Brethren Archive

At My Time of Life: An Old Man’s Autumnal Meditation.

by John Dickie

YES, I am growing into an old man.  The incidental remarks of friends frequently remind me of this fact.  Increasing infirmity of body, and diminishing activity of mind, are unmistakable symptoms of advanced life.  And the occasional removal of some old friend, the companion of my boyhood, forces on me the conviction that I am close upon, and walking steadily towards, the gateway of the house appointed for all living. Well, I am not in any degree sorry that I am now an old man.  I am sorry, indeed, that I have not made a better use of my departed youth and manhood.  The past has gone for ever, so that none of its sad mistakes can be now corrected.
This, however, remains—the old man may repeat in the ears of youth some of the lessons which it has cost him so much to learn; for age, if it gives not experience, gives nothing, and takes all away.
At my time of life, one should keep himself in constant readiness to depart.  With dear John Newton, an old man should look on himself as being now like a trunk packed and roped, and having the address-label attached, lying in the lobby awaiting removal.  And why should an aged man covet longer life?  If God will to appoint it, let it be so; but why should we desire it?  Longer life to an old man, involves but a rapid increase of infirmity, till the infirm one becomes a useless burden to himself, and an encumbrance to others.  Longer life entails also diminution of sympathy, the sweet solace of the afflicted.  Loving and sympathizing friends have generally been removed; and in other bosoms, an old man's troubles awaken little interest.  And it is well that it should be so.  The stock of human compassion is a limited fund at best, with many drafts to be made upon it, and it has been wisely arranged, in divine providence, that the most urgent claims—those of childhood shall be most readily and fully met; while an old man's drafts, often inconsiderately made, are as often grudgingly responded to.
At my time of life, I see that the desire for mere living is not only a lust of the flesh but is one of the meanest even of these; and, when it is cherished beyond warrant, it often receives its righteous but severe retribution.  The selfish man who selfishly clings to existence is appropriately punished by being simply allowed to live.  For what a wretched thing does life become, after its activities and enjoyments are all gone!  Its very strength, as the Psalmist says, is "labour and sorrow."
And yet, what is more frequently seen than this unhappy clinging to mere existence? As men misapprehend and misuse the present life, it cannot well be otherwise.  All that they have loved or laboured for is to be found on earth.  The reward for which they have toiled, miserable as it is, has in the case of some of them been reached at last; and now, when the prize is just being clutched by the tremulous but eager fingers of an old man, it is little wonder that he feels loath to go and leave it,—more loath to go than he was, even in his greenest youth, or in the vigour of ruddy manhood.  His treasure has all along been on earth, therefore his heart has also been here.  The root-fibres of his heart, like those of an aged tree, are now inextricably interlaced with the stones and clods amid which he has grown.
At my time of life, I have discovered that age of itself has no tendency to make a man better.  When divine grace has not renewed the heart, and thus brought the man under other influences besides those of nature, his characteristic blemishes are not erased, but deepened by advancing years.  The terrible words of Revelation xxii. 11, are, in their measure, fulfilled in an old man: "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still."
I think that age, apart from the grace of God, does to the mind very much what it does to the features of the face.  If there be any feature in a youthful face that is especially beautiful, age gradually steals from it most of its peculiar beauty; but if there be any feature that is uncomely, age increases the uncomeliness, sometimes even to actual repulsiveness.  So too, does age operate on the character of the man.  His good points become less good, and his bad points become worse.  I limit this remark, however, to those cases in which human nature is left to its own development, unbeautified, unsanctified by the grace of God.  An aged saint is an altogether different kind of man.  He is often the sweetest, loveliest sight to be seen on earth, fruitful to the last (Ps. xcii. 14), and with his hoary locks a very aureola of glory.
