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Birthdays are interesting. In many cultures, they mark certain “rites of passage.” Some of us are familiar with the Bar-Mitzvah – when upon his 13th birthday a Jewish male becomes “a Son of Commandment” and according to the Mosaic Law, becomes responsible for his actions. In Hispanic culture the Quincenera is an elaborate celebration of the fifteenth birthday. It marks the passage from childhood to womanhood.
In less formal measures, birthdays indicate other developmental milestones. Upon turning 16, a teenager generally qualifies to obtain the cherished driver’s license. At age 18 one is legally an adult. In professional life, it’s been said that one should acquire the necessary training and skill development by age 40. And then, there is “the retirement age” – it seems to me they keep moving the goal line on that one.
Gift-giving is another tradition which surrounds birthdays. At my house the question gets asked, “What do you want for your birthday?” I’ve been known to aggravate my family because when this question is asked of me, I respond with, “What I want is for everyone to be happy.”
A little known birthday occasion is found tucked away in a generally overlooked Old Testament story. Following their divine appointment, Joshua and Caleb led the people of Israel on a forty year journey from the wilderness to the land of promise. They had been first-hand witnesses of God’s miraculous provision as they fought off enemies and took possession of a land flowing with milk and honey.
On one particular day, Caleb reminisces to Joshua about their journey saying, “You know, I was 40 years old when Moses sent me to spy out the land . . . (Joshua 14:7) “. . . and God has kept me alive these past forty-five years. So here I am today, eighty-five years old.” (Joshua 14:10)
It’s a safe guess that there were no western traditions of cake and candles, and so no “make a wish and blow them out.” The narrative does not record anyone asking Caleb what he might want for his birthday but he responds as if someone did. In Joshua 14:12 he declares, “Today I am 85 years old. Now then, give me this mountain!”
This comes as a bit of a surprise. One would expect him to reminisce more along the lines of, “You know, I’ve had a good run. I’ve seen a lot of things. God’s been good to me. So just let me retire in peace. Let me spend the rest of my days reflecting upon God’s goodness and the gift of this Promised Land.” But no, he looks up to the hill country, sees the fortified cities of the enemy and says “Give me this mountain!” Wow! I’m impressed. I’m not so much impressed with his ability (although he declared he was just a strong on that day as when he was first commissioned – Joshua 14:11); I’m impressed with his desire.
So often, I’m afraid, we are guilty of letting the aches and pains of everyday life undermine the opportunity for greatness. It can happen in our careers, in our marriages and in our ministries. With age comes experience, and with experience comes cynicism . . . and fatigue. “It’s not worth the effort anymore,” I hear people say. “I’m getting too old for this,” others say in exasperation, “I just don’t have the fire in my belly as I once did. Let the younger people step up, it’s their turn,” and with these expressions comes a spirit of resignation and doubt.
I had dinner not too long ago with a colleague who’s still actively practicing marriage and family therapy at age 87. Our conversation that night was interrupted over and over by the rings and tings of his smart phone. He was insistent in responding to text messages and emails. I commented on his ability to operate his devise. “Oh, if it’s a gadget, I’m into it,” he said. Then he turned the screen toward me saying, “Did you know you can store books on these things? I’m hoping to finish War and Peace before the Marriage and Family Therapy conference in Tucson next month. You’re going to that, right?” War and Peace? Marriage and Family Conference? Really? The thought of attending another conference added to my sense of stress and fatigue. And War and Peace? Enough said.
But dinner that evening inspired me. My colleague had seen 87 birthdays, and was looking forward to the next challenge. I was thinking I’d had enough challenges.
So even though I’ve not had as many birthdays as my colleague, I’m hearing the words of Caleb anew. “Give me this mountain.” I’m taking a fresh look at the mountains around me, and praying for God’s wisdom and impulse to guide me.