4 : 6 June 2005

Al Bishop


I want to address the dangers of growing old and the importance of finishing well. Recently I came across two reminders about how to look at life as we grow older. I am nearing my 80th birthday so this topic is important to me. The first is Psalm 71, probably written by David. I was impressed by the caption in some Bibles that appears before that Psalm. It says, "A Psalm for old age." The second is a chapter in a book entitled "Aging is a State of Mind."


Turn to Psalm 71, verse one. "In you, O Lord, do I put my trust." You notice something? This is very, very personal. "God, I am talking to you. In you, O Lord, do I put my trust." This is foundational to living a life that is pleasing to God-at any age. Begin with God! And in verse 5 he says, "You have been my hope, O sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth." He is looking back on his life and what does he see? Verse six: "…from birth I have relied on you and I will ever praise you." In other words, "I am glad to be here. I am glad I am alive and I am glad I know you, God." Are you glad you are a Christian? I certainly hope so, but if not, why not? What is the reason?


What a thrill it is to watch how God works in people's lives. Look at verse 7. He evaluates his own life and says, "I have become an amazement to many people." People are watching him to see if his faith is genuine. But life can play tricks on us and that is what worries me. In verse 9, fear shows up. The uncertainties of the future begin to dominate his heart. "Do not cast me away when I am old. Do not forsake me when my strength is gone." Which brings us back to the second part of verse one. "Never let me be put to shame." What we fear most about death and aging is the uncertainty of the process. Whether it is extended poor health, frailty, mental instability, loss of vitality, loneliness. I personally do not fear death since I know to be "absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." But it is the messiness of aging and dying that causes some concern. And it bothered the psalmist, too.

But we have to face reality. Can you understand David's concern? In his youth and young adulthood he was full of strength and vigor. He was a mighty warrior. But as he aged he feared weakness and having to be led around wherever he went. He felt weak and vulnerable. First Kings says this about David: "Now King David was very old, and no matter how many blankets covered him, he could not keep warm." The realities of aging were very real to David. But in Psalm 71:5 he said, "You are my hope, O Lord." In verse 14 he said, "But I will keep on hoping for you to help me… ." David knew his fighting days were over but he still wanted to be useful for God. He still wanted his life to matter (verse 9). "And now, in my old age, don't set me aside. Don't abandon me when my strength is failing."


Quite some time ago there were two major manufacturers who were competing for prominence in the cigarette market. And one of them decided to add a few more grains of tobacco and one millimeter more length to its cigarettes. It emphasized the fact that they were longer and that you get more for your money. And the company swiped a major part of the market. The other manufacturer who saw its sales dwindling did not know what to do. Finally, it came up with a new slogan. And the slogan was, "It is not how long you make it, it's how you make it long." Quality over quantity! "It's not how long you make it, it's how you make it long." I will never forget that slogan. I think that slogan should be a pledge in the heart of every child of God. It is not how long your life is that matters most, it is what you do with the time you have.

Thus far my heart has pumped blood through my body over 300,000,000 times. What a marvelous creation God has given to us. Here is a question I often ask myself. "How do I say thanks to God for what He has given me?" But life in these bodies is not forever. Nearly 50 years ago I was in the life insurance business and I sold a policy to a man in our church who had just come home from the mission field. One year later Stan called me over to his house for dinner and during the meal he told me that he could not afford to pay the next premium and he was going to cancel the policy. But it was his custom to take a verse out of a packet of Scriptures and read it and then pray before the meal. And that evening the verse was Isaiah 38:1. "This is what the Lord says. Put your house in order for tomorrow you die." His wife looked at me. His kids looked at me. I just sat there and let him think for a while. I smiled. He said, "Hand me the checkbook!" Before that year passed, his family received the proceeds from that policy. I was so moved and motivated that I went on to become "man of the year" for my insurance company that year.


