To Number Our Days

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A boy was praying. “God, how long is a second of time in heaven?” Dear boy (said God), a second of time in heaven is longer than a million years on earth.
    “Wow!” the boy said. “And money, is money different in heaven?” Yes, dear boy (said God), even a penny in heaven is worth more than a million dollars on earth.
    The boy thought about this, and then he said, “God, could I have a penny?”
    “Sure,” said God, “just a second.”
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    Psalm 90 takes up the themes of old jokes like that one. Let’s walk through it.
    “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, thou art God from everlasting.” God is the creator of all things, and he is God even “before” he does any creating.
    The psalmist goes on: “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.” A thousand years for God are as little as a “yesterday” or even as short as “a watch in the night.” And we, in this vast stretch of God’s time, are as short and transient as “a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass.” You know how grass is? “In the morning it is green and flourishes;” but “in the evening it is dried up and withered.”
    And not only is our time short; it is under God’s judgment. “Our iniquities you have set before you.” Even “our secret sins” are brought into “the light of thy countenance.”
    How long might one of us live? At the time the Psalmist wrote, a good long life was 70 years: “The days of our age are threescore years and ten.” A strong person might make it to 80. And I suppose, we might say that “80 is the new 70” and hold that a person with good health might make it to 90. Yet even so, “the sum” of our years “is but labor and sorrow;” “they pass away quickly and we are gone.”
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    I thought of this a couple weeks ago when I was introduced to a 96-year-old man in coffee hour. He looked very young and healthy to me, although I noticed he didn’t stand up. With a smile he said that he figured God was keeping him around for some purpose, although he wasn’t sure what it was!
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    Psalm 90 has some hard truths in it, truths that we often need humor to grasp. To be human is to be finite. To be a sinner is to be found wanting. In God’s eyes it doesn’t much matter whether our lives are long or short. And for us, even a long life can be one of humiliations and hardship. What is the point?
    The point is to realize that the most important thing is wisdom. So the Psalmist gets to the point: “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”
    Augustine’s life pivoted on this very discovery: that nothing matters more than wisdom. It took him another decade to realize that true wisdom is what God offers us in Christ.
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    And there is also the Holy Spirit: When we realize the shortness and uncertainty of life—when we learn to number our days—we can turn to God and ask him to bring our work to completion. This is the logic of Psalm 90, which wraps up with a petition to God to fulfill our lives and bring our works to their proper end. We ask him to be “gracious,” to show us “mercy” so that we may “rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.” And then the punch-line: “prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.”
    So in the end of the psalm, even though our days may be short and full of trouble, nonetheless there is the request that God will give us joy all our days and bring to fulfilment the works of our hands.
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    It is amazing what good moral teaching one can find by reading a psalm closely! What a wise practice our church offers us in the lectionary to read some of the Psalter every morning and every evening!
    Now, if God would just give me a second ...
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    Out & About. On Ascension Day, Thursday, May 25, I am to preach at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, at 7 p.m. in the Ascension Chapel. 
    This weekend, May 27-28, I am to preach at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City: Saturday at 5:30 p.m., and Sunday at 8 and 10 a.m.

Where Has He Gone?

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I am fond of saying of my late wife that she is “asleep in Jesus.” It’s a biblically-inspired way of speaking of the departed. While their mortal remains lie in a grave, their souls are with the Lord until the day of the general resurrection.
    But if she is sleeping in Jesus, where’s Jesus?
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    In chapter 14 of Saint John’s gospel, Jesus says he is going to the Father, and that he is going to prepare a place for his disciples/friends, and that he will return to take us there. Presumably, at the Ascension Jesus consummated this journey: ascending, he returned to his Father, and went to his Father as a complete human being, both body and soul. 
    But where is his Father?
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    This is hard. Sometimes I wish Jesus had told his disciples he was going to Polynesia. They wouldn’t have had the foggiest, but they could have written down that odd word “Polynesia,” and eventually someone would have figured out the way to get there.
    Or he could have said he was going to Mars. We don’t yet know how to get there, but it’s mostly worked out, and soon we will.
    Or he could have said he was going to Dallas. That would have been fun: Dallas didn’t even exist then. But we could all have been waiting for its creation, and once it was there, off we would run to find Jesus. 
    But no . . . he didn’t say he was going to a place, neither to a known place nor to one unknown, neither to a place on earth nor to a place elsewhere in the universe, nor yet to a place somewhere in the future. He said: I am going to the Father.
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    When God became man, the author of the story became a character in the story. Then at the end of this character’s life he left the story and returned to the author. But he did so without ceasing to be the character. So now, within the author’s being there is a fully human character.
    Jesus is there, with the Father, which is to say he is in no place but is with the one who is the author of all places. 
    And that, it seems to me, is where we should think of the souls of the departed: they are in Jesus. Jesus is preparing a “place” for us with the Father—“there” in the Being of God. They are waiting, for they are there only in soul.
    And when all the waiting is over, at the end of all things, there may we find ourselves, not only in soul, but (like Jesus) in soul and body together: human creatures dwelling in God’s very being.
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    By the way, the film “Stranger than Fiction” plays with the idea of a character and his author being in the same world together.
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    Out & about. Sunday, May 21, I am to speak at the adult forum at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Dallas, at 9:15 a.m.
    On Ascension Day, Thursday, May 25, I am to preach at the 7 p.m. service in the Ascension Chapel of Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.

 

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."