Milestones

Journeying to Our Final Destination

The metaphor of life as a journey has been widely used for centuries, perhaps more universally than any other. Figures of speech, like metaphors, have the power to add beauty to one’s story (rather than using plain, straightforward language), add emotional intensity (that others may feel the story), transfer our sense perceptions (to those who listen to the story), and assist others with concentration (an image is delivered to others with the power of a few words rather than many). Os Guinness expands on the idea when he writes: “Life is a journey, a voyage, a quest, a pilgrimage, a personal odyssey, and we’re all at some unknown point between the beginning and the end of it.”1 With incisive thinking, he employs the metaphor but quickly shifts our focus from the road itself to the milestone along the way. That “unknown point between the beginning and the end of it” steadily moves forward through time, looks over its shoulder at the past, and gazes ahead at the number of days still to be lived in the future. Where our particular point is plotted on the journey is known to God (our days are numbered) but unknown to us. As milestones are approached, then, it is not possible to determine with any accuracy how close to our final destination we actually are. Even so, there is something in all of us that longs for the security and satisfaction of knowing where we are and how far we must travel to arrive at our ultimate destination.

Originally, a milestone was a stone obelisk or short pillar set up beside a road to provide the distance in miles or kilometers from that point to another. A Roman mile was a milliarium, which was the equivalent of 1,000 paces, 8 stades, or 1,680 yards, 80 yards less than our mile (1,760). In ancient Rome (e.g., the Appian Way), they indicated the distance traveled and/or the remaining distance to one’s destination.

Used figuratively, a milestone may be defined as “a significant stage or event in the progress or development of a society, a career, an individual’s physical and mental growth, etc.; a measure of progress or change.”2 We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, births, promotions, national holidays, championships, New Year’s, Christmas, Easter, and much more. We may experience new milestones along life’s journey, but many are reminiscences of the past and, usually, give cause for joyful celebration.

As we grow older, we gradually begin to realize that we may have already lived more days than we have remaining. We move through spring and summer to the autumn of life when our memorials are mostly in the past, and we wake to the reality that we cannot recover time. For most, it seems, autumn is no longer a season for doing but for being. Our journeys near their end, and we readily affirm the significance of the popular phrase “we only go around once in life.” In January, 1965, Winston Churchill said, in his possibly last recorded statement, “It has been a grand journey – well worth making once.”

On October 31, 1963, less than a month before C.S. Lewis died, he wrote a brief letter to Jane Douglass, the first person who suggested that the Narnian stories be filmed. “Thanks for your kind note,” he responded. “Yes, autumn is really the best of the seasons: and I’m not sure that old age isn’t the best part of life. But, of course, like Autumn, it doesn’t last! Yours sincerely, C.S. Lewis.”3 After experiencing a heart attack on July 15, 1963, he returned home to the Kilns on August 6, cancelled a much-anticipated trip to Ireland, resigned his Chair and the Fellowship at Cambridge University, expressed that he was “now an extinct volcano,” wrote brief letters (“Don’t expect to hear much from me. You might as well expect a Lecture on Hegel from a drunk man.”), received brief visits from a few friends, spoke about J.R.R. Tolkien, and re-read the Iliad, Dickens’ Bleak House, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and Yonge’s The Daisy Chain.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, his brother Warnie took him tea at 4:00 p.m. and found him “drowsy but comfortable.” Then, at 5:30 p.m., he “heard a crash and ran in to find him lying unconscious at the foot of the bed. He ceased to breath some three or four minutes later.”4 His funeral was held at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry on November 26, three days short of his sixty-fifth birthday. His earthly journey had ended.

In whatever season of life we are living – spring, summer, autumn, or winter – social critic Os Guinness reminds us that “death is the fear behind all other fears, the endmost end beyond which there is no beginning.”5 Noted Swiss psychiatrist and theologian Paul Tournier observed that “the further on we go, the more we see time as a diminishing capital….The older one becomes, the shorter the years ahead seem to be, even though there remain yet twenty years, such a long, long time in the eyes of a child.”6 This brevity of life is exactly what we would expect to encounter in the pages of Scripture: “You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14), and “Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths and my lifetime as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” (Ps. 39:5).

