I'm writing these words [originally] soon after my birthday.
No big deal . . . just another stabbing realization that I'm not getting any younger. I know that because the cake won't hold all the candles. Even if it could the frosting would melt before I'd be able to blow all of them out. My kind and thoughtful secretary reminded me of another approach I could take. She gave me a birthday card showing an old guy standing beside a cake covered with candles. On the front it reads:
Don't feel you're getting old if you can't blow out all the candles. . . .
. . . just BEAT 'em out with your cane.
Children are about as encouraging. In all seriousness my youngest once asked me if they had catsup when I was a boy. I tried not to look offended—he could have asked if they had the wheel. But I was pleased to inform him that we not only had catsup . . . but also electricity, talking movies, the radio, cars, and indoor plumbing. He seemed amazed as he gave me that you-gotta-be-kidding look, then turned and walked away. I suddenly felt the need to lie down and take a nap.
But birthdays are milestones . . . significant points in the passing of time . . . specific yet mute reminders that more sand has passed through the hourglass. They do, however, give us a handle on the measurement of time which, when you boil it down into minutes, really moves along at a pretty good clip. There are 60 of them every hour . . . 1,440 every day. . . over 10 thousand of them each week . . . about 525 thousand per year. As of today—I've experienced millions and millions of them. Talk about feeling old!
But they pass so quietly, so consistently, they fool you. That's part of the reason C.S. Lewis used to say:
The safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. . . . The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather [for the devil].¹
We mark our calendars with deadlines—dates that set limits for the completion of objectives and projects. To ignore those deadlines brings consequences. To live without deadlines is to live an inefficient, unorganized life, drifting with the breeze of impulse on the fickle wave of moods. We set deadlines because they help us accomplish the essentials . . . they discipline our use of time . . . they measure the length of our leash on the clothesline of demands.
God, however, brings about birthdays . . . not as deadlines but lifelines. He builds them into our calendar once every year to enable us to make an annual appraisal, not only of our length of life but our depth. Not simply to tell us we're growing older . . . but to help us determine if we are also growing deeper. These lifelines are not like that insurance policy you invested in last year. There's no automatic promise of annual renewal. Obviously, if God has given you another year to live for Him, He has some things in mind . . . He has some very special plans to pull off through your life. Surely it includes more than existing 1,440 minutes a day!
The psalmist gives us the perfect prayer to pray every year our lifeline rolls around.
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.
Now let me caution you. Don't expect wisdom to come into your life like great chunks of rock on a conveyor belt. It isn't like that. It's not splashy and bold . . . nor is it dispensed like a prescription across a counter. Wisdom comes privately from God as a by-product of right decisions, godly reactions, and the application of scriptural principles to daily circumstances. Wisdom comes, for example, not from seeking after a ministry . . . but more from anticipating the fruit of a disciplined life. Not from trying to do great things for God . . . but more from being faithful to the small, obscure tasks few people ever see.
Stop and reflect. Are you just growing old . . . or are you also growing up? As you "number your days" do you count just years—the grinding measurement of minutes—or can you find marks of wisdom . . . character traits that were not there when you were younger?
Take a look. You really don't have a lot longer, you know. As a matter of fact, one of these years your lifeline will be God's deadline.
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), 61, 155.