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Tom Long: When we gain the deep knowledge that we are limited in days and incomplete in ourselves, this can draw us ever closer to the God who is immortal and who brings our life to completion.
Peter Wallace: That's the Rev. Dr. Tom Long, and today he joins us for our special series on "Faith & Science in the 21st Century." I'm Peter Wallace...this is Day 1.
Sherrie Miller: Welcome to Day1, the weekly program that brings you outstanding preachers from America's mainline Protestant churches, sharing insight and inspiration from God's Word for your life.
Today we continue our powerful series of special programs. Now here's our host, Peter Wallace, to introduce this week's preacher.
Peter Wallace: Thank you, Sherrie. Today we continue our special Day1 series: "Faith & Science in the 21st Century, made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Through this series we've been exploring some of the major issues of science today with a goal to facilitate meaningful conversations especially among people of faith. This week we're honored to have with us the Rev. Dr. Tom Long, the Bandy professor of preaching emeritus at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The author of 21 books and counting, Tom is a graduate of Erskine College and earned his master of divinity from Erskine Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Tom, welcome, and thank you for being part of this series.
Tom Long: It's great to be a part of it, Peter.
Peter Wallace: This has been a milestone year for you as you retired as the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology after the spring semester. How have you been experiencing this major life change?
Tom Long: It's been wonderful, although when one is in ministry, I don't think you ever really retire. You just change the focus of your ministry, and I've enjoyed a bit of change of focus.
Peter Wallace: What will you be up to?
Tom Long: I'm going to doing a lot of seminars for ministers and others, a lot of preaching in various churches; and I'm going next spring to be teaching at Yale Divinity School a course on preaching the parables of Jesus. I'll be a visiting professor there at Yale.
Peter Wallace: You've written at least 21 books--including several primary texts on preaching, one of which is Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice. How would you describe your approach to the art and science of teaching preaching?
Tom Long: In that book I and several other authors were trying to change the way we frame the task of teaching preaching. For a long time, we assumed when we walked into the classroom that in each of our students there was a little preacher wanting to get out, and so we would then try to educe that preacher to come out from each of our students, while still being mindful of the gifts that people bring to the classroom. In this book we take the approach that preaching is a kind of practice like medicine or law, and we're introducing our students to something that they don't know about yet. Nobody in law school would say, "I believe there's a little litigator inside each of us waiting to come out." You have to be taught that practice, so we are introducing them to the ancient practice of preaching.
Peter Wallace: You've taught preaching at three major seminaries over your career--Columbia Theological Seminary, Princeton Seminary, and Candler. How have you seen preaching change over the years, and where is it heading for the future?
Tom Long: When I first started teaching preaching, we had just discovered--actually rediscovered--narrative preaching as a powerful style--telling stories, the human story, God's story, bringing those together. I still think that's a powerful influence in preaching, but nowadays that approach is being amplified by other approaches trying to be more in tune with what's happening in our culture. Since I started teaching preaching, we now have a much smaller mainline Protestant church. People are much less prone to come and attend and hear sermons, and those who do come are often not as well versed in the Christian faith as they might have been a generation or two ago, and so preaching has to change to adapt to that new circumstance of listening.
Peter Wallace: And we're focusing on Faith & Science in this series, so how do you think preachers and people of faith might engage important matters of science more meaningfully?
Tom Long: I think there are a number of ways, but one of the ways that jumps out at me is I think that science has so captured the popular imagination of people we are preaching to that it seems to people [it's] the only way to truth--that if something can't measure up in the laboratory, it can't be true. And I think the Christian faith, theology, the Gospel, while acknowledging the truthfulness of the laboratory science, recognizes that some things are true in ways that can't be measured or weighed.
Peter Wallace: You've also written a couple of books on Christian funerals, and in your sermon you'll be dealing with the topic of death both theologically and scientifically. What do you think our culture gets wrong when it comes to approaching death?
Tom Long: I think a lot of things. I think we are frightened, so frightened about death that we don't think about it. We keep it at bay. And in the Gospel I think death is a defining characteristic of being human. Being mortal is what it means to be human, and so to refuse to acknowledge our mortality is a big way of getting things wrong. We try to escape into flights of fancy that we can be youthful forever and live forever, not face up to our mortality.
