Today a day like any other day, tonight a night like any other night. Yet most of us will experience the day as different. It is arbitrary, this day. The Chinese have another such day as do the Jews. But it has become a powerful symbol of the passing of time.
Tonight at midnight, those of us who are still awake, will experience time not just as infinite divisions of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years running on forever into infinity, but as time racing swiftly into the past, lost to us forever, a reminder of the fleeting character of life itself. Tonight we mark the fact that we have one less year to live. Or as the friendly but ambiguous birthday card put it, “Think Positive. Birthdays add years to your life!” Indeed, but in the wrong direction.
Does this not in part explain all the revelry and partying tonight. You have watched, as I have, the crowds jammed into Time’s Square, waiting to shout and cheer as the great ball drops at 12. Ever wonder what on earth they are cheering about. Or are they trying to forget about the meaning of that ball.
Snoopy sits on top of his doghouse having a one-way conversation with one of his little bird friends. The first frame has Snoopy quizzically looking down at his friend, saying, “It is New Year’s Eve already.” In the next picture his eyes narrow to slits and he gasps, “I can’t believe it!” In the third frame Snoopy turns his back to his friend and forlornly thinks to himself, “My life is going too fast.” In the final frame Snoopy is lying on his back atop the doghouse with the little bird perched on his feet. Snoopy says, “My only hope is that we go into overtime.” Let’s not have that this evening.
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Of course, this is not the only occasion when it breaks through, this blunt reality. Birthdays can do it, especially when you have accumulated a few. I get a kind of double dose each year, since mine is always the day before the big night. A friend sent me a birthday card one year which read, “Happy Birthday and remember we are not really old until we develop thankles.” Inside I read, “Thankles are thighs where our ankles used to I read and resonate to Bill Cosby’s lamenting volume entitled, “Time Flies.” He writes, “One of the compensations of getting older is that the medicine ball in your stomach forces you to replace the athletic skills you have lost with interesting new ones. For example, you learn the challenging gymnastic arts of putting on your socks and tying your shoes. When a man with an excess of mid-sectional bloat bends to tie his shoe, his reach is not only obstructed but he may even cut off his wind and find the blood rushing to his head. It is a dangerous part of getting dressed. “Why is Bill taking a nap on the floor?” a friend says to your wife. “Oh, he’s not taking a nap,” she replies. “He passed out trying to tie his shoe and that’s not easy for a man of his age.” And socks … who puts on a sock is participating in an event that requires split-second timing … I raise my leg as high as I can; and then, for the second or two that my foot is quivering at its peak, I quickly bring the sock down over my toes. When my foot hits the floor, I finish pulling up the sock. That’s why millions of men dream of never again wearing socks.”
The reality of our mortality, the fact that this is not our abiding city, that we have no permanent home here, that we too live in tents, the old texts never tire of pressing this truth upon us. “The days of each mortal are as grass; he blossoms like a wild flower in the meadow; a wind passes over him, and he is gone, and his place knows him no more.”
Why? Because when we are young, we don’t believe it and it gets us into trouble. We act as if we are indestructible whether behind the wheel or before some drug. Because when we are older we learn to deny it, to smother the reality beneath all kinds of craziness or compulsiveness. Because refusing to face the brevity of life, we miss some of life’s best gifts.
Let me talk about three this morning. Dr. Anthony Campolo, sociologist tells about a study in which fifty people over the age of 95 were asked one question: “If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?” It was an open-ended question and a number of answers came from these eldest of senior citizens. But three answers constantly re-emerged and dominated the results of the study. These three answers were: 1. If I had it do over again, I would reflect more. 2. If I had it to do over again, I would risk more. And 3. If I had it to do over again, I would do more things that would live on after I am gone.
I suspect the fact that they were 95 and knew that time was short may have led to this clarity, a clarity which squares with the wisdom of our faith. Let’s look at them one by one. “I would reflect more.” Let’s call that intentional living. Thoughtful reflective choice of those things worth doing, living for and rejection of those not worth our time. The press of time passing can lead us to decisive living, life with less drift or devotion to trivia or delay.
But we live in a culture which discourages intentional living with its smorgasbord of diversions and plethora of options. We live in a Baskin Robbins world of 31 choices not only when it comes to flavors but when it is a matter of more serious endeavors. And this can lead to grandiosity where we become determined to have it all and do it all. An article in the Wall Street Journal tells of daughters of super-moms who are now beginning to question the vision of life as including both fast track career and marriage and motherhood.
Or it can lead to confusion and immobility. Many New Year’s resolutions sound like the following commentary by sportscaster Harry Kalas. When introducing the Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Garry Maddox, Kalas said, “Gary has turned his life around. He used to be depressed and miserable. Now he’s miserable and depressed.”
Real life, life of vitality and purpose, life by the will of God, comes only as we become intentional, make up our mind what we shall do with our limited days, decide what is too trivial for much of our time and what demands it, decide what we shall give ourselves to and what we shall leave behind. John Maxwell declares, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” We should stick that on our bathroom mirror.
Intentional decision about what is and what is not important gives our lives power and direction, enables us to make a contribution.
