I love paper and pencils and pens. Maybe love is a strong word. I genuinely enjoy them. I’ve worked with all sorts of paper: plain bond, vellum, and mylar film. I once got to work with a set of drawings from the 50’s that were inked onto linen, which the old timers called cheesecloth. It had an almost waxy feel that reminded me of a liquid-impervious tablecloth you might find draped over a sad and wobbly two-seater at a cheap spaghetti house.
I’ve worked with woodcase pencils, plastic lead holders, and mechanical pencils. In my earlier days I preferred thin and sleek, but in my later days with gout, carpal tunnel, and such, I prefer a thick grip and enough heft that I don’t get hand cramps from using it. I’ve used various graphite and plastic leads and inks.
I’ve used technical pens for inking drawings, cheap Bic’s for everything from writing to firing spitwads. I’ve used a number of different fountain pens for, gasp, writing by hand. Good paper, a good pen, and good ink has a way of inspiring you to write something good.
Oh, what could be . . .
I haven’t done it for a long time, but I always loved taping down a fresh sheet of vellum, squaring up the drafting machine, considering what that sheet of paper would be in a few hours or a few days, depending on what needed drawn. I enjoyed taking a good mechanical pencil with downward pressure and a slight twist along a straightedge as most of the lead left a line and a little of it crumbled along the edge. No worries, a quick whisk with a horse hair brush and all was right.
I’ve been around the sun enough times to be able to reflect on some things that are past. Unfortunately, I’ve found many things have already slipped beyond recall. So while I love good paper, pens, and pencils, what I really love is the possibility that these bring. Some are intimidated by a blank page but it’s full of wonderful possibilities. These implements represent a great potential.
Potential: it’s what could be. The sky really is the limit. It could be anything, everything, or nothing. If you can imagine it, you can imagine it. I don’t think I’m alone. We love potential. We rejoice in it. We brag about it. We celebrate possibility more than reality. Not a few sheets have betrayed the vision of my mind and ended up in a crumpled ball and banked off the wall into a metal can.
If we think wisely about this, might the dreamy potential be hindering us from actually doing something? Solomon advises us wisely, “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof” (Ecclesiastes 7:8). The beginning of a thing is the potential phase. It is the dreaming and planning phase where we are swept away with possibilities.
If we linger too long in the possibilities of what might be, we end up not knowing what is (Proverbs 14:23). The end of a thing is something. Something has been made, written, drawn, painted, produced. It has tangible existence and no longer abides only in the talk of the lips.
But what if what’s made is lesser than the dream imagined? The thought daunts us. We take solace in the vision because it’s perfect. It’s just the way we want. The reality is almost certain to disappoint. Yet here, if I may stretch Solomon’s meaning a little, “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4).
Oh, what might have been . . .
Solomon teaches us repeatedly that it is our portion in this life to enjoy the fruits of our labors (Ecclesiastes 3:22; 5:18-19; 9:9). Fruits of labor are the results of work, not the results of talk (Proverbs 14:23). To enjoy the fruit we have to do the work. So Solomon admonishes us, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
Paper and ink and lead are called consumables, because they exist for that purpose. They are meant to be used up. The paper should be marked on. The pen should run dry and the pencil should end as a nub. They are serving their purpose that way. Our life is also consumable. It’s meant to be used up. Celebrating possibilities can keep you from celebrating realities, which is far better, and as with pen and paper there comes a time when it is too late.
An older couple stood in front of Lowe’s arguing. He insisted they could not go in the door they were in front of because the sign said, “Exit.” With purse strap over the shoulder and purse clasped tightly under her arm, the old woman claimed that sign didn’t matter and they could go in there. The old man gripped his cane handle tighter. His bottom teeth met the front of his upper lip and his eyes squinted as though he were looking into the sun. He muttered to himself and drifted toward the door that had the sign that read, “Enter.”
I wondered at this sight and several questions came to my mind. How long had they been married? How many cycles of this standoff had they been through before I arrived? Had they always bickered this way or was there a time when they would have smiled and walked through the door hand-in-hand paying little heed to instructional directions? When had love cooled?
