Tomorrow we are celebrating our David’s first birthday. Birthdays in our family are like buses – you wait for a long time, and then they all come together. Two of our children have birthdays at the end of April; David’s and Anne’s