Peter Wallace: Your message today draws from Psalm 90. Would you read it for us?
Tom Long: I will.
1Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
2Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3You turn us back to dust, and say,
"Turn back, you mortals."
4For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
10The 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.
12So teach us to number our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
Peter Wallace: Tom, your sermon in our Faith & Science series is entitled "Numbering Our Days." Thank you for being with us.
Tom Long: It's a pleasure.
"Numbering Our Days"
"Teach us to number our days," prays the psalmist, "that we may gain a wise heart."
But what does it mean "to number our days"?
A good friend of mine has recently been reading the New York Times bestselling book called Being Mortal. The author of this book is a surgeon and a professor at Harvard Medical School by the name of Dr. Atul Gawande. And the book is a very frank physician's description of what it is like for us, as human beings, to come to the end of life. It is a book about what it means to grow old, what it means for our bodies to wear down and to fail, and especially what it means to encounter the inevitable truth that we will all die. When my friend got about halfway through the book, he confessed to me, "You know, this book scares the heck out of me!"
I understand. What frightens my friend, what would frighten most of us, I suppose, about this book is right there in the book's title: Being Mortal. We are all mortal. We know that, of course, but we know it in the abstract. There is an old Jewish saying, "Everybody knows they're going to die, but nobody believes it." What can be frightening about this book is that the author makes us believe it, by forcing us to face the practical reality of being mortal, to face facts that we usually try to keep out of our minds: to face the truth that we are all aging, there's no way around it, no way to stop it; that despite all the vitamins and exercise and healthy diets and strong medicines in the world, our minds and our bodies will ultimately decline and fail; that we will all eventually come to the end of our days, that, as the psalmist says, we will "fade and wither" like a flower, our frail hands will lose their grip on life, and we will slip into the darkness of death.
When we are young, most of us don't think much about the end of life. It seems so far away that it doesn't even seem real. It's something that happens to other people--to old people--but it's not a part of our experience, not our concern. But, of course, our youth eventually fades, and we do grow older. Even so, we may still try to pretend that we are somehow immune to the aging process, exempt from mortality, that it's not happening to us. Beautiful young people on television and in the movies joke about old people, and the message is clear: to be "old" is an embarrassment, an insult, an outrage. So we make believe that we can somehow avoid it. "Seventy is the new fifty," we say, lying to ourselves. Or as the commercials on TV reassure us, just a touch of color to take out the grey hair, and we're "still in the game," or just a dab of miracle facial cream to smooth out the wrinkles, and we can be as ageless as supermodel Cindy Crawford.
In one of Wallace Stegner's novels, there is an elderly man who writes in his Christmas letter that when anybody asks him if he feels like an old man, he says, "No, no. I feel like a young man with something the matter with him."[i] As we age and move inexorably toward life's end, we can't shake the feeling that there's something the matter with us, something wrong about our mortal journey. To be old, we fear, is to be nearing the end, the end of our attractiveness, the end of our usefulness, the end of our strength, the end of our health, the end of our life.
"Teach us to number our days," says the psalmist, "that we may gain a wise heart." But what does it mean "to number our days"?
One answer to that question comes to us from modern medicine. For scientific medicine, what it means to number our days is essentially to count them...and then to make that number as large as possible--to postpone aging and death and to extend the length of life as far as we can. Historians tell us that the average citizen of the Roman Empire could expect to live a little less than 30 years. But today, medical science--through antibiotics and surgical breakthroughs, improved hygiene and nutrition--has made it possible for the average North American to live almost three times that long. And there is no reason to think, as we move into the future, that modern medicine will not be able to "number our days" with higher and higher numbers, longer and longer lives.
We should be grateful, of course, for these advances in medicine. Children who a century ago would have died from smallpox or been paralyzed by polio now do not have to fear these diseases. Men and women who would have had their lives cut short by tuberculosis now may live long and productive lives. And we can pray that someday the ravages of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, and other diseases will also be a thing of the past.
So one way to "number our days" is to count them and to try to make the number larger and larger. But notice that the psalmist prays to God to "teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart," not simply that the number will get bigger, but rather "that we may gain a wise heart." In other words, the psalmist reminds us that when we look at life through the eyes of faith, the goal is not simply the quantity of life, but the quality of life--the depth and breadth and height of life, not just its length. What makes life good is not just longevity, not just living more and more days, but becoming a certain kind of person, a person whose heart is wise before God.
