KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE
“Many people spend a good part, if not all, of their days worrying and running after functional penultimate goals. They have diﬃculty knowing the diﬀerence between means and ends, between that which will crumble into dust and that which will endure.”
I KNEW A CHURCH MEMBER who could tell you the exact number of holes in the communion rail in church for used cups. Obviously he had taken the trouble to actually count the perforations, and I wonder how many times he tried to get at the right figure, knowing how easily it can get confusing midway.
Unfortunately, this man passed away before we could find out other interesting facts about the church building and its furnishings, like the number of doors, or tiles on the sanctuary floor. The psychiatrists may diagnose this man to be suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder. The poor man was good at counting, but did he count the most important things?
The 90th psalm, attributed to Moses, is probably the oldest psalm in the Bible. In that psalm, we read a petition: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). Here we discover that it is critical that we know how to count our days, no matter what else we are drawn to count. But how do we count our days? Obviously it is not easy; otherwise the psalmist would not ask God to teach him to count. Apparently, it takes more than the arithmetic skill one needs to count one’s trophies, calorie intake, savings from discounts, or bank accounts.
The difficulty in counting our days can be understood when we realise that the psalmist refers to the finitude of our lives on earth – “The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have strength”(v 10).
We all have an expiry date – the trouble is that we do not know that date. We know our birthdates, but not the days when we shall breathe our last. And if the psalmist is really talking about counting down rather than counting, we can appreciate the particular difficulty at hand. It is easy to count our age and the years we have lived, but it is difficult to count our remaining days since we don’t know when the end will come.
To count our days aright is to realise that our remaining days are numbered – and it is not really a big number. To count our days correctly will not help us arrive at a particular precise number, but it will bring us to true wisdom, a wisdom that knows the implications rather than the actual number. Such wisdom will relativise our days on earth and all they entail. As we read in another psalm, in the well-known 23rd psalm, we often think about the reality that is summarised in the phrase “all the days of my life” (v 6). We long for all our days on earth to be richly blessed with God’s goodness and love. But this would be true only if all our days are framed in the “forever” reality of the “house of the Lord”.
Only as we turn to the eternal God saying, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2), can we really learn to count our days aright. Our limited days must be properly framed within the eternal years of God; then only can we find true meaning for our passing and transient days. Such godly wisdom will know how to differentiate the ultimate from the penultimate, the number of perforations in the communion rail from the life-transforming encounter with the living Christ.
Many people have a problem here. They spend a good part, if not all, of their days worrying and running after functional penultimate goals. They have difficulty knowing the difference between means and ends, between that which will crumble into dust and that which will endure. Jesus told His listeners: “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt. 6:25, 32-33).
Jesus also told the story of an unnamed rich man and a beggar named Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31). The story itself is radical. Both rich men and beggars must die, but their lot on the other side could be vastly different from their lot on earth. The rich man had skills to count his hoardings and possessions. Even on the other side, he could still count (he mentions his five brothers), and he expects Lazarus to be like a servant to him when he requests Abraham to send him with some water! The man had not changed, for his sinful character had become frozen on the other side.
Lazarus must also have counted his days. His days on earth were extremely miserable; he lived in the shadows of the margins, and his sores refused to heal. He must have told himself that the end was surely not far away, that there would be an end to his sufferings. The rich man on the other hand would have thought that there would be no end to his pleasures. He did not have the godly wisdom to count his days.
WHERE MOSES (who wrote Psalm 90) met God at the site of the burning bush is the ancient St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai. There, monks have been living for the last 1,500 years. When they died, they would be buried for a while, and then their bones would be unearthed and kept in the chapel. Visitors will find heaps of skulls gathered over the centuries. They serve to remind the monks that their days on earth need to be framed by eternity. In themselves they articulate that ancient prayer: Teach us to count our days.
Our churches today have no skull heaps or graveyards to give us wisdom, though some have columbaria, built more for money than for wisdom, and therefore far removed from congregational life. Still, as congregations, we must collectively and individually seek to live wisely, learning to count down, and looking forward to the days that cannot be counted in the “forever” reality of God. As the years pass us by, let us learn to frame our days with the eternity of God.