I really think that in old age, the moral faculties become deteriorated, just as the bodily and intellectual faculties do.  If we observe carefully, we shall discover that age blunts the moral sensitiveness quite as much as it dulls the eye-sight, or the hearing, or the memory.  Since it is so, it follows that no sinner is so bad as an aged sinner; no other case is so hopeless as his.  And if the lively devout Christian appear to be an exception to this rule, as indeed he is, he owes the privilege exclusively to his second nature.  He may say, in reference to this, as Paul said in regard to another matter, "Not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
At my time of life, I have discovered how completely mistaken the young and middle-aged are, when they defer repentance to the "more convenient season" of old age.  Old age is not a "more convenient season" for true conversion, but a less.  Fiery youth has its special difficulties to contend with, and so too has active manhood; but let me assure the procrastinating youth or man, that if he be spared to reach old age at all, he shall find it, if he be still unconverted, filled with obstacles to salvation quite as numerous, and quite as grave, as those which appear to him at present, all but insurmountable.  What in youth was merely carelessness, shall now have hardened into callousness.  The emotional nature, which in earlier life is lively, and which serves its own important ends, though these be not the highest, shall now have become nearly or quite extinct. The conscience, outraged so long, shall now be found to be seared and torpid, so that the soul's capacity for receiving impressions shall be well-nigh eradicated.  And in addition to all these, there shall be the long established tyranny of habit—in this case, of Godless and Christless habit, become so uncontrollably despotic, that the conversion of an old man in this condition can be looked on as possible at all, only because there is nothing impossible with God.  Will the young take special note of this?
And besides these considerations, let not the young man dream, as he sometimes does, that in his old age, he will have ample leisure to care for the better things.  The devil will take good care of that.  The old man is as much occupied with his trifles as the adult with his business, or the child with its play; and if the enemy have succeeded in diverting the individual from serious thought by the amusements of the youth, or the business of the manhood, the likelihood is that he will equally succeed in securing the same end by the trifling pastimes of the old man.  For he has one set of toys that befit the youth; and these he exchanges in due time for another set that befit the full-grown man; and now he has exchanged these again for a final set, designed to occupy the hoary-headed trifler, until his grave be fully dug, and his shroud and coffin be got ready for him.
But long ere I reached my time of life, I had learned that it is altogether different with the aged believer.  The difference between the two classes of old men does not lie in degree, but in kind; and this difference is the more discernible in proportion as the grace in the individual believer is vigorous and healthy.  The physical, intellectual, and moral loss which age inflicts on the man, as a man, is compensated, and more than compensated, by the increased supply of the Holy Spirit.  The aging man, when he is merely a man, is gradually losing his all.  His vitality is drying up; and whatever had been naturally excellent in him before, is becoming less excellent now, for it is becoming less vigorous.  Like the fruit of the crab-tree, he is becoming only more withered and wrinkled; but his juice is the same, as sour and as bitter as ever.  It is not so with the Christian.  His true life is undecaying.  He is entering upon new phases of spiritual development.  Like the apple, he is ripening and mellowing day by day, and his juices are growing sweeter and more luscious. His outward man, indeed, is perishing; but he has an inward man, which is being daily renewed.  And this vigour of spiritual life is more productive of enjoyment to the old man himself, and more provocative of delight to sympathizing spectators, than were the animal spirits of the youth to their youthful possessor, or to those who shared in his boisterous pleasures.
At my time of life, I see, as I have never seen, that any given human life is a marvellous unity, having all its parts compacted together in the most intimate way.  The old age is simply the resultant of the various stages which have preceded it.  What it shall be depends absolutely on what they have been.  Every impulse to which the youth abandons himself, every act which the adult man performs, every thought, every feeling, is giving shape and colour, in an unsuspected way, to the subsequent old age. For all these are forming the character; and it is the man's character, thus formed, which, determines the man's old age.  "The child is father of the man," ay, even of the old man; and in this way is father also of the glorious angel or of the hideous devil which shall succeed.  Let the young reflect on this with awe; for men are saved by thinking and lost by thoughtlessness.  My young friend, you shall not be able to wrench yourself violently from your own past, as perhaps you contemplate, any more than the half-grown apple shall be able to convert itself into a peach.
