Teach Us to Number Our Days
Memoir by Michael Usey
April 17, 2003
The purpose of a Christian funeral is to bear witness to the resurrection and to celebrate the way in which a person’s life was a window to God. In my congregation, this is accomplished not by a sermon, which focuses on a passage of scripture, nor by a eulogy, which concentrates on a person’s life, but rather with a memoir, which centers on the way we experienced God’s love through a person’s life. A memoir is a blending of both sermon and eulogy into a celebration of the manner in which God shone through this person’s life.
Psalm 90, which you just heard read, is one of the most unusual. The mention of Moses in the superscription conjures up a scene. This psalm may be best heard as though Moses were now at Mount Pisgah (Deut 34). He has come to the end of his life. He stands looking at the promised land to which he has been headed all his life (see Heb.11.23-8). Now it dawns on him that he will not go there. He embraces that painful reality that his life goal will stop short of fruition. He submits to that reality from God-but that does not stop him from yearning.
The pivotal point in the psalm is, in my opinion, in verse 12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” This is the point of the prayer. The first 12 verses are a probe into our true situation with God. The goal of prayer & spirituality is finally to have “a wise heart.”
Obviously a wise heart does not mean knowledge, technique, or the capacity to control. Instead, a wise heart is the ability to submit, relinquish, and acknowledge God’s true place in our life. Wisdom is on the one hand, the understanding that things are connected in inscrutable ways, and will not be mocked; and on the other hand, in the frame of that connectedness, human persons have great power, freedom, and responsibility
Thu knew all this about life, that things are connected in inscrutable ways and that she, as a human and as a Christian, she had great power, freedom, and responsibility. Not that she was always that way: as a very young child, Thu was attached to her mom, Cam Van Le. She was her mom’s tail, her sisters said. When she was a year and a half old, her mother went into the bathroom and closed the door. Thu even waited outside the locked bathroom door crying, saying “I want my mother.” It was at this time that her siblings discovered Thu was afraid of cotton in its raw form. The soft and spongy cotton seemed spidery and alive, and even into adulthood, cotton creeped her out. So of course her sisters would tease her with some scary cotton.
Thu loved to read. Her entire life she read. Thu hated housework, choosing when she could to read: her sister Lan remembers her coming home from school and, instead of helping out in the house, flopping down on the sofa, reading a book as she lay down. She read all the time. She loved poems and any kind of magazine. Even after leaving Vietnam 10 or 11 years ago, she still asked to be sent Reader’s Digest from there by friends and family. She read the Bible, mysteries, and love stories. A familiar sight to those who knew her well was Thu eating with one hand and holding a book in the other, reading as she ate. To read is to open yourself up to new ideas, arguments, experiences and places. Reading is exercise for the strong mind. Maybe this is one reason why she was so bright: Thu adored reading.
You didn’t have to be around Thu very long to know she was brilliant. She was always in the top ten students in whatever school she attended, from grade school on. Her sister Lan (who is also quite bright) remembers that Thu read non-academic books while Lan had to study hard to make her high grades. Chris Griggs, her brother-in-law, had a Calculus class at UNCG, and Thu was also in the class. He remembers that Thu made 100 on every exam and every quiz, except one in which she missed one problem, so she made a 98.5. “I should have gotten that problem, I knew it,” she obsessed later. When it came time for the final exam, the professor went over what time the class needed to there ready to take the final, early one morning. “All of you need to be there at 8 am ready to go,” he said, “All except you Thu, you can go have a cup of coffee.” When another student protested that this wasn’t fair, the professor said, “Yes, it is fair. Thu has aced every test and quiz, and she has a 100 average in the course.”
She also loved music, and she especially enjoyed singing. In fact, one of the reasons she loved Psalm 90 was that it was the text of a favorite hymn that she and her family used to sing together. Thu played guitar too. The people at College Park church still remember the Sunday morning in 1995 on Epiphany in which Thu and her sisters sang.
Thu was not very tall: 4 feet 9 inches, maybe 100 pounds. Not that any of her siblings are NBA material, but Thu was genuinely petite, elegant, and beautiful. Maybe her size was one of the reasons she loved dolls so much. Thu adored tiny dolls and the small things that went with them. She owned 100s of petite dolls from Vietnam, Japan, and all over the world-most of which will be saved for Lillian. One of the most beautiful features of Thu was her huge grin, her winning smile that covered much of her face. She was quick to laugh, and even quicker to make a joke or a witty remark.