So, I asked myself, "What are these bodies of ours for?" I happen to believe that they are to be containers. Paul calls them "temples." Peter uses the word "tents." Whatever the label, they are dwelling places for God's Holy Spirit. Think about that for a moment. When Jesus was living here, the people of this planet for 33 years had God's actual presence in their midst. But when Christ went back to God the Father, He sent the Holy Spirit and ever since that day the Holy Spirit has been looking for people within whom He can accomplish, by His residence, the will of God and thereby realize the expansion of the gospel. You know, there is not a more wonderful, significant calling than to be a child of God. Are you pleased with how you are handling that assignment? And do you think God is pleased? This assignment does not end when you retire. Like David, we should seek to be useful until the day we die!

A second discovery I made was a book entitled Age Erasers for Men. Sounds like a good book, does it not? Let me quote from the chapter "Aging is a State of Mind." "You are as young as you think. Forget about the birthdays, the number of candles on the cake, the gray hairs on your head," and I add, "hearing aids and hip replacements." "Age is not a number, it is an attitude. By having the right attitude, not only will you live longer, but you will remain younger longer." Satchel Page was one of the greatest pitchers in all of baseball history. He was a black man pitching in the Negro league before Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues. He probably pitched well into his 60s but he never admitted his age nor did he worry about it. One day a reporter asked him about his philosophy on aging. He said, "It's just a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter." No! you cannot stop father-time but you can live a more productive, vigorous life if you stay active. And that goes for your spiritual life, as well.


Having a positive attitude and staying active does help. But it is not a cure-all. Father-time will still search us out, slow us down, and challenge our resolve. Aging can be especially challenging and has led some people of God to miss the goal of finishing well. Look at King Solomon. What can compare to his wisdom, his writings, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the way he dealt with those two women fighting over the baby? And how about the building of the glorious temple during his kingship? What a tremendous, magnificent building it was! But in his later years the poor guy just became downright silly. Seven hundred wives!? A lot of it was for political maneuvering, but 700? And he had 300 stand-bys. First Kings 11:4 says, "As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord." Verse 6: "He did evil in the eyes of the Lord." Verse 11: "So the Lord said to Solomon, since this is your attitude, I will tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants." Because of his wayward leadership idolatry grew throughout the kingdom and to stop its spread God had to split the kingdom in two. In one generation the kingdom David worked so hard to build collapsed. Solomon did not finish well!


Hezekiah, a king, accomplished wonderful things for God's people. But when he was near death, he prayed and asked God to heal him, and God did. God told him that He would give him 15 more years of life. He got his 15 years, but then what happened? The blessings that God provided were great. But instead of having a positive effect on Hezekiah he became a showoff. He pridefully invited representatives of Babylon into his palace to showoff how much he had accumulated. This was before they became a great nation. They now knew there was much to plunder in Judah and they would never forget it. Isaiah said this to Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:16-18): "Listen to this message from the Lord: The time is coming when everything you have-all the treasures stored up by your ancestors-will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. Some of your descendants will be taken away into exile. They will become eunuchs who will serve in the palace of Babylon's king." And what was Hezekiah's response? Second Kings 20:19: "'This message you have given me from the Lord is good.' But the king was thinking, 'At least there will be peace and security during my lifetime.'"

Hezekiah made a mess of his last 15 years. Those 15 years turned out to be bad for Judah. After Hezekiah's death his son, Manasseh, became king at twelve years old. Second Kings 21:2-3a says this about him: "He did what was evil in the Lord's sight, imitating the detestable practices of the pagan nations whom the Lord had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites. He rebuilt the pagan shrines his father, Hezekiah, had destroyed." In his youth Hezekiah did what was right in the Lord's sight by destroying pagan idolatry throughout Judah. But during his last 15 years he gave birth to a son who did not see this part of his father. Manasseh saw the prideful, greedy, indifferent Hezekiah. And he turned into one of the worst kings Judah ever had! His reign started the downward spiral that eventually led to the Babylonian invasion in 586 B.C. Hezekiah did not finish well!

