There were the days when we would run from one end of the playground to the other, permeating the air with the screams of our merriment. Afternoon bike rides turned to dusk adventures as we rode to faraway places across distant lands, all while never leaving the confines of our own small town. We dusted our knees and faces with little-league baseball games and squeaked our shoes across hardwood basketball floors, while throwing balls into baskets for another two points.
The once jovial existence of our childhood seemed to sprint into adulthood with the speed of a locomotive through the countryside. In the blink of an eye, we all grew up, and we are about to enter our fifth decade on planet earth. We are burying the people who, outside of God, once provided the only source of security we ever knew. Our moms, our dads, our teachers, our coaches, our Sunday School teachers, the ones who taught us to play ball, how to manage money, how to spell, how to drive, and so on and so forth. One by one we are gathering to bid them farewell, until we are joyfully reunited in eternity. As we share our tears and hugs, I am reminded of the very distinct reality that we’ve grown older.
There was the time period when it seemed as though graduation celebrations and weddings were the dominant source for gathering. I am just now entering the phase of life where funerals are threatening to become the prominent source for gathering. With each glancing moment of our congregating, another life is remembered and celebrated. With each transitory moment, I am reminded of the quickening truth that we’ve grown older.
I still recall the day I drove down the street as a sixteen-year old teen in a white Oldsmobile Delta 88, all on my own. Now, instead of driving away for the first time with my driver’s license, I am watching my own kids drive away for the first time with their driver’s license, and without me. I still remember the day I drove away and left them at Kindergarten for the first time. The passage of time is so abrupt that it still feels like it was just a few weeks ago.
I remember the Saturday afternoon my father helped me detail the black Mercedes I was driving to my first-ever High School Prom. Now, I’m detailing each moment of my oldest son’s Saturday afternoon in order to prepare him for his first-ever Prom. As we gather to take pictures, we are surrounded by parents of teens, who not long ago, were gathering for pictures for their own proms. The passage of time has occurred so swiftly that I am reminded again…we’ve grown older.
We gaze at our teenagers and marvel at the display of their youth and beauty. Their once, adorable, child-like faces are giving over to adult features. We barely recognize them standing there all made up and dressed so nicely. For a moment, we forget that we once changed their diapers and strolled them through amusement parks. It really wasn’t that long ago, but the passage of time has been so immediate that I’m again struck with the matter that we’ve grown older. Most of us parents are at the middle-age transition where we hold tightly to the fleeting youth we still have left, and brace for the onset of senior adulthood that will come all too quickly, if we’re blessed enough to get there. We’ve grown older, but we’re not that old yet.
I glance to the left and I notice a grandmother and grandfather. They are standing in the back, distanced from the group. They have gathered to witness the phenomenon of youth and beauty on display. They peer through the circle, but they are left out of the circle. They are not intentionally left out of the circle, but they are pushed there by the attention given to youth and beauty. Reluctantly, they’ve grown used to being there. They realize they’ve grown old, and this is where most of society would leave them. On the outside looking in, while youth and beauty take center stage.
I keep my gaze upon them. They are smiling, pleasant, and dutifully obedient to the scene and their place in it. Their posture takes a back seat. They have no choice. But I sense their eyes and hearts are screaming something different. Sadly, no one is listening. What are they screaming through their silent and patient visage? To hear it, I have to take my attention off the youth and beauty at the center of the spotlight. I watch, I listen. Their expressions reveal it all as they silently say, “We were beautiful once too.” Their silent expressions reveal the battle with their thoughts and feelings:
There was a time when we were the center of attention. It’s true, it really is, we were young and beautiful once as well. There was a time when others gathered around us, rather than in front of us. There was a time when we were strong. We could move as swiftly as the rest of you. There was a time when we were out front. There was a time when no one had to wait on us. There was a time when no one blew their horns at us because we were driving too slowly in traffic. There was a time when we sat up front, rather than in the back, nearest the restrooms. There was a time when it didn’t matter where we parked or what time we ate.
I remember when we used to dance. We could dance all night. The aches and pains didn’t bother us so much then. We still like to dance, we really do. In our minds, we don’t feel any older. I suppose we’ve just gotten used to the fact that our bodies don’t always cooperate with us anymore. There was a time when doctor’s visits were only for emergencies, rather than for daily maintenance. We had dreams at one time. The truth is, we still do. But no one asks about them anymore.
Our grandkids bring us such joy. Perhaps they’re one of the few things that help us feel younger. Sometimes we comically watch them imitate us. We remember a time when we used to act like we were old, and everyone would laugh. But that was way back when we were beautiful, before we became old.
Many offer us counterfeit, well-intentioned complements that we’re aging gracefully. But is there such a thing? We fight our aging with ferocity every single day. Of course, aging has its place and its own value, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Is it true that my best moments are behind me, and simply relegated to nothing more than memories of what used to be?
Oh you should have been there to see it! We were beautiful, strong, and young once. Before social media and before photographs were taken with phones to capture every moment, we were beautiful once. We have a few aged photographs to show you if you’d like to see or hear about it. But no one seems interested anymore. I guess you would have just had to have been there to believe it. We were beautiful once too.
Immediately I think of my parents. Once a stalwart of robust certainty and strength, they tackled life with such force. Yet now, they move with a slowness I find myself all too unprepared to handle. For a moment, I am submerged with the lament that even at my own pace, I can tend to push them to the rear of the circle at times.
I am quickly jolted back to reality as the flash and click of the cameras ends, and the cluster of youth and beauty we call “our kids” begins to disperse. Youth and beauty are still prominently on display. I am aware that even I have reached the phase of life where I’m beginning to get pushed out of the circle. It is there that I realize the fleeting nature of the focus on youth and beauty, the spotlight, the center of attention. Unwittingly, we long for it, yet when we get it, we find it has no lasting or eternal merit. It only leaves us longing for more of that which we cannot fill. We get lost in what the world defines as true beauty and value.
My parents always told me that true beauty comes from something much deeper within the soul. It is not found in the luster of outward appearance or the robust strength of youth. It is only as I watch them move with a more measured pace, that I see this most clearly. The words of Scripture in 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 rouse this awareness within my soul. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For these light and momentary afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
For those who know Christ, the struggle with aging is actually not a loss of youth and beauty. It is the body’s way of recognizing that our soul is growing restless and weary with this temporary, broken-down world and longing for our true home in glory. Our soul is who we really are and our true nature. Our bodies are temporary shells that through the process of aging, send off the signal that we were made for something greater—eternity. We are not created to be compatible with this world. It is temporary. Our souls are made for our Creator. Through the process of time, the soul will shed these broken bodies to reveal its true beauty in glory.
As I watch my parents get frighteningly slower, and as I watch my own body quicken the pace toward this phase of life, I need only be reminded that Heaven is telling me this world is not my eternal home. True eternal beauty draws nearer as temporary beauty fades with each passing day. The world screams, “You’re growing older and losing your beauty!”, but Heaven screams, “No, you’re actually growing younger and edging toward true beauty for eternity!”
Without question, youth and worldly beauty are a gift from God, and they should be celebrated and used to their maximum potential. But they are short-lived and a reminder of this impermanent world. I peer back over at the elderly couple pushed to the edge of the courtyard that day, yet confidently taking their place out of the spotlight. Their wrinkled, smiling faces reveal a beauty that the world can never come close to touching. They were beautiful once, but they have far surpassed that definition. Now they’re glorious. Perhaps someone should put them in the center and take a picture. It’s one of the closest things we have to a picture of Heaven.