On Turning 40 – Some Reflections from the Top of the Hill

Today is my 40th birthday. When I was a younger man, I used to journal. Then I got married, and the thoughts I had formerly put onto paper I tended to share with my wife. Then blogging was created, and some of my meditations were funneled to this medium (no, I didn’t stop speaking to my wife). But it’s been some time since I last wrote anything of substance even here. James Adair Lyon, a Presbyterian pastor in Columbus, MS, in the 19th century, kept an extensive journal throughout his life and ministry, and every year on his birthday in April he would take occasion to reflect upon how things stood with him, how his health fared, how he was doing spiritually, etc. Since I’m turning 40 I’ve already scheduled a well-visit with my doctor (the first one I can remember, thank you Blue Cross Blue Shield for “free” well visit checkups!), and it’s probably a good time as well to pick up the pen/keyboard and take stock of things from this vantage point. If I’m now “over the hill,” I suppose today I’m at the top of the hill, so perhaps I can see more than I’ve seen before.

Lots of things have been running through my mind. I definitely feel more mature, shall we say. A friend gave me a Jawbone UP wearable step/sleep monitor. He told me when he gave it to me, “You’re turning 40, it’s time to start monitoring things.” I probably never would bought it for myself, but  the stats from the first few days have been sobering; I live a far more sedentary lifestyle than I realized. What my friend really was saying to me with his gift was, “Time to start walking, old man!” I’ve always been thankful for my receding hairline and the gray in my beard, because it covered up some of my youthfulness and inexperience as a pastor. Now there’s not as much youthfulness to cover up (though I’m still thankful for the gray – Prov. 16:31 and 20:29!). As providence would have it, however, I’m teaching the oldest Sunday School class at our church this quarter, and so as I’ve thought about turning 40, I’ve at the same time thought about the fact that several of the members of my Sunday School class were my age when I was born in 1976. Age is relative.

What is 40 years? 40 years is longer than Jesus lived on earth. It’s the amount of time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. It’s the length of time Saul reigned over Israel (Acts 13:21), David reigned over Israel (II Sam. 5:4), and Solomon reigned over Israel (II Chron. 9:30). Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah (Gen. 25:20). Moses was 40 when he first rose up to defend and deliver Israel (Acts 7:23-25). And Caleb was 40 years old when he was sent by Moses into the land of Canaan as a spy (Josh. 14:7). A friend in his 60s said that his 40s were some of the best days of his life: his income was high and his health was superb. That’s great to hear. Yet it’s easy to hit the age of 40 and become discouraged, as I have a bit, because you realize you’ve likely lived half your life (“As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, or if due to strength, eighty years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone and we fly away” – Psalm 90:10), and you look back and wonder what you’ve accomplished. Have I done what I thought I would do by now? Have I been useful and productive, used of God in the lives of others? Have I impacted other people? Have I been a force for good and grace in the world and in individuals’ lives? Have I become who I thought I would be by now? Have I grown and helped others to grow? By God’s grace I believe I can say I have to some small degree. Sermons have been preached, people have been falteringly pastored, books have been read, articles have been written, even a book co-authored with my dad and brother. Projects have been finished, things have been built, gardens have been grown, trails have been hiked, waterfalls have been swum in, frisbees have been thrown, songs have been sung, skills have been learned. My five children seem to be growing in grace and knowledge. I hopefully am becoming more patient, gentle and humble, more knowledgeable of the Bible, more like Christ.

But there are many things that still feel (and are) incomplete, unfulfilled, unfinished. Goals have passed by, unmet – as well, I realize that I haven’t have enough concrete goals of “things I’d like to do by or before I turn 40.” Looking back, I wish I would have. I might have attained some of them. Or I might not have. Immediately upon thinking these things, though, I realize that God has allowed and enabled me to do some things I never thought I would, or that I never saw coming; and even more importantly, that life is about far more than accomplishing things, getting things done, producing things. How easy it is to make an idol out of accomplishments, whether accomplishments accomplished or accomplishments that failed to get accomplished. What matters supremely is not what I have accomplished, but what Christ has accomplished for me through His righteousness and blood. The words of the Keith and Kristyn Getty hymn “My Worth is Not in What I Own” have resounded in my mind today:

My worth is not in what I own
Not in the strength of flesh and bone
But in the costly wounds of love
At the cross

My worth is not in skill or name
In win or lose, in pride or shame
But in the blood of Christ that flowed
At the cross

I rejoice in my Redeemer
Greatest Treasure,
Wellspring of my soul
I will trust in Him, no other.
My soul is satisfied in Him alone.

