Numbering our days, applying our hearts

New Year’s ever reminds that life really is short.

By Bill Leonard

“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Those words from Psalm 90:12 KJV challenge us at year’s end to contemplate what we’ve learned in 2013 and how we might respond to the Year of our Lord/Common Era 2014. On the cusp of a new year, I’m deliberating as follows:

First, I know it’s a truism, but New Year’s ever reminds me that life really is short. The Revised English Bible translates the Psalm: “So make us know how few are our days, that our minds may learn wisdom.” The poetry fails but the realism sinks in. Sometimes I live like life is entitlement, not gift. Not very wise.

Second, this year the days ran out for some cherished friends and mentors. Will Campbell left us after years of writing his way into our consciences, pushing us to join him on the margins, confronting the gospel implications for race, sex, institutions and class. Will came to mind the last few weeks, as I wondered what he’d say to the “Duck Dynasty” guy.

Perhaps he’d have headed for Louisiana, invited himself to the guy’s front porch and engaged him about living on the margins with gays and rednecks, blacks and country western singers, finally wondering out loud how the “Duck” guy conjures up his homophobic, racist comments out of the Bible.

And before the rest of us got all self-righteous, Will would take on the “cocktail-sipping,” (a Billy Sunday phrase) graduate-school-seminar-pontificating, pseudo-sophistication that masks our own homophobic, racist, classist “biblicism.” Lord, I miss Will.

I miss Gene Puckett, too. Baptist journalist extraordinaire, Puckett died this year, but not before he made one last pilgrimage to Wake Forest’s campus exacting one more conversation with James Dunn, Ed Wilson and me about Baptist identity (he was pessimistic), the Democratic Party (he was hopeful, N.C. excepted), his love for literature (with the indefatigable Wilson), and where Jesus is in our dying and beyond. It was one of the most amazing afternoons I spent this year, listening to Puckett apply our hearts to wisdom on his way out of this world.

Toward year’s end, William Hull, a mentor of 40 years, also left us. Bill gave me two of my three legitimate jobs, the first at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville when I was a boy professor; the second at Samford University when I couldn’t stay in Louisville any more. Academically, he wouldn’t let me get away with anything, challenging my quirkiest theories about American and Baptist religion, some submitted in this column.

Ultimately ALS did Bill in, but it could not break his determination to complete multiple books, the last detailing his encounter with that terrible malady. Courage and scholarship to the end. Will, Gene and Bill left this world this year; their legacy of wisdom remains.

Third, amid the loss of dynamic friends, I am awed by a new generation of ministers bringing energy and insight to the old, old story — women and men preaching good news to the poor, patching up the broken and unashamedly articulating the “Jesus Way” in small groups, community engagement, new church starts and struggling downtown congregations.

Evidence abounds, like Brian Combs’ collaboration with the homeless at Haywood Street Church in Asheville, N.C.; Emily Hull McGee’s imaginative connections to church folk and postmodern “nones” through Highland Baptist Church in Louisville; and Jonathan Walton’s creative academic-urban engagement at Memorial Church at Harvard. Those wise ones and others of their generation know how to minister in the middle and on the margins, with coalitions old and new.

Fourth, public responses to the “Duck Dynasty” debates point to a much larger issue: We Christians never have and never will agree on how to read and interpret the Bible. Even a small list illustrates the endless impasse: converting Gentiles; eating meat offered to idols; glossolalia; gluttony; apostolic succession; clerical celibacy; papal supremacy; race; sexuality; ordaining females; pipe organs; praise bands; baptism.

Jesus took wine and said “This is my blood.” Turning that biblical declaration into transubstantiation overextends my Protestant biblicism considerably, but Temperance grape juice in pull-top plastic vials now available for Protestant “communion” seems a long, long way from the upper room. Can they both become iconic responses to the same text? The Bible may say it, and we may believe it, but that seldom settles it.

And then there’s Jesus, annually haunting us with his insistence that God’s New Day has come near; carrying us toward persons, places and issues we’d just as soon avoid to save our skins or our theologies.

So in 2014, numbering our days, applying our hearts to wisdom, let’s reclaim Jesus’ edgy admonition to “be wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Paradoxically shrewd and vulnerable, it is another of Jesus’ audaciously “hard sayings.” At least he didn’t say innocent as ducks.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.