Growing old

Longevity is one of the greatest achievements of our modern era. The United Nations calls it one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century. Advances in health care are a major factor in lengthening our lives. Over the past 20 years the number of people in Britain aged 100, or over, has quadrupled. There are now 2.7 million people in Britain aged over 80 and life expectancy continues to increase. But increasing length of life does not guarantee quality of life or make us more ready to face death and eternity.

The increase in life expectancy is bringing major challenges to our society, especially in caring for older people. A recent report highlighted a shortage of care home beds. In 5 years there will be 42,000 fewer care home beds than are needed. This raises big questions for those who are elderly, for their families and for our society. Our modern “progressive” society is changing. The influence of churches has significantly decreased and secular thinking is more common. An increasing number of families are reluctant to take on the care of their elderly parents.

The Bible encourages us all to consider how we live and how we prepare for our old age. We all need to lay down the essential foundations for our later years. In Psalm 71 the psalmist says to God, “My life is an example to many, because you have been my strength and protection. That is why I can never stop praising you; I declare your glory all day long. And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside. Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.” Older people can be a great example to the younger generation. In Psalm 92 we read, “The godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon. Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”

The early Christians lovingly cared for widows but also encouraged their families to care for them. “Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her. But if she has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God.” When we reach the end of our lives, as all of us must, it is a great blessing to be surrounded by our loved ones as we leave this world and pass into the presence of God.

He has made everything beautiful in its time

The Spring and early summer is a beautiful time as nature comes alive. This year I have been struck by the beautiful colours of the flowers and blossoms as they have come one after another: pure white snowdrops, purple crocuses, yellow daffodils, majestic magnolias, delicate almond blossom, pink cherry trees, bluebells, and, now, the May blossom. The sequence of flowers and colours has been stunning and, unmistakably, reveals the hand of the Creator.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon reflected on the meaning of life and wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” Solomon was famous for his wisdom and his wealth. When the Queen of Sheba visited him, and saw his palace and his court, she said, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard.” Yet, when Solomon surveyed God’s creation he saw a beauty far beyond anything the human mind could create and it moved him to worship the awesome God of who created this beauty.

Solomon also saw that the beauty of creation is transient; everything is beautiful “in its time.” The flowers fade and fall; their beauty is only for a brief time. It is the same in our experience of life. Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation. We bear the image of God and have the glorious capacity to know and love him. Yet, the various stages of our lives quickly pass: the beautiful baby, the boundless energy of childhood, the exciting potential of adolescence, the strength of early adult years, the immense possibilities of middle age, the beauty and dignity of retirement years, before our faculties decline. The inexorable movement of time defies our deep longing to find that which is lasting and totally fulfilling.

The transient nature of life’s beauty points us to the eternity that God has put in our hearts. We echo the words of the hymn, “Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” There really is an eternal world, which is even more beautiful than this world. God is there, and the beauty of that world never fades.

The transient beauty of autumn

This year the autumn colours are especially glorious and have lasted longer than usual. In the autumn sun, the brown, red and gold colours of the leaves beautifully adorn the countryside The absence of frosts, high winds or heavy rain has meant that the leaves have been slower to fall this year, but soon they will fall. Trees that shed their leaves are preparing to survive harsh weather conditions; it is a preparation for the cold of winter. The trees seal the spots where the leaves are attached so that fluids cannot flow in and out of the leaves. This causes the leaves to change colour and fall off, which helps the trees to survive the cold, dry air of winter. When the warmer, lighter days of spring come the leaves will return.

There are also seasons in our lives as human beings. Each season has a beauty of its own: a new born baby, an active toddler, a growing child, a maturing adolescent, a strong and healthy adult, a serenity in the newly-retired and the gentle dignity of later years. But the seasons of our lives inevitably move on; we cannot pause and remain in any one of them. So, it is wise for us, like the trees, to prepare for the future.

We are living at a time when deep pessimism is widespread. People who have never heard of the philosophy of nihilism, which means “nothing”, are influenced by it. This philosophy began in Russia in the early 20th century and rejects all religious and moral principles because life is ultimately meaningless. A true nihilist believes in nothing, has no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

The silent witness of God’s creation and the teaching of the Bible declare a very different message. The death of the leaves is a preparation for new life. More importantly, God has created every one of us with an eternal soul. Life is not meaningless and death is not the end. Future hope is found in Jesus Christ who died and rose again on the third day. By his death he “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” Trusting in him we embrace God’s eternal purpose for us. Then, with the hymn writer, we can say, “If Thou art my shield and my sun, the night is no darkness to me; and fast as my moments roll on, they bring me but closer to Thee.”

Amazing grace

One Sunday morning I was driving along the M4. The weather was fine and most cars were driving at, or below, the speed limit. Some cars and vans passed me doing 80mph and then, on a quiet part of the motorway, a car passed me doing about 100mph. It disappeared from sight very quickly. Presumably the driver felt able to drive at that speed because there was little possibility of him being caught by a speed camera.

