“Did you know we have ancestors from France?” Before I could say anything in…
I’d like to build my own coffin and store it somewhere in my garage.
Of all the weird things I’ve said in sermons over the years, this sentence is certainly one of the weirdest. It’s also one of only a few that I still hear people occasionally reference even years later. Nathan, do you remember when you actually told us…? It’s such a shocking thing to say, and while I was only partly serious, that comment has haunted me (and apparently others) for a really long time.
I stand by what I said, though, no, I’ve not actually taken any steps toward construction. I wouldn’t really know where to begin (do I use pine or cedar?) and I seriously doubt my family would approve. So no, you don’t need to join me in a little bit of quirky pastoral arts and crafts. If you’re looking for construction blueprints, I don’t have them.
Yet what if we lived in such a way, that death was always before us? Maybe not with a box of our own making hanging out in our garage, but a constant reminder that we are all dying — every one of us — and it is only a matter of time.
You are already dying
Now, if you’re still reading this after seeing that sentence, good for you. We live in denial. We do anything we can to avoid thinking about it and we spend countless dollars and hours on the elusive quest to feel younger, look younger, and live longer. I know everybody dies, but deep down I’m really hoping to be the exception!
I understand all this. I also exercise and eat healthy and cringe when I see all the grey in my beard. I don’t want to think about death any more than you do. But is that healthy? Is that wise? Let me ask it like this. What would change the way you live if everytime you left the house you saw your own future resting place hanging out in the garage? What would change if you lived constantly under the shadow of your own death?
Some might say: If I did that I’d be depressed all the time. I’d live in despair! Others might say: If I did that I’d just pursue as much self-interested pleasure as I possibly can. Get it while I can! Some might choose those paths — despair or hedonism. But not God’s people.
Teach us to number our days
In fact, God’s people ask God to teach us to number our days. It’s a strange phrase but it comes out in one of my favorite psalms. God, would you teach me to number my days. God, would you teach me to live as if there is a coffin hanging in my garage?
I know it sounds like a crazy prayer, so why does the psalmist pray this? Psalm 90:10-12: The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away… So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
That we may get a heart of wisdom
Did you see it? When we number our days, what do we get in return? A heart of wisdom! And who doesn’t want more wisdom! At the start of Psalm 90 there is a title that’s been there for millenia: A prayer of Moses, the man of God. Moses led God’s people through the Red Sea, across the wilderness, and then died just outside the Promised Land. He understood this strange path to wisdom.
What did he know that we often forget? He wasn’t just willing to live in the shadow of His own death. He pleads with God to help him do so. Why? I think Psalm 90 gives us four clues as to why the coffin in the garage is a path to wisdom.
God is bigger
First, the coffin in the garage reminds us that God is bigger. We humans think we’re so stinking important. The universe revolves around me, and I am the invincible, master of my own destiny. Until I see that pine box (I think I’m going to go with pine) and I realize how small, temporary, and unbelievably insignificant I am compared with God.
Look how Moses begins this prayer: 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)
We are dust. God was before the mountains. Our end comes with a sigh (v.9). God has no beginning or end. We are for a moment. With God a thousand years are like a day.
And when I see how much bigger God is than me, it gives me trust. I can rely on Him. It gives me perspective. I only see such a small portion of the universe and such a blip of God’s plan. Now is everything to me but He sees it all. And it leads me to repentance for my own self-importance, self-reliance, and self-determination. That is wisdom. Oh, that we all had a coffin in the garage!
What’s most important
Second, the coffin in the garage reminds us what’s most important. A few months ago I had a much-too-close encounter with a bear. Our family was on a hike deep in the wilderness of Sequoia National Park, no other humans in sight, when we heard a terrible rustling in the bushes. I went to inspect and came face to face with a massive bear maybe 10 feet away.
I cannot express the amount of clarity I had in that moment. I didn’t think about work or money or sex or comfort or my reputation or my desires or my rights or my hobbies. I forgot about COVID and politics and pretty much everything but this: Keep my family alive!
This is what happens when we stare death in the face. We refocus on the things that matter most. Which is why I think Moses prays this next: 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. (v.12-14)
I don’t need all those other things. What I need is for my Maker to satisfy me in the morning with His love, so that I may have joy all the days I do have. When I think my days in this life will last forever, I forget that, and I try to go out and get it on my own. When I remember the coffin, my focus comes back to what’s most important, and that is wisdom.
Make the most of every moment
Third, the coffin in the garage reminds us to make the most of every moment. We are finite creatures and our time in this life is so limited, yet how much of my life is wasted on Netflix and social media? I find it so interesting that Moses ends this prayer with these words: Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! (v.17)
On the one hand we are dust but on the other hand Moses asks God to establish our work. To make something of our efforts. To take our feeble attempts and to make something lasting from our labor. It’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it? We all want to invest in that which outlasts us, and even though Moses knows how ephemeral we are, he still asks God to make it count.
It’s short but it’s not meaningless. The work you do, the relationships you form, the institutions you participate in all matter. I imagine backing out of my garage, glimpsing the coffin in the corner, and thinking: I’d better get to work! When we see our own personal timer ticking down closer to zero it gives everything we do a greater sense of urgency and fuels a desire to make the most of every moment. That is wisdom.
Reminds us that death is not the end
Finally, the coffin in the garage reminds us that death is not the end. For God’s people, death is not the end of our story. We will live forever. There is infinite time ahead. So while we are reminded here to make the most of every moment, we are also reminded that we have all the time in the world.
If you are with Jesus, you will never run out of time. Not really. If we understand that all of reality is building toward New Creation, then the work you begin now will continue. The relationships you form with God’s people will never end. The good things you always wished you had a little more time for, you will have a little more time for.
And we’ll have all the time in the world for God to make us glad and to restore and renew us. For Moses prays: Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. (v.15-16)
Yet Moses never entered the Promised Land. He died just outside. He didn’t see the answer to this part of his prayer in his lifetime on earth, but as one of God’s own, death was not the end. There is always time for God to make it right.
Numbering my days reminds me that ultimately with Jesus, there is no number to my days. I don’t have to cram it all in. I don’t have to get everything I want right now. I can sacrifice, I can be patient, I can suffer, I can live with hope because even when my days on earth end, my days will not end. Living a life like that is wisdom.
Coffin Building 101
So maybe we should build our own coffins and store them in our garages! Maybe not. But we should pray this regularly: So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
May each of us live accordingly.