I've been thinking a lot lately about aging. I'm forty-four years old, give or take, at that age when people always used to tell me, "Oh, wait till you turn forty ... it will really hurt then!" And I find that to be generally true. I have lots more aches and pains than I did a decade ago. Bits of arthritis have started invading. My eyesight is not nearly what it used to be. (I've become one of those people who take their glasses off to read things.) Physically, it's harder to get in shape and that shape, once I do get there, is a lot rounder than it used to be.
I spent a good chunk of the weekend helping a friend re-roof his barn. Not one of the old traditional barns with the hip roof, so we weren't roped up and dangling. No, it was a sheet metal building with a nice easy pitch to the roof. All in all it was great fun, and even beneficial in a work sense for me, because I was teaching Saturday evening at Alpha on prayer, and after spending the day on the roof I had lots of practical experience. Not so much praying for myself, but mostly praying for Bill, who has twenty years' more experience at life than I do, who was dangling one-handed from rafters and standing on 2x4's over a twelve foot drop onto concrete. I thought some while I was up on the roof, moving very cautiously, how I don't trust my body as much as I once did. I know that my mind can make that beautiful leap across the open space in the roof, but I suspect that as I launch, my arthritic hip will decide to give just a little bit, and bad things will happen. So I get a little careful.
I guess that's not a bad thing. I've come to the age now where, in primal cultures, or among my ancestors a thousand years ago, I would be one of the old men of the clan. It's probably okay to be a little more circumspect in the way I carry myself, in the stupid human tricks I try to perform. And there are several of those. I still do stuff just to make sure my body doesn't get too complacent. Single-track mountain biking at Hillside Park in Elk River, for example, which is a good way to 1) get some exercise, 2) clean out your adrenal glands, and 3) come face-to-face with your own mortality. Or earlier this fall, when I spent a week bowhunting for black bears in northern Minnesota. This involves, among other things, climbing trees and sitting high over a bait, hoping that a large bear will come and dine fifteen yards from my tree; then later, you listen to the bear quietly coming in for dinner, but he doesn't come all the way to the bait -- he patiently sits back in the brush thirty or forty yards away, just beyond sight. Then after dark, when he is still out there, you have to climb down out of the tree and walk a half mile back to the four wheeler that, if all goes right, will start and take you back to the place you're planning to sleep for the night. One night while I was coming off my stand, a bull moose and I had a discussion about that half mile walk out. From forty yards away, when you're standing on the ground, a bull moose is a very large animal.
So I still do interesting things. I'm not giving in to the first tendrils of old age that are slowly creeping into my body. But the aches and pains, the diminishing capacity, the more frequent pauses to stop, breathe, and look around, all make me think.
Why did God set it up this way? Why is this low-grade suffering we call old age pretty much guaranteed if you don't do something stupid that ends your life in the first few decades? I've had similar thoughts watching people wrestle with cancer, depression, grief, or other excruciating diseases. Why?
Understand, I am not of the opinion that God causes most of the suffering we experience. That makes God just a little too much like the kid pulling wings off flies to watch them wander around on the windowsill. No, I think God set up a good world that got infected with our sin, and now we are suffering the consequences, both in the specific results of our individual sin and in the generalized malaise of living in a sin-tainted world. But I also think God works in the middle of those consequences to make good things happen.
One such good thing is that those consequences, that suffering, can often turn people's hearts toward God. That is an amazing good that often comes out of pain. At another level, even for those who already know and love him, God works at a deeper level. Often he allows our suffering to turn our hearts from the things of this world and the love of it, so that we begin to turn toward him and love him more. It's like suffering helps us to untie our heartstrings from what we used to love here and tie them instead to Jesus.
Why are we so surprised by suffering? If we take the Bible seriously, we should expect it, and expect God to work in it. Yet so often Christians who experience the least little bit of physical or emotional suffering launch into a spiritual tailspin. Don't we believe that the Bible has something to say to this? Nearly every book in the New Testament in some way or other addresses the issue of suffering, and their consistent message is, "Rejoice! Don't lose hope! God is at work!"
This is true also with aging. My aches are beginning to teach me perspective, patience, and (I hate this part) planning ahead. As I experience moments of adrenaline, or beauty, or satisfaction, I value them more because I begin to see a day coming (hopefully far off on the horizon yet) when I will be unable to do these things.
As physical ability diminishes, my options narrow. When I was twenty I believed I would accomplish many, many great things. Now I get a little more focused about where I spend my energy, what I take on. Frequently I gloss over things I used to think were important. I've come to recognize that I will not have time in this life to do everything I wanted.
These thoughts, in my mind at least, are not at all morbid or depressing. Instead, I'm reflecting on the process, figuring out this aging thing so that I can see the next step or two where Jesus is leading. I have lots of great role models -- older guys who are a decade or two or three ahead of me in this. I watch them like hawks, trying to figure out what they know by experience, while still living in the moment, using this day and doing what I can. It's good.