A little further on we came to a short stretch of the motorway where there is average speed camera surveillance. Every vehicle, without exception, drove at 50 mph! Why did everyone keep to the speed limit on that of part of the motorway? Because, if they drove too fast, the cameras were certain to detect it and they would be fined and have points on their licence. The evidence of the cameras would make conviction certain.

Our fallen human nature means that we are all most likely to break laws when we think we will “get away with it” and, in many cases, we do. Yet our leaders seem to think that making more laws will change people’s behaviour. In 2010 a record 3506 new laws were introduced in Britain, 10 for each day. The task of enforcing those laws, and all the other laws, is becoming impossible. In the absence of certain detection, laws have a very limited effect on how people behave.

The most important laws are God’s moral laws, summarised in the Ten Commandments. Few of us seem to have a sense of our ultimate accountability to Almighty God for the way we live. However, the Bible, and our consciences, tell us that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” When we realise that divine judgement is certain for us all, our sense of guilt and helplessness can be overwhelming. At such times, we know we need a Saviour.

In one of his hymns Horatius Bonar summed up his faith, and the faith of all Christians. “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die, another’s life; another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known, another’s tears; another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see.”

Secure in the love of God

The terrorist atrocities in Paris have left 129 people dead and more than 350 injured, some critically. The 7 suicide bombers all died after they had attacked restaurants, cafes, bars, a rock concert and the Stade de France. The 3 groups of terrorists used bombs and Kalashnikov assault rifles in a way not seen before on the streets of Western Europe. The attacks have left the French people traumatised and other nations fearing that similar attacks may also come to their streets. Our hearts go out to those who have so tragically lost loved ones.

It is not possible to make sense of the events of this life without reference to God and eternity. Some people believe that this life is the only life there is, but this leaves big questions unanswered. The Bible tells us that we are created in the image of God and have both a body and a soul, that can never die. We also have a conscience by which we know the difference between right and wrong. So we know that doing what is right matters and that we are all accountable to God for the things we do.

The sacredness of every human life and the evil of wilfully killing human beings is something we all affirm because of who we are. We are created in God’s image. Tragically it seems that some people are being deceived into believing that committing terrorist acts and killing yourself with a bomb takes you to a reward in paradise. But we know that cannot be true. Sinful actions cannot be rewarded and no-one can escape the eternal consequences of their actions by taking their own life.

The events in Paris also remind us of the fragility of our lives. People who set out on Friday evening to relax with friends over a meal died in a way they could not possibly have anticipated. We all need to find refuge in God and to know that, whatever happens, there is nothing that can separate us from his love in Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to persecuted Christians living in Rome, some of whom would die for their faith in Jesus. He told them, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Great is your faithfulness!

The last autumn leaves will soon have fallen. Once again we have witnessed the spectacular autumn colours – yellows, browns and red. On bright sunny mornings the kaleidoscope of colour has been glorious. This is one of the ways in which the great God of creation tells us that he is there and this is his world. Even in the process of dying there is beauty in his world and as the trees stand stark and bare through winter there is the promise that they will spring to life again.

The passing seasons are a testimony to the order that God has established in his world. His creation is never random and accidental, but always purposeful. As the years pass God is accomplishing his purposes for his creation and all of us who live in it. One well known hymn says, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

We all need to know and rest in the faithfulness of God. He is both the great God of creation and the One who knows and cares for us in a very personal way. Every human being is precious in his sight. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” So when a young child in a remote rural village in Sierra Leone is dying of Ebola the heart broken parents can find comfort, strength and hope in the living God because he cares for them.

We are more precious to God than the amazing creation in which we live. King Solomon wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” This is why the things we have in this world can never satisfy our deepest longings. God created us to live for his glory and to enjoy him forever. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Andy Murray wins at Wimbledon

Andy Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon has brought great joy to him and his family, to the town of Dunblane and to the nation. The long wait for another British men’s champion is over. It was a fiercely contested match, in 40C heat, between two men who know each other well. Novak Djokovic is just 7 days older than Andy and both have committed their lives to becoming tennis champions. Novak left Serbia at the age of 12 to go to Germany to learn his skills. Andy left Dunblane when he was 15 to train in Spain.

Andy has experienced great sadness as well as triumph. He was a pupil at Dunblane Primary School when a local man shot 17 people. Andy’s class was due to be the next in the gym where the shooting took place. This year Andy’s best friend, and former doubles partner, Ross Hutchins, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As Wimbledon began Andy said, “Tennis obviously means a lot to me, but at the end of the day my tennis career is going to be, I hope, seven or eight years more, but there’s a lot more to life than just playing tennis.” Ross was at the Centre Court to see Andy win the title.

Andy has achieved success through hours of great physical and mental effort. He has steadily improved through dedication and patience in the face of disappointments. He said, “I think I persevered, that’s really been it, the story of my career probably. I had a lot of tough losses, but the one thing I say is I think every year I always improved a little bit, every year my ranking was going in the right direction.”

