Loving the Journey with…
The Voyage of Life
Will Willimon is a retired United Methodist minister and bishop. He serves as professor of the practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School where he was dean of the chapel for twenty years. He has also authored many books, one of which I read back in 2020 that is simply titled: Aging. Maybe it’s because of the season of life I’m in, but something about that title caught my attention and I had to read it. As soon as I did, I knew I would have to do a message series based on this book.Billy Graham, the greatest evangelist in the 20th century, once said, “All my life, I’ve been taught how to die, but no one ever taught me how to grow old.” We need to talk not only about growing up in the Lord, but how to grow old in the Lord.Willimon writes of an American artist named Thomas Cole who painted a series known as “The Voyage of Life” in 1839. It is now displayed in a room of its own at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. In the first scene that is called Childhood, a smiling infant emerges into a lush, Edenic landscape full of potential. In the next scene called Manhood, an adult pilots a boat on a turbulent river with swirling currents beneath and dark clouds above. Threat is all around, yet the muscular man, with hand on the tiller and eyes fixed on the river, steers the boat onward with confidence, energy, and determination.However, in the final scene named Old Age, a stooped, white-bearded old man is out on a cold winter night trudging beside the river toward where the river empties into the ocean. No life is seen, only dark clouds and a featureless ocean ahead. An angel looks down maternally on the old man, pointing him toward a golden city of lights far off in the distance. Whereas there is promise and adventure for childhood and adulthood, there is nothing for cold, exhausted old age but passive rest followed by a nebulous, distant eternity.I agree with Dr. Willimon when he says, “A major task of the contemporary church is replacement of these widely held conceptions of old age with images less pagan and more Christian.” In Cole’s paintings, the child, the adult, and the elder are each alone in a sometimes promising, often foreboding landscape. There is no visible human companionship, and the presence of God is only hinted at by an angel. The best we can hope for, in Cole’s famous rendition of the end of life, is an angel pointing us toward a celestial realm that is unknown and uncertain.Christians believe that the God who walks with us and who leads us onward, is in the boat with us as we drift into our last decades of life. Jesus said, “I don’t call you servants any longer…Instead, I call you friends” (John 15:15). In our last years, friends we have made throughout our lives can become more important than ever, including the Son of God, who calls us His friends and promised us, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”The story we are told in the biblical books about aging, death, dying and the life to come is the best ever told. Nothing compares to what God has revealed to us in the Scriptures about the hope we have in the resurrected Jesus, who assures of life even in the face of death. But unless we know His passionate story, we won’t receive the promised comfort.Starting this Sunday, we are going to begin a four-part message series called “Things To Know Before You Go.” Whether we are struggling to wrap our heads around the staggering number of deaths from Covid, grappling with the more recent senseless slaughters of dozens due to mass shootings, or grieving the sting of the loss of even one single loved one due to cancer, we need something that can anchor us in these troublesome times…and thank God we have exactly that. Aging and death cannot be defied, but they have been defeated by the resurrected Son of God…and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Loving The Ready To Go Journey,