“Now then, just as the LORD promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the wilderness. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.”
-Joshua 14:10-12 (NIV)
Really, most of the time I feel like I’m still too young to be running around unsupervised. I’m not old, not really, in fact I don’t even mind telling you my age. I’m 46. Not old at all, by most realistic measures. Still fairly young, by some. My health is good. I can still do everything I want to do.
And yet, sometimes I do feel old.
I catch sight of a gray hair in the mirror. I’m reminded of the bit of extra weight I carry. I do a couple of flights of stairs — I can still do them fast, but I’m breathing hard when I do. I play tennis with a younger guy and realize I used to move around like he does. I have to get out my glasses to read something — or worse, I ask my son what it says. Little things. Nothing debilitating. Just signs, really, like the first leaves starting to change color in the autumn. Reminders that old age is coming. Fifty is really close. Which means 60 isn’t as far away as it used to seem. Fact is now that over half my life is probably behind me.
That’s a cheery thing to consider, no?
The teenagers at church now call me “Mr. Odum.” (I always want to look over my shoulder for my dad when they say that.) I’m taking my son on a college visit this weekend, and I’m reminded that he’s growing up, that sooner rather than later now Laura and I will be empty nesters. No rush, but it will happen, and it will happen relatively soon now.
So sometimes, yeah, I start to feel a little old.
Here’s the thing, though: I wouldn’t do 25 again if I could. Oh, there are things I’d probably go back and fix if I could, and some things I’d like to be able to re-experience from time to time. There are things about the past I miss, and things about my current life that in ten years I’ll no doubt look back on with nostalgia. I don’t think this is the classic mid-life crisis, and I don’t anticipate buying a Corvette anytime soon. Feeling that life is going by quickly doesn’t necessarily mean feeling like it’s passing you by. Youth isn’t an ideal state, and isn’t to be worshipped or venerated. That’s something our society, with its quirky and ultimately destructive emphasis on youth and beauty, needs to learn.
See, I’m a lot smarter now, in a lot of ways, than I was 20 years ago. I’m a lot more competent at the things that matter than I was then. I realize that isn’t always the case — but it usually is. In our societal desperation to arrest the aging process, we short-change ourselves and those around us. We trade experience and wisdom gained through a few years of living for a preoccupation with staying young, and that’s a devil’s bargain. Age will always catch up.
Caleb used to seem to me to be some cantankerous old fool who didn’t know that his day had passed. I mean, really: he’s grabbing his sword to run the Anakites out of their walled cities in the hill country at the age of 85? You want somebody to say, “Come on, grandpa, there’s a great assisted-living building in Jericho.” I wonder if the younger generation of Israelites started avoiding him during that 40 years of wandering. By the end of those four decades, it was only him and Joshua left from that generation of Israelites that left Egypt together. I bet he had some killer “back in my day” stories: “Back in my day, we got water from a rock. From a rock!” I used to think he was kind of the Brett Favre of the Hebrews — amazing that he can still play, but doesn’t he know when to quit?
Now, though, it seems to me that Caleb learned a couple of things over his long life. The easy one is that God could be trusted, that when he gives his word you can take it to the bank. That hill country was his. God had told him so. That’s the one we like to learn, the truth we love to come to believe. Our God is faithful to his promises. Most of us who are people of faith come to that one sooner or later. It’s comforting to us.
But Caleb learned the truth that a lot of us never do, even though it goes hand-in-glove with the promise of God’s faithfulness. It’s simply this: when God gives a promise, he also gives a mission. That’s not as easy or comfortable. Most of us are tempted to think that old age is the time when we retire and enjoy the fruits of our labor, so to speak. And so we wonder why Caleb doesn’t just settle down in the countryside, plant a garden, play with the grandkids, and let the younger folks take the fortified cities. “You’ve earned it,” we’d tell him, and in doing so we’d be sentencing him to death.
Because that’s when you get old: not when you start to lose your hair, or your teeth, or your hearing, but when you lose your mission.
Losing your mission is what makes you miserable, makes you sit and wait for age to catch up to you. When you lose your mission, you lose your sense of purpose, your connection to the work that God is doing in the world now. You start making pronouncements that start with, “In my day…” instead of asking questions about the work God is about today. When you lose your mission, it starts to dawn on you that fulfillment of many of God’s promises are only recognized in the carrying out of the work he gives us to do. Like Caleb. That was his hill country, but he had to go take it.
So, instead of focusing on my age, I’m thinking about the hill country. I want to share life and love and joy with my wife as I get older. I want to do some things for the kingdom of God that I’ve excused myself from while my son was growing up. I want to be present for my parents and in-laws as they get older. I want to move gracefully and graciously into a new, and even better, relationship with my son. I want to pass on to the next generation what God has taught me through his faithfulness and love. I want to be bolder about sharing my faith with the people in my life, and at the same time better about hearing their stories and helping them see how God has always been the main character. I want to keep learning, and I want to write, and I want to work hard to make my preaching deeper and better and more compelling.
From where you’re standing, the hill country probably looks a little different. You know where it is, though, and you know that it’s worth spending the rest of your life fighting for, because it’s part of God’s work in your world. So don’t waste a moment worrying about your age. Think Caleb cared that his hair was thinning? God has plenty for you to do, enough to fill the rest of your life. Praise him for his promises, and get to work on his mission. That’s how you keep from getting old!