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The Coffin in the Garage

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.

 

Nathan Miller

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. What a fabulous devotional (albeit from an unexpected quirky but effective angle)! One of the consistently strong contributions CCC has made to my life and perspective is the Brevity of Life (as you point out so profoundly, earthly temporal life). Your skillful blending of brevity, eternity and our calling to redemptive work is almost a gospel in itself. As a man just having turned 70 and retiring this month, I can testify to to the speed of passage and brevity of this present life. Your points here are a powerful roadmap for living a godly, joy-filled life daily.

    Your next assignment- How to share this critical road to wisdom with the young (my grandchildren) and invincible without waxing morbid?

    1. Chip, thanks for calling it quirky! I would have also accepted weird or morbid! 🙂 Thanks for your thoughtful engagement and encouragement. It’s helpful hearing how you are processing this while entering retirement and thinking about grandchildren. I’m sure that adds a helpful perspective. I’d love to learn from you on this.

      As for sharing this wisdom with the young…while avoiding morbidity… I’m not sure I’ve got wisdom here. Our personal practice with our kids (14 and 12), is to just speak openly and transparently about all kinds of things. So on the one hand we do try to remind them that life is very short and we need to make the most of it. While at the same time trying to remind them that eternity is very long, and that with Jesus, we literally have FOREVER. It’s a hard balance, and I’m sure we cross the line into “preaching” and/or just being super depressing, but we try to weave these kinds of things into “normal” conversation as often as possible. Sometimes I think we might try so hard to protect our kids that we end up leaving them unprepared for reality. Hard balance, for sure!

      Grateful for you, Chip!

  2. “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.”

    I so love this! I am grateful for the reminder that I need to start my day with this connection to my Maker. I so need to experience His love and receive His wisdom.

  3. Well said, Nathan! Most of our garages are so full of stuff or they are so small that a there would not be room for a coffin. That tends to be an indicator of our use of days as well. They are crammed with so much stuff that is not eternal. Psalm 90 is a good reminder! If 70 is my limit then I have 0.7% of my life left! If it is 80 then I have 13% left. The finish line is near.
    I was reading Luke 19 recently about Zacchaeus. This is the only place in the NT where Jesus tells someone to hurry. As I read of Jesus’ life, He never hurried nor did He require it of those who followed Him. He was not time driven as we are. He was interruptible. He ministered to the person at hand and then moved on. Never hurried, harried, frazzled or frustrated about getting stuff done. There is so much to be said for a “Mary life” over a “Martha life.” Perhaps we all need to clean out our garages so we have room for a coffin!

    1. I love this, Bruce! That’s a great spin on the metaphor. You’re exactly right — we have too much stuff in our lives to sometimes even think about these kinds of things. We live our lives so cluttered and so hurried we do often forget the things that are most important. Jesus was never in a hurry. That’s something to chew on, for sure! I’m convicted… Thanks!

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