The Christian story is not one watershed experience (or two for Wesleyans) (or three for some Pentecostals) followed by coasting downhill to the grave.
Father Angelus Shaughnessy tells a story of the monks (inventors of the St. Bernard rescue dog) who guard the dangerous St. Bernard Pass through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland. The monks once discovered a traveler frozen in the snow with one leg raised as though still climbing. With no other identification, the monks buried him, with the epitaph “died still climbing.”
Often I hear this term of dismissal applied to churches, “it was all old people,” as though old people are useless and expendable. (The mentality that terminates unwanted life in the womb, should be expected to follow the same logic at the other end of life). Generally though, it’s the old people who bear the load – – who pay their tithe in season and out and who populate the committees that no one else wants to serve on. They keep the torch from falling to the ground until, hopefully, a generation to receive it can be found.
God enjoys using those from whom nothing is expected. Abraham and Sarah were surprised themselves to be selected to spawn a nation. What do we know now that mattered about Abraham’s life before he reached the age of 80? Nothing. Past 80? When life seemed to be over? Still climbing.
Moses had passed 80 when God called him to his most important work. The otherwise brilliant Disney version, The Prince of Egypt, has Moses as a young able-bodied man. Who wants to watch an old guy doddering his way out of Egypt? God does, because it glorifies Him.
Joshua and Caleb were past 80 when they entered the Promised Land. Caleb says of himself that he could fight as well at 80 as at 40. Who would not be frightened by an army like that? Still climbing.
Daniel survived exile and three Babylonian regime changes, but faced his greatest challenge, and witnesses to us best, in his 80s when he was thrown to the lions. Still climbing.
Ancient Simeon and Anna were among the first to recognize Jesus. Their prayerful expectancy showed the life of God had not yet gone out of Israel. Still climbing.
The incorruptible Roman senator and Stoic philosopher Cicero, at age 86, said his favorite pastimes were planting trees and studying Greek so that he could read Plato in the originals. Still climbing.
St. Augustine, in his 70s, in his Retractions, critically reviewed his mountain of literary output. His capacity for self-criticism showed he was still trying to understand the object of his faith. Still climbing.
I think of my Quaker pastor grandfather, who, against the advice of friends and family, and undeterred by a bad heart, traveled from South Texas to Kansas for the annual Quaker gathering, to fall dead of a heart attack halfway through the week. He was happy to die in the work. Still climbing.
His brother, my great uncle, also a Quaker minister, spent his last year completely paralyzed by a stroke. Yet his wife, Daisy Newman, while caring for him, found time to write a book inspired by his life that eventually was also condensed in Readers Digest in 1983 and circulated to 20 million readers. He reached more in his dying than in his life and spoke to more when he could not speak. In his 79th year he had married Daisy, then a young 73, on the first day of spring — still climbing, with life and hope in their eyes.
It is time for us to quit complaining about the decline of the West and all of its corollaries, and take up some specific piece of work, no matter how small, and do what we can do to leave the world a better place than we found it. Death must come one way or the other. Don’t waste it. Let it find you still climbing.