by Ed Harrell
Christianity Magazine, Volume 3, No. 4, April 1986
In recent years, the most bone-chilling, foreboding thought tightly caged in the back of my mind has had to do not with nuclear war or heart attacks, but old age. I do not fear the bright and sunny days of those advanced in years but clear of mind and spirit. But what of those grown gaunt and hollow-cheeked, gazing helpless and empty into space?
It is, perhaps, too early for many of you to think personally of such somber realities, having viewed them only at a distance in grandparents or parents. I have seen old age in those perspectives, but, though I still feel young enough, I also can see that my years are stretching toward that end. So, I shall tell you what I have thought about such things.
It occurs to me that much of life has to do with waiting. Our early lessons on that subject may furnish us a base to build on in later years.
When I was a teenager, my physician father would pack me off every summer to work on our farm in South Georgia. For three months each year, I did brutal tobacco field labor in one of the most ferocious summer climates in the world. My father was not really trying to teach me a lesson (what I did was a piece of his own life experience), but he did teach me several.
I have often tried to reconstruct my thoughts during the sultry evenings when I lay exhausted on the wooden floors of our farm shanties. I think I was just waiting. I knew the torture that lay ahead in the fields the next day, and week, and month. But I steeled myself to grit it out; I could wait; this would not last forever.
I have waited many times since. I waited while in the Navy and I waited through graduate school. My wife, so she tells me, waited through a series of pregnancies.
All Christians understand that life is a wait. We know that we are “strangers and pilgrims” on this earth (Hebrews 11:13). But too often we forget that we are waiting, thinking rather that we are living. Near the end of his long life, the seventeenth-century Puritan preacher, Increase Mather, received a letter from a friend asking if he was “still in the land of the living.” “No,” he replied, “I am in the land of the dying. I am going to the land of the living.”
If we fail to grasp the transient nature of life, it will throw old age out of perspective. Being old then becomes a discontinuity with the rest of life, instead of being the culmination of our existence. On the other hand, if we know that all of life is waiting, then we come to the end of it more yieldingly.
And so, if you come to visit me when I have become aged and gnarled, and I look upon you with blank and clouded eyes, do not, I ask, regard me with pity or pathos. I shall just be waiting. I have done it before and I am tough enough to do it again. If, by God’s grace, I can still think, I shall have my mind fastened on the object of my long wait. If it is my lot to face the final days without reason, I pray that my body will be so conditioned to waiting that it will do so gently. But, whatever the case, like all waits, this one too will pass and I shall be on my way to what is next.