Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Teach us to Count our Days"

Message preached November 17, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Psalm 90:1-12

Order of Worship

"O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home...

            Home... One of the families in our church moved this week. Boxes of possessions were packed and carried from one house to another. Furniture was carted away by muscular men until all that remained were the floors and walls of a dwelling place that soon would be possessed by another family... "Teach us to number our days," the psalmist prays... The husband and father relives the moments which transformed this house into a home over the last decade or so - A new marriage. Children born. Diapers to training pants, squeeky balls to soccer balls. Echoes of words spoken, love expressed, mistakes made, forgiveness shared. A wistful sigh through one last night. The wife and mother, seeing with hope the days ahead, says "the best is yet to come."

"A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone,
short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun

            Home... The last place I saw my father alive was his hospital room. Gone was the seminarian training to be a pastor. Present was the son who had no idea what to say or do, who could only sit at the foot of the bed in silence and listen. Words of release were spoken... "Teach us to number our days." So says the Psalm... "Did I really accomplish anything?" wondered my father, who was too young to be old. "Itís in somebody elseís hands now." Did he mean my hands? A question was then asked, whether by seminarian or son I do not know: "Dad, what is your favorite hymn?" This man who couldnít carry a tune thought a bit, then replied. "O God, our help in ages past."

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream soon bears us all away.
We fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day

            Home... A Bridgewater college student recently sent a note out to a bunch of her friends, a copy of which also ended up in my e-mail box. In it, this young woman - who at one time, Iím sure, couldnít wait to go away to college - writes of being overloaded with work and having to drop a class... "Teach us to number our days." Thereís that verse again... "I will be home for turkey," this Brethren young adult writes with obvious longing, "and then I will be home for Christmas around the 11th of December. So the semester is coming to a close and itís about time!, yet it came REAL quick which only proves the older we get the faster time goes. Doesnít seem very fair...." (from a real 11/12/02 email, name withheld)

"O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
be thou our guard while troubles last, and our eternal home

            Isaac Watts penned those verses nearly three hundred years ago, basing them on the 90th Psalm. There were several years, following my fatherís death, that I just couldnít sing that hymn. It was too packed with meaning. Like the Psalm from which it was derived, it can be a bit depressing to sing. Itís a lament, after all, both the hymn and the Psalm. Watts wrote the words to his song at a time of uncertainty in England, "when it was feared that the Protestant monarchy of Queen Anne would be followed by that of her Catholic brother, with ensuing religious persecution."   We donít know the historical setting for Psalm 90, but the prescript says it is "A Prayer of Moses, the Man of God." One commentator suggests it be heard as "The Last Day of Moses" by Phillip Ratner though Moses were praying it at the end of his earthly life from Mt. Pisgah, overlooking the promised land he would never enter.  If true, neither of those occasions were exactly "happy days."

            And yet, there is about both Psalm and song a quality that transcends whatever situation may have caused the words to be composed. Yes, "O God, our help in ages past," is often sung at funerals. But it also is a favorite hymn to sing on the first Sunday of a new year, a setting fresh with hope. And, granted, Psalm 90 also is appropriate to read at the time of death. However, it is more than that. I can still hear echoes of composer Charles Ivesí rendition of it, which I sang with my college choir at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 26 years ago. I was nowhere near the "end" of anything at that point in my life, but those words touched me deeply.

            "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations..." Perhaps itís this affirmation that shifts what could be a fairly negative list of struggles in the verses that follow into a song of faith. Thereís a truth here that goes deeper than any outward circumstance. We are not homeless, we have a home. This home is to us a gift, that is - all the hard work in the world could not make a dwelling like this. It is a place where we truly belong. The home-maker of this place is God. Not only that, but God is this home. It is not so much a place, as a person.

            That makes sense, doesnít it? Think about what makes your house a "home." Is it the actual building? Is it the "stuff" packed inside? Or is it something more personal? Take away all the "stuff," would it still be "home?" Yes, it takes labor to create a "home," but that sense of attachment, that feeling of belonging has little to do - ultimately - with work. A child does not create a home. He or she enters into it. Home is where she or he is loved unconditionally. It is personal. Strangely enough, © 1996-2002, HEARTLIGHTģ Magazine the existence of this child helps make a house a home for the parents. Itís personal. My motherís cottage in Bridgewater is "home" to me only because she is there.