In this way, old age becomes a period of divine and most righteous retributions. Whatever the man has heretofore been sowing, he is now set to reap.  His crop shall, in every case, correspond with the seed which he has sown.  This is God's arrangement, established by inexorable law—a law as inflexible as the law of death itself.  Let no man, then, deceive himself on this point, for God is not to be mocked. The seed which is now being sown is settling, in each man's case, the nature of his harvest.  Alas, that the lives of most—of all, indeed, but a few—are scarcely better than a persistent sowing to the flesh, to reap of the flesh its appropriate harvest of corruption!  Will the young, especially, think of these things?
As to one's personal aims and purposes, a man at my time of life ought, beyond all else, to cultivate the closest attainable walk with God.  The whole of one's by-past experience—experience of self, of the world, of God's presence and service—all urge the soul in this direction now.  Since the past training has, in a measure, fitted one to appreciate and enjoy what present partial release from the engrossing activities of life, makes more easily attainable, how clear the call of God!  Enoch, undoubtedly, was all along a faithful servant of the Most High, but it was in his latest stage that he became the man who "walked with God."
It was a magnificent conception of Dr. Chalmers, though he never got it fully realized in his own life.  He wished to secure the closing decade of his life for a holy Sabbath rest, as preparatory to the everlasting Sabbath in glory.  Many of us, most of us, may, like Chalmers, find it impossible to compass this ideal, at least in outward circumstances; let us none the less yearn to have as much of this holy rest internally as we can secure—to have our last days on earth our Enoch days, in which life shall be not merely living, but walking with God.
At my time of life, and in order to maintain this lowly fellowship with God, it behooves one like me to walk very softly, and in the spirit of the deepest self-abasement.  I ought to welcome most gladly every help towards the fuller discovery of my own sinfulness, that I may repent afresh, and may humble myself more deeply before God, as the chief of sinners.  How much gracious culture has been expended on me! the recollection of it confounds me.  And yet, how imperfectly have I responded to all this patient care of the unequalled Husband-man!   It confounds me, strikes me literally dumb, to think of it.  On the one hand, there is the immense amount of material which has been made use of for my spiritual education; on the other hand, here is the produce—the humbling produce; and the last amounts to what?  Does the harvest warrant such an immensity of spring and summer toil?  Well, He alone knows who has in love expended it all without grudge; but to me, at my time of life, the review is most deeply humiliating.  How much human love and human instruction have I got, since infancy, by God's appointment, from His creatures whom He set to love me and instruct me!  What an exuberance of lessons has been lavished on me—lessons of all kinds, and literally poured in on me from every quarter—lessons from heaven and from earth, from life and from death, from friends and from enemies, from ancient wisdom and from recent discovery—all tending towards one end; and the final result of the whole comes to—what?  Let me repeat it, I should this day lie in the dust, the humblest of men.
But at my time of life, how trustful should I be, how courageous and stable my faith!  If, on the one hand, God has been so training me as to bring me to kneel beside Job among his ashes, and to say with him, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee; wherefore I abhor myself"—has He not also, with equal impressiveness, been opening out before me "the exceeding riches of his grace," in His kindness to the most undeserving of sinners in Christ Jesus?  Here, and here alone, can the self-wearied old man find any rest for the sole of his foot.  But there is sweet and abundant rest in these "unsearchable riches of Christ."  With an experience of divine mercy like mine, unbelieving anxieties should now be dismissed, and one may prayerfully aim at saying—
"Now, in the hoary winter or my days,
For ever green shall be my trust in Heaven."
