Sunrise . . . sunset
Dawn and dusk.
Both are filled with awe and splendor,
an array of color and dazzling light.
One emerges into the brightness of a new day;
the other fades into the darkness of the night.
One is filled with hope, the other hope fulfilled.
One is the beginning of the end,
the other the end of the beginning.
Where does time go
when it flies by?
In this week’s lectionary passage, we say goodbye to the man Moses (Deut. 34:1-12). In our meditations over the past several months, we have seen Moses grow up right before our eyes. From beginning as the baby of an impoverished and oppressed couple who hide him in a basket on a river full of crocs to growing up as the princess’s son in the palace of an imperial tyrant. From a murderer who flees for his life to the land of Midian where he finds his wife, to the deliverer who frees his father’s oppressed people from the cruel hands of his step-father. From a man who wields his staff to part the Red Sea for his people to walk through to freedom, to the man who seals his own fate with the same rod by striking a rock with it to save his people from thirst.
Besides Jesus, no man is given more attention in the scripture than Moses. We are given a window into his entire lifespan. From birth to death, from youth to marriage. We know his parents, his in-laws, and his outlaws. We know his sister, his brother, and his children. Not even Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, the founding fathers of the Jewish nation, are given as much attention as Moses is given in the Hebrew Scripture.
Moses is a man who rises to the level of hero in the annals of Jewish mythology. He eludes, delivers, and defeats the enemies of his people. He is nearly elevated to the level of God in the Christian scriptures, where he is compared to Jesus Christ. Large swaths of scripture are credited to Moses’s authorship merely because of his overwhelming and pervasive presence embedded in their texts. Songs are dedicated to, or venerate, Moses.
But we are not only given the bright side of Moses’s celebrated life; we are also allowed to peer into the mundane and turbulent world of Moses’s existence. Moses murders one of his step-father’s servants. Moses herds sheep on the back side of the same mountain where later he meets with the Presence which who will lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, through the desert, and into the Promised Land. He bashes his magic rod against a rock because he loses patience with the people when they grumble about their bland diet and lack of drinking water in the desert.
Through it all, Moses is constantly leading his people on a quest for the sacred. Moses, hears God speaking out of the midst of a flaming bush which resists being consumed. He brandishes a wand that comes to life, turns into a snake, dries up the sea, and makes water flow out of a Solid Rock. Moses is given the honor of having known the Great Presence as no other human, having seen the face of its Being and managed to remain alive.
Yet, at the very end, Moses comes up short. In the passage today, we are told that Moses who led his people to the cusp of the Promised Land, is himself led by the LORD, or Yahweh, to the top of Mount Nebo opposite the Jordan River to peer at the Promised Land. And there the LORD kills Moses. When he dies at the age of one hundred and twenty years old, Moses is still spry, not even needing field glasses to take in the view of the entire Promised Land, an area one hundred miles long by fifty miles wide.
Yahweh does not even leave a marker where he buries Moses’s body. His body is lost and forgotten, but the legacy and lore surrounding it live on in the lives and imagination of his people—the Jewish nation—and peoples all around the world.
The Psalm for this week might give us a clue into Moses’s unheralded and anti-climactic demise (Psalm 90). If I had been Moses, I would have been let down. Yet, there is no evidence that Moses protests the abortion of his leadership in leading his people into the Promised Land. Instead, Moses seems to yield to and even accept the prudence of the move that terminates his mission and his life. Whoever is the author of this Psalm, whether Moses or someone paying tribute to his lifespan, they recognizes that as humans, our lives are wisps in the wind of the ongoing march of Yahweh’s Being that has always been and will always be. As humans, even as a species, we come and we go, but Yahweh always is. We are a moment in time, even if it is measured to be one hundred and twenty cycles of of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Our lives are nothing more than a morning and an evening until it fades into what is to come. Our bodies, even if they are marked with a Rock, will be lost. The only part of us that remains is that which cannot be consumed by the fire and the soil.
It reminds me of when our children were entering high school. I would tell myself, “We have four more years with this child!” However, it seems one morning they would wake up, get ready for school, and leave the house on the first day of their freshman year, and when they came home that evening, they had graduated from high school. Four years, which we thought would last forever, seemed like a day when it was all over.
The Psalmist writes, “The 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 fly away….So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90:10, 12). Why does the Psalmist urge us to “count” or “number” our days? Are we to keep track of our birthdays to see how long we can live? Is the length of our lives a testimony of how well we have lived?
The Psalmist doesn’t seem to think so. Counting or numbering our days has more to do with wisdom than it does with extending the years of our life. Knowing how to turn the confusion and turmoil of this world into quiet repose in the presence of the Eternal Being seems to be what Moses was able to achieve during his brief existence in this world. How do we do follow in Moses’s footsteps? How do we count our days when we are surrounded by disorder, polarity, discord, hate, pain, fear, and death? Teach us to number our days or to live in the moment.
