January 1st, my birthday. In the cool, dark, early morning hours of the new year, I stood in my backyard with a good friend and turned a telescope toward the eastern sky. Saturn was rising, a bright dot in the arc of the ecliptic, preceding the sun by only a couple of hours. Ted and I thought this a perfect opportunity to once again gaze upon the amazing oddness of Saturn – a world encircled and majestic – with our very eyes. We also figured it would be a memorable way to mark the beginning of 2012 while quietly affirming the lasting quality of our friendship – one bound by aviation and art, as well as an uncommon interest in the mysteries of the universe, and life.
Being born on New Year’s Day, I’ve been blessed with a lifetime of great birthday parties. But here in Kenya, there’s not much to mark the countdown and arrival like I had known in my youth in urban New Jersey. No glitzy light-encrusted million dollar “ball”. No exuberant crowds. No rockin’ party with Dick Clark in Times Square. Not even fireworks. The flow of time in Africa, measured by the motion of the planets or the calendars of western civilization, passes rather uneventfully in comparison – quietly, as in a manner more natural to the created order it seems. Not unnoticed, but relatively unsung.
We often lose track of not only days, but whole months and seasons out here. Except for Jesus’ birth and resurrection, we pretty much skip all the holidays too. But not birthdays, and in recent years we’ve tried harder to make them special. Amelia’s 13th last month was the single biggest party we’ve ever thrown. And January 1st, my 40th, was beautifully memorable – especially for me.
Renee baked my favorite cake – German chocolate – and we invited over a few of our favorite people (kids and all) for an all-night, sleep-over, camping-in-the-backyard, New Year’s Eve celebration. We shared food and games and joined hands in the living room to watch the countdown, without fanfare, on a computer synchronized to our time zone and an atomic clock somewhere far away. The kids shouted out the last twenty seconds. Renee leaned over and kissed me. We lit candles and ate birthday cake at 12:15 am. And soon thereafter, the youth retreated to their tents and the grown-ups to warmer accommodation throughout the house. Ted and I set alarms for 4:30am and made a pact to drag ourselves from bed and to the telescope if indeed the skies were clear.
And there at the given hour we stood, calibrating the scope to track that singular bright point in the eastern sky, whispering about what a great way this was to begin the new year. As we took turns at the eyepiece and each, in turn, breathed sober words of wonderment, I thought about what we were seeing: Another world in a moment in time. The effect was altogether humbling, as if I were the smallest of creatures who, while holding all the scientific equipment, had mistakenly assumed that he was the observer and not the observed.
Funny how your place in this world seems tenuous when you consider the place of the world in a grander setting. And how time seems as massive and unstoppable as the motion of a Gas Giant when you dare to hold a moment of it.
And the moment we held brought to mind the words of the Psalmist, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
The context of the passage is our human mortality; but that, in the context of God’s glory emblazoned across our days, like a comet in the night sky.
There in the early morning hours of my 14,610th day, I felt older than I had ever felt before. Sure, mid-life and half-sleep will have that effect, but this was different. This was age with wisdom, and perhaps more than I deserved. Wisdom is, after all, a matter of perspective – understanding and insight in not just what we see, but in how we see it. In my view from the backyard that morning, I could count my days – backwards, and in some inexplicable way, forwards – and I could count God’s unmerited favor all throughout. I could see myself a wiser man, and judging from the friends I shared the day with, a richer one too.