The stickers were cold as the nurse pressed them onto my chest. There were twelve in all, each one tethered to the computer screen by a plastic grey wire. She flipped a switch, the monitor flickered to life and I saw the undulations of my heart beating. I felt a sudden nervousness as my mortality and physicality literally flashed before my eyes. In that moment I sensed the fragility of my humanity. For a moment I considered that the lines shooting up and down on the screen were awfully small and that perhaps their pattern wasn’t quite normal. In a panic I thought “What if the doctor finds something?”
When the stress test was over I walked to the other side of the small medical clinic to meet with the doctor and receive my results. On the way I passed an elderly gentleman, shuffling to his appointment, his skin wrinkled and his gait impaired by a wearing of the years. As he passed, a clear and sobering thought entered my thoughts. “One day you will receive the news that your body is failing. Maybe not today or this year but one day it will happen.” The emotion that came next surprised me. I felt a strange calmness wash over me as I sat down in the waiting room chair. “One day” I thought.
Why the calmness? I think that the Prayer of Moses recorded in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures provides an answer.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
– Psalm 90:1-4 (ESV)
This part of the prayer provides a perspective on all of life. The Creator of all things has always been. Before the first wave crashed on the first beach or the first bird flapped his wing or before one beat of my heart flickered to life, the Lord God, Maker of Heaven and Earth existed and was life. He didn’t just create life, he was and is life. Nothing about Him has changed. He is our “dwelling place” because he is the source of life of protection and of certainty.
The contrast between His reality and mine is shocking. The one who always was and who will always be, returns “man to dust”. Dust. Dirt. Inanimate brown soil.
A thousand years, ten life-times for the fortunate person, are “as a watch in the night”. My life is so brief.
Why does this perspective bring a euphoric calmness ? The second half of the Psalm answers.
“So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”
-Psalm 90:13-14 (ESV)
I think that I felt calm for two reasons. First, because it is right and good to “number our days”. As I saw the fragility of my life and recognized its brevity I also saw truth. My life is short in the scheme of things. When we number our days we see our life before God with a correct perspective. He is big and we are small. In this realization I can make decisions appropriately given my place. When I see myself as small I am more apt to see the largeness of God and to be at peace with whatever he sends in my direction. When I feel small and sense the brevity of existence I am in a position to more easily see others as fragile creatures who, like me, fall short of perfection.
Second, I felt peace because the story doesn’t end with me. The Psalmist says “Return, O LORD!” The story of life is God’s story not mine. My days are part of something bigger than myself. The story is that there is a King who will “satisfy us in the morning with [his] steadfast love.” He is the King who made everything who will one day return to rule his people and to live among us. He is a good King, full of love, full of pity for his servants.
When I see the flickering of my heart beat I see a fragile creation. I feel appropriately small in the moment I pass the old man and realize that soon I too will shuffle down the hallway, wrinkled and broken. I also feel peace because there is a story bigger than me and a Savior ushering me into a life beyond the beating of my heart.