Her sister once told Thu in jest, “You small but big mouth.” Which was true, really. She had a tongue like a rapier, a sharp sword. Her mind and her words were more than a match to bullies who had the misfortune of trying to match wits with Thu. One time when she was visiting her uncle in Canada, she was in the car with Lan and Chris, when a burly guy in a Trans Am blocked their car in on purpose and just sat there. This was a big mean looking guy, doing this just for spite or just to be rude. So when Thu had had enough of this nonsense, she popped out of the car and walked up to the rude guy’s window and let him have it: “You selfish old man [even though the bully was young], what the matter with you?” She was not afraid to unsheathe her tongue, and in a battle of wits with her, many people were disarmed.
Once in Vietnam when she was growing up, Thu and Lan were on a motorcycle going to English class. The traffic was thick when a man on a big deluxe motorcycle cut them off, and their bike hit the back tire of this big bike in front of them. All three crashed to the ground, but no one was hurt. Lan was struggling to pick up her cycle, as was the guy in front of them, when Thu darted out of the back of the cycle and ran over to the guy and starting giving him a piece of her mind, “Why did you cut us off? What did you do that for?” She demanded, and she smacked him. He deserved more. Her petite size hid an assertive, fearless inner spirit.
Most of our strengths are also our weaknesses, and a brilliant mind and a quick tongue can be both blessing and curse. While she was cheerful most all the time, her family knew she was also a deeply private person. She did not talk with her sisters, whom she loved deeply, about the problems she and her husband were having. We wish now she had been less private.
In high school in the late 80s, she was the youth leader of a youth group of about 50-60 young people. She was certainly not shy, and she was articulate as she led them in both bible study and singing. Many of the kids idolized her, and it was there she first met Long. This is the period in her life when she was probably the happiest.
Although she might have been the happiest when she landed a job with AT&T as a software engineer. She loved her work and her coworkers. She was proud of her work there, and told all her family when she and her team solved a thorny software issue, or discovered a bug in a program. She made good money, a fact which she did not hide, yet she used that money to be extremely generous with all her family, and Long’s family too. She helped her sister in Vietnam, helping to pay her niece and nephew’s way through college. She never forgot those around her. Just a week ago, she showed up at the Griggs’ home with a complete dinner for them: roasted chicken, French bread, rhubarb pie. She dropped it off as a gift and left. This type of generosity was a deep part of Thu, as was her loyalty to family and friends. One of her best friends in Vietnam she emailed and talked to frequently was [Boa]. She figured out a way to rig up a fax line with a phone, so she and Boa could talk for free. Thu and Boa grew up together, from 6th to 12th grade. And of course, Thu loved her children, David and Lillian, who will now grow up with their biological mother or father. She named her daughter Lillian, which in Vietnamese is [why-two] a beautiful but sad name for a flower. Thu will need help from all of us in raising those beautiful children of hers. I ask each one of you to write down a memory or two of Thu and mail it to either her mother or to Lan and Chris, so that these memories can be combined and preserved for David and Lillian to know some small part of their mother. The children and Mrs. Cam Van Le need our prayers too most especially, as does the entire Doan family and even Long. Thu will be greatly missed in several churches: in ours, College Park Baptist, where she was first a member when she arrived her; in the Vietnamese Christian Missionary Alliance Church where she was now active, in the Catholic church in which her brother is a member, and in the Vietnamese church that Paul leads at First Baptist Church, High Point. All these ministers are a testimony to how deeply Thu was involved with church and how deeply she loved God.
To Thu’s mother, Mrs. Cam Van Le, I say this on behalf of all: We here loved Thu deeply, because she was kind, generous, loyal, fun-loving, and bright, and because she lived her short life with honor, courage, chutzpah, and integrity. She loved God and the people around her fiercely. She had these qualities because she saw them in you, Mrs. Doan. You raised to be a good person, an honorable woman, and a follower of our lord Jesus Christ, and because of that, we honor you, we thank you.
To be clear, God had no part in Thu’s murder. God did not cause her early death. God has commanded that we do not murder, and Thu’s murder is not God’s will. We are free to do evil or good, and we must now live as best we can with the evil that has been done to our sister Thu and her children.
Fortunately, our God’s specialty is bringing about good things from our evil acts. God does not cause evil-humans do that-but God is great at twisting the evil we do into something good and remarkable and holy. This is most clearly seen in the manner in which God turned the murder of God’s messiah, Jesus, into the salvation of the world. I believe God will not allow the horror of Thu’s untimely death to remain unchallenged, for death is not final word in our lives, but God’s unending love.
This is to me is the beauty of Psalm 90, for it moves from despair to hope. The speaker has looked life and death squarely in the face, and has decided that our lives are not defined by dust and grass, but by the One who brings us to our final home safely. God’s redemptive power is at work in us, in our lives, and our death; our future belongs to God. Thu knew this; she has not merely brilliant, she also had a wise heart. She knew her life and death belonged to God. Because of this, we will one day see her smile again.