The movie Boyhood(2014), written and directed by Richard Linklater, follows the growing-up years of a boy, Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) beginning at six years of age until he heads off to college at the age of eighteen. The movie is exceptional on several levels. One, the movie is shot in a few days each year over the course of the twelve years which covers Mason’s life. Rather than substituting actors for each stage of the boy’s growth and development, the movie uses all of the same actors for each character so that the changes in their lives are front and center.
Two, the movie does not follow a plot, so to speak. It simply picks out the mundane aspects of life that anyone might experience: the first day of school, embarrassing haircuts, divorces, homework arguments, awkward moments with parents in front of friends, riding bike, playing video games, the first girlfriend, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, vacations, and so on. In three hours, twelve years of life fly by, not unlike our perception of time in real life.
Two poignant moments in the movie stand out. In the one, Mason, Jr. has just graduated from high school and is preparing for college. His mother, who by this time has divorced from her third husband, has bought an apartment to simplify her single life after her children are off to college. To help make that possible, Mason’s mother asks him and his older sister, who is already at college, to get rid to their possessions that remain in her apartment. There is one item that Mason insists on getting rid of: the first photo he took on his road to becoming a fledgling photographer. Mason keeps putting it on the donate pile but keeps finding it in his college box. Finally, nonchalantly, Mason tells his mother that he doesn’t want it, implying he is ready to leave his childhood behind. His mother is devastated and breaks down, telling Mason:
“This is the worst day of my life. I knew this day was coming. I just didn’t know you were going to be so . . . happy to be leaving. You know, I’m realizing that my life is just gonna go, like that. This series of milestones: getting married, having kids, getting divorced, the time we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you how to ride a bike, getting divorced….again, getting my masters degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending you off to college. You know what’s next? My …funeral! Just go ahead and leave my picture. I just thought there would be more.”
I wonder if that is what Moses thought when he found himself on the top of a mountain about to die without having reached the Promised Land: “I just thought there would be more!” How many people arrive at the end of their lives asking the same question? As children growing up, at the beginning of our day, we anticipate the wonderful world of adulthood. When evening arrives, we look back and say, “Is that all there is?” How do we number our days?
In the middle of a pandemic, a contentious election, an earth that is at the tipping point of what it can handle, a society that is fraught with hate and fear, we wait for things to return to normal. We wait to go back in time, to a time when life was ordinary and mundane.
The second scene is the final scene of the movie in which Mason meets his new college roommate, his roommate’s girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s roommate. The three of them invite Mason to go hiking with them in the desert mountains of west Texas. They arrive at a remote canyon at sunset. They are marveling at the ecstasy of the solitude and beauty found at the end of the day. Mason’s roommate yells into the canyon, “It’s as if all of time has unfolded before us so we can look out and scream . . . ’yeah!’”
This ejaculation prompt Mason and the other girl to ponder, “You know how everyone is always saying, ‘Seize the moment.’ I don’t know, I’m kinda thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like the moment seizes us.” To this, Mason replies, “Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant. The moment, it’s just . . . it’s like it’s always right now, you know?”
We long to return to normal, but normal will never return as it was before. We live in the moment right now, whether it is good or bad, ordered or chaotic, peaceful or full of unrest. We can only live forward and never backward. Our environment is constantly changing, and we can only live in one moment as it moves into the next moment.
Ranier Maria Rilke, the great twentieth-century poet, wrote eloquently about this in a letter to a young person he was mentoring. The young person was asking Rilke for advice on writing poems about life. In his letter to the young man, written from the solitude of the plains of northern Europe, Rilke writes, “You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I want to ask you, as best I can, dear sir, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to have love for the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Do not seek the answers now, which cannot be given to you because it to you cannot live. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions. Perhaps then, without noticing it, you will gradually come, on some far-off day, to live your way into the answer” (Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke).
When our impulse is to resolve the tensions in our world, we fail to take in the moment. Leaning to live with the questions, or as the Psalmist put it, to “number” or “count” our days, to realize the brevity of our life and not let the displeasures of this world rob us of its beauty, allows us to live into the answers, or into wisdom. Rilke advocated looking to the small and overlooked to awake our inner consciousness to the knowledge we are surrounded by.
When the pandemic made its presence felt back in the spring of this year—yes, it was only earlier the year—time stood still. Every moment was monumental. March seemed to last for an eon. April slowly crept along behind March. Spring finally oozed into summer. We paused our lives to wait out the questions we were ill-equipped to answer. We became weary of searching for answers to these unfamiliar circumstances rather than living the questions.
In conclusion, ponder upon the questions you have as you think about the turmoil we find ourselves in today, in this very moment.
As you look around you, what are the questions that come up?
Can you live with those questions? What does it mean to live with those questions?
What are the little things that you look to for help in bringing about harmony and understanding to the world around you?
How do you number your days?