All weekend long I’ve been hearing people shouting in total exasperation, and have perhaps even moaned myself, “It’s going to be a long four years.”
Sometimes there’s an “if” appended to it. “It’s going to be a long four years if the media don’t stop reacting to every single word etc.” “It’s going to be a long four years if Trump doesn’t learn to stop tweeting.” I thought to myself, a couple of times, “It’s going to be a long four years if I can’t figure out how to get rid of this cable box.”
When you’re not looking forward to something, time inevitably stretches itself out into an imponderable difficulty.
That long drive to boarding school–longer than any other drive to anywhere on earth–the worst part of it being the drive through the town, and then finally onto the campus, and then slowly slowly slowly up to the dorm. Each minute stretching to an eternity, stomach mangled up with heart, mind cast down and troubled. Or, the purgatorial suffering of the church pew with small children–each song lasting a century, the prayers seeming to encompass more troubles than can even be prayed for, the sermon incomprehensible. Or the unfathomable wait for news–a phone call, an email, a voicemail, a text, yea, even a letter.
Its one reason why, I think, it takes children so long to gain the concept of time. Not just because it’s a strange, impenetrable, immaterial reality that you can’t see or touch, but whose powerful force nevertheless propels you along. Nor only because lots of mothers, like me, are inexact about its properties. [“How long do I have to clean the kitchen?” a child might ask. “One minute,” I’ll say. Thirty minutes later the child will return to discover how much time is left. And I’ll say, because I’m horrible, “You still have one minute.” Later, when the child complains that the task took “All Day” I will usually agree. That is what it felt like. It wasn’t exactly true, but the All Day reflects the burdensome nature of time, of the molasses like quality of the unpleasant portions of life.] But because the waiting and then the rushing make it hard for a child to grasp how regular and exact time really is.
Contrast, then, our experience of time, of things taking too long and of being too hard to endure, with God’s occasional description of the human person. A breath, he says, grass burning up in a fire, a flower fading. In some weeks when we finally get to Lent we’ll mark that occasion with ash–that wispy black smudge that is easily wiped away but that represents the totality of a person’s life–dust to dust, ashes to ashes. We struggle through the long, drawn out days, and God sees them in one flash, one single ashy moment.
Which is why I love that verse, in the Psalms, and think it should be the rallying cry of all Christians of every kind. “Teach us to Number our days, O Lord,” implores Moses, “that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
I just did that from memory. You’ll have to take a single minute to struggle along with your phone to find it. You know, trying to put down your coffee, put in your password, decide between google and your bible app, all the time wondering if you really Need to read the whole Psalm. What seems like half an hour later you look up but it’s only been 90 seconds and these words are still sitting here.
Teach us, because we don’t know. Our sense of ourselves and of time is so skewed, so unreflective of the eternity that surrounds us. Our sense of it moving briskly or languidly doesn’t match its regular, inexorable march forward. So we need to be taught. We need to try to understand how God sees all the minutes and hours we accumulate through the years. Why? So that we will get wisdom. So that we will have a proper sense of who we are and what we should be going on about. Should we be marching? Or voting? Or reading? Or scrubbing grime off the floor? Or praying? What will the summation of all these moments look like in a hundred years?
We can’t know in the thick of it, but we can guess. We can look at the short breath of Jesus’ ministry, and then his agonizingly long death, the eternity he spent in the tomb, the sudden breaking forth of the dawn of his resurrection, and gain wisdom.
Teach us to number our days, O Lord, because we can’t do it on our own. The numbering is confusing and difficult. The minutes rush and then slow down. The mind and heart reach into the past and strain towards the future. Show us how the days can make sense, can matter. Let the wisdom of mercy, the reality of the cross, the longed for coming of Jesus, the ephemerally precious breath of the body sink down and take hold.
And a happy Sunday to you all. Pray for me as a stagger through the morning.