I was listening to the radio recently and heard a story about how being faced with the immediacy of death often causes people to savor life in a way they had not before. People will frequently try to mend broken relationships and do things that most of us would account “wise” before their end. It is almost as if Emily Dickinson’s poem about success were rewritten to address life; as if those who know that their life is soon to end understand life in a way that the rest of us do not.
I think that we would live differently if we were mindful of how brief our lives are and how tenuously they abide. Many years ago, my youngest sister called me asking when I would be home from visiting with friends. I didn’t know and told her as much, wondering if she had anything particular in mind. She didn’t. I told her I would see her the next day. She died that night. No fanfare. No preamble. Nothing to give any idea that she would be gone. She slept on Earth and woke in Heaven. Life is that tenuous: here one moment and gone the next. That, I think, is what Moses had in mind as he wrote these words. Life is so indescribably fragile; so incomprehensibly brief that we need to get our minds wrapped around just how fragile and brief. We need to number our days.
It sounds morbid, but it really is not. That radio story I mentioned? The thing that is consistently said about people who know their end is imminent is that they live more fully; they embrace life in a way that many of us do not. If I knew I would be gone a year from now, what would I do differently? What about a month from now? A week? A day? I have been much in the presence of death’s aftermath in recent times – memorial services and such. It carves out a place within you that takes note of how suddenly this part of life can end and how short a life really is. Seventy years — give or take — is not long. If I kept a healthy eye turned to the countdown that rolls over every day I wake, I might make wiser decisions. That is where Moses takes the idea. He asks God to teach us to number our days; to understand our mortality that we might present to [God] a heart of wisdom. Were I mindful that every decision could be my last, what decisions would I make? If I realized that every word I say could be my last, what words would I hold back? What thing currently left unsaid would I say? A healthy mindfulness of my own transience leads me to examine the things I do and said in the light of the reality that every word and action could be my last. Are my words and actions wise? Will they bless those who are left when I am inevitably called home to my God?
Lord, please teach me to number my days; to look with a healthy eye at my own mortality and transience that I might present to You a heart of wisdom; make wise choices about what I do and say knowing that You may make any word or deed my last.