Here I sit, on the edge of a new decade and, more importantly, the end of an old one of seemingly larger significance than those which have rolled by before it. It marks the end of my ‘threescore and ten’. I thought it fitting to mark the occasion with a ‘State of the Union’ reflection on where this journey has taken me so far and where I might be heading if the lease is renewed.
If there is one verse that has dogged my steps and characterized my not-so-ebullient thought processes this past year it has been from the beginning of the last chapter of Ecclesiastes: Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.
Actually, that verse has haunted me most of my born again life. And on my worst days at this end of that life I find myself thinking I just might be there. I’m reminded of another haunting line from that old Simon & Garfunkle song Old Friends / Bookends: “How terribly strange to be seventy.”
And then there’s Fagin’s refrain from one of my favourite 60’s musicals, Oliver, as he contemplates a possible life change from his chosen vocation in petty crime in the musical number I’m Reviewing the Situation: “What happens when I am seventy... must come a time... seventy?” That seemed a long time away when I first viewed this inspiring flick in my teens -- and yet it has always stuck with me. And now, somehow, in one of life’s weird time-warping mysteries, I find myself on the eve of that ominous age. How did I get here? Did someone press fast-forward when I wasn’t looking?
Interestingly, when I was a teen growing up at Misery Baptist, I used to think that was about the age when I would actually commit my life to Christ -- after I had had my fun. But that ‘fun’ stopped being fun about the time the ‘Hound of Heaven’ started pursuing me in my early 20’s. It seemed he wasn’t interested in settling for the dregs of a life he had already claimed for himself. And so I yielded and received Christ at the tender age of 21 in a quiet corner of the cafeteria of the art college where my parents thought I had gone ‘to hell in a handbasket’. When I think about how much apparent progress I’ve made in the nearly 50 years since then, I’m rather glad I didn’t wait. In fact, I’m overjoyed I didn’t wait when I consider how much I would have missed out on. To be spiritually stupid at this age would be grievous to me -- but I supposed if I were still blinded I wouldn’t even know it. Nevertheless, I’m glad, by the blessed grace of God, that I do know what I know. But what do I know? And what difference has it made? These are the sort of questions I’ve been asking myself as each day has brought me ever closer to that threescore and ten.
Do I know HIM? Since my new birth I’ve longed to know Him and the power of his resurrection and, to a much lesser extent, the fellowship of his sufferings. (Philippians 3: 7-12). I used to be afraid of that second part until I realized that his sufferings were for others and that it was for that joy set before him that he endured the cross. I’ve known His presence. I know the Holy Spirit came into my heart, joined Himself to my spirit and made it his dwelling place that blessed morning at art college in the winter of 1971. I didn’t see him, but I certainly felt him take his throne -- unmistakably. Everything changed in that moment and nothing has been the same since.
But there was so much I didn’t know back then. I knew that Christ died forme and that I now had eternal life, but I didn’t know that God had put me in Christ and that when he died on the cross I (my false, illusionary, independent self) died with him because, according to the scriptures, I was in Him. (1 Cor. 1:30) That revelation came much later -- after years of unsuccessfully trying whip that false, independent self who I thought was the real me into shape in order to serve the Living God. Blessed riddance.
I’ve known His blessings. I’ve certainly known His guidance and direction. But do I know HIM?
Long has it bothered me that I seem to have so little ability to retain, at least in consciousness, so much of what I have read. It seems that fully 90% of my reading is devoted to study, predominantly the mystery of the Gospel, yet I still feel a gap between what I have longed to know of His indwelling and what I do know. For years I’ve tried to hammer the truths of God’s Word into my head in an attempt at ‘reprogramming’ to replace the lies that have formed so much a part of my self-conception from birth. I’ve read the same books two, three, four times and more over the years and yet I still feel unable to give an adequate explanation of ‘the hope that lies within me’.
But I’ve begun to catch a glimpse of something lately that gives me some hope. While it is good to have a knowledge of these facts -- whether consciously, or absorbed by the subconscious -- they are no substitute for a living relationship with the One who is truth. But I think of late I’ve come to see that what we all seek can be found in three simple words: Abide in Christ.
In Him we have access to all truth... on the fly, as it were -- in real time. We’re not to rely on our flimsy intellect or reasoning, as wonderful and useful as they can be, but on his indwelling. Take no purse (or sermon notes) with thee, but let Him be thy sufficiency -- thy answer -- for the moment. Travel light... but travel close to Him. Travel in Him. Better yet, let Him travel in you. After all, it’s not what you know, it’s Who you know.
Yes Lord, I do believe that this is where you’re taking me -- turning my focus from ‘getting it all together’ to abiding in you. For ‘Of him are ye in Christ, who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.’ (1 Cor. 1:30)
He is our righteousness. He is our purity. He is our sufficiency. Abide in Him. He is the Vine. We are the branches. The precious Holy Spirit is the life-giving sap that flows through us. Our Heavenly Father is the Husbandman, pruning as necessary, to one end -- that we might bear ‘much fruit’. And that fruit is not for us. It’s for others. Perhaps we used to think it was for us in our self-absorbed beginnings, but that was just how we were drawn into His love plot to give Himself away through us. So why not stop looking for that fruit and just engage with those others that He puts in our path?
We are HIS workmanship, not our own.
To change metaphors, ‘Does the clay say to the potter, “Why have ye made me thus?”. (Rom. 9: 20,21) Then why should I? HE brought me out. HE brought me along. And HE will bring me in.
So let us hear the conclusion of the matter regarding this ‘first phase’ of life. I have been… SET FREE TO BE JUST HE AS ME
I am a branch of the True Vine... nothing more... nothing less. He made me so. And HE’s the keeper. There’s nothing left to do... but abide there and bear fruit wherever you’re planted. Let’s get on with it then. I need to just ‘release my hold… and let the rest unfold’ -- abiding in Christ the True and Living Vine.
Perhaps at this stage there isn’t a lot in our gradually deteriorating outer man to ‘take pleasure in’, but we are no longer just outer people. We took someone into us long ago who has become a fountain of eternal life to us -- an Inner Spring. By His grace we have become primarily inner people inhabiting these well-worn vessels in which the hidden treasure dwells, and ‘though the outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day’. (2 Cor. 4: 16) And that’s what happens when I am seventy, Fagin -- at least IN CHRIST.