As summer flowers we fade and die
Fame, youth and beauty hurry by
But life eternal calls to us
At the cross

I will not boast in wealth or might
Or human wisdom’s fleeting light
But I will boast in knowing Christ
At the cross

Two wonders here that I confess
My worth and my unworthiness
My value fixed – my ransom paid
At the cross

I was struck last night in our family worship as we read through the first part of Luke 7 by the words of the centurion with the sick slave. The centurion is lauded as “worthy” of Jesus’ attention and healing by the Jewish elders whom he sent on his behalf, because of his love for Israel and his accomplishments – “…it was he who built us our synagogue.” Yet when Jesus comes, the man has a different estimation of himself: “Lord, do not trouble yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You…” He may not have understood everything Peter understood in Luke 5:8 about his sin yet, but he knew that accomplishments don’t make the man, nor do they commend anyone to God. The cross, the blood of God’s Son, alone can do that. In that cross we see both our worth and our unworthiness – glorious paradox! What I’ve done in the span of 40 years doesn’t commend me to God, for indeed, what have I done that He did not enable me to do? What strength, intellect, ability, skill, ingenuity, creativity, foresight, daring, good fortune, determination or passion do any of us have that does not come from Him? So even in those things we might point to and say, “There, Lord, look at what I did!”, God is sixpence none the richer, no different than my children using my money to buy me birthday presents this morning.

Yet while the dangers of idolatry and self-righteousness lie always at hand, it is vitally important to seek and strive to work and labor productively by the grace of God, for the glory of God and for the good of others. For He does enable us to accomplish great things, even greater things, because Jesus has gone to the Father and has given us His Holy Spirit. Our Savior’s food was to do the will of Him who sent Him and to accomplish His work (John 4:34); and He said at the close of His life that He had accomplished the work God gave Him to do. Each of us has a work(s), great or small, that God has given us to do. With Paul therefore let us say, “I labor, striving according to his power, which mightily works within me” (Col. 1:29). James Lyon, the aforementioned Presbyterian pastor in Columbus, MS, meditated often on his usefulness, or perceived lack thereof. His journal entries, while seeming at times to come close to self-centeredness and pride (are yours or mine any different?), are honest expressions of this very dependent determination. At the age of 38, he wrote,

I am now thirty eight years old…I sometimes feel a little appalled with the impression that I am verging out of youth onto middle life without having attained that eminent usefulness for which I have hoped and still long to reach – I feel however that all my previous life has been a most wholesome discipline, and that all my trials have been most salutary as a preparation for great usefulness. Consequently my ardor is unabated and my hope of great usefulness is yet buoyant. The only discouraging thought is that the older I grow and greater my preparations for great usefulness – the more I see of my deficiency and the wider field of preparation seems to open before me, so that sometimes I feel that my whole life will be consumed in getting ready for the great usefulness which I have hoped and still hope to accomplish.

When he thought he might lose his voice (a preacher’s primary tool), he expressed dismay yet trust in the providence of God:

A failure of my voice would completely eclipse all my prospects for this world – for all my plans for usefulness and distinction presuppose the use of my voice, either in preaching or lecturing. Consequently the thought of being deprived of the use of my voice, casts a perfect gloom over my earthly hopes – But I have consolation in the conviction which is strong enough to afford me considerable comfort, and for which I trust I feel thankful, that let come what will, the Lord will most assuredly work all things together for good to them that love him, which I humbly trust I do. He has proved himself a Father to me of transcendent kindness, mercy mingled with justice, over which infinite wisdom has presided – Therefore if it is the Lord’s will to take my voice from me, instead of answering my earnest and importunate prayers to the contrary, and to seal my lips, I will try to say the Lord’s will be done – and to wait with patience until I can manifestly see his gracious design in doing so…

Most striking of his entries was the following:

I am not devoid of ambition, sanctified and consequently commendable I hope, to make my mark in the world, and to leave a monument behind me by which coming generations shall remember me with admiration and gratitude…I would infinitely rather die and leave no memorial behind, than to build one of insubstantial materials which would soon crumble to dust… I much prefer not being known at all, than to be known as a mediocrity now. Let me build, if I build at all, with granite and the hardest rock…

The great irony of course, is that no one knows of James Lyon today, and yet he was one of the most influential and useful ministers of his day. I too – you too – will be forgotten, and our accomplishments will fade away into the sands of Ozymandias.

I remembered again this morning that I share a birthday with Rush Limbaugh. He was born in 1951, and so is 65 years old today. I would imagine he has probably accomplished/produced more and impacted more people between the time he was 40 (and I was 15) and now, than he did from age 20-40. That’s encouraging. It also reminds me of the words of my namesake in Joshua 14:10-11 – “…and now behold, I am eighty-five years old today. I am still as strong today as I was in the day Moses sent me; as my strength was then, so my strength is now, for war and for going out and coming in.” Now those are fighting words! If the Lord allows me to live to 45, 65 or even 85, I hope that by His grace I will continue to have the same strength – of body and soul – that I feel within myself today. Reader, pray for me, as you pray for yourself, that we will be able to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of pride and passivity, that we will have the same dependent determination of James Lyon, that by God’s grace we will redeem the time, and productively and usefully build, if we build at all, with granite and the hardest rock. And on every monument let us engrave, “Soli Deo Gloria” – “To God Alone Be the Glory.”

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