Six old friends have arrived from Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois for New Year’s Eve in the Dempsey’s living room. A seventh unbidden visitor — pancreatic cancer managed by chemotherapy — makes us freshly aware of our mortality.
We read aloud Psalm 90 (NRSV), pausing to reflect on each section.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
The great theologian Paul Tillich called this dwelling place “Being-Itself” or “the Ground of Being.”
You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
We are increasingly aware that we are dust. We are mortals. Our yesterdays far outnumber any tomorrows. But the friend threatened by the cancer that almost always kills is quietly at peace with being turned back to dust. He has always known we are dust.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
Like our late friend Steve, whose life ended with pancreatic cancer, his faith is in something greater than himself, not because he is certain of what will happen when he takes his last breath, but because he is thankful for the days he has been given and trusts that whatever his place may be now, or then, it lies within the Dwelling Place. It is as it should and will be.
For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
We are unaccustomed to talk of the the wrath of God or the fear of it. We talk of the love of God. We are not of the religion right.
But California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent use of the word springs to the center of the conversation. After a year of a public cancer — lies, name-calling, climate change denial, Charlotteseville, the alt-Right, obscene wealth, greed, and narcissistic grandiosity of little boys with toys threatening nuclear holocaust while eating away the healthy institutional cells on which a democratic republic depends — we have a fresh sense of wrath.
“I don’t think President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility,” said Jerry Brown in a ’60 Minutes’ interview. “And this is such a reckless disregard for the truth and for the existential consequences that can be unleashed.”
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
We are students of aging, learning to count our days, aware of the dust to which we turned a blind eye in younger years while establishing ourselves as adults, raising children, and making names for ourselves. In our late 60s and mid-70s life is less a matter of the mind than it is of the heart. We are more aware of the Dwelling Place. Counting our days — and giving thanks for this one day — is the new arithmetic of the wisdom of the heart.
Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
- Gordon C. Stewart, January 1, 2018.