Justin Heinzekehr is the registrar at Hesston (Kan.) College and an instructor at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan. He holds a PhD in Process Studies from Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology. He lives in Newton, Kan., with his wife, Hannah, and two young children, Ellie and Conrad. He also blogs about literature and faith at The Heinzekehr Book List.
In the old neighborhood, each funeral parlor
is more elaborate than the last.
The alleys smell of cops, pistols bumping their thighs,
each chamber steeled with a slim blue bullet.
Low-rent balconies stacked to the sky.
A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon
crossed by TV antennae, dreams
he has swallowed a blue bean.
It takes root in his gut, sprouts
and twines upward, the vines curling
around the sockets and locking them shut.
And this sky, knotting like a dark tie?
The patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans.
August. The mums nod past, each a prickly heart on a sleeve.
“Teach Us to Number Our Days,” Rita Dove
“Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.” Psalm 90:15
Yesterday, as we were doing our Christmas shopping, my wife, Hannah, and I picked up an Advent calendar for our three-year-old daughter. It’s a cheap cardboard box with twenty-five little windows, one for each day of advent. Each window peels back to reveal a chocolate molded into some nice Christmas shape: a candy cane, a Santa, holly leaves, etc. I remember well the anticipation that I felt when, many years ago, I marked the time before Christmas with a similar calendar. Somehow putting a number on each day lent purpose to the wait. My everyday routine was transformed by its participation in a larger purpose, a trajectory that led toward that joyful time when I would be out of school, playing with cousins, and (let’s be honest) opening presents.
Given these Advent memories, I was caught off guard by the lectionary text today. Psalm 90 is not a cheerful psalm; it portrays human life as short and full of trouble. We are like grass which flourishes for a day and then withers and dies. We are like dust, like a dream. Our days are numbered.
The psalmist consoles us, not by promising us relief in this life or the next, but by urging us to appreciate our brief and painful time on earth. In fact, the Psalm tells us, it is only by coming to terms with the brevity of life that we will gain “a wise heart” in the face of God’s great wrath.
Unsettling reading material for the beginning of the holiday season.
I suspect that Psalm 90’s inclusion in the Advent canon has to do with its connections to the “Second Advent,” the final victory and judgment that comes (interchangeably, it seems) at the end of history or at the end of one’s life. But even then, the Psalm resists our desire to invest time with ultimate purpose. There is no final victory for us. We go out with a sigh, not with a bang. We “fly away” to an unspecified non/existence. Among the other Advent texts in the lectionary, Psalm 90 lurks like a saboteur waiting for a chance to derail our trajectory of anticipation.
In our usual way of performing Advent, the numbers that attach themselves to our days create a vectored space. The “waiting for” encourages in us feelings of hurtling downhill toward an anticipated future. It’s exciting, but in the process, we risk flattening twenty-four days into a mere foretaste of the twenty-fifth.
Psalm 90 opens up a different sort of Advent space, where the numbered days stretch out into a swampland rather than a slope. At each step you might very well sink to your knees in the muck. A “waiting in” or, if you take the time to look around you while stuck in the mud, a “waiting with.”
For instance, could our acceptance of life as affliction embolden us to wait with those whose suffering is close to the surface?
Rita Dove contrasts the “numbered days” of a boy in the projects with the disinterested violence of the policeman who “holds all the beans.” Numbering our own days might help us value not only the everyday-ness of our lives, but also the life of that boy, and all the other boys whose days are numbered in a more literal way than we are usually forced to acknowledge.
I don’t mean to dampen the enthusiasm of Advent. We will still eat our chocolate and help our children count down the days to Christmas. But I will also try to be grateful for the affliction of life that happens in the meantime, and which I don’t expect to escape when the season of Advent is over.
There is a depth of untapped richness in each numbered day, a chaotic mix of joy and trouble, and all of us are allotted some portion.
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