My best friend in my junior and senior years in high school was an athlete, musician, and had a lot of personality. He was a great guy, a lot of fun. He had a profound effect on me in those early years. After college I did not see him for about 30 years. We arranged a reunion on one of my trips to California and we met at a Denny's restaurant for lunch. We spent a couple hours talking and reminiscing. He was brought up in the same church as Howard Hendricks, the seminary professor. We talked about all kinds of stuff. When the subject got around to spiritual matters and Jesus Christ, he turned cold and quiet, sad. He wouldn't talk about it. A few months later I learned he had died from alcoholism. He did not finish well!


These illustrations are not fun to discuss. It can be downright discouraging. You know what? I am not finished, yet. So I have to ask myself, "Can this happen to me?" People are very nice to me, saying nice things about how good I look and all that kind of stuff. But I am not done yet and I do not want to end up like Solomon, Hezekiah, or my friend Hap. These illustrations break my heart and they break God's heart. I ask myself, "How can I avoid an old age collapse? Hebrews 12:1b says, "Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us." And how do we do this? Verse 2a: "We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish." We are to throw off, get rid of, things that hold us back, the sin that holds us in its grip. We need to finish the race not stumble and fall before the finish line!


In the past few months I have seen some spiritual miracles. I have seen some new births in Jesus Christ. I have seen some dynamic growth and spiritual development and maturity in people who have come to know the Lord. And I say, "Praise God. It is wonderful." But sad to say, along with that, I have seen some disheartened, unsatisfied Christians frustrated because they just do not have the will to follow through on what they know is God's leading. Ron Mell says, "Cease from your striving. Listen to the voice of God's Spirit. Let Him work in your life." I know it is not always easy to listen to God's Spirit. I have been through it.

When I was a life insurance salesman I was sitting with this doctor who wanted to make me a rich man. In one evening by selling all of this particular insurance package, I could be a rich man. But there was one problem. He asked me to do something about another policy that was wrong. He wouldn't buy the policy that was going to make me rich until I did something with this other policy that was illegal. And I discovered something about myself that evening. That Al, Sunday-School-superintendent Al, was tempted to do something wrong and illegal in order to be rich. I actually sat there and contemplated doing the wrong thing. I thought I could not be tempted that way. But boy, when it was right there, the bucks were on my fingertips, I was! I did not do it. But I wonder what my life would have been like had I done it. Do you think I would have been in the pastorate for close to 50 years? Would I have even wanted to be in the pastorate at all? And to think how close I came to changing my life forever!

A few years later I was a pastor in one of my churches and discovered that a high level denominational leader was having an affair. I had to deal with it. He was worried about his job because it was a job in a Christian organization. His first question was, "Is this going to affect my job?" He had no remorse at all. And I said, "We will talk about that." And lo and behold, every Monday morning underneath my door appeared these envelopes that had money in them. And that money, I figured out, was about the equivalent of a fifteen percent raise for me. And we were poor. He did this for about six weeks. I told my wife, "We have to do something about this." I finally talked to him and he said, "Are you getting the envelopes?" "Yeah, I got the envelopes." "You wouldn't consider that a bribe, would you?" I said, "That is exactly what it is!" I gave him all the cash back. It was tempting. When I opened that first envelope, the thought ran through my mind, "God is taking care of us." No, that is not what it was about. Do not play games with your character! Reputation is what men think (I could have done it and maybe others would not have found out about it) you are. But character is what God knows you to be!


I knew a guy who was a bright, young entrepreneur who had recently received Jesus Christ into his life. And he was about to open up a new, upscale haberdashery. He had just received a large shipment of suits, shirts, socks, and ties. He was going to open this place in the next couple days and then the night before his grand opening, some guy in a truck backed up and took it all out. They never found anything. And I could just hear this guy saying, "Huh, thanks a lot, God. I trusted you. I give my first testimony and You do this to me." And so I went over and had a chance to meet with Tom very soon afterward and he said, "You know what, Al? I am so glad I am a Christian. If I were not a Christian and this happened to me a few weeks ago, I would have probably taken my life." Jesus Christ made the difference.

