As a young boy growing up in the 1960s I was captivated by the space race and rockets and moon landings. I read every article in Life Magazine, studied the drawings and photos, and watched all the TV coverage. I remember running into the front yard hoping to see the Mercury capsule fly over, only to learn by the time I made it outside the astronaut was two states away.
One of the mysteries for me was why those huge rockets needed to come apart as they gained altitude. A Saturn V rocket was 363’ tall at launch, yet all they brought back home at the end of the mission was the Apollo Command Module, which was only 10’ 7” tall. They discarded 353’ of rocket. Later, I learned why.
The reason for multi-stage rockets is that once the fuel is exhausted, the structure and engine are useless and only add weight to the vehicle which slows down its future acceleration. It takes energy to fly with empty fuel tanks.
By dropping the now-useless stages the rocket lightens itself. The thrust of future stages is able to provide more acceleration than if the earlier stage were still attached, or a single, large rocket would be capable of. This means that it needs less total fuel to reach a given velocity and/or altitude. Astronauts report feeling acceleration when a stage is left behind … they “jump” forward.
Curiously, the phases of our lives are similar to those rocket stages. Each time we move from one phase of life to the next - college to career, single to married, children, management, ministry - we leave the weight and resistance of the previous phase behind and leap into the next stage. Each phase is necessary and required to get to the next part of the journey but must be jettisoned so that we are able to go further.
This June 23rd I’m becoming 62 years old, which is only 16.67*C (even less when you consider wind chill), so I’m not overly concerned. But I’ve been thinking about phases of life, wondering what lies ahead, and curious what I’ll leave behind.
My beginning phase was simple. I was fortunate to be born into a family that loved God and made worship a priority, so finding God was easy for me. I lived on my family’s faith for the first twenty years of my life.
It was in my junior year of university that I first started asking hard questions about faith. For the first time I was surrounded by people my age who had different backgrounds, traditions, practices, and terminology. It was only natural I began to question what I once took for granted.
I wondered why the beliefs I inherited were more correct than my study companion’s inherited belief in Allah or my roommate’s inherited belief in atheism. However, once again I was fortunate - my questioning and research and skepticism brought me back to God, and landed me squarely into a personal discipleship ministry at the Baptist Student Union.
This began the next phase of my life – all about self-discipline. I learned to memorize Bible verses, lead Bible studies, pray, share my faith, and disciple other students. Those regular practices changed my faith from something I inherited to something I owned, from activity to identity. This was a phase dominated not by my parent’s faith but my own personal beliefs, earned from searching, and deepened by spiritual practices
For the next twenty years those spiritual practices defined my life. I carried memory verse cards everywhere, even when running (it was that very practice that turned running, which I began as an exercise program, into regular spiritual encounters). When I started teaching adult Bible study classes in 1990, I immersed myself into study, learning, reading, and teaching. Daily spiritual practices guided my thoughts and actions through the most formative years of my adult life.
Sometime around the year 2000 I entered the next phase of life, most likely prompted by our newly emptied nest. My focus shifted from spiritual disciplines, to understanding my calling and purpose. It was a move toward legacy and lasting significance.
Even my teaching style changed. It morphed over time from imparting information to sharing my life, from data to relationships, from bullet points to stories. I didn’t make these changes on purpose. Unlike rocket stages, moving through the phases of life is seldom intentional, and it often takes years to recognize that changes have occurred.
Finally Old Enough
One morning last week I saw my friend Wes while I was at Chick-fil-A working on this essay, and the question came up: What age would you want to be if you had a choice? We both agreed, we would pick our current age. Neither of us wanted to relearn everything that got us this far.
It reminded me of another conversation Wes and I had awhile back while cycling together. We were describing our lengthening list of athletic ailments when Wes changed everything by saying: “This is the best time of our lives. We’re finally old enough people listen to us. We can really make a difference.”
Today, as I stare at 16.67*C, I wonder if there is a next phase looming. I hope so. I hope there are a lot more. In the meantime, I’ll live with a quote from one of my currently favorite movies, Dan in Real Life, “Plan to be surprised.”
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32