At my time of life, too, it well befits an old man to be a decided and faithful witness for God.  I now see, as I never did, that the very cream of a Christian's service lies in his witness-bearing.  His ministry, whatever it may be, will be very defective indeed, if it is not based on his own personal experience—an experience without which he is not qualified to be a witness at all.  And with what a willing heart and ready tongue should the old man speak out, rotundo orc, his most assured convictions—convictions established on God's Word and confirmed by the experience of a life-time.  He can testify that he has never found the world in itself, to be anything better than a swindling Madam Bubble, "a dry, thirsty land, where no water is."  He can testify that he never trusted in his own heart, but he found that heart to be deceitful above all things; while he never trusted in God, but he found Him to be more faithful, and more gracious, than timid unbelief had dared to hope.
At my time of life, a man should be pretty-well freed from the love of the world.  Already has he got from it all that it is able to give.  And what has the sum total amounted to? Simply to this, a great heap of utter vanity and vexation of spirit.  So far, indeed, as the Holy Spirit may please to employ the world's things for training, they may be serviceable to a man; but, in this case, where lies the benefit?  Not in the world's things themselves, but altogether in the use made of them by the Divine Teacher.  The world has now less to give to such as I am than she ever had.  Once I mistook her brass for gold and was pleased with the thought that her gifts were making me rich.  But I know her a little better now.
Alas, that with so many of the aged, worldliness increases with years!  I know no sight so melancholy as that of a dying, yet Christless, worldly old man.  That the young and healthy, who are able to enjoy the world as fully as the world can be enjoyed, and who have not yet been taught its unutterable vanity—that these should prefer the world for a portion rather than the unsearchable riches of Christ—this is a folly almost superlative in its greatness.  Nevertheless, one can understand how it is possible.  But there is a deeper depth in the insanity of human sinfulness, that sinks miles below this.  When an aged man, whose exhausted energy prevents him from winning the world, whose blunted sensibility prevents him from enjoying the world, whose brief interval before departure, barely permits him to set out on a hopeful quest after the better portion—hopeful only when it is earnestly pursued—that this old man should still, for sake of the worthless world, persist in neglecting till death the better portion, is a point in the line of folly beyond which man's sinful ingenuity can scarcely contrive to go.  Oh! what must be the hatred of man towards the Holy God when it leads so many into a stupendous insanity like this!
At my time of life, I should do whatever my hands find to do with all my might.  I have now not a single moment left me to waste.  The things which I set myself to care for should be a wise selection made from the top of the list of most urgent matters; but all these should be diligently attended to, and that on the instant.  "Spend no moment," says the poet, "but in purchase of its worth" and if we ask what its worth is, he sends us to a death-bed to learn it.  But old men like me should not need to learn from a death-bed the value of one moment—we who are already looking on each moment through the eyes of dying men.  "Millions, millions of money for an inch of time!" cried the dying Queen Elizabeth; but she cried in vain.  Let us who have still the inch, or half-inch of time, see to make the most of it while we have opportunity.
And there is one special spur to diligence, which, in a case like mine, ought to prick the side continually to rouse decision to the uttermost.  I have confessed already that I have failed to attain my youthful ideal, and that, on the review of life, the vision of that ideal comes back on me, bright and beautiful as a very angel, to upbraid me for my negligence, to grind my heart into deepest contrition at the sight of what faith and patience might have given me for my own.  Well, for this, let me be most deeply humbled; but on no account need I be unbelievingly despondent.  I have to deal with One whose power and grace can avail to restore the years which the locust hath eaten. I have still a second ideal—the ideal of what a Christian's old age ought to be.  Shall I forfeit this one too?  Shall I, through carelessness or carnal sloth, let this second angel go, as the first has gone? or, shall I, with the fervour of a Jacob at Peniel, lay violent hands upon it, saying, "I cannot, I dare not, I will not let thee go"?  I must sacrifice all to attain my second ideal, and in order to do this, must ask and receive increase of faith, of that faith a grain of which, though small as a mustard-seed, can make the impossible easy. And it has often been noticed in the lives of Christians, that, before the close, God has given what had been sought in vain during a long life.
