The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, addresses the subject of medical science in light of the psalmist's prayer, "Teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart." This enhanced version video is part of the Day1 Faith & Science in the 21st Century Series, made possible through the support of a grant by the John Templeton Foundation.
Years ago, when Dave Garroway was the host of the "Today" show on NBC, he served one evening as the emcee for a banquet honoring the famous research physician Dr. Jonas Salk. When he was getting dressed for the banquet, his young son asked him where he was going.
He said, "Son, I'm going to speak at banquet tonight in honor of Dr. Jonas Salk."
"Who's Jonas Salk?" his son asked.
"Why, he's the doctor who created the medicine that cured polio," Garroway said.
"What's polio?" his son replied.
You know, we all marvel at the miracles of modern medicine. When I was a boy growing up in the the south in the 1950s, every summer we feared polio. It could strike anyone, and, indeed, some of my friends contracted polio. But now, like Dave Garroway's son, our children and grandchildren may never have even heard of polio. Or smallpox, or scarlet fever, or many of the other diseases that have been essentially defeated by medical science.
We give thanks for these victories of medicine. They are triumphs of science and gifts from God. But sometimes we look to medicine for more than it can provide. We hope that science, that medicine can be a kind of god and somehow eliminate our mortality, can somehow engineer death out of the human equation, can eliminate aging altogether, and extend our days forever.
But of course we are mortal. Being human means being mortal. No matter how much progress medicine makes, we are still temporary, and, as the psalmist said, we eventually fade like the flower. But our culture fights our mortality, fights against our limits as human beings, and wants science to join us in the fight. There must be a chemical, we think, that can keep the grey out of my hair, a cream we can apply that banishes the wrinkles from my face, a pill we can take that will keep me eternally youthful and give me an unbounded future.
The psalmist writes, "Teach us to number our days that we may gain a new heart." Notice that when the psalmist prays to God to teach is to number our days, the yearning is not for more and more days, but to have the kind of life that enables us to be formed well as human beings, to have a wise heart, to have a life that matters.
The theologian Gilbert Meileander has recently studied the aspirations of our culture that medical science would one day eliminate mortality, extend our lives forever, and he says that underneath this thirst for more and more longevity is a restlessness that reveals a deeper thirst, a thirst not merely for more and more, but a thirst to have a life that comes to good completion, that comes to a place of love and wellbeing, a thirst that all of our restlessness will finally come to rest in God. He writes, "In the end, 'more time' would not quench the thirst that drives us to look for ways to [slow down] aging."
On Easter, Jesus' first word was "Do not be afraid." That's a comprehensive promise, but one of the implications is that we do not need to be afraid of our mortality, our limitations. "Do not be afraid," Jesus says. Do not be afraid that, for life to come to a place of love and peace, you have to create on your own strength some medicine that lets you live a million years. "This is how it ends," says the risen Jesus. In the fullness of life in the power of God. "I was there at your beginning," says Jesus, "and I will be there are your end." That's what gives us hope, that is what enables us, even as we age toward death, not to be afraid. To trust that promise of God is what it means to have a "wise heart."
So, teach us how to number our days, that we gain a heart of wisdom.