There’s no point in denying that I’m about to reach a particular milestone on 2nd June. Now there are different views about reaching sixty. Some people see it as being no more than some insignificant crossing of which brings little change, while others see sixty as marking your entrance into some unfamiliar territory of the ‘senior years’.
Inevitably I have been reflecting on reaching sixty and have decided that my attitude can be summed up in terms of what I accept, reject and expect.
First, what do I accept? Well I accept that, although welcome, the cards, candles and celebrations are indeed reminders of my mortality. When we are young we all consider our lives to be unlimited; any end lies safely out of sight beyond the horizon. However, when you reach sixty you realise there are more years behind you than there are ahead. And although we have made progress (after all, a century ago you probably were dead!), being sixty does mean that you have to start thinking about mortality. Here, of course, one of the perks of being a Christian is that not only can I look at this life’s ending without flinching, I can see beyond it.
I also accept ageing. I think there’s no greater sign of immaturity than rejecting maturity. After all, people see below the toupee, beyond the Botox and beneath the loose-fit shirts. Nothing shows your age more than an attempt to hide it. So I acknowledge that it’s time to quietly drop any goals of running an ultra-marathon or, quite frankly, doing anything with the adjective ‘extreme’ attached to it. With that acceptance comes the recognition that God decides both the duration and the destiny of our life. We can’t stop getting older, but we don’t have to get old. It’s not how old you are, but how you are old.
I accept, too, a continuing need of grace. There is sometimes an assumption that when you reach a certain age you are on the home straight of the spiritual life: you have made it! Far from it. We need grace until the moment we breathe our last. I’m also aware that I don’t just need to take in grace for myself but to give out grace for others. From what I’ve seen in many lives, those years beyond sixty can produce a great harvest if the soil of our personality is continuously irrigated with the living water of God’s Spirit. Many people worry about age bringing a shrivelled and wrinkled body; I’m more concerned about a shrivelled and wrinkled heart. And with that need for grace comes the need to continue to grow my relationship with God. In my time ahead I want to ascend spiritually and not to descend.
There’s much to accept, but what do I reject? Well, while I accept ageing, I reject any idea that on reaching sixty I pass some ‘best by’ date and that it’s time to ease off on engagements, switch off the alarm clock, buy a comfortable rocking chair and put the slippers on. There’s work to do and I intend to continue to do it as long as God enables me and until I am promoted to glory.
I reject, too, the temptation to spend more time in the past than in the present. I’ve met too many people over sixty over whom the past retains an unhealthy grip. Sometimes it is good things that preoccupy them: the friends, fitness and achievements they once had. Sometimes it is bad things that haunt them: life’s missed opportunities, embarrassments and failures. Well, l reject both wistful nostalgia and bitter regret. I have a God big enough to handle the best and the worst of the past.
I reject also the subtle temptation to yield to self-indulgence. Many people consider that this landmark in life is the point where you can start to put yourself first. We’ve all heard it, haven’t we? ‘So far I’ve lived my life for others; now it’s time to put me first.’ No; if in one’s seventh decade idleness is bad, idolatry is worse.
Finally, what do I expect? The first thing is that I do have expectations for the years that lie ahead. Indeed I believe that expectancy is essential. The saddest thing I’ve seen amongst those people who have made it beyond my present age is the loss of drive, desire and direction. Instead of trying to find time for their activities they are now seeking activities to fill their time. It’s worth remembering that sometimes death can begin years before the heart stops ticking.
I believe my life so far has actually been a preparation for this next season where I am anticipating the ‘more than’ we have ever seen before and fruitfulness that will exceed all that we have seen before. The challenge now is what to do with the wisdom, knowledge, experience and information gathered over the years – the potential and possibilities are huge. I am pumped up with expectation.
I expect that God will be gracious in the days ahead. Because of his promises in Christ I can have faith that he will be faithful; I can depend on him to be dependable. I expect the days ahead to bring new opportunities and, with them, new challenges. I expect that there will be new temptations: perhaps to ease off, maybe to water down what I believe. I intend to resist them. I am going to be spiritually fit and physically fit – I am currently doing 600 squats every morning!
I am so grateful to God for my wife Killy in partnership both in life and ministry for 35 years, and to my incredible trustees who counsel, support and guide me. And wonderful colleagues who keep me young at heart and together with God ‘all things are possible’ and, be assured, a lot more laughter and a continuing good sense of humour!
I have lived in expectation since I became a Christian and I hope to live by it until that moment which some may call ‘the end’ but which will in fact be the beginning. In looking at the road ahead I’m reminded of those words of another John, John Newton: ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far. And grace will lead me home.’
Revd Canon J.John