To many this exchange seems trivial. Some would think nothing of this kind of fussing and maybe even think it endearing. Perhaps, but we will never know more about these two so I think it’s best to use their momentary conflict as an occasion to think on love. I’m not thinking of marital love particularly, but rather the love we are to have for one another.
Do we really need to be told we should love one another? We could probably find something about it in every genre of Scripture. It’s in the law (Leviticus 19:18). It’s in the Gospels (Matthew 22:39). It’s in the epistles (James 2:8). It’s impossible to read the Bible without encountering it.
Most of us are innately sensible of a need to show and receive love. Unless we have hardened conscience over time through self-centered living, we feel the pangs when we fail to love someone as we should. Aside from the natural instincts though we actually learn who and how we are to love in God’s Word.
Paul wrote to the Roman Christians about loving one in another in Romans 12:9-16. He wrote that love should be genuine, without hypocrisy. He used a word for love in verse 9 that means a benevolent affection, a love that is outward focused and giving. In verse 10 he used a word that refers to the cherishing of kindred, a strong familial love, for the love we are to have for one another. He expressed a number of characteristics of the love we are to have.
He used a word in verse 11 that is translated “fervent.” It means to boil and so conveys the thought of heat and energy. He contrasted it with being slothful and gives us the image of a love that is hot and energetic.
Water is made to boil by applying heat and, if removed from the heat source, it will eventually cool to room temperature. Our love will also cool if it is not stirred and kept hot. How do we know if our love is cooling off?
I have devised a test from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 to help diagnose love growing cold. This chapter gives us one of the greatest descriptions of brotherly love in the Bible. So I shall proctor this exam to see how we do.
- Charity suffereth long—If you are impatient with others, your love has cooled.
- and is kind—If you are no longer seeking to be useful to or to bless others, your love has cooled.
- charity envieth not—If you begrudge the honor or esteem shown to others, your love has cooled.
- charity vaunteth not itself—If you are seeking attention for yourself over or to the exclusion of others, your love has cooled.
- is not puffed up—If you are haughty or feeling yourself superior to others, your love has cooled.
- Doth not behave itself unseemly—If you are impolite, uncourteous, or disrespectful to others, your love has cooled.
- seeketh not her own—If you want yours first ahead of others, your love has cooled.
- is not easily provoked—If you are easily angered with others, your love has cooled.
- thinketh no evil—If you keep a tally of offenses against you by others, your love has cooled.
- Rejoiceth not in iniquity—If you are delighting in anything unrighteous or being attracted to it, your love has cooled.
- but rejoiceth in truth—If you have little joy in the truth, your love has cooled.
- Beareth all things—If you are not covering the faults of others but rather bringing them to light whenever possible, your love has cooled.
- believeth all things—If you have no confidence in others, your love has cooled.
- hopeth all things—If you take a dim outlook for the prospective growth and good of others, your love has cooled.
- endureth all things—If you do not remain with anyone you find difficult, your love has cooled.
What if I fail?
I assure you no one gets one hundred on this test. What if you are pricked in your conscience by some of these indicators? The best word I can give you is, “Repent” (Revelation 2:4-5). When love has cooled, repent and do the hard work of loving others. It’s easy to become cynical and bitter where we blame everyone else for our own failure to love them. It’s easy to rationalize that in our minds but we are wrong when we do.
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
– John 13:34-25
Call me forty-one. That’s middle-age, if you’re optimistic. Of course, life expectancy is all statistics and probabilities. In real life, the hearse doesn’t only call at the nursing home and tiny caskets break many hearts. Whether our days are few or many, they are all together a brief mist, soon and easily dispersed (James 4:14).
By now you must think me morose and maybe bitter. No worries, I’m not at all. I’m my usual lighthearted and cheery self. I’m as fit as a pure cotton shirt after a hot wash and dry. I’m thinking sober thoughts about the number of our days. These are the kind of thoughts we are supposed to think (Psalm 90:9-12). The point of this reflection is not morbidity but rather to apply our hearts to wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and instruction (Psalm 90:12; Proverbs 2:2; 22:17; 23:12).
When we have the proper perspective on our birthday tally, we think about how we should best use the time we have. So I’m hitting pause and offering some reflections that may be a blessing and a help to my younger constituency.
