HEN, AT 24 YEARS OLD, I JOINED THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH, all my earthly treasure fit into a brown 1974 Plymouth Valiant, which included (after the back seat was removed) a plywood board that functioned as my bed. Still exuberant with the glow and fire of my “first love” (Rev. 2:4), I needed nothing else: the Lord was coming soon, so who had time to amass that which was doomed in the “lake of fire” anyway (Rev. 20:14)? With little to tether me here, I was more than ready to burn at the stake for my faith.
Now, fast- (and I mean fast) forward 30 years. Though hardly “a man of means,” I do have considerably more than I could fit into a Plymouth. Between my family, my home, my ministry, even my measly retirement account (my wife already warned me, “You’re the one, not me, who’s going to stand there saying, ‘Welcome to Wal-Mart!’”), I have more vested in this world now than when tooling about in my aged Valiant.
Which explains, I think, why I found this line in C. S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters so unnervingly true: “You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.” I love the Lord, I love this church, I love present truth; but, as Screwtape so presciently expressed, the 54-year-old Clifford Goldstein isn’t as eager to die for them as was the rougher draft.
Why? At 24 I had my whole life ahead of me; at 54, though hardly over-the-hill, if I stand on my tippy-toes and stretch my neck, I can see the top of it, something that 30 years ago seemed irrelevantly distant. The longer I’m here, the more stakes I put into a world that, the longer I’m here, more cruelly reveals my transience in it. If 10 years passed like yesterday, then the next 10 will seem like tomorrow. Each day brings us closer to death or the Second Coming, so each day should teach us how ethereal this existence is. The irony, though, is that each day also allows us extra time to tether ourselves more tightly to this place, which is like tying an ice cube to a warm surface.
It’s weird: as I age I sense myself kind of, well, fading. High-pitched sounds bounce off my ears. I need thicker reading glasses to pull letters into my eyes. My muscle tone is dwindling. I’m even, I think, getting shorter! I used to have a head of rich-black, wavy hair that’s now gray, crinkly, thinning. With the exception of a metal plate and seven screws in my ankle (courtesy of a hockey injury last year), I’m evaporating (makes me think of James’s words about us being a “mist,” James 4:14). The only thing I’m adding is negative space, wrinkles—the ?graffiti of time, which constantly remind me that my stint here is just that, a stint.
Yet again, that paradox: the longer I’m here, the more I put into this world and, thus, the greater its pull, even though there’s less of me to pull on.
The answer? I don’t know, exactly. Though we’re only “aliens and strangers on the earth” (Heb. 11:13), this earth is the only home we know (and there’s no place like home, eh?). All we can do is always keep the transience of this life before us, which isn’t hard to do; it’s just painful, that’s all, because as humans made in the “image of God” we were never meant to die. Thus something primal in us, echoing from Eden, screams out against death, “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26).
If left to ourselves, our situation would be as dire and as hopeless as it seems. That’s why, apart from the cross and the promises it offers, we’re victims of a cruel paradox: our minds—which can contemplate the eternal—are composed of matter that isn’t and, worst of all, knows it.
“Nothing can save us that is possible,” wrote W. H. Auden. “We who must die demand a miracle.”
We sure do. Fortunately, we have that miracle in Jesus.