Anyone over 50 has probably spent some time contemplating the aging process. Indeed, there is a temptation to become preoccupied or even obsessed with this topic. Not only do we experience aging on an individual basis, it seems that society in general cannot be at peace about it. Financial advisers speak incessantly about the need to save for retirement. TV commercials offer life insurance, walk-in bathtubs and stairway lifts designed just for the aged. We are influenced, as always, by the passions and needs of the baby-boomer generation.
Those ingenious, resourceful and narcissistic baby boomers, born just after WW II and enjoying unprecedented affluence and educational opportunities will probably set records for average lifespan. Advances in medicine and increasing awareness of preventive health measures will set statistics soaring for life expectancy. Those of us with an eternal perspective know that a few extra years of mortal life are infinitely small compared to the infinitely long lives we shall lead in heaven. Nevertheless, we’ll take them.
We will take them partly because we are human and we love what we have, whatever it might be, in this life. We will take them also because God has a plan and a purpose for every day of our lives. It is this latter theme that Billy Graham explores in his latest book, Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well (Nashville: Thomas Nelson) 2011.
Dr. Graham begins with the example of Barzillai. Fleeing from rebellion, King David and his followers were aided by Barzillai and given food and shelter. In gratitude, King David offered Barzillai a reward: “Come over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem. (2Samuel19:33) (ESV).” Any offer from a king is not to be dismissed lightly, but Barzillai refuses, citing his age:
I am this day eighty years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? (2 Samuel 19:35). (p.10).
It appears that age and weariness oblige Barzillai to refuse further fellowship with his king. Dr. Graham discusses this episode as follows:
Why does the Bible record this brief incident from the life of one obscure old man? It isn’t just to remind us of the ravages of old age or even the brevity of life. Instead the Bible recounts it to tell us a significant fact: Barzillai’s greatest service to God and his people—the one deed from his entire life that was worthy of being recorded in the Bible—took place when he was an old man. (p.10).
Barzillai was an old man who did what he could. Are we doing what we can do to serve God and his people?
Indeed there are many examples of aged people doing great things in the Bible. Moses, Abraham, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Paul—the list goes on.
Dr. Graham goes on to discuss many aspects of aging and what the Christian attitude should be. He discloses many personal things about recent years in his life and the painful loss of his wife Ruth (pp. 98-99). The reader cannot help but feel close to Billy, this down-to-earth man whose inspiring achievements will inhabit forever a unique place in Christian church history. He tells us that Ruth Graham had quite a sense of humor, as well as keen insight. Some years before she became ill with cancer, Ruth was driving a car down a winding road under construction. At the end of the road, there was a sign saying “End of Construction. Thank-you for Your Patience.” Ruth requested that those words should be engraved on her tombstone. In due course, her request was granted by her family and her point was made—God is working with us, teaching us, and allowing us to make mistakes right until the end (p.95). We know God is patient with us as we stumble through life; are we as patient with each other? We hope one day to hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21).
We look up to Dr. Graham as a wise, aging man of God. There was a time, however, when he was young and also looked up to a Christian mentor. Dr. Graham recounts a story about Judson W. Van DeVenter, an elder evangelist of the time (1930’s) who had ministered with J. Wilbur Chapman, a peer of D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday (pp.129-130). Mr. Van DeVenter had some orange groves and Billy and fellow students helped him pick the fruit. “He benefitted from our labor, and while we never imagined being that old and may not have understood at the time, we drew from his example. Such encounters contribute to life’s foundation.” (p. 130). We might well reflect on who has influenced us in our Christian journey; and are we acting as good influences ourselves?
Dr. Graham also discusses that place for which we are all hoping; that place we are shy to discuss; that place about which we love to dream and speculate: heaven. He discusses it, of course, on a scriptural foundation. There will be joyous worship in heaven (Hebrews 12:22-23). Heaven will be active and exciting (Revelation 22:3, 22:5). We will be joining Jesus (John 13:36, John 14:2-4). Above all, we will feel at home in heaven:
When we belong to Christ, we know that when we die we will finally be at peace—for we will be home. Paul’s words to the Christians in Corinth apply to us as well: “As long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… [but we] would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6, 8). (p.179).
This is no mere academic observation to Dr. Graham. He shares his personal conviction and excitement: “Heaven is our hope, Heaven is our future, and Heaven is our home! I look forward to being home at last, and I pray you do also.” (p.179). May we ponder how richly blessed we are as Christians, both in this life and the next. May God continue to bless our friend, Billy Graham, now and forever.
In faith and fellowship,
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