In a play called The Proud and the Profane, a widow of a soldier who had been killed in WW2 became obsessed with knowing how her husband died. She had to know whether he died as a hero or coward. She saved her money and traveled to Europe to find his burial place. Visiting his grave on a French hillside, she noticed a brooding old man sitting in the cemetery and upon engaging him in conversation found out that he had been one of her husband’s comrades.
She asked him, “Did you know my husband?”
“Were you there when he died?”
“I need to know… how did he die?”
The old man paused and finally said, “He died like an amateur, just like the rest of us will.”
General George Patton once said to the men of Baker Company as they were about to launch an offensive against a German position known as Fort Driant, “You are not all going to die. Only 2% of you right here today will die in a major battle. Death must not be feared, but death, in time, comes to all men.”
Ernest Hemingway, the famous war journalist and writer, who eventually committed suicide once wrote, “Death is the sovereign remedy for my misfortunes. I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.” (quoted by Billy Graham in World Aflame.)
Woody Allen said in one of his films, “Its not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
The Greek poet Euripedes said, “Death is the debt that we all must pay.” This mirrors the New Testament Scripture which says that, “the wages of sin is death…”
Whatever your viewpoint is on the subject of death, I think that we can agree that death will claim us all, and all of us will die as amateurs.
Psalm 90 in the OT Bible directs our attention to this inevitability:
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. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; 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. For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Moses, who wrote this, acknowledges that there is something terribly wrong in the world because we who were the crown of God’s creation are fallen creatures. Our lives are short and filled with trouble, and our death is inevitable. In the face of this inevitability, Moses prays, Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
What the Palmist is implying is that most people don’t number their days. They think they will live for ever and because of that they do not live wisely. Most people think that life will keep going and then when they get old they can correct or make up for the things they have done- like an 11th hour conversion. The problem is that those who wait for the 11thhour usually die at 10:59. “So, Lord, teach us to number our days, to recognize that they are brief, so we can get a heart of wisdom, to live wisely while we still have time.”
As a pastor and a chaplain who has presided at perhaps a hundred or more funerals and memorial services – many for people I did not know- I am usually able to tell by meeting the families, those who lived their lives wisely from those who did not. You know the old saying about living your life so that people smile at your birth and cry at your death and not vice versa? It’s true. I can often tell by people’s responses at funerals what they thought of the deceased.
So what would be the profile of a person who has lived his/her life wisely? In my next blog I will suggest a kind of bucket list of some things that can be done to get a heart of wisdom in the face of the brevity of life.