Teach Us To Count Our Days
Over five years ago, my father, Nestor de Villa, along with the immediate family had no clue as to what awaited us while he underwent a critical six-hour operation at a Los Angeles hospital. After the thorough medical diagnosis and intensive surgery from a team of renowned doctors in their field of expertise, they broke the news to the family that Dad is suffering from an aggressive and incurable form of cancer. My father’s primary physician gave us this bit of medical wisdom. He said, “Doctors need to realize that there is a difference between bravery and foolishness.” In Dad’s case, it would have been foolish for them to continue the planned procedure. He confessed that medicine is an imperfect science; they have done all they could do, and beyond that, we would have to depend on God’s grace. And based on similar cases that they’ve treated, the physician strongly believed that Dad had about six months to live and no more than a year.
My father was still under anesthesia in the intensive care unit while we received this heartbreaking news. We worried and wondered how he would take the distressing report. We asked each other, “Was Dad aware of the bad news? Were the details finally disclosed to him? What would be his thoughts concerning the inoperable cancer?”
When my father was transferred to a regular room we paid him a visit. Dad apparently exercised his ‘Patient’s Rights and Privileges’ to know his condition as the doctor revealed their findings to him. In fact, while Dad recuperated from his surgical wounds, he had ample time to think through and reflect on a lot of things. My father is a candid and practical man. Well that morning he felt free to speak his mind, came clean, and shared his thoughts out loud. As we sat around Dad’s bedside he said, “Let’s face reality, people die of accidents, sickness, or old age. We are all terminal and will have to die some day. It is important that we use this time to plan and prepare for the inevitable in all of us.”
It was evident that the Lord had prepared Dad for this moment. I say this because a couple of years prior to the cancer’s discovery my father was interviewed in a local TV show entitled Persona. Towards the end of the interview Dad shared the reason why be became a follower of Jesus Christ. He explained that he believed in life after death and that this life wasn’t all there was. Dad explained, “Life is short. We have to be ready and know how it is to be with God when we pass away. That’s because we will never know when it will happen. It could happen tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month—it will happen. And how will we know if we will go to be with God?”
I returned to the Philippines to be by my father’s side before his passing. During that period, I got the chance to read my father’s bible that lay by his bedside. You see the bible was his sword. The word of God is the sword of the Spirit. And swords are not meant to be displayed on dusty altars or empty pews. Swords are to be drawn and wielded. My father wielded his sword well. As I opened his bible from cover to cover, I saw how he had marked and noted its many pages. I am blessed to have read his bible. It’s as though Dad has taken me by the hand and ushered me along the “path of pages” that God has led him through.
Dad had many favorite passages and verses that he quoted by memory. This happened to be the passage we read and studied together two weeks prior to his passing. You look at this page in his bible and you will know by all the markings that Dad has camped there for a little while. I would like to read excerpts from one of his favorite passages namely Psalm 90:1-12:
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 turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Based on the timeframe given us in Psalm 90, I have already lived out over half my life. The passage sparked my curiosity as I held my father’s hand and asked, “Dad, you’re going to be 76 years old and I am 46 years old. There’s thirty years between us. How do you feel about the past years of your life?”
Dad struggled to turn his head and looks me straight in the eye saying, “Gicky, it goes so fast.”
At the time of my visit, I had been away from the Philippines for almost thirteen years. In my absence, our family has lost many loved ones. We lost a nephew and a cousin in tragic accidents, another cousin to illness, a grandmother and three uncles to cancer. We even suffered the loss my father’s onscreen partner and close family friend, Nida Blanca, to an unsolved murder. And just recently I attended the memorial service of my childhood friend’s mother who lost her battle against leukemia and other medical complications. As I reflect on these losses, I have a sister-in-law who is presently battling cancer, a friend from seminary who has just undergone a surgical operation to remove a tumor, and a corporate lawyer who had to take an emergency leave of absence to be with his good friend in Florida who suffers from cancer.