Thinking about the meaning of life and death has been an important part of my life since April 3, 1970, when, as a college sophomore, I was almost killed in a head-on collision that did claim two other lives. Over the years, rather than diverting my thoughts and attention from the harsh realities of life, I have chosen, by the grace of God, to remain fully engaged while continuing to place my trust in the sovereign Lord who has a grand meta-narrative for the whole of creation (“Pay attention! Creation need not play to an empty audience” – Luci Shaw7). Either all things work together for good – or none do. There is no middle ground.

In six weeks’ time, on Wednesday, June 22, I will quietly celebrate one of my personal milestones. Forty years ago, after graduating from seminary, I was examined and approved for ordination into the gospel ministry in South Florida. Today, I took my copy of The Book of Common Worship from my bookshelf and opened the much-used and worn cover to see the words, “To John Musselman; Examined for ordination; June 22, 1976; Everglades Presbytery.” Forty years! Many of them were filled with immeasurable joy, while others resembled The Hill Difficulty or The Castle of Giant Despair in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the midst of pain and sorrow, I have always had a deep appreciation for the profound insight C.S. Lewis offered in A Grief Observed: “You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears.”8 Sometimes it is difficult for us to see the next milestone, near as it may be, for our eyes are red from weeping. However, knowing that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28) is a wonderful reminder that, between the “now” and the “not yet,” the goodness of God is our comfort and strength. “We are still,” as R.C. Sproul reminds us, “in the vale of tears.”9 Even so, “in truth we may be confident that nothing bad will ever happen to us if we belong to Christ.”10

My father lived 86 years before he went to be with Christ. For some reason, since his death in 2006, I have asked the Lord if He would give me the years of my father. In addition, I have asked Him to give me physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, so that I may serve Him for another twenty years or so. He may not grant my request, but Jesus knows my heart on this matter. In an interview with Mr. Sherwood Wirt of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association on May 7, 1963, held in C.S. Lewis’ rooms in Magdalene College, Cambridge, Lewis offered this insight about the future: “The world might stop in ten minutes; meanwhile, we are to go on doing our duty. The great thing is to be found at one’s post as a child of God, living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though our world might last a hundred years.”11 Thy will be done.

If God does answer my prayers and gives me additional years of life, what race will I run? What will I do? How about you? Will we be able to say with Lewis in the days before his passing, “I have done all I wanted to do, and I’m ready to go”? Os Guinness reminds those who desire to finish well that “God calls men and women who will be committed to their life task with no reservations, no retreats, no regrets.”12

The answers to these questions will come through persevering prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can walk in the fullness of the Spirit and trust that He is leading us to engage the world with the gospel for His glory. I do know with confidence that the vision of the Jackson Institute is before me night and day: “To permeate the kingdom of God with reproducing leaders.” Scottish pastor and theologian A.B. Bruce asks, “Who, except One who possessed all power in heaven and on earth, could dare to hope for success in such a gigantic undertaking?”13

As you make your own journey through life, God grant that you will bear much fruit as you faithfully move from milestone to milestone until, at last, you come to the final one from which your next step will take you into the throne room of God where you will see, for the very first time, the risen Christ in all of His glory.

1 Os Guinness, Long Journey Home (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2001), p. 5.

2 Oxford English Dictionary, online edition.

3 C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, Vol. III: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963 (HarperCollins e-books, 2007), p. 1018.

4 Ibid., pp. 1031.

5 Os Guinness, Long Journey Home (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2001), p. 37.

6 Paul Tournier, The Seasons of Life (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1963), p. 54.

7 Luci Shaw, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford University; Lecture notes from Wednesday, July 22, 1998.

8 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), p. 53.

9 R.C. Sproul, The Invisible Hand (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996), p. 170.

10 Ibid., pp. 174-175.

11 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 266.

12 Os Guinness, The Call (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998), p. 235.

13 A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, (Atlanta: The Jackson Institute, 1996), Vol. 4, p. 171.

Download a PDF of this essay.

Return to John’s Essays