Singer Tom Cochrane sang, "Life is a Highway." M. Scott Peck wrote about The Road Less Traveled. And British essayist Oliver Goldsmith said, "Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations." Regardless of who said it or how, we are all moving down this road called life.
There was a beginning to our earthly sojourn and there will be an end to it. Along the way we encounter milestones. They mark our path, measure our progress, and simultaneously give mute witness to the distance remaining.
At the outset of one's journey the milestones mostly mark "firsts" and achievements: first steps, potty training, and first words. These early milestones usually bring delight and joy.
The milestones of youth are full of self-actualization and accomplishments: graduation, marriage, the start of a family, and a first home. Excitement and activity colour the days.
In mid-life, the milestones often mark mixed blessings: the kids finally move out, the first grandchild is born, and eventually, parents pass away.
In what we sometimes call the sunset years, the milestones come more rapidly than ever. And they often take on the solemn tone of "lasts" and finality: the last vacation trip, the surviving member of a generation passes away, a final move to the care facility. These are usually marked by sadness, resignation, and sometimes regret.
Of what significance are these points along the way? Are they simply points of interest on a road to nowhere? As Christians we say we know better, but do we live it?
One of my favourite verses is Psalm 90:12: "Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom" (NIV). Our days are numbered. They are set and limited. Milestones remind us of that.
To number my days as the psalmist says means they need to be "constituted officially." In other words, they need to be prioritized. But prioritized according to what? To answer, Peter writes, "…live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God" (1 Peter 4:2 NASB).
To explain how that works in daily life here is a story I read about an instructor who was giving a lecture one day.
At one point, he said, "OK, it’s time for a quiz." He reached under a table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it.
"How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?" he asked.
After we made our guess, he said, "OK, let's find out." He set one rock in the jar…then another…then another. I don't remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, "Is that jar full?"
Everyone looked at the rocks and said, "Yes."
Then he said, "Ahhh." He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, "Is the jar full?"
By this time we were on to him. "Probably not," we said.
"Good!" he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked at us and said, "Is the jar full?"
"No!" we all roared.
He said, "Good!" and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, "Well, what's the point?"
Somebody said, "Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life."
"No," he said, "that's not the point. The point is this: if you hadn't put these big rocks in first, would you have ever gotten any of them in?"1
Journeying through life it’s easy to get caught up with the scenery around us, measuring the milestones, and lose sight of the purpose of the journey. The Bible tells us the Christian's journey is all about doing the will of God. Seeking to do God's will in everything must be the big rocks of my life around which everything else will flow and fit.
When that is the case, the milestones can come and go as they will, but I can reach the end of the road having made the best of my journey. And you can't ask for anything better than that.
1 Stephen Covey, First Things First, (New York: Simon and Schuster), 1995, pp. 88-89.