Andy exemplifies very important qualities and insights. The triumphs of life are very brief and transitory. We learn far more through the hard things, such as disappointments, setbacks and tragic events. A Christian song affirms this, “I walked a mile with pleasure, she chatted all the way, but I was none the wiser for all she had to say. I walked a mile with sorrow, not a word said she, but O the things I learned that day when sorrow walked with me.” Sad experiences remind us of our mortality and point us to the ultimate realities of eternity. The apostle Paul wrote, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.”

Bearing fruit in old age

The place we are born has very significant implications for how long we will live. According to the United Nations average life expectancy for all countries in the world is 67. In Japan it is 82, whilst in Swaziland and Mozambique it is only 39. Many countries in Africa have a low level of life expectancy because of high infant mortality rates and high levels of HIV/AIDS. In Britain the fact that people are living longer is creating a crisis in the cost of funding pensions and caring for old people.

At a personal level, those who have retired face the question of how they spend their retirement years. On average men live 13 years after they retire and women live 22 years. It is a significant proportion of our lives. Some have adequate pensions whilst others face financial hardships. Many people assume that living to a great age is only a blessing but don’t realise that all the extra years come at the end of life when health and strength may not be good.

So how should we face the later years of life? Some employers provide retirement planning seminars which focus mainly on finance. These seminars are usually provided for those who have an adequate pension and who hope to enjoy a good lifestyle in retirement. But there are other very important considerations which affect us all. One important question is, “For what am I living?” Another is, “What is my hope for the future?” Financial advisers rightly emphasise the importance of preparing for retirement when we are young. Preparing for the later years of life and for eternity is even more important..

In Psalm 92 we read that the righteous “will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, ‘The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.’” Our focus throughout our lives needs to be on God and on living in a personal relationship with him. I remember a lady who suddenly went blind at the age of 68. She lived, as a widow, into her 90s. Yet I never heard her complain. She was always thankful and took a lively interest in those around her, especially the new babies whose cries she heard. She was a wonderful example of what the psalmist meant. She trusted God, even when things were very tough, and she drew her strength from him. He was her Rock!

Discovering and enjoying real life

None of us knows what any day of our life may bring. A few weeks ago our neighbour died suddenly. Friends noticed that his curtains had not been drawn and one, who had a key, went into the house and found he had died. We had been neighbours for nearly 20 years. His wife died just 18 months earlier and since then he had not been well and was lonely. They had no children. The house has been inherited by a nephew. He and his wife have been preparing the house to be sold. They have taken the more valuable things, but many things have been put into a skip on the driveway. It has been sad to see those personal possessions, which once had value for our neighbours, now discarded as of no worth.

Jesus once gave a warning to the people he was teaching. “Beware! Don’t be greedy for what you don’t have. Real life is not measured by how much we own.” We live in a materialistic society in which possessions are prized. We are bombarded by adverts telling us that if we buy certain things our lives will be enriched; the latest smart phone, a new car, electronic devices and designer clothes. But fashion is fickle and moves on. In a very short time all these things are out of date and are discarded.

One of the greatest blessings we can know is contentment. The apostle Paul wrote, “For we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

Each one of us is infinitely more valuable than our possessions. We were created by God and have a wonderful capacity to relate personally to him. We are not simply the product of an evolutionary process, but are God’s special creation. We have both a body and a soul. When we die our bodies remain, but our souls pass into the presence of God. The life for which we were created can be experienced here on earth and continues into eternity, which is why it is so important to begin to think about it now. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and enjoy it to the full.”

Following the puck of life

The obituary in The Times for one of the most influential people of his generation read, “Steven Jobs, founder of Apple and Pixar, was born on February 24, 1955. He died of cancer on October 5, 2011, aged 56.” The story of Steve Jobs’ life is remarkable. His natural parents gave him up for adoption and he was brought up by a working class couple, Justin and Clara Jobs, in Mountain View, Santa Clara County. He dropped out of College in 1972, at the age of 17, after one semester. In 1976 he founded Apple in his parents’ garage along with his friend and fellow computer enthusiast Steve Wozniak.

In 1985 he was fired from his own company by the chief executive he had appointed. Because of the success of another company he had started, he was able to buy his way back into Apple and became chief executive in 1996. In the years that followed, Apple grew into one of the largest and most successful companies in the world and Steve Jobs became one of the richest and most influential people of his generation. Millions of people across the world own one of Apple’s products and derive great pleasure from using them. The last few years of his life were very difficult after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2004.

Steve Jobs said his philosophy at Apple was influenced by something Wayne Gretsky, a famous ice hockey player, had said. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” So Steve Jobs made sure that Apple was always designing products which people were going to want in the future.

This says something important to us all. This world is not our ultimate home. Each day that passes brings us closer to eternity. So it is important for us all to think seriously about where the puck of our life is going to be. An old Negro spiritual says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through. My treasures are laid up for me, somewhere beyond the blue.” Whether life in this world brings us great riches or great hardships we are all moving towards the ultimate reality of eternity. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” Wise people hear his words and humbly entrust their eternal future to him.