My friend, Austin Cunningham, called the other day. At 95, with a great career in business behind him, he now writes a full page of social commentary each week in the newspaper of Orangeburg, South Carolina. He wanted to read one to me. What an inspiration.
Intentional living. And second, I would risk more. Intensive living. The temptation to passivity is huge in modern culture – to sit in the stands and drink beer while others play the game, to sit on the couch and stuff one’s stomach while watching what passes for life. But if we are not careful to keep all that in its place, it can shrink and dope us until we are little more than a shadow of a real live vital human being.
The real life with all the agonies and joys appropriate to it, is the intensive life, the giving life, the investing life. I love George Bernard Shaw here, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
Too many today drift and dream, waiting for life to come their way. William Kirkland tells this story, “On his 80th birthday, I sent Dad felicitations and filial words of wisdom. I noted the things we all should be thankful for on his behalf – good health, good friends, good battles and good outcomes. By most measures he was a happy man.
“Then I suggested it was time for him and Mom to slow down. At long last, in a comfortable home with a generous pension, he should learn to take things easy. “Relax Dad, you’ve got it made!” is how he quoted me in the letter he sent back, volleying my words across the net straight at me – the hardest return to handle. “I know what you meant,” he went on, “and I appreciate your compliment, but slowing down scares me.”
“Life isn’t having it made; it’s getting it made. Each necessary task requires an effort of will, and with each new act something in you grows and is strengthened. The finest and happiest years of our lives, ” he exulted, “were not when all the debts were paid, and all the trying and difficult experiences had passed, and we had settled into a comfortable home with no mortgage. No. I go back years ago, when we lived in a three room house, when we got up before daylight and worked till after dark to make ends meet. I rarely had more than four hours of sleep. But what I still can’t figure out is why I never got tired, never felt better in my life.”
Kirkland says, He wasn’t done setting me straight. My Dad went on, “And in this business of getting it made, it’s not the great moments that count. It’s the partial victories, the deadlocks, the waiting – even the defeats. If we are ever unlucky to have it made, then we will become spectators, not participants in life. It’s the journey, not the arrival that counts.” His letter ended, says Kirkland, with a personal request, “Son, on my next birthday, just tell me to wake up and get going, because I will have one less year in which to grow.”
Isn’t that very like the pictures of life the Apostle gives us:
Abraham ever on the move, seeking a kingdom he knew he would not find this side of the grave. Jesus, running the race, enduring the suffering for the joy of the reward at the very end. The life he calls us to, a life of intentional purpose and a life of intensity of spirit.
Life of intentionality and intensity and, what about that last one. “I would do more things that live on after I am gone.” Let’s call that living the infinite life, life focused above all on those things, those relationships that live on here and hereafter.
One young woman tells me that for an English assignment her teacher asked the class to write their obituary for the newspaper, write it as they hoped it would read. “It was a strange experience,” she said, “But it did two things. It made me realize that life is not forever. And it made me see that in life some things are more important than other things.” John Maxwell declares, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
Both Abraham and Jesus, says Paul, lived not for this but for the next world. But what does that mean? Well, it is nothing ethereal or unrelated to real life today, I assure you. It means putting first those dimensions of life which death will not destroy; the development of our character, the growth of our deepest relationships, the contribution to the eternal well-being of others.
Faith, hope and love do abide, as does everything that contributes to them in our lives and world.
Every New Year’s I go back to read some favorite words of a research psychologist, and so I might as well read them to you again. “Life is like riding on a fast train; on the horizon, longed for events lull far off in the future. Then they suddenly arrive. But then whoosh, they become but part of a dim past. Our existence is a rapid succession of never- returning moments. Throughout my teenage years and early twenties, I lacked this sense of life’s transiency. I could hardly wait for my firstborn son to get on with growing up and for myself to arrive at real life, full adult life. Now I am where I wanted to be, that first born son is fifteen, and his three-year-old sister is growing up far too fast. Watching my children grow up is like viewing a time-lapse film of unfolding flowers. I wish that I could periodically halt time and savor longer the pleasures of each day, lingering over each affectionate smile on Laurie’s small face. But it is as futile as my trying to stop that racing train.
“Several friends have recently died, my parents are growing old, and precious memories from my past are slipping away. Another of time’s eyeblinks and Laurie will be old enough to read these words, if not yet old enough to grasp the poignancy of the life cycle.
“Here in Michigan it is winter. In our house we turn the heat down at night, prompting my wife, Carol and me to sleep snuggled under the covers like a pair of gerbils. The secure affection of this intimate relationship provides delicious moments. But the deeper the feeling, the sadder the realization that we are growing older and that there will come a day when one of us will sleep alone, and then we shall be separated from our children by an unbridgeable gulf.
“Pondering these troubling thoughts, I am driven to the conviction that there is either a loving God who is behind it all or else life is indeed an absurdity as people on this infinitesimal planet come and go…
“Having reached the halfway point of my life expectancy, I am increasingly driven to see life in an eternal perspective and to find reassurance in a Being whose love and power is my only enduring hope in the face of my frailty. Because of his great promise I can hope for grace, both now and in the eternal future. In him there is always a tomorrow.”
Life intentional and intensive and infinite. Seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with patience the race set before us till our day is done, looking to Jesus, author and finisher of our faith.