Once upon a time, way back in the 1970s, I was in confirmation class. The pastor drew a long line down the length of the chalkboard (Kids, a chalkboard is a pre-historic white board). Then he took his chalk (marker) and placed one dot on that very long line. He said, “Imagine that the long line is all of eternity and that the dot is your life.” He wanted us to understand that in the grand scheme of all creation we were but blips. Actually, I think the point was the immensity of God, not the brevity of man, but as an adolescent, my focus was all on me — the little dot.
David must have realized he was just a dot when he said in Psalm 39, “You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.”
Little old ladies echo this sentiment when they approach young mothers who are weary from the endless hours of parenting and say, “Honey, treasure these moments, the years will be gone before you know it.” When I was a young mother, toting three children aged three and under, I could barely control myself in the presence of these senior ladies. I so wanted to reply, “The years may fly by, but the minutes are killing me!”
Yesterday my father-in-law turned eighty. Today we are meeting with all of my husband’s siblings to take him out for dinner. He was born in 1935 — before television, computers, cell phones, and the Internet. I wonder if his years have flown by.
I wonder if when his mother died before his second birthday the year flew by.
I wonder if when his step-mother was abusive toward him the years flew by.
I wonder if when he left home at thirteen the year flew by.
I wonder if his years of service in the Army flew by.
I wonder if his years of working the third shift in an automotive factory flew by.
I wonder if his years of parenting four children, who were born within the space of five years, flew by.
Perhaps I will ask him tonight, because he has never told me.
Here is what he has shown me in the twenty-five years I have known him:
He loves life. He had his first heart attack in his forties and never expected to make it to sixty, let alone eighty. He gets out of bed each morning, does whatever exercises he is able to do, showers, dresses, and tackles whatever tasks are on the agenda for the day.
He loves people. The man spends his days interacting with others. In his younger days he worked all night and spent his days advocating for other union members and even running for public office. He still, at 80, spends many days at retiree luncheons, city council meetings, church functions, and family get-togethers.
He loves helping. He’s served in the Army, worked for the United Way, volunteered for the Red Cross, and serves his local congregation. He’s done home repairs, provided financial assistance, given advice, and simply shown up for absolutely everything.
He loves family. He and my mother-in-law have no greater joy than chatting with family — around their kitchen table, over the phone, or wherever they can find them. Each Monday morning, he writes an email — he calls it ‘the update’ — and sends it to everyone in the extended family — siblings, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins. He shares the news and often an extra-corny joke to help us start our week.
But mostly, this man loves God. Maybe it’s because he, like David, learned early on that his life was just a dot — just a handbreadth. Each time I’ve eaten breakfast with my father-in-law for the past twenty-five years, he has started with Luther’s morning prayer, the reading of a devotion, and the Lord’s prayer. Each time I have eaten dinner with him for the past twenty-five years, he has ended with Luther’s evening prayer and the reading of a devotion. He is at church every time the doors open — often standing at the door, greeting those who enter, shaking a hand, telling a joke, or pulling someone aside to share concern over a life event that hasn’t gone unnoticed by him. His life is a testimony to God’s faithfulness.
Since 1935 my father-in-law has been carried in the palm of the hand of God. And he knows it. He understands the frailty and brevity of life; I can tell because of the way he squeezes every drop out of every day. I can see because of the way he leans in and listens, the way he looks in my eyes, the way he laughs out loud.
He sees the value in his little dot of a life. Let’s go and do likewise.
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.