Fat buds breaking into flower here and there on an ornamental plum tree are among the first harbingers of spring on our farm. Soon promise will be reality and the tree will be a pink cloud, a profusion of blossoms and spring fragrance.
Then the show will be over.
Thousands of tiny petals will rain down, carpeting the lawn with memories. In a few weeks, no trace of Spring’s extravagance remains, and a visitor to the garden in summer, fall, or winter might not know that the tree ever blooms at all.
That first bloom on our plum tree is just a foretaste of what’s to come in other parts of the garden. Emerging from the cold, dark months of winter, the roses, just awkward sticks right now, will clothe themselves with foliage and explode into flower. In about two-and-a-half months, we’ll be in the height of their season, surrounded by sumptuous colors and awash in perfumed breezes.
I like the winter months because they give a chance to savor the expectation of good things to come. When I look out on my rose garden of bare twigs, I imagine what those plants will be. I don’t just see their thorny skeletons; I see their coming delights.
I’m looking forward.
Anticipation is woven into the very fabric of life. Pull that one thread from the cloth of living and it ravels.
When we’re young, we anticipate what it will be like to be older. I fixated on driving when I was a boy—and I wondered how I would be able to concentrate during church when I would have the chance to drive home at the end of the service. Just inserting the key into the ignition and turning it was exhilaration. One day I did get my license, and, though I still enjoy driving, I don’t daydream about starting the car anymore.
But anticipation is insatiable. Fulfill one dream, and you’ll crave another.
The other day one of my boys asked, “When will I start seeing hair in my armpits?” I understand. When classmates were losing teeth, I desperately wanted mine to fall out too. And the prospect of shaving was an electric thrill. I practiced (without a blade) just for the fun of it.
Dad warned that shaving would someday become a monotonous task; I heard those words, but they were incomprehensible to my boyish mind. Growing up, especially when others were growing up faster, was an overwhelming desire.
A strange thing happens when we crest life’s wave and find ourselves in the middle. Hair grows in places like ears and noses. Time wears on, youth flees, and the longed for maturity sets in like bad case of rheumatism on a cold day. What do we hope for anymore? What’s left to anticipate?
Sure we can hope for retirement and leisure time and good health. But in the middle of life there is a strange sense that earthly strings are being loosed. Our thinking is called from the visible to the invisible.
The process can be painful. We find we don’t want to do things we once did with relish. We might even feel depressed and wonder about the value of life.
These are the birth pains of a new way of thinking.
Paul understood the problem presented by this transition in thinking and the pain we experience in the process. He gave us a leather strap to bite on when life hurts. Even better, he gave us reason to hope again.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (II Corinthians 4:16–18).
If we can embrace it, the middle of life is an opportunity to fix our eyes on the Invisible God. We’ve been through the cycle of hope, realization, and dissatisfaction enough times to understand that earthly things never will satisfy. Spring blooms will fall and fade and disappear. Driver’s licenses and first cars will lose their novelty. That longed for maturity, once realized, slides down the slope of aging to wrinkles and discomfort.
It is never too soon to start thinking like an eternal soul rather than a temporary collection of physical desires and dreams.
Jim Elliot, young missionary martyr, penned this prayer:
God, I pray Thee, light these idle sticks of my life
and may I burn for Thee.
Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine.
I seek not a long life,
but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus.
It is that soul—the soul fixed on eternal things—that is young when it is old. A beloved elderly friend, a widow who prayed for me for years, developed terminal cancer and sent a card to say good-bye. She wrote, “Instead of looking forward to Thanksgiving with my dear family here, I am looking forward to be(ing) with Jesus and my family already in heaven.”
The hand that wrote was shaky and the eyes had long been dim. But my friend was young in her old age, praying for those in need, seeing what was yet unseen. The branches of the tree were withered, but the fruit of her life was abundant and sweet.
I’m not advocating a pretend existence that calls bad, good. Neither was Paul. His experience was crowded with affliction. But in comparison to the joy coming, momentary suffering was of no account.
Paul does not teach us to look at the troubles of life like an unreasoning optimist. Instead, he tells us to look beyond this life altogether—past the horizon of trials, out of the atmosphere of sin and aging and death. The tentmaker points out that we groan in our present tents, our earthly homes—longing to put on our heavenly dwellings.
To say it another way, we don’t deny that this life is full of trouble, that these bodies are wracked by pain and decay, but we anticipate what is yet to come.
On the front of the farewell card sent by my dying friend is a picture of two birds. One bird rests with wings folded, perched on a dogwood branch. Beneath it she wrote, “Get ready.” The other bird, wings outspread, prepares to take flight. Under that bird she wrote, “Go.” She went with joy, having spent a lifetime “getting ready”—seeing by faith what she now sees by sight.
No one will escape that ultimate imperative: “Go.” No one will skirt all the difficulties of life lived in a world under sin’s curse. But those whose eyes are fixed on the invisible world will be ready for the transition.
And in the middle, we can look forward, beyond the shadows, the pain, the trials of life—to the hour when mortality will be swallowed up by life.
© 2011 by Robert G. Robbins