I’m sure that I’m not the only one surrounded by friends and loved ones who have gone ahead or struggle with a disease or terminal illness. I’m almost certain that you have your stories as well. Like my father said, “We are all terminal and will have to die some day.” Our days quickly pass away and their span spells nothing but trouble. Life is so short. Life is so sorrowful. Life is so fast and furious. Life goes so fast…
This thought has a way of haunting a person who really wants his or her life to count for something or mean much to others. My father prayed alongside the Psalmist and asked the Lord to teach him to count his days that he may gain a “wise heart.” My father has been an actor in film and television for over five decades. When he came to know Jesus Christ in 1984, he determined in his heart to serve Him all the remaining years of his life. Although my father preached a simple message, he was a man with a mission. As a gifted evangelist, he would preach the good news of the kingdom of God at the drop of a hat. Many of you know that if you invited him to your church to preach, you can best be sure that he will be there. He will be excited for Jesus. He will preach as he’s never preached before.
There was an instance in the mid-eighties when my Dad observed three men who made a wrong turn and ended up in our family-owned Christian bookstore. He immediately saw an opportunity and cornered them. I heard him sharing the good news as these young men prayed to receive Jesus in their lives. About a year later, a man comes up to Dad and introduces himself. My father didn’t recognize him. He was clean-cut and clean-shaven. The man sported a white polo barong [Filipino formal shirt], held a bible in his hand, and had the biggest smile on his face. “Nestor,” he says, “don’t you remember me? I was one of the men you shared Jesus with at your bookstore. I now serve as the senior pastor in our church in Cavite.”
In the early nineties, my kids were present in one of their grandfather’s preaching events. Dad preached on and on throughout the evening. At one point my daughter Natalia, who was a toddler then, turns to me and says, “Daddy, Lolo [Grandfather] has more than a thousand words in his body! He doesn’t stop talking!” You all know that when Dad gets going he is unstoppable. We would warn the local pastor to plan for the service to go into overtime and be ready for an altar call. He is tireless. He is in his element. He is the consummate evangelist.
One of the last books Dad read was entitled The Purpose-Driven Life. This was a book whose title and message sums up his life. Dad was a living parable of the purpose-driven life. His purpose was clear and present. How he loved to preach the word. He preached in a photo studio, on a movie set, in the golf course, in the car or on an airplane. Just recently someone came up to me and shared that Dad preached to him in the fire escape. And there was no fire! The only fire he was experiencing was the fire in my father’s heart. Dad would preach in the local churches in Metro Manila, he would preach in the churches of the Visayas and Mindanao, and he would preach in the churches abroad. He would preach to the Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore as well as preach to the Filipino migrants in the United States. Believe me, I have seen my father in action. He will preach in season and out of season. He will preach to everything that has breath in it. He will preach to everything that moves!
Even in his final year, no hospital bed could contain Nestor de Villa. Mom and I went to visit him one morning and his bed was empty. Where did he go? Did they take him to the intensive care room? Did he suffer a mishap? Was he raptured at the Lord’s coming and we were left behind? Where is this guy? You see it didn’t take long for Dad to figure out that there were patients all around him. Patients who were confined to their beds. Patients who had nowhere to go. Patients who were patiently waiting their turn to hear some much needed good news. He found himself a captive audience who had nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide. And in spite of his own broken condition, this brave warrior continued to wield the “sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.” This valiant soldier refused to go quietly into the night. He resolved never to back down from the battle. If he was going to die, he was going to go down fighting to save more souls for the kingdom of heaven. In the gospel according to Nestor de Villa, no one, I mean no one in the world, gets left behind.
In his final days, my father stood alongside the apostle Paul and cried out, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.”
My father’s days were numbered as I cradled his head in my arms. His battle-worn body was badly beaten and full of holes. Fellow soldiers, as I held our fallen comrade in my arms I heard him whisper, “Butas na butas ang katawan ko.” [My body is full of holes.] At the last hour, Mom wet his lips with water for he was thirsty. Dad drank of it and then gave up his spirit.
