Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
-Psalm 90:12 (NIV)
I’ve been contemplating the empty nest lately.
Well, the idea of it. We still have a few months to go. We still have the summer, but our son has been making his decision about college, and the time’s getting closer. Won’t be long now until we leave him at a dorm on a college campus and come home without him, not long at all until staying in touch with him will mean phone calls and texts and FaceTime instead of dinner conversations.
Look, I know, a lot of parents are separated from their kids under much worse terms: estrangement, imprisonment, or even worse. I’m really not complaining. This is a happy occasion. It’s a time we’ve always assumed would come, that we started making preparations for 18 years ago. I don’t intend to mope around after he’s off to school — not for too long, anyway. Laura and I will stay busy, and maybe even take on some new things.
But life will never be the same, so I have been thinking. Contemplating the empty nest.
Nearly 13 years ago now, I wrote this:
We drove him to school, gave him a hug, and sent him off down the hall to his classroom. He never even looked back, of course, which thrilled and broke our hearts all at the same time. To him, it's all a big adventure, full of wonder and promise. It's a milestone, a rite of passage. He's a big kid now, ready to take on the world. And we know he's ready, and we want him to. We wouldn't hold him back, even if we could. Still, there's a part of us that wants to. There's a part of us that knows that life will never be the same from this moment on, that wants to look back instead of forward…
Looking back. That was my problem then, and it’s still my problem now.
Well, not looking back, exactly. God gave us memory, didn’t he, so we could do just that? The ability to remember is a wonderful gift. Sometimes, though, it can keep us in thrall to the past. It can make us regret its loss, and make us doubt that there’s anything nearly as good in the future.
“Teach us to number our days,” the psalmist writes. Maybe it sounds dark to you, morbid, to contemplate mortality like that, especially with the rest of the world droning in our ears about now and youth and distracting us from the uncomfortable fact that time is passing. But there’s wisdom in numbering our days. The psalmist doesn’t mean to live in fear of death, unable to take joy in anything. He means, I think, to recognize that nothing lasts forever. “There’s a time for everything,” the Teacher of Ecclesiastes put it, “and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
Sure, it can make you live in fear of the future. It can make you hold so tightly to your children that you suffocate them, stunt their growth. It can make you enshrine the past as ideal. It can leave you bitter, certain that life is all about losing and saying goodbye and giving up what you love. But there’s no faith in that. It leaves entirely out of the picture a God who is faithful, and for whom the future poses no threat or worry at all.
So I’m numbering my days until school starts in the fall. Literally, in this case — I know exactly how many there are. I intend to spend them joyfully, to enjoy being with my son and wife, to remember the past with gratitude and to look toward the future with faith. Maybe there are a few things I can teach him yet. We can talk about football, and faith, and look forward to the next Star Wars movie. Maybe he’ll have some questions to ask. Maybe more likely, he’ll be so looking forward to this new chapter in his life that questions won’t even occur to him. To him, maybe, this transition won’t seem any more frightening than did that walk down the hall on the first day of kindergarten. Why should it? He’ll know that he always has his family in his corner. And, more importantly, he’ll know that his God goes with him. And so his future, still, is full of wonder and promise.
And so is mine. God’s people don’t look toward the future with fear. We number our days so that we’ll be smart about the decisions we make with our time and our resources. But we look toward the future with faith, secure in our God and his love, power, and faithfulness.
The psalmist ends that psalm with this prayer:
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.
May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.
So that’ll be my prayer in this part of my life, too: that God will show his deeds and splendor to me and to my son, that his favor will rest on us, and that he’ll establish the work of our hands. That’s a prayer that will lead us into the future with our heads high, our shoulders squared, our faces smiling, our hearts singing with hope, joy, and gratitude — because of what God has given us in the past, and because of his faithfulness for the future.
So number your days. Pay attention to the changes that are coming in your life. (Because they are.) But remember that your God doesn’t change. So you can walk with confidence into the future. His future.