People tell me that I look young for my age, but there’s no denying that Father Time is beginning to catch up with me. Wrinkles, the occasional white (or is it gray?) hair, and unexplained aches and pains tell me I’m not the kid I used to be. And that’s OK.
The 40s for me have become the decade of not taking things for granted. This plays out in every area of my life, producing in me both a seriousness of purpose and a deeper appreciation for all that God has blessed me with. Nearly every day, I think about the brevity of my remaining time on this earth. As the writer of Ecclesiastes cryptically says, God “has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
But while I am acutely aware of my mortality, I don’t think that awareness has made me morbid—or all that unusual.
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.
When I was a pimply-faced teen, I didn’t think about my good health, but just assumed it would continue unabated, pain free. But several broken bones later and after struggling with tendonitis and a touch of arthritis, I’ve learned to be thankful for my physical wellbeing.
And to nurture it. For the past year I’ve forsaken my sedentary lifestyle (an occupational hazard for writers) and been faithfully swimming for exercise. Because there is a history of cancer in my family, I have been more insistent with my doctor about certain issues, and I have begun to take some dietary supplements that might improve my chances.
These actions don’t reflect fear of what might happen so much as a desire to take control of my health and do the most with what I have. And physically, though I will never match my modest athletic accomplishments when I was in high school, I feel better than I have in years.
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.
There is no guarantee of physical health for any of us. I have seen increasing numbers of friends and colleagues struggle with cancer (sometimes repeatedly). One is coping with a rare, life-threatening blood disorder. Two people I knew and respected died unexpectedly after surgery. I’ve heard heart-breaking stories of neighbors whose children drowned in a bathtub or dropped dead in school. Every day, crime takes the lives of people who deserve to live every bit as much as I do.
You sweep them away as with a flood; 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.
The numbers can be downright alarming. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, some 2.4 million people died in the United States during 2002, or 845 for every 100,000 in population. (That’s uncomfortably close to one in 100.) For white males in my age range, the news is a little better. The death rate for us is a shade over 287 per 100,000. But in five years, it will be 420; in ten, 601. Then the slope toward death gets awfully slippery. In 30 years, it will be 3,469; in 45 years, it becomes 16,473.
For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
When I was young (note the past tense), the future stretched out like an endless horizon. Anything seemed possible—from being a professional football player to an artist. Experience and gifts, however, have taken me in completely different directions, not all of them expected. Yet I have come to trust the hand of Providence in my life, gently but firmly guiding me to places of provision, growth, and service. But while I trust in God’s sovereignty, I freely confess that my path is sometimes difficult. Life is not easy, nor was it meant to be. Thus, the need to appreciate and cherish the things we have.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
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.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
My kids have a sense of limitless possibilities before them. One wants to be a missionary; another hopes to work on railroads. A year from now, who knows what they will contemplate? They often envision multiple careers, not quite grasping that to say Yes to one thing necessarily means saying No to another. We don’t correct them. To do so would only dampen their joy.
My oldest son, who is approaching 7, wakes up each morning with an utterly innocent grin on his face. He’s not afraid of what the day may bring, though at his age tears are common. I seek to emulate his response to each new sunrise, not looking too far ahead and living fully in the present.
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!
Time with our children is not assured. We don’t know whether they will grow up and provide us with grandchildren to bounce on our knee. Each day is a gift to be opened and enjoyed fully on its own terms. Don’t wait for your kids to reach a certain level of maturity before you enjoy them. Relish each moment. Don’t take them for granted.
Teens and 20-Somethings see the future as an unending expanse. Yet that expanse starts to shrink just a bit when you hit your 40s. Instead of having 50 or 60 years ahead to explore the world, choose a mate, find a calling, and raise children, you may only have 30 or 40 (if that)—and many of the big decisions have already been made: college, career, spouse, where you live, children. You have fewer options now; you must make the best of the judgments already made. The 40s bring a new sense of limits.
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Part of this gladness involves narrowing our choices, discarding the merely good for the essential, given the short time we have. God doesn’t owe us anything, certainly not tomorrow. We are not promised a certain allotment of years. Each new dawn is a gift of grace, to be enjoyed and used for God’s glory.
As I have moved into what is politely called “middle age,” I’ve decided that people—who, after all, are so significant that the Son of God died for them—are of more value than money, status, power, or selfish pleasure. While I still have definite professional goals, in light of eternity, the relationships I have are looming ever larger on my horizon.
When I reach the end of my earthly life, I don’t think I will much care whether I wrote another book or attained a certain income. I will, however, care deeply about the people I am leaving behind. For the rest of my life (however long or short), before I see Him who tasted death for me, I want them to be my focus. And along the way, basking in the rays of my coming sunset, I will joyfully refuse to take my blessings for granted.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
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!
(Psalm 90, ESV)