The future is closer than you think
It’s easy to get along with the future when you are a ruddy youth. You hardly ever argue and all is bright and agreeable with the future. It’s a long-distance relationship for you. It’s going to arrive some day, but you have plenty of time to get everything in place for it. Or, so you think.
You can go quite far on the energy of what you’re going to do when you are young. When a fourth-grader announces he is going to be a neuro-rocket-surgeon, he is applauded and congratulated as though he has actually done something, and sometimes he starts to believe he has. Even into your twenties you can get by on what you’re going to do. You’re young. You’re responsibilities are few. You’re expected to be figuring things out and trying to get settled. You can now have bigger ideas than that fourth-grader and still get congratulated for the great things you’re going to do.
By the time you finish your fourth decade though, you realize you’ve been watching the future approach through a convex mirror and you’ve ignored the white-lettered warning, “Objects are closer than they appear.” The future is upon you and all the time you thought you had is hard to find. All your grand schemes for what you’re going to do are no longer congratulated when you haven’t actually done much. They’re no longer inspiring, even for you, and instead those big ideas are just sad.
If an eighty-year-old man, who has trivially frittered away most of his time, sits on the front porch talking about all the great things he is going to do in the future, you might question his lucidity. You might wonder if he is regularly swallowing all that’s appropriately and professionally prescribed. You are sure he is fooling himself if he is serious. That could be you. It could be any of us.
How do we avoid this shameful eventuality? Heed the words of the wisdom preacher. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Note that we are to do what is at hand to do. Brace yourself because I’m going to utter an abomination to popular dogma. Stop dreaming big dreams and start doing what is at hand to do. How did the artisan in Proverbs come to stand before the royals? It wasn’t by dreaming big dreams to get there. It was by being diligent in his craft (Proverbs 22:29).
Changes are coming
At twenty-years-old you can scarf pizza or burritos at 2 AM with virtually no ill effect. At thirty you can maybe do midnight. By forty, don’t eat pizza after 6 PM or you’re likely to suffer all night. Such are the effects of aging that we cannot envisage when we only have a pair of tens in our hand.
Assuming you have normal vitality, you can expect to see physical changes. Energy levels go down. More sleep is required but harder to get. Certain foods and drinks no longer agree with you, and many more such delights. This is where most of us become more concerned about the quality of what we’re ingesting and maybe even supplementing our nutrients.
A key point in all of this is to realize how these changes affect the way you feel, think, and act. When you’re tired, your tolerance threshold goes down. You’re impatient and irritable. Sometimes you are more negative and maybe even irrational. Sometimes the best thing we can do for the relationships in our life is to get some sleep. We have to be more deliberate about necessary rest and activity and understanding toward others in the same way.
You’re not a kid anymore
I can remember being a young lad and hearing grown-ups talk about how they wished they could be a kid again, or how they’d give anything to be able to go back to childhood. I thought those statements odd then and, frankly, I still think they’re odd. No thank you. I have no desire to go back to childhood days (1 Corinthians 13:11). We’re meant to grow up and discover the world’s vanity and fool’s gold, because we are meant for another world. This is just a brief sojourn.
One particular feature of childhood that differs from adulthood is pure childish joy. A child can experience pure joy without any trace of sorrow, worry, or guilt. Whenever anything upsets their delicate internal balance, an ice cream cone sets the world to rights once again. The cold, creamy goodness is a wonderful restorative to the single digits.
As a kid, I could read for hours for the sheer joy of reading without the least feeling of guilt for other things left undone. I could shoot around-the-world on the court for hours without any thought of anything else going on in the world. It was the same for climbing trees and running the ridges.
Such pure joy is lost in maturity though. Even our greatest moments of delight are tempered with sorrow and worries. It seems I have felt this acutely over the last couple of years. While I’m glad to gift my children with moments of pure joy, I’m unable to share it with them completely. They smile and laugh without a care and I smile and laugh with many cares always present. Maybe this is something of Solomon’s meaning that in much wisdom there is much grief and increasing knowledge also increases sorrow.
It seems we are doomed the rest of our days to eat ice cream with hot chocolate sorrow on top. Joy and sorrow are inseparable as our days advance. But is it better to go back to the childhood joys? I don’t think so. I will leave you to consider the words of Solomon once again.
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.
Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools. Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.
– Ecclesiastes 7:1-10