OLD AGE AND DEATH
AND now that I am seventy years old, and life is rapidly passing from me, if I should be asked how my discovery of the unselfishness of God affects my feelings towards old age and death, I can only say, that, secure in the knowledge that God is, and that He is enough, I find old age delightful in the present, and death a delicious prospect for the future.
If it were not for Him, old age with its failing powers and its many infirmities could not but be a sad and wearisome time; but, with God, our lovely unselfish God, at the back of it, old age is simply a delightful resting-place. To be seventy gives one permission to stand aloof from the stress of life, and to lay down all burden of responsibility for carrying on the work of the world; and I rejoice in my immunity.
I have tried in my day to help bear the burdens of my own generation, and, now that that generation has almost passed away, I am more than happy to know that the responsibilities of the present generation do not rest upon me, but upon the shoulders of the younger and stronger spirits, who are called in the providence of God to bear them. I laugh to myself with pleasure at the thought, and quite enjoy the infirmities of age as they come upon me, and find it delightful to be laid aside from one thing after another, and to be at liberty to look on in a peaceful leisure at the younger wrestlers in the world’s arena. I cannot say that their wrestling is always done in the way that seems best to my old eyes, but I admire the Divine order that evidently lays upon each generation its own work, to be done in its own way; and I am convinced that, whether it may seem to us for good or for ill, the generation that is passing must give place to the one that is coming, and must keep hands off from interfering. Advice we who are older may give, and the fruits of our experience, but we must be perfectly content to have our advice rejected by the younger generation, and our experience ignored. Were we willing for this, I am convinced the young would much more often be glad to profit by what is called the “wisdom of the old”; but, as it is, they are afraid to ask advice because they know they will be expected to follow it, whether it commends itself to them or not, and because they fear the old will feel hurt if they do not. Perfect freedom in asking advice can only exist along with perfect freedom not to follow that advice.
I am not of course referring to children, but to the adults of two generations, and I believe, as a general thing, the older generation, when it insists on its advice being taken, puts itself into the unenviable position of being very much in the way of the world’s progress. It is found necessary in all lines of business nowadays to employ younger and younger workers, because the older workers are inclined to get into ruts, and are unwilling to be urged out of them. In this connection it is very striking to notice in the history of the Israelites how at the age of fifty they were, by the Divine order, retired from public service, whether in the Tabernacle or in the Army. “And from the age of fifty years they shall cease waiting upon the service thereof, and shall serve no more.” It is manifest therefore that, if they were retired at fifty, one who is seventy, is at perfect liberty to stand aside from the world’s work, and to enjoy that delicious sense of release from responsibility which is the happy privilege of old age.
We read a great deal about the old educating the young. We need just as much that the young should educate the old. I hear that there is a University in Brussels that carries out this idea. It is called the New University, and it is indeed new, for not only do the Professors hold classes for the pupils, but the pupils hold classes for the Professors; and I venture to predict that that University will produce results far beyond those of any other. It is not that I think the wisdom is all shut up in the young, but I am convinced that it is the divine plan that each generation shall have the guidance of its own era, and shall do its work in its own way. And any effort to upset this Divine order, efforts which I am sorry to say we old people are constantly being tempted to make, are sure to produce friction and to hinder progress.
People talk a great deal about the duties the young owe to the old, but I think it is far more important to consider the duties the old owe to the young. I do not of course say that the young owe us old people no duties, but at the age of seventy I have learned to see that the weight of preponderance is enormously on the other side, and that each generation owes to the succeeding one far more duty than the succeeding one owes to them. We brought the younger generation into the world, without consulting them, and we are bound therefore to sacrifice ourselves for their good. This is what the God who created us has done in the sacrifice of Christ, and I do not see that He could have done less. He has poured Himself out without stint for His children, and we must do the same for ours.