There is a Greek word used less than a dozen times in the Bible and I will give you three instances of its use. It is a six-letter word--maketi. It means from now on. It is always associated with statements of purpose. Paraphrasing. Second Corinthians 5:15: "The purpose of Christ's death for us is that no longer shall we live for ourselves but maketi--from now on--we have to live for Christ." First Peter 4:1-2: "Since Jesus Christ gave His life in order to finish off my sin problem, no more shall I live my life according to my old sinful nature, but maketi--from now on--for the days and weeks and months of my chronological clock that is still running, live them according to the will of God." Ephesians 4:14. Paul is talking about Christian maturity. He says, "Baby, infant Christians should not just stay that way, but maketi-from now on--grow into a stature measured by the example of Jesus Christ." It is never too late to start living in a way that pleases God. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. And I say that whether you are 10 or 80 or 92. If you only have a year to live, or a month, a week or a day, make it worthwhile! Make it something God will be pleased with and something that will help others. Make your life count for His kingdom. Be involved in the furtherance of His truths and ways in this world.


I want to take you to Paul's last written words. Look at 2 Timothy 4. Paul has lived a hard life. His was not a life of ease and luxury. As the apostle to the Gentiles, he suffered many hardships. He had lived well but the end is near. Will he finish well? He sums it up by saying, "I am being poured out like an offering." That is a strange term. The word is "spendow." We get the word "spent" from it. His life was "spent out" for Christ. It is almost used up. But he rejoices because God began a good work in him and at some point in the near future it is going to end. How does he feel about this? How does he view his years in the ministry? He said, "I have fought the good fight." A fight? Did he have struggles? It seems like Paul had nothing but struggles. He struggled against men. He had to be let down in a basket out of a back window in order to save his life on one occasion. He was stoned and left for dead on another. He struggled against ideas. At Mars Hill he convincingly debated with the greatest philosophers of the day. He struggled against problems in churches. The pastoral epistles were written to address problems in various local churches. But in spite of the struggles, his heart and his attitude were such he could rejoice in what God had done with his life.

Some of you have known me a few weeks. Others have known me months and some for 10-12 years. People often ask Ollie and I how we handle the ups and downs of life. I usually say, "I take my calling as a Christian and a pastor very, very seriously. But I do not take myself seriously at all." And I mean that in a way that says, "I want to be a real person. I want to tell you how the Holy Spirit can work in your life, as he has in mine." Years ago, after two years at a particular college I transferred to another college because it had an anthropology program that would help me to become a missionary. The day I arrived on campus they dropped the major. "Ok? Now what?" I went to the counselor and asked, "Hey, where do we go from here?" He said, "I don't know, Al, but let's give you a test." So he gave me one of those profile tests and the results were surprising and quite shocking to me. He said, "You are not going to be a missionary because you rate so low in that area. But we noticed something about you. You are extremely high in business, so why don't you become a business major?" So I did--business and economics. I graduated and was in business for nine years, but just before my life insurance job I went to take another profile test. "We're going to hire you, but we're not sure. We have never seen a profile like this in our lives. You are extremely high in business but you are even higher in ministry." This makes me weep a little bit because in less than nine years God's Holy Spirit, without me even knowing what was going on--I was just trying to be a faithful Christian--did a work in my life that radically changed me.


I want to encourage you. Let the Holy Spirit, the sovereign Holy Spirit who will prick your conscience, guide you, and instruct you, do His thing in your life. What He does in you, live it out enthusiastically. Finish the 'race' God has given you. And I pray that you can say with Paul, "I have endured and finished what God has given me to do." Finish well, my dear friends!


Al Bishop