It wasn’t always so. When you’re young, days are plentiful and you’re in the business of acquiring more of them. We make time the way we later make money, piling it up. We eagerly look forward to every birthday (next year, I’ll be seven! or twelve! or sixteen! and then I’ll finally be old enough for . . .), to every iteration of the pattern of vacations and experiences and accomplishments and friends. Life is agglomerative, things come easily, and we think we will never be able to stretch far enough to encompass it all. As G.S. Harper sings in “August Day,”
Passed a little stone house on a hill today,
set back from the road a ways,
and I remembered that old cabin in the Sangres.
Wasn’t much to look at, it was
even less to live in,
but we were younger then,
didn’t stop to count the money – or the days.
Then the time comes when you pass a tipping point. Oh, we’re still going new places and learning new things and having new experiences, but somehow, you don’t think of it adding anything to yourself. You seem to drop bits and pieces of the past, as if you’ve finally reached the limit of your shopping cart, and you just can’t pile anything more on and keep it together. And you start thinking of days in a new way, as if you were spending them rather than earning them.
You reach a point where you start wondering, how many more times can I . . .? How many more years, how many more high adventure trips, will I see my grandchildren married, and on and on. In point of fact, we add days every day until we die, but from the perspective of middle age on, we begin to try to hold onto them, ration them, make them last. Nobody knows how many days one has left, just like we don’t know just how long our retirement money will last. So, every day is precious and you want to make it count.
I find myself not only waxing nostalgic and wistful, but I also find myself resenting some of the duller, sillier tasks that I used to take in my stride. I look at some things I routinely have to do, because they’re part of my job or my professional standing, and I think: is that worth a day of my life, a whole precious day out of the unknown but limited number left to me? After thirty-five years of pastoral ministry, do I really need to go validate my understanding of “boundaries” training, or of “diversity?” Is anything we’re likely to do at Annual Conference next year going to be worth three days of my life? These are tough and serious questions.
I wind up doing a lot of things I don’t like – and I do them as well as I can, even if I think them low-value in themselves – simply out of obedience. We were discussing some rather confining rules one time in an Emmaus Board meeting and someone from another church tradition said that she didn’t think the rules made sense, but they were rules, and “I believe God blesses obedience.” I do a lot of things, not just church stuff, for the same reason. Nevertheless, I count the cost of my discipleship. That was a whole day I spent on that meeting, or those forms, or that task – and I’ll never get it back again. I have sacrificed it to God, willingly. But those who so blithely impose low-value tasks on others in the confidence that we will do them should tremble when they waste someone else’s time, for in the end, time is all we have in this world, and we can take none of it with us when we leave it.
Still, this post is not about the time-wasters and taskmasters out there. It’s about my own desire to make my days count. “Teach us to number our days,” says Psalm 90, and then adds, “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” There are only so many summers left, so many family gatherings, so many chances to travel, so many mornings to wake up to and see the beauty. And I’m not just talking about dying; bodily strength, health, or money may give out before life itself. I don’t want to be one of those guys who slaves away at piddly things and then dies six months after finally retiring. I want to do the important stuff now, and have enough vigor left when I lay down the job to do some more important things before settling down to wait for Jesus.
It’s not enough to say I filled my quota of stuff done today. The question is, what did I accomplish?