As I write this my father is five days short of being a hundred years old! Born in 1876, he is half as old as the United States.

What happens in the course of a hundred years? One harsh word covers a lot: deterioration. Wooden steps leading up to a house sag and finally rot. The roof begins to leak, and plaster falls out of the window frames. Bricks tumble down the chimney. Plumbing rusts and clogs. Lands become drained of their richness, lakes and rivers become polluted, and nations loose their basic value systems and ideals. Deterioration.

Human bodies change. What is my father like? His mind is clear, and his memory is amazing. He can still speak Chinese, which he learned at the turn of the century as a missionary going out under the China Inland Mission, and he can still read the Bible as well in Greek and Hebrew as in English. He can tell you stories from his school days in Pittsburgh and his football-playing days at Westminster College, as well as discuss recent sports events and the news he reads in the large-print edition of the New York Times. But his ears cannot catch all you say to him. With one eye blind and the other growing dim, he can read, with the help of a magnifying glass and large print, only a tiny fraction of what he would otherwise be reading.

Father looks at his cane and his swollen ankles and shakes his head as he tells you how dizzy he feels at times. “When I think of how I used to run and tackle great big fellows a foot taller than myself on the football field, it seems impossible that I can scarcely walk across the floor now without feeling that I might fall.” He looks at his gnarled hands, and you know he is remembering the hands that learned to write at the age of six, to brush Chinese characters at the age of twenty-six, and to respond to his brain’s commands through many years. “The same hands …” he says, and you feel something of the confusion of emotions.

Deterioration experienced is far harder to understand than deterioration observed. When one walks through a home for the elderly or a hospital ward, through a country-side full of famine-emaciated people or down the streets of a war-torn town, one can categorize the deterioration of human beings by saying, “Old people,” or “Post-operative patients,” or “Famine gnawed at these bodies,” or “An exploding bomb wrecked their flesh and bones.” The observer can turn away from what he has seen by shutting a door, or turning a corner and walking in another direction.

But when suddenly an illness, an accident, an operation, a breakdown of veins or muscles, a crippling virus, causes the hands not to function any more, or the eyes not to see clearly, causes a slowness of response, or the need to walk instead of running, or to be carried instead of walking, then the meaning of deterioration cannot be shut out. The mirror shows not someone else but you. The heavy feet belong not to someone else but to you. “Marvelous that you can still be so—at this age.” The compliment becomes a mockery, because the person can’t realize that your condition isn’t marvelous at all; it is not the you whom you have always known, the one you know is still there, “showing through” for the other person to see.

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A better diet, exercise or therapy, corrective glasses, a good hearing aid, a climate that helps some condition, less polluted air and water—these can all be of some help. But the search for a lasting reversal to deterioration is always going to end in failure. The biblical list of names and life spans goes on like the tolling of a village church bell: … and he died, and he died, and she died, and she died. That which has been happening to human beings apart from God is vividly described in Hosea 13:3—“Therefore they shall be as the morning cloud, and as the early dew that passeth away, as the chaff that is driven with the whirlwind out of the floor, and as the smoke out of the chimney.” Deterioration, decay, death. Is there no escape?

Read again the promises of the Creator of the universe as if you had never read them before: “I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you. And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed” (Joel 2:25, 26). This God can restore the ruined, lost years, as well as restoring the beauty of the land. “The LORD hath sent me … to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified. And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations” (Isa. 61:1–4).

What an exchange! Beauty for ashes! Only the living God can fulfill a promise like this.

When? When can there be any reversal in the deterioration of our broken bodies and the diminishing of our energies? “I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait I say, on the Lord” (Ps. 27:13, 14). “The LORD will give strength unto his people; the LORD will bless his people with peace” (Ps. 29:11). There is a present reversal, for in the very moment of weakness we are given his strength. This is not a reversal of the physical deterioration but a demonstration in the middle of it that he is able to give the strength we need for the immediate task he has for us to do. The strength God gives us, as we cry out to him for it, shows a “reversal of deterioration” for the portion of time during which it is given. My father at this time asks strength to make his bed, to walk to the front door to get mail from the mailman. I ask strength to write this column. Father no longer needs strength to play football. I do not need strength to bear the work in a Siberian labor camp. What we need is the strength for what God has for us to do at this moment, the present moment of deterioration!

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However, that is not all. Our moment-by-moment supply of “reversal” is only a tiny reminder that the total reversal of deterioration is coming soon, with the Second Coming of the Lord himself. The One who said “I am the resurrection and the life” is coming to put a stop to deterioration. “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven …; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” These words in First Thessalonians are words of true reversal.


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