When you’re a kid you can’t wait to grow up. Then you do grow up, and you realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. You have to do unpleasant things like take responsibility for yourself, and often for others. At some point you begin to gaze toward old age in the same way a mariner, spyglass to his eye, scrutinizes the beaches of some unexplored continent. You wonder what it’s going to be like. You worry that maybe you’ll be too feeble or witless to enjoy whatever compensations the passing years might bestow.
We’ll, I’ve landed on that shore. At the end of August I celebrated my sixtieth birthday. I no longer have to worry about old age. I only have to enjoy it—or endure it.
My birthday itself was unremarkable. Since it fell on a Sunday, I went to church. I even taught Sunday school. Granted, I did nap during the afternoon, but I’ve been doing that since I was twenty-something. Sixty hardly felt distinguishable from fifty-nine.
Something did change, though. I first noticed it when going to meet a student for breakfast on Tuesday morning. The parking lot at Perkins was full except for the far corners and a single space near the door. Blessing my good fortune, I pointed the Ford toward the premium spot. That’s when I noticed the sign that said, “Reserved for Seniors.” For a moment my brow puckered at the thought of turning around and driving toward the distant reaches of the lot. Then it occurred to me—I’m entitled to this space.
Indoors, the experience repeated itself. I scanned the breakfast menu for something that I’d enjoy eating. Then I noticed the back cover. It showed a “Senior’s Menu,” and sure enough, the thing I was looking for was right there.
By the time I left the restaurant, I had decided to own my newfound status. I am a senior. A sexagenarian. A geezer. A fossil. A codger. An elder. A greybeard (literally). To celebrate, I kept my turn signal blinking for a full two miles.
Old men are fond of their memories. I can recall the decade of the 50s. It seems like another world. I vividly remember that day in 1963 when President Kennedy was shot. My first political opinion was to favor Johnson over Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. If I pause for a moment, other memories come bubbling to the surface: the Beatles, the summer riots of 1967, the introduction of the Boeing 737, the Viet Nam conflict, the Six Day War, the Black Panthers, the SDS, Woodstock, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Chicago Seven, the 1968 Detroit Tigers, the first man on the moon, the Kent State shootings, the surrender of Biafra, the thawing of relations with Red China, Roe v. Wade, the Yom Kippur War, the Watergate scandal. All of that happened before I graduated from high school.
Old men also think of the future, partly because they have so little of it in front of them. You can no longer ponder what you would like to become when you grow up. Both short days and diminishing energy force you to make choices and then to live with the consequences.
If the Lord grants me mercy, I can reasonably expect another ten years of honest labor. I know theologians who have taught longer than that, and so will I if I can. But that is in the Lord’s hands, and anything more than threescore and ten will be a pure gift (not that the threescore and ten aren’t). During the next ten years, I hope to attain three ambitions.
First, I would like to become a really good teacher. I don’t think I’ve been a bad one, but I want to give my students more than I ever have. The good news is that I have more to give. I have been developing my theology since I became a believer in 1962, and (obviously) I know more now than ever. What is more, events of the past ten years have prodded me to restructure and reevaluate a good bit of what I teach. My goal is for my last decade to be my best.
Second, I want to keep writing and editing. I have specific books in mind. One is a responsible presentation of dispensational ideas that pastors can put in the hands of ordinary church members. A second (and maybe third) will tell the rest of the story of Baptist fundamentalism—perhaps followed by the stories of Presbyterian and interdenominational fundamentalism. I also see a real need for a series of short volumes presenting basic Christian ideas (R. C. Sproul has done something like this, but his series is not complete and some of his topics need to be addressed from a Baptist and dispensationalist position). Short volumes also need to provide ordinary church members with a conservative Christian perspective on issues such as wealth, the environment, political involvement, sexuality, and the arts. Most of what I want to write is aimed toward the church and not toward the academy, with one exception. I really want to produce a responsible, scholarly ecclesiology defending fundamentalism and gathered-church polity.
Third, if God gives me my way, I want to help transfer the leadership of fundamentalist churches and institutions to new generations of leaders. I want to see younger men gain both responsibility and authority. Then I want to serve the new leadership as an encourager, helper, and, occasionally, a counselor. Granted, younger men will not always lead just where I might wish, but they will do better with me as a helper than as a critic.
These are my main goals in ministry, but they are not my most important concerns. Far more important is that I should become a better disciple of Jesus Christ. Nearly as important, I need to learn to be a better husband to my wife and a better father to my children. Right now I am enjoying them more than I ever have. Old age has brought new insight into the ways in which each of them has been God’s grace in my life. I rejoice mightily in the ways that each of them has surpassed me, and I want to give them all I can of my love, nurture, and support.
In sum, I want to finish well. I have seen too many old men either ruin the works they have built or bring shame upon the ideals they have represented. I have also observed how easily a momentary lapse can change a life and demolish a legacy. Furthermore, I have now had six decades to become acquainted with my own depravity and akrasia. Finishing well is going to take more than determination. It will take a thousand mercies from the Father of mercy. I am trusting Him for them.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
William Cowper (1731–1800)
Weak and irresolute is man;
The purpose of to-day,
Woven with pains into his plan,
To-morrow rends away.
The bow well bent, and smart the spring,
Vice seems already slain;
But passion rudely snaps the string,
And it revives again.
Some foe to his upright intent
Finds out his weaker part;
Virtue engages his assent,
But Pleasure wins his heart.
‘Tis here the folly of the wise
Through all his art we view;
And, while his tongue the charge denies,
His conscience owns it true.
Bound on a voyage of awful length
And dangers little known,
A stranger to superior strength,
Man vainly trusts his own.
But oars alone can ne’er prevail
To reach the distant coast;
The breath of Heaven must swell the sail,
Or all the toil is lost.