Recently I had the privilege of attending a presentation at the Yale Club in New York City to hear a report on the project that seeks to ascertain what it means to live a well-lived life. At the heart of this program is an interdisciplinary course, which is taught by a theologian, an American historian and a philosopher.
I was impressed with the faculty and students in this program, especially their eagerness to probe the great religious traditions, philosophers and the university’s own evolving mission statements. The course moved the quest beyond choosing a profession for what it pays to what constitutes a life worth living. It is the most important question. One student asked: “Is it ok to talk about God in here?”
As I listened, I was even more persuaded that Christianity has deep wisdom to offer on this topic of a well-lived life. It is at the heart of the biblical teaching, and the best of our theological heritage stresses this pursuit.
Psalm 90:12 instructs to “number our days that we may gain hearts of wisdom.” Another translation says, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” We do want to have just the right amount — of days and dollars!
The Psalmist is not speaking about the countdown to retirement, however; the writer is encouraging us to sift the seasons of our lives in the light of God’s faithful provision. It is interesting that this is the only Psalm attributed to Moses, which invites us to read it in the context of his faithful dependence upon God. It is his prayer, and we can learn from it. Perhaps more than any other character in the Hebrew Bible, Moses has engaged in persistent “holy whining” that moves God; his sheer stubbornness and fidelity are the materials God uses to fashion a people.
Our lives and our allotted time are gifts from God; our limitations are not punishment, and transience should not cause despair. It is our refusal to live within limits that is our original sin, according to Bonhoeffer. Most of us have looked back on epochs in our lives and wondered why we did not recognize the inherent goodness of that time; numbering our days can lessen that regret in the present. Craddock cautions us to make sure not to miss the best parts of our lives.
I recently read the account in The Christian Century of the death of Tony Robinson’s sister. She knew that she had four tasks to do as she was dying: to tend to her worldly affairs; to make amends, receiving and extending forgiveness; to seek peace with God; and to say goodbye, to hear and to speak last words.
It struck me that this was guidance for the living, not just the dying. We are always carrying in our bodies the life and death of Jesus Christ, which transforms our days into precious markers of life.
The only constant of our lives is that God reigns, and thus we can live day by day in trust and hope, knowing that our efforts are not simply fleeting and futile. It is God’s care and mindfulness of us that makes life worth living.
If we ask, God will grant a mind wise enough to sort out the days, with their events, responsibilities, and opportunities; God will grant the gift of discernment, which is more than the result of human endeavor and must be taught by God’s Spirit.
In John 10, Jesus declares that his mission was to grant abundant life, and many of us like to claim this verse in a very personal way, which is understandable. Yet, this is hard to comprehend when the world’s goods and opportunities seem so unevenly distributed. Surely Jesus did not mean abundance was meant for just a few, and it is our urgent responsibility to think about “the destination of goods,” as the recent papal encyclical implores. The poor have a claim on us — as social mortgage — and we are called to give according to their need, not our desire.
Surely there is abundance beyond material resources — love of beauty, thickness of family relationships, expressions of empathy that quell social aggression, and generous hospitality. These cannot be monetized in a simple financial calculus; they are expressions of life given over to the gospel. This is the kind of life Jesus grants.
I would imagine that as we reflect on our own lives, we realize that it would not be recognizable unless we had followed the path God placed before you, and the road emerged as we walked on it, as Moltmann puts it.
Now the calling is for us to live in an exemplary way for those who follow, demonstrating what a heart of wisdom looks like. I like how Dave Jolly thinks about this:
The heart cannot be taught [simply] in a classroom intellectually, to students mechanically taking notes. … Good, wise hearts are obtained through lifetimes of diligent effort to dig deeply within and heal lifetimes of scars. … [You can’t … email it or tweet it.]
The wise person, [the abundant person], goes on setting an example of caring and perseverance. What a wise person teaches in the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life, of the way they go about it in the smallest details, is what gets transmitted. (David Brooks cites an email from his friend Dave Jolly, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), xv.)
That is our task, to keep on pursuing a well-lived life — not simply for our own sake, but for all those who watch and need the encouragement a faithful life can provide. We also need to pay attention to those further on the path, for we are unfinished persons. As we learn what God’s abundance is, we can leave our common home better for all who follow.
So teach us to number our days that we may gain hearts of wisdom. Amen.
This column originally ran on July 9, 2015.