Monday, July 03, 2006

Thirty years and counting

This month marks an anniversary. More than one. For one thing, my father died seven years ago this month.

For better or worse, the father/son relationship is a defining bond. The passing of a father is not something a son will ever get over or outgrow.

For many years you had that wall to lean against or push against.

And then it’s gone, as if the wall were blown out by a twister. Where the wall used to be is empty space. And it remains empty space.

As social creatures our identity is, in some measure, delineated by the shared surface of a few friends and family.

We are not entirely self-contained. Rather, we form mutual boundaries, with common walls.

Once that person is gone, the counter-pressure is gone. Your personality oozes out into the void.

As, one-by-one, death dismantles the walls of your ancestral home, it’s easy to lose self-definition. The center may remain, but you either retract into a core personality or diffuse into a fuzzy circumference.

To some extent, marriage and children raise up new retaining walls. But, of course, certain people are irreplaceable.

It was also around this time, 30 years ago, that the Lord called me out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Christians often speak of faith as strong or weak. Becoming stronger or weaker over the years.

There’s some value in isolating one’s faith in that detached fashion, as if it were an arm or a leg.

But the attempt to objectify one’s faith is also more than a bit artificial.

A Christian is not a person with faith, as if his faith were an ancillary belief or incidental property, like being a businessman or a football player. Rather, a Christian is a believer. He is not merely a person with a set of beliefs, not merely a man of faith—but one of the faithful.

His faith is his eyes and ears, heart and head. It’s not something he has, but something he is.

It is not our faith that changes, but we who change.

Looking back over my shoulder, I can’t say that my faith is any stronger or weaker than it was twenty years ago—or ten, or thirty. It’s been a very stable, effortless, unquestioning faith.

Of course, my faith is not my own. And every Christian has his own experience.

But if my faith is unchanged, I am not.

Like everyone else, I have changed, due to the inexorable seasons of life, along with the wear-and-tear of existence in a fallen world.

One might suppose the pilgrimage levels off after several years of strenuous ascent—that it hits a plateau, from which point one can coast for the remainder of the journey. Yet the way frequently grows steeper all the way to the end.

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, this is:

“The danger of the middle period…it is something we all have to face sooner or later as we grow older…the most difficult period of all in life is the middle period. There are compensations in youth and there are compensations in old age which seem to be entirely lacking in this middle period,” Spiritual Depression (Eerdmans 1992), 192.

And yet the very exertion makes the muscles strong, so that it feels much the same, even if the incline is more acute.

As the body atrophies, the spirit amplifies. The outer man decays, but the inner man renews—like a butterfly—to spread his wings when the chrysalis at last is dead.

A newborn Christian may feel stronger because his body is vigorous, with the weightless, spring-action step of the young. And, in many cases, he has also suffered no irreparable loss to weigh him down.

And yet an older Christian may surmount challenges that would sink a younger Christian. He may be battle-weary, but he is battle-hardened.

And his way is lit with one opportune providence after another—an emerging pattern which we can only see in retrospect—often occurring when we need it the most, but expect it the least.

Not a steady light, but shooting stars to keep us from falling into the ditch.

“Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings. It is the Lord, who rises with healing in his wings” (William Cowper).

My faith is much the same, but it’s differently situated. More internalized. Less on the outside, more on the inside.

A young believer has no spiritual experience, no past to look back on.

But for a Christian with a fair amount of mileage on the odometer of faith, we see the present through the filtered lens of the past, and the past through the filtered lens of the presence.

As T. S. Eliot said,

“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment.”

I’ve only been a believer for 30 years. My grandmother was a believer for over 80 years.

And just imagine the walk of faith for Methuselah!

There were precious few apologetic resources when I first became a Christian. Apologetics has exploded since the Seventies.

My answers are much better at 46 pushing 47 than they were at 16 pushing 17.

And yet, as the answers get better, they mean much less to me.

Or perhaps I should say, they mean less to me as answers to objections, and more to me as living truths.

A Christian can greet every day with expectation, for every day is a new adventure that God has planned from all eternity. Whatever the day may bring, it comes from the hand of God’s good providence.

Every day is a treasure hunt. Around every corner is a Valentine from God.

The experience may at times be painful, but these are growing pains. Even when we grieve, we grieve in hope of a better tomorrow.

As we age, ever more of our life lies either in the past or the future. Out of reach and out of touch.

But if tomorrow is bleak, eternity is bright. And the brightness of the destination casts a backward light to illumine the darkened path below.


  1. Very articulate. Nice read.

  2. Might I add, the older Christian's walk of faith gives much encouragement and hope to younger Christians.

    After the initial enthusiasm of the new birth has made way for a more mature and maturing faith, and as the young Christian is assailed within and without by his own flesh and sin and the world and the devil, then the pilgrim path appears only longer and ever more daunting.

    But as the younger Christian looks a little further ahead on the road and spies out marks of the older Christian's walk of faith, the way somehow appears a little more promising. Even though the younger may not yet have been where the older Christian has been, he sees signs the older has passed by -- perhaps a bent twig or branch, a stone moved out of place, a fire that's long died away, or, best, his very footprints. And his heart is cheered to press on.

    The young Christian may not have all the answers to some of his doubts, nor have overcome the temptations of the flesh, or seen past the illusory allurements of this world, or what not, yet he draws great comfort from the older Christian's pilgrimage, because he knows that the older has been where he has not.

    So, a glad heart full of thanks to those older Christian brethren who have, by the grace of the same living God, traversed the long and weary pilgrim path and left the younger their good example! Inasmuch as the older Christians have followed Christ Himself, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, may we, too, imitate their pilgrimage.

    Thanks, Steve.

  3. Thanks Steve, appreciate your thoughts, I share many of your perspectives about the Christian walk.
    In Christ, JL