As you age you clearly become more aware of the brevity of life, at least of your own life. Today I celebrate my sixty-fourth birthday. There was a time when a big deal was made out of my birthday but I celebrated my birthday yesterday with my wife and two adult children, a simple meal and quiet time to be together. Life, and birthdays, are more simple for me these days. Don’t get me wrong. I am incredibly grateful to be alive. I love life and I really love this blessing the Lord has granted to me of longer life. I just never had any idea that I would actually get to this point in life. (I doubt anyone does if you get my drift.)
Job says, “Are not the days of my life few? Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort” (Job 10:20). Well, the days of our life are few and if measured by centuries or millennia or, especially, by eternity they are very few regardless of how long we live.
Psalm 144 came to my mind as I thought about my life this week. David writes in verses 3-4:
O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them,
or mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a passing shadow (NRSV).
My days are like a “passing shadow.” I know it and I feel it very deeply. On a sunny day I sit for a season, perhaps on my porch or deck, and watch the shadows move over me so slowly yet within what seems like no time the movement of the earth has caused the sun’s shadows to pass by me in a noticeable way. At age 64 you have seen shadows move and you know it, both mentally and physically. Yet, I am more positive about the future than ever. I am positive about my life on earth and very positive about what comes when this life is done. There is no room for pessimism or morbidity. Joy abounds if you have lived by faith for as long as I have. I have a hope and it is not to be finally found in this mortal life. It is eternal and safely in the keeping of Jesus my Lord and Savior.
I reflected on my life just a few days ago when I read the obituary of the late surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop. An evangelical Christian, and long time leader at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Dr. Koop was a controversialist type of guy. (I identify a little.) Dr. Koop spoke about things that many wished he would have kept quiet about. He shocked many conservatives when he suggested condoms would help in stopping the spread of HIV. He also suggested that there was no clear medical evidence to support the conclusion that an abortion had harmful psychological effects upon women. This view might have been even more provocative in many circles than the one on condoms. But Dr. Koop was a man of faith and science. Unless he saw the evidence for a medical opinion he did not embrace a position just because others did so or suggested that he should. He was clear-headed and always willing to speak out when many would not. He was also a consummate professional with commitment to the health of Americans. In effect he made the office of surgeon general more than a mere figurehead position. He once described himself as the “health conscience of the nation.” In 1989 he said, “My only influence was through moral suasion.” Think about that one. In some ways that is the deepest and most profound way we influence anyone.
I met Dr. Koop several times. Once I was giving a seminar on renewal movements and he was in the back corner of the room. Another time I preached in the pulpit at Tenth and he was right down at the front where I could not miss him. We chatted but we never became personal friends. I read parts of his autobiography and admired the singular way in which he carried out his deeply personal faith in public life. He was a serious public intellectual who never surrendered his core faith to pressures from any side. He died in New Hampshire earlier this week at age 96.
Last week I was browsing in the library of Trinity School for Ministry (Anglican) in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. I had a few minutes to spend before an appointment was to be met. I decided to see how many of my books were on their shelves. I went to the computer and typed in my name. I noted that it said: “John H. Armstrong, 1949–.” It struck me that every author has a birth date and every one will one day have a death date at the end of their entry in the system. Mine will someday say: “John H. Armstrong, 1949–??” For some odd reason this simple text on the screen struck me very deeply and I realized again that my days are passing like a shadow and will soon be gone.
I do not dread death. I’m not crazy about dying but then who is. I love my life and do not think about dying all the time. But I do think about death! I ponder it daily. I think about Jesus behind a curtain yet right here with me right now. At death I will be taken by his angels behind this vast cosmic curtain, perhaps made of light, and there I will “see” my Lord for the first time. There is an old hymn that I love so much. It is often sung at funerals but we ought to sing it more often with deep celebration. I first sang this hymn when I came to Wheaton College in 1969. It expresses something of what I feel today, on my sixty-fourth birthday:
When all my labors and trials are o’er,
And I am safe on that beautiful shore,
Just to be near the dear Lord I adore,
Will through the ages be glory for me.
O that will be glory for me,
Glory for me, glory for me,
When by His grace I shall look on His face,
That will be glory, be glory for me.
When, by the gift of His infinite grace,
I am accorded in Heaven a place,
Just to be there and to look on His face,
Will through the ages be glory for me.