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Teach us to number our days aright / that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
by Brian Keepers
I went scampering through Psalm 90 this past week and this verse (v. 12) stuck itself to my imagination like a burr sticks to a dog’s coat. What does Moses mean when he prays it? Surely this involves more than just tallying days or crossing off boxes on a calendar like my daughters are counting down the school year, right? It seems to me that, at the deepest level, Moses is asking for wisdom regarding the way he orients himself towards time. Teach us to number our days aright….
Our culture teaches us that time is a precious commodity, a possession we own, and so wisdom involves mastering technology and techniques for good “time management.” We prize the virtues of efficiency, productivity, multi-tasking and “getting things done” above all else. Conversely, the chief sin of our age is to “waste” time.
But how do you “manage” time? Can time really be managed, commodified, and controlled by us as finite creatures who, unlike God, are bound to exist within time? The result of all our efforts to manage time efficiently is that we become excessively time-conscious, obsessed with watching our clocks and fighting against time. I know this is my default especially during very full and busy seasons of life and ministry. I’m weary of feeling like I’m always fighting against the clock and lamenting that there never seem to be enough hours in the day.
I just learned something that strikes me as a great irony. Did you know that clocks were first invented and developed in the monastery, of all places? Because Benedictine monks were committed to prayer at set hours during the course of each day, it was crucial they discover a way to call the community to prayer. “When the clocca rang,” writes Dorothy Bass in her marvelous book Receiving the Day, “they drew attention to the eternity of God and brevity of human life.” (p.26)
So clocks were first invented to help humans be God-conscious and stay attentive to the way eternity breaks into ordinary time here and now. I think this is what’s at the heart of learning to number our days aright. It calls for a fresh orientation towards time so that instead of being so time-conscious, we become increasingly God-conscious—set free to “practice the presence of God” (thank you, Brother Lawrence). Then we are able to receive time as a sheer gift of grace.
“Time is not our enemy,” writes Bass. “Nor is it a hostile place from which we must flee. It is a meeting place, a point of rendezvous with God.” (p.11) In Jesus, God did not call us to escape time or gain mastery over it. The eternal Word became flesh, entered fully into time so as to redeem it and thus make every moment holy.
So this is one of the most important things I’ve been practicing this last week (and failing at quite a bit, to be honest): receiving time as a gift from God and learning to become more attentive to God’s presence in “the now.” Time is not a commodity. Time is not my possession. Time is not something I need to “squeeze the most out of.” As Mark Buchanan points out, when we hold on too tightly to time, we end up crushing it like a flower closed in the fist. “We thought we were protecting it, but all we did was destroy it.” (The Rest of God, p.83)
The more I learn to receive time as a gift, the more freely I am able to give it away in love to both God and my neighbor. Have you discovered this too? I don’t need to struggle to hold on to time out of fear of scarcity. Part of living as one who belongs to God in Christ means recognizing that even “my” time is not my own. And the more God’s grace enables me to uncurl my white-knuckled grasp of time to release it, the more it seems like I have time in abundance.
I don’t think God is actually giving me any extra minutes or hours in my day. I think the real change is happening within me. I have so far to go, but I’m beginning to learn what it means to “number my days aright,” and I can almost feel my heart growing wiser.
“Time is endless in Thy hands, my Lord. / There is none to count Thy minutes/…At the end of the day I hasten in fear/ lest Thy gate be shut;/ but I find that yet there is time.”
– Rabindranath Tagore, Endless Time
Brian Keepers is the minister of preaching and congregational leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.