Turning 55 this weekend has started me thinking, reflecting on the journey behind me and the road still left to travel. Birthdays have never been a big deal to me. When I was growing up, our family didn't have birthday parties. I guess there were just too many of us for that, and we didn't have money for a lot of extras. So my birthday as a child meant that I got to choose what we had for dinner that night, a favorite meal, and, of course, a birthday cake with frosting and candles, more than enough fuss to make me feel special and loved. Later on, as times got better we might go out to eat to celebrate a birthday, but we never did do birthday gifts and parties.
That pattern changed years later, when my oldest siblings began to hit the biggies, 30 then 40 then 50 and now 60. We would throw big parties, usually a surprise, filled with rude cards, gag gifts, and lots of laughs. But even those parties would loose their steam by the time we did each one eight times. There are only so many rude cards in the world, I guess.
And, by the way, my aging process seems to bother my older siblings more than it does me. They can get older I guess, but their baby brother is not supposed to be 30 or 40 or 50. I think it hits them pretty hard. Poor old-timers.
I think it was Ann or Mary Jane who invited me to her birthday party when I was about 10 years old. I remember spilling grape Koolaid on my pants and an embarrassing moment during "Pin the Tail on the Donkey", but it was a happy time, a good day.
When I turned 16, the youth group at our new church in Grandview threw a party for me, and I was totally surprised. There was a big chocolate cake, lots of decorations and funny gifts. Not a big deal, just a thoughtful gesture from friends, so why is it still so vivid in my memory 39 years later?
Through the years, Suzanne has surprised me a time or two with birthday parties. Once she and my brother, Jerry, gave me a nice birthday cake with big number candles, "32". I had to tell them that I loved the cake, but actually I was turning 33 years old. Born in 1960. Do the math. My sister-in-law, Janet, said, "I thought they were wrong, but how could I argue with your brother and your wife?" So, I may still be one year older than Suz thinks I am.
In my 55 years, only one birthday has really bothered me, or at least it got my attention. Turning 35 was a significant milestone for me. I finished my doctoral work that year, so I knew I could no longer blame any of my shortcomings on my lack of education. From now on, I'm supposed to know what I'm doing. And then I got to thinking about the time ahead: If I am able to serve until the normal retirement at age 65, than I have 30 years - 30 years to accomplish what I can, to make my contribution to this world. Just 30 years to minister and serve and then it will be done, over, finished for all eternity. When it's all done, I want to know that I made the most of it, that I made a difference, that I left some kind of mark on this world. I want to know that I made the most of it, the most of my gifts, the most of my opportunities. I want to stand before God with a clear conscience, having done what I could.
What strikes me this morning is that 20 of those 30 years are already gone. Where did they go? It's as if the years slipped by unnoticed, sneaking past us when we weren't paying much attention. The time is rushing by, relentlessly pushing and pulling us forward.
And I've lived plenty long enough to know that the future comes with no guarantees. I remember listening to my dad talk about his plans for retirement, the things that he had been putting off or never had time to do, the time he wanted to give back to his family, the mission work he would be free to do. And then, at age 60 he was gone, heading home before the game was over, early retirement in Heaven. God sets the schedule for us and we don't get advance notice.
So, as I turn 55 this weekend, I'm thinking about the passing of time and what we make of it. I have lived a remarkably blessed life and I am truly grateful. God is good. Life is good. But it's time for me and perhaps for you, too, to wake up and smell the coffee. Time marches on. Better make the most of it.
"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring