Birthdays, at least for me, are usually bittersweet. There is the joy of having your own day, of allowing yourself a treat or two. There are the kind words and calls of the people who love you, the gratitude for being alive, the warm breeze of affection and appreciation. There may be some soul-searching reflection and, why not, maybe a nice gift around the corner.
But, if you’re a sinner like me, birthdays bring also a somewhat sour taste. There is our hurt pride of not being so young anymore, magnified today by our society’s idolization of youth, potential and promise. There may be some sadness for the things we had hoped to have accomplished by now but which we didn’t accomplish, and for mistakes made. There is the fear of death, of decay, of being left out.
In two days my 30th birthday arrives, and with it sentiments on both sides of the equation. “Dude, I’m turning THIRTY!”, I say to myself, as if this day would not or should not ever happen. Then I feel guilty for feeling like this, thinking of all the folks who have much bigger numbers approaching. “Get over it man,” my other side says, “you’ll never be younger than you are now,” and I see my pride, guilt and fears all arguing among themselves.
Which is why this time I’m thinking of practicing a discipline: the spiritual discipline of gratitude. I’ll probably get a good chocolate bar, maybe a lazy movie in the afternoon, but somewhere I’ll sit down with a pen and notepad and list all the things I’m grateful for. I’m grateful for my God, for my life, for my wife and kids. I’m grateful for my vocation, for the guidance and protection in the years up to now, for the expectation of what lies ahead. And that’s just on the top of my head, I’ll probably have many more items in my list. I’ll probably realize that I have so many things to be thankful for, so many moments lost in my memory but which were really precious back in the day. That anxious prayer which was answered. That email which opened an unexpected opportunity. The sheer joy and fun of my wedding day. I have a feel a mountain of gratitude will rise so tall that I won’t be able to see many hurt feelings behind it.
One of the Psalms, the only one attributed to Moses, says, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart full of wisdom.” It is a great prayer, coming from someone who faced some really big numbers and who, up to around 80, must have felt every year like a mighty loser. Until God’s call at the burning bush, Moses’ birthdays were birthdays in a solitary desert, a fugitive running away from authorities and from the guilt of having taken a man’s life, trying to make the best of Plan B. It is a great prayer.
So let us pray. Yes, teach us to number our days, Lord. Help us see beyond our fragility. Shout louder than our pride and fears. We wait upon you. Help us make these feeble days count for something, serve your purposes, complete our mission. Give us the wisdom to age well and to decay with grace. We are dust, frail dust; breathe your Spirit into us and make us live anew. You are the God of life. We praise you and thank you.
“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”