Today is my birthday.
Fifty-six years ago this afternoon I was born in the metropolis of Athens, Tennessee right in the middle of the McMinn County High School Homecoming Parade. Ever the multitasker, my blessed mother spent the early hours of her labor making place cards for the evening’s alumni banquet. My father, who was not present during the birth–men didn’t do that sort of thing in those days–stopped by to meet me and still made it on time to the banquet, along with the place cards and a fistful of cigars.
I’ve spent part of the day telling myself that fifty-six isn’t that old. Age-wise, I’m in the same neighborhood as George Clooney, Bono, and Antonio Banderas, although I think they’re rather better preserved than I. I’ve spent the rest of the day thinking that fifty-six is ancient and marveling at how fast time goes by. Fifty-six is not ancient–that’s the influence of our youth-obsessed culture talking–but there is no doubt that our days fly by. Furthermore, being reminded of that fact is one of the best reasons to keep track of our birthdays.
In saying this I am reminded of a quote from my commonplace book; I’ve shared before but I think it’s worth repeating. It comes from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.). A philosopher, statesman, and playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ. He was also as pagan as they come. The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author. I think the quote below is a case in point.
Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate Vitae—On the Brevity of Life:
The majority of mortals . . . complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. . . . It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.
Read woodenly, Seneca seems to be denying one of the most undeniable declarations of Scripture, namely that our lives are short. Time and again, we hear the biblical writers remind us that our lives are no more than a “breath,” a “passing shadow,” a “puff of smoke” (Job 7:7, Psalm 144:4, James 4:14). But far from dismissing this truth, he is calling us to confront a more haunting one: when our lives are at an end, it won’t be the length of our time on earth but the portion of it that we have squandered that grieves us most.
“Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.”–Psalm 90:12