The text in this post comes from an article of mine published in the student magazine at college this month. It is the product of deeper thought on the topic of a previous post on this blog, so if you think you recognise parts of it, that is why!
What kind of old man do you want to be?
Admittedly, I’m never going to be any kind of old man given my gender, but I love this question. MacDonald asks it in his book ‘The Life God Blesses’. It catches my imagination somehow.
I have to be honest, I don’t aspire to be old. In fact, along with the rest of my generation, I somewhat dread it. Who wants to be old, after all? Wise, yes. Old, no. It’s just not an attractive concept. Limbs that ache constantly, pains in places I never knew really existed, memory loss, reduced mobility – bring it on…not!
Yet, there is something about age which could be positive. But only if I finish well.
The idea of finishing is significant to me. I know that at the tender age of 30 the world does not expect me to become all philosophical about life yet. But I’ve done a lot of thinking and I want to finish well. I don’t want to be like so many others whom I see, losing their focus and prioritising other things that are not the one thing they promised allegiance to.
It seems to me that the second letter to Timothy gets it right: when I am old, I want to be able to say that I have finished the race, fought the good fight and kept the faith. I want to be running hard over the finish line on the day I die and not to have wandered off the track. I want still to be standing for the same truth for which I claim to stand now.
But that kind of ending to my story is not going to happen by accident. What kind of old person I’m going to be depends very much on how I choose to live now.
In his book, MacDonald presents the example of Caleb who, in his eighties, is still going strong. At forty years old, Caleb had believed God to take Israel into the Promised Land; his faith was so strong that, even surrounded by men who did not dare to dream, Caleb stood against the crowd, raised his eyes above the circumstances and declared what could be.
Yet, because of the nation’s unbelief and fear, Caleb’s dream got postponed for forty years.
Now many would have said that those forty years should have been the prime of Caleb’s life, the years of success, the peak of his career, the time when gifts and skills have been honed and personal awareness already gained. Caleb, quite simply, should have experienced a sense of convergence between his gifts, dreams and service for God.
But instead he had the dubious privilege of walking in circles around a desert. With a motley collection of grumbling Israelites. And the sure and certain knowledge that none of this would end until the last of that generation died off. It’s not what dreams are made of, is it?
And I think that, were we Caleb, most of us would have given up on God by then; we’d have found a vision which was less costly and dreams which might actually stand a chance of becoming reality. We’d have found a way to set our sights lower and we’d have sought fulfilment where we could. In a way, I wonder whether, in Caleb’s shoes, we might have begun to ‘live small’.
I suspect that it would have been the subtle things at first: we might have become less willing to thank God in all circumstances and we might have moaned just a little. And then as the sand began to seep into just about everything we possessed, we’d perhaps have moaned some more, lost heart and maybe even dreamed of Egypt. Our greatest dream might have become only to contrive never to eat manna again!
You can give a wry smile at this point; you can be glad that you are not in the desert walking endlessly in shoes that never wear out. But I also want to suggest that there’s still a point in this for us in the supposedly enlightened twenty-first century.
You see, as I reflect on the Biblical account, I realise that the deferral of dreams is one of those things which could stop me finishing well. So often, as Christians, we focus on the obvious areas of sin which could take us out. And that’s not wrong: we are wise to be alert to the wiles of money, sex and power…and any other formulation of temptation which is uniquely ours! But the enemy of our souls is not above more subtle means of diverting us from the one to whom we promised allegiance. And hope deferred, as Proverbs reminds us, makes the heart grow sick.
When I started leading a church, it was the beginning of the fulfilment of a call which God gave me about seven years earlier. And at first I expected the remainder of his promises to me to be fulfilled by him in quick succession. I thought that seven years was a long time to wait, especially seven years of what was spiritual wilderness in many ways. I had been pleased that I had kept believing throughout the seven years, kept trusting the promise and the God of the promise. Now all I was waiting for was the rest of the blessings to rain down from heaven.
But oh, how wrong can you be?! Why do so few people tell us that when God gives the big promises to his people, his timescale is often years, perhaps even decades? And not just years and decades but usually wilderness years and decades where God chisels character, where he breaks in order to remould.
In my privilege of leading this church, I’ve received the foretaste of promises fulfilled.
But, even now, some days all I see is sand rather than the fulfilment of promise. My dreams are bigger than the reality which I now perceive.
And I expect that I will carry some of those dreams unfulfilled far into my old age. Hope will be deferred for a time. It’s what God does. He does this because he has something bigger planned. He did it to Caleb, he did it to the rest of the saints who were commended for their faith, and he’ll do it to you and me. You can be sure of that.
The question, though, is what I will do with that. Will hope deferred make my heart sick? Will I fix my eyes only on what is seen or will I look to the unseen reality?
Though many of us give up because it is too painful to keep dreaming big dreams, to keep believing great and precious promises, to keep fighting and to keep running the race, Caleb didn’t quit. He believed God and he kept his focus on the promises. He could have been diverted by the deferral of hope; he could have been taken out of the race through disappointment. Yet instead it seems that he chose to feed his dreams and to keep running with God, a choice emotionally more costly than quitting.
And so it is that at the grand old age of eighty-something, Caleb is still ready for his opportunity. When the time came for fulfilment, Caleb was prepared for God’s promised reality. At an age when he should have been tucked up in bed, he is still running the race! We see no bitterness that what should have been the prime of his life passed him by in a desert sand dustcloud. We also do not see the apathetic lethargy which can take hold of those whose lives did not work out to their plan.
Not only that but Caleb is still up for a fight! What I think I love most perhaps about this man is that when Israel gets into Canaan, he doesn’t ask for a nice square of farmland where he can grow old(er!) and die with his people. Goodness knows, that would have been enough for most of us! But Caleb demands the hill country, a land which is difficult to capture, full of the Anakites and their fortified cities. In his mid-eighties, this old man is still fighting giants because he knows that his dream has not yet come to pass and God has not yet finished with him.
One thing I know about Caleb is that he finishes well. Despite great disappointment, despite the deferral of hope, despite the passing of his youth, Caleb is still running the race until the end.
And so I ask: what kind of preparation is it going to take to ensure that I will be a Caleb? What choices can I make today to prepare myself to keep running no matter what disappointments come? You see, the path along which God calls us seems never to be as smooth as we would have desired. Jesus called it the narrow path for good reason. At times, we will be pressed to a point which feels far beyond our ability to endure. There are stones over which we can stumble, there are ruts in the road and sometimes there are plain big holes to fall into! So, I can’t rely on the road home being easy. My journey will be opposed on every side.
Yet, as I read and allow myself to be read by the story of Caleb, I am convinced that our best hope for finishing well is to do whatever it takes to keep the hope alive. If we can do everything in us to renew daily our love for the one to whom we promised our lives… if we can make even small choices today to put his desires above our own… if we can deepen our dependence on him and wean ourselves from independence… if we can daily stir up our hope that the promises for this world and the next will be fulfilled because he who promised is faithful…
…perhaps then we will finish well. Pray that it may be so.