Having discovered the unselfishness of God, as every one who has lived to be seventy ought to have done, our attitude towards all around us, should be, up to our measure, one of a similar unselfishness. And surely this is what our Lord wants to teach us when He urges us to love our enemies, and to bless them that curse us, and do good to them that hate us; in order, He says, that we may be the children of our Father which is in Heaven, who Himself does these things. And He ends His words with the exhortation, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” Our perfection therefore is to be the perfection of unselfish love; and, the older we are, the more fully we ought to know this and act on it.
Everything is safe when an unselfish love is guiding and controlling, and therefore my old heart is at rest, and I can lay down my arms with a happy confidence that, since God is in His Heaven, all must necessarily be right with His world, let the “seemings” be what they may. And I can peacefully wait to understand what seems mysterious now, until the glorious day of revelations, to which every hour brings me nearer.
It is to me a most comforting discovery, to have found out that God can manage His own universe Himself, and that He can do it even without my help. I never look at the sun, or the moon, or the stars, without a satisfying recognition of the fact that they are all the “work of His fingers,” and that the management of them is His business and not mine, and that therefore I can afford to die and leave them, and all things else, to His care, without a fear that the universe will be dislocated by my going. God is the Housekeeper of His own creation, and just as I should think it folly to worry myself over the housekeeping of my neighbours in Grosvenor Road, so does it seem to me even a greater folly to worry myself over the housekeeping of God. Therefore with an easy mind I can look forward to death, and the prospect of leaving this life and of entering into the larger and grander life beyond, is pure bliss to me. It is like having a new country, full of unknown marvels, to explore; and the knowledge that no one and nothing can hinder my going there, is a secret spring of joy in the bottom of my heart continually. Often and often, when some pleasant earthly plan is spoiled, I say to myself triumphantly, “Ah well, there is one thing about which I can never be disappointed, and that is dying. No one, not even an enemy, can deprive me of that!” Whenever I see a funeral I laugh inwardly at the fresh realization of the fact that such a happy fate lies before every one of us; and I hardly dare trust myself to try writing letters of condolence about the death of any one, for they are almost sure to turn into letters of congratulation at the happy escape of another prisoner from this earthly prison house.
In the different associations to which I belong my comrades never dare ask me to conduct a memorial service for our departed members, for fear I shall be tempted to give thanks for their release. Even for the going home of those I love, I can always rejoice, for it seems to me nothing but selfishness to let my loss outweigh their glorious gain.
I love Walt Whitman’s matchless death song, and always want to send it to every dying friend:—“Joy, shipmate, joy.
(Pleased to the soul at death, I cry.)
Our life is closed, our life begins;
The long, long anchorage we leave,
The ship is clear at last, she leaps,
She swiftly courses from the shore!
Joy, shipmate, joy!”
This passing life with all its affairs, once apparently so important, fades into insignificance in face of the surpassing life beyond, and I am glad to be so nearly through with it. Its interest has gone for me; and I, who used to be so eager to see every new place, and to taste every new experience, care for them no longer. I have a most satisfactory feeling of being done with this earth. All places look alike to me, and all experiences seem tame in comparison with that which awaits me on the other side.
As to what that is, I can only have vague ideas. I am like the butterfly, just preparing to slip out of its old cocoon, panting for the life outside, but with no experience to tell it what sort of a life that outside life will be. Only I believe with all my heart that the Apostle told the truth when he declared that, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” And what more delicious prospect could the soul have! I remember vividly my perfect delight many years ago in the prospect of exploring the unknown beauties of the Yellowstone Park, and of the Hoodoo Mountains in Wyoming Territory, a delight caused largely by the fact that they were unknown, and that therefore anything and everything seemed possible. But that delight was as nothing compared to my delight now, in looking forward to the things which have not even entered my mind to conceive.
The one thing I do know about it is, that then will be fulfilled the prayer of our Lord, “Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory which Thou hast given me.” That glory is not the glory of dazzling light and golden brightness, as some might picture it, but it is the glory of unselfish love, than which there can be no greater. I have had a few faint glimpses of this glory now and here, and it has been enough to ravish my heart. But there I shall see Him as He is, in all the glory of an infinite unselfishness which no heart of man has ever been able to conceive; and I await the moment with joy.
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