            This first verse of Psalm 90 sets the stage, really, for prayer. To make it personal, letís put it this way: "You, Lord, are my/our true home. Always have been. Always will be." That affirmation puts everything into perspective. Even that person for whom faith is something brand new, who knows very little of the things of God as yet, who wasnít raised in a church "home," whose family "home" growing up had little connection to "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs;" even for that person those words are like both a fresh revelation and something that resonates deep down. "Lord, you are my true home."

            Itís this place which is a person that makes the first step of faith possible. For those who would believe in Christ, that step is "repent and be baptized..." (Acts 2:38). "Repent" means "to turn," "to turn back." If you donít have a point of reference, a place to turn back to, that step has little meaning. You turn every which way but loose in a frantic effort to find the right direction. The presupposition of faith is that "your true home is God." Thatís where you really belong. It is for God, your "dwelling place in all generations," that your heart yearns. Repentance, then, becomes "turning your heart toward home."

            Because of that, this Psalm is not really a depressing lament over troubling circumstances, some of which we may have brought upon ourselves down through the years as we have turned from our real home and wandered about with empty hearts and hopes. No, this Psalm is like a touch-stone for us, placing our life into proper perspective.

            We have limits on our earthly existence. What else is new? Only, our present generation - perhaps like most generations which walked before us - is hard at work trying to change the inevitable. We extend the time beyond the poetic "threescore years and ten" perhaps even beyond "fourscore" (90:10 KJV), and then discover new ailments that come with a longer life. Believe me, Iím not making a case for shorter lives. Iíd like to live longer than my father did. Iím very thankful my mother is alive and well at age 85. The issue is not quantity of days, but quality. And quality depends upon where the heart finds its home.

            The pivotal verse in the Psalm is the one you find printed at the top of your bulletin. Would you read it out loud with me? "So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart." (90:12) Teach us to number our days. Now, that doesnít mean, "do the math." Scripture here isnít calling us to become preoccupied with quantity, to play statistician with our days and years. The measure of a personís life is not its length, but its depth. And that depth depends upon putting our days and years into perspective - being in touch with where we truly belong.

            Wisdom is not an accumulation of knowledge, or even the ability to sort through that knowledge intelligently. Wisdom is a sense of perspective. A "wise heart" is one that knows where and to whom it belongs. "Lord you have been (you still are, and always will be) our dwelling place." Thatís the awesome "big picture" from which all wisdom flows. Sometimes that awareness absolutely overwhelms us. We donít have to be on our deathbed, though, to be so overwhelmed by our sense of belonging to God, that in the Lord we find our true home. Every day can be filled with such awareness. Therefore, "teach us to number our days." Teach us to live, not just to exist, that our hearts may be in the right place.

            The theme of our worship this day has been upon the stewardship of time and talents. A steward, in the biblical sense, is not the owner of a home. A steward is someone who is entrusted with that which he or she does not possess. Wisdom is key for a steward. Making wise use of what belongs to someone else is the goal. The Bible teaches that, "the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it" (Psalm 24:1). Everything we have, including our very lives, belongs to God. I donít want us to get so wrapped up in trying to figure out what ten percent of our income, or what a tithe of our time or our ability might be, that we lose track of the most essential truth upon which all of that depends. All that we have been, all that we are, and all that we will be, is from the Lord. The Lord is our true home.

            What we do with what we have been given matters, but only to the extent that we place it all into perspective. In an age of materialism, we struggle not to be possessed by our possessions, to not be enslaved by the clock, to not place our abilities on the throne and say, "if we can do it, we will do it." The truth is, "the Lord is our dwelling place, our real home." We belong there. Our possessions, our time, our abilities - they are all a gift from heaven above. Not just a portion, but all. When, on earth, we have that sense of belonging, that this is my "home," this is but a reflection of your eternal home in God. Furthermore, each and every day is a gift, no matter how many. So, Lord, "teach us to number our days, that we may gain a wise heart." Amen, let it be so!

1  p. 328, Hymnal Companion, Joan Fyock, writer/compiler, Lani Wright, ed., ©1996, Brethren Press.

2  p. 110, The Message of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann, ©1984, Augsburg Press.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Psalms.

©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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