stared their mortality in the face, they say something like, "You know, I was never able to really live until I was really ready to die." Maybe we should all count our days.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!

Psalm 90:14-17

The peace of our Lord rest upon you this Ash Wednesday.