And it is right at this point that our faith must raise a provocative challenge to modern medicine. While people of faith join with all others in giving thanks for the many ways that medicine gives us strength and health and freedom from unrelenting pain, what must be challenged is the false idea that the only way to seek a good life is the never-ending quest for more of it, for more and more days, for longer and longer lives. And lying just beneath the surface of this medical quest for unending life is the false promise, the science fiction dream, even the idolatrous claim, that science and medicine will one day give us immortality, that someday medicine will genetically engineer death out of the human equation--the dream that human beings on biological grounds can live forever and that living forever would be a good thing.
Our quest for immortality, for a life that just goes on and on forever, is actually based on fear, a fear of running out of time. A thirty-year-old man who was dying of leukemia was having an urgent conversation with his doctor: "I don't think I am afraid of death," he said. "What I am really afraid of is the incompleteness of my life." When the essayist Anatole Broyard was dying, he wrote, "I want to be a good story [for my doctor]." Down deep, that is what all of us fear, that we are incomplete, that the story of who we are supposed to be is never finished. Indeed, fear comes from believing that there is not enough to go around, not enough to finish the story. Not enough time, not enough joy, not enough strength, not enough love, not enough nourishment, not enough me, not enough grace. We are afraid that we are running out of time; and when the end comes, there will only be nothingness--darkness, an empty hall, a bare table, and an unfinished story. And so we turn in desperation to medicine, pleading, "Give me more time. Give me endless days. Don't let me die. Don't let my life be incomplete." "What I am really afraid of," said the dying man, "is the incompleteness of my life."
But medicine cannot give us immortality, and it cannot even give us a sense of the completeness of life. It can only, at best, postpone the inevitable, prolong life a few more days, a few more months, a few more years. Only God can give us a sense of completeness; and because God is one who gives us completeness, from the point of view of faith, it is actually good news that we are not immortal. When we acknowledge that we are mortal--temporary, provisional, unfinished, incomplete--when we gain the deep knowledge that we are limited in days and incomplete in ourselves, this can draw us ever closer to the God who is immortal and who brings our life to completion. That is what the psalmist means when he prays, "Teach us to number our days that we gain a wise heart." Teach us to number our days so that we will gain the wisdom of knowing that our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
That is also why the first word of Easter, the first word from the risen Christ, is "Do not be afraid." The risen Christ is saying to us, "You are so anxious and fearful about how your life will end. But do not be afraid. This is how it ends...in resurrection. To belong to me is to be given the gift of an ending to life that you could never achieve in your own power, that no earthly physician can provide, no medicine can produce--the gift of being gathered in glory and joy into the eternal life of God. That is how it ends. So, do not be afraid."
The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney died two years ago at age 74. After collapsing on a Dublin street, he was rushed to a hospital and then taken into the operating suite, where unfortunately he died before surgery could take place. Minutes before he died, Heaney, the poet who loved and mastered language, communicated his very last words on this earth in a text message sent to his wife, Marie. Two words in Latin: "Noli timere," which means, "Do not be afraid." Heney learned these words from Jesus, learned them from the story of Easter, "Do not be afraid." Heaney was raised in the Catholic Church, but he had his quarrels with the church and even with the faith. Nevertheless, there at the end of his life, these old words came back to him. His mortality drew him toward God, toward the promise that our restless lives find their rest in God and that we are surrounded by the promise of God's grace. So, "noli timere; do not be afraid."
The choir in the church where my family worships has a wonderful and unusual custom. Whenever a member of the congregation is admitted to hospice care and is facing the last few days of life, the choir will go to the hospice to sing to them, to sing the great anthems of faith. This singing is a comfort, yes, but it is more than that. It is a confession of faith that we are surrounded in life and in death by the gospel story, that we do not bear the burden of making our own lives complete. We can be content, even comforted, in our mortality, in our incompleteness, because the completion we desire in life has been provided as a gift from God, the God who was there at the beginning and will be there at the end.