On the morning of February 21, 2004, a band of warrior angels drew near and picked up this slain soldier from Battlefield Earth. They carried him on their shoulders and brought him through the glorious gates of heaven in triumph. They wouldn’t have it any other way. For God said, “He was a soldier of the kingdom. Honor him!” Dad’s earthly body entered into glory as Jesus Himself clothed him with his heavenly body, set a crown on his head, and embraced him into the kingdom saying before all the heavenly host, “Well done good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness!”
And for the first time, in a very long time, my father and fallen comrade, Nestor de Villa, leaped up and danced with God as he experienced an unspeakable joy.
The Psalmist reminds us that our real residence is not in this temporal place but in an Eternal Person. It is with the Lord God who has been there from start to finish. In Psalm 90:1-2 he says, “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.” God was in my father’s life from its obscure beginnings to its glorious ending. From the time God shouted, “Action!” until the time he cried, “Cut!” God was there. From a little-known town in Nueva Ecija, to the city lights of Metro Manila, God. From the halls of the school of medicine to the roles in the Philippine silver screen, God. From a bit part in Amor Mio to the box-office smash hit Ikaw Kasi, God. From the glory days of LVN Studios to the award-winning Nida-Nestor Show, God. From a successful movie actor to a faithful servant of the Lord, God. Lord, you have been my father’s haven of rest…his hiding place…his present address. Today and for all eternity, my father is ‘at home’ in the Lord.
Remember that the psalmist reminded us “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong.” How many of you are over half a century old? These past days, I catch myself looking in the mirror and saying, “Dad?” Life moved so rapidly for my father that it felt as though he had been swept away through time by a forceful flood. We all dive into life thinking that we had an endless amount of time and energy only to discover that after a few fancy strokes, we gasp for breath then drown and die. The bible says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
There’s a dedication written by a dear friend in the front page of my father’s bible. It reads, “Nestor, God’s plans for you are good!” Indeed, my father realized God’s good plan in his lifetime. How many of you believe that God’s plans for you are good? The bible says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Today, you can discover the good purpose you were created for. God is willing and able to freely impart to us the indispensable heart wisdom to know how to count our days that we may make our days count.Tragically, scores of souls will live empty lives that count for nothing. The way of life that Jesus offers is abundant as it is eternal—we can have it to the full!
My father’s passing was so sudden, so swift. Nobody can truly prepare for the time when the death of a celebrated loved one comes knocking on your door. The announcement of Nestor de Villa’s death was broadcast live on nationwide radio and television on the morning of his death. Our home phones and cellular phones were ringing off the hook. The television networks and radio stations contacted the family members requesting for live interviews. The newspapers and the Internet followed suit with a slew of headlines and articles in the front page and the entertainment section: “Actor Nestor de Villa Succumbs to Cancer, Dies at 75.”
Like my father said, “Life is short. We have to be ready and know how it is to be with God when we pass away. That’s because we will never know when it will happen. It could happen tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month—it will happen.” Life goes so fast…
[i] Gicky Soriano, The Last Man Dancing: The Nestor de Villa Story (Manila: OMF Literature 2011), 185-193.
[ii] Interview of Nestor de Villa by Jeric Soriano, in Persona, 2002, Tape recording, ABS-CBN, Quezon City.
[iii] Hebrews 4:12.
[iv] Psalm 90:12.
[v] Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).
[vi] Ephesians 6:17.
[vii] 2 Timothy 4:7-8.
[viii] 2 Corinthians 5:1-4.
[ix] Matthew 25:21
[x] Wikipedia, Nestor de Villa (July 6, 1928 – February 21, 2004) was a Filipino actor frequently cast in musical films. He was a gifted dancer often paired with frequent onscreen partner Nida Blanca in both movies and television. His dancing talent led some to call him the "Fred Astaire of the Philippines."
[xi] Psalm 90:10.
[xii] James 4:13-14.
[xiii] Ephesians 2:10.
[xiv] John 10:10.
© 2009 Gicky Soriano