Hopes and Fears

Don’t Just Count All the Years (Priorities)

You can’t avoid the long-life cult in America.

Whether it’s a study this week telling you to eat this or drink that, the latest berry craze promising to ward off cancer or some other killer, the proliferation of fitness centers, or the attempt to kill one human life (the embryo) to save another (the proverbial spinal-cord patient), we fear death and disease and attempt to stave them off as long as possible, by any means necessary.

Certainly fear is a prime motive in the current health-care debate. All this fear occurs despite the fact that life expectancies have risen by nearly eight years just since 1970.

I confess my own complicity in the long-life cult. For years, like most young people, I took my own good health for granted. Sickness was someone else’s problem. Aging was for old people.

But then I entered midlife, and the distant possibility of death moved next door. Actually, according to the Census Bureau, a man of my age, 48, can expect to live only about 34 more years. So to say I’m still “middle aged” seems optimistic at best. Middle age came and went when I wasn’t looking.

Yet I dutifully work out at the local Y, lowering my weight and toning my muscles. People tell me I look good for my age, but there’s no denying the persistent aches, pains, and injuries that accompany my efforts. I’ve declared war on sugars and fats, hoping to avoid Type II diabetes.

A Christian who supposedly knows where I’m headed, I chalk up all this effort to stewardship—I’ve got to take care of the body God has given me—though I know in my heart that the fear of old age, illness, and death is a big part of it.

Recently, while watching the news, I was drawn to a report on researcher Dan Buettner. His work funded by the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Geographic Society, Buettner looks at areas of the world where people seem to live the longest. He calls these areas Blue Zones. Buettner has isolated four practices of centenarians in these Blue Zones that are keys to their longevity:

  • Walking and other natural forms of exercise;
  • Knowing and articulating a sense of purpose;
  • Eating wisely and less (including drinking moderate amounts of wine); and
  • Reconnecting with loved ones and religion.

This year, Buettner encouraged residents of the southern Minnesota town of Albert Lea (pop. 18,000) to implement these keys. Many did. Sidewalks were put in, many restaurants cut portion sizes, and people were urged to build friendships with their neighbors. One hopes that many came to or rediscovered faith. Buettner estimates that those who participated in the project will live an average of 3.1 more years.

During the Christmas season, we reflect on the wonder of God becoming Man. I, for one, wondered how Jesus did with these four longevity markers.

  • Jesus walked extensively throughout ancient Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.
  • He articulated a clear sense of purpose: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
  • Though His enemies called him a glutton and a drunkard, the record shows that Jesus knew how to feast and how to fast, on one occasion transmuting wine from water. When He fed the hungry multitudes, they ate and were full.
  • Jesus enjoyed close friendships with his 12 disciples, including an inner circle of three, and was conscious of a special relationship with God, whom he called “Father.”

So did Jesus, having done all the “right” things, live to be an old man on this earth? No. According to the accounts we have, Jesus was cut down around the age of 33, in the prime of life. Does this mean His life, as short as it was, was a waste? Hardly. Sometimes we confuse quantity with quality.

Jesus lived a short life, but a significant one. A much-repeated essay (based on a 1926 sermon by James Allen Francis) makes the case for quality beautifully: “I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.”

During Advent, people often express a hunger for they know not what. Terrified of their mortality, they seek transcendence. Gripped with fear, they seek peace. Bethlehem is the last stop for many before giving in to despair. And yet the one born there died early, sacrificed for them.

What does all this mean for Christians who are tempted to join the long-life cult? At the very least, it means that we who claim to follow that one solitary life should seek not simply to count our years but to make our years count.

Yes, let us take care of our bodies for our good and God’s glory. But let us also speak frankly to friends and neighbors who, with us, quite naturally fear death. For we know that Christmas signifies not the end, but the beginning.

Stan Guthrie is freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, and a Christianity Today editor at large. He and his wife, Christine, and their three children live near Chicago.

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