Years ago, a friend of mine was in the hospital dying of cancer. Near the end, she called her pastor and said, "I have been reading the Bible, the place in the Book of James where it says if you are sick, you should call the elders of the church for prayer and anointing with oil. I'd like you to come to the hospital and do that for me." Her pastor seemed to hesitate, and my friend asked, "What's wrong?"
"I don't know," he said. "It seems a little like magic, anointing you with oil. I practice ministry, not magic."
My friend became angry. "Look," she said to her pastor, "I am dying. I know I am dying. I will probably die in the next few days."
"Then why do you want to be anointed with oil?" he asked.
"Because it will remind me of my baptism," she said. "It will let me know that the Christ who was there for me in the beginning will be standing with me at the end. The Christ who is my alpha will also be the Christ who is my omega." And so it was, that a few days before she died, her pastor and some others from the church came to the hospital to anoint her and to remind her of her baptism and to assure her that in life and in death she was complete and made whole in the grace and mercy of God.
When the well-known Jewish author and neurologist Oliver Sacks turned 80 years old, he wrote an essay in the New York Times about his life and what he saw ahead of him. At 80, Sacks was still strong and productive, and he wrote, "I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever 'completing a life' means."[ii] Sacks had no way of knowing that only two years later, he would have received a diagnosis of terminal cancer and that his body would be weakening and failing by the day. But Sacks had been given, I would say by God's grace, a heart of wisdom; and just a few months before his death, he wrote another essay in the New York Times. This time, though, he knew he was dying, knew he was mortal, and he was not talking about completing his life, but about the Sabbath. "I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath," he wrote, "the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one's life as well, when one can feel that one's work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest."[iii]
The Sabbath, of course, is God's gift to us--not our achievement, but God's gift. Six days shall we labor and do all our work, but the Sabbath, the seventh day, the completion of all things, the end of all things, is pure grace, pure gift.
So whether you are in the springtime of your life or the winter, the first day of your life's week or the sixth day, whether you are young or old, whether you are in full strength or your body is failing, whether you are at the beginning or nearing the end, noli timere, do not be afraid. Grace is infinite. God is love. The Sabbath banquet is set and waiting. So number your days, confident that when you come to the end, the risen Christ will be there to receive you, to say to you, "You are home now. You have a place at the table. There is plenty to go around."
Peter Wallace: Tom, the psalmist asks God to teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart. And in your sermon you asked, what does it mean to number our days? The problem is that we tend to get sidetracked either by fearing death or by living as though we really don't believe we're going to die. I guess there is a balance to strive for in thinking about death--how do we find and keep that balance?
Tom Long: I think that's exactly the way to put it--a balance or a tension. God is the God of Life. So every bit of life is precious, and we should seize life and drink it down to the bottom and enjoy it. On the other hand we are not God. We are not immortal, and to acknowledge the limitations of being human is something that presses us toward that which is beyond us.
Peter Wallace: You said one answer to the question of how we number our days comes from medical science--to do whatever we can to postpone aging and death and extend the length of life as far as we can. We should be grateful for the advances in medicine, you said; but should people of faith--theologians, preachers--be thinking and talking about this from a biblical or ethical point of view?
Tom Long: I think we should. I think it's quite a natural thing for a physician, to think of her task or his task as adding to the span of life. That's the job of a doctor to heal us and to let us live for another day. I think it's the wisdom of the faith, however, that however good that might be, there does come a time when life comes to an end; and this is not the destruction of all we are. It's the preservation of all we are in the life of God.
Peter Wallace: But as you noted, the psalmist reminds us that when we look at life, the goal is not simply quantity but quality--and that quality is really what he's asking God for, a wise heart. If we really prayed that prayer, what do you think might happen in our lives?
Tom Long: Well, one can never know the results of prayer. I think to pray that though is to lay before God the hope that God will teach us the things that we need to form our character as human beings, not simply to extend our life another week or month or year, but to make us the kind of person who is wise about other people, wise about ourselves, and especially wise in the presence of God.
Peter Wallace: Tom Long, thank you for being with us!
Tom Long: It's a joy.
[i] Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird, New York: Penguin Classic, Revised Edition, 2010), 115.
[ii] Oliver Sacks, "The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)," NYTimes, July 6, 2013.
[iii] Oliver Sacks, "Sabbath," NYTimes, August 16, 2015
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