At my time of life, the moments have relatively increased in value.  Like the books of the Sibyl, as the hours grow fewer, the unit becomes more precious.  Some one has compared life, when it is a genuine life, to a wedge of gold.  The thin end represents youth, while as youth merges into manhood, and that into old age, the golden wedge broadens and thickens, until death cuts it across.  Life's most valuable years, therefore, are its last.  In many cases, very many, this simile is quite applicable; but it is only when the wedge is a golden one.  If a man make his wedge of life out of lead, or out of any other of the baser metals, the thick end, the close of the life, shall have more of the base in it than the beginning had.
At my time of life, a man's little remainder of time should specially abound in prayer and in praise.  In prayer, for I feel as if I now needed the Lord more than I ever did.  Not, indeed, that the necessity can be really greater, but the consciousness of it certainly is.  It is well.  Let me hence-forward lean my whole weight on divine omnipotence—it is strong enough.  Let me count with confidence on divine faithfulness—it is the surest of certainties.  Let me enlarge my expectations from divine love—it is deep and tender enough.  And still more, let me abound in praise.  Let me seek to have my life shaped after the pattern of the Book of Psalms, in which we have at the beginning the blending of various experiences of joy and sorrow, but which becomes more and more filled with seraphic praises towards the close.  And "who should louder sing than I?"
At my time of life, I feel it to be an unspeakable comfort, that all my most cherished treasures, the objects of my dearest desires, lie, every one of them, not behind me, but before me.  Each fleeting day is hurrying me on, as with the speed of an express train, not away from them, but nearer to them.  Oh, it is a frightful thing when an old man finds that his heaven, the object of his desire and delight, lies behind him, and that he is receding further from it every day!  But how happy is it when one's heaven lies in front, and lies at no great distance ahead, while God's own loving and trusted hand is guiding us safely thither.  Is a man's blessing all past, or is a man's blessedness all to come?  The answer to these questions will discriminate the old men into two groups, as distinct as they shall be on the day of judgment.
The old man, like me, ought to have it for his constant feeling—
"I hold by nothing here below;
Appoint my journey and I go."
In earlier and more active years, one might feel more or less as the apostle did, "in a strait betwixt two."  There were attractive forces drawing the heart in both directions; and one was thankful to be spared the necessity for choosing, by leaving it simply to God to choose.  But God has been gradually taking us out of this perplexity.  The attraction on the one side, He has been making more operative, while the counter attraction on the other has been growing less and less.  It is now less needful for others that we "abide in the flesh."
May I be allowed, in closing, to urge my aged fellow-disciples, as I would urge myself, that we seek to have our last days on earth the holiest and most heavenly of all our days?  Let us spend the brief residue of our sojourn here in the lovely spirit of Bunyan's pilgrims, while they waited by the river-side, to receive their summons to the Celestial City.  May age be to each of us, by the rich grace of God, like the Indian summer of America; less fiery perhaps, in its heat, and less glaring in its sunlight, than the prime of manhood's summer was, but more soft and mellow, and filled with its own peculiar sweetness.  Yes, let each day henceforward be spent by us as if we knew it to be our last on earth.  Let each word be spoken as if spoken by one who expects never to open his lips again.  Let each successive portion of Holy Scripture be read and enjoyed as if the reader expected, on closing the book, to open it no more below.  Let each prayer be offered as if the offerer knew that his prayers, like the prayers of David, the son of Jesse, were now ended.  In short, let us spend the brief remainder of life as realizing that we have reached the very verge of it, that one other step may take us beyond the boundary line.  Living in this spirit, we may expect to find all things around us luminous with the manifestations of His majestic presence, whose presence makes the wide world a Holy of Holies to the soul that believes and loves, and that, in its faith and love, walks apart with Him.  And walking thus with Him, we shall find that in the feast of fat things provided for his beloved ones even here, it is as it was at the marriage feast of Cana—the best of the wine is reserved to the last.  The closing consolation we may count on finding to be peculiarly the "strong consolation." J. D.
“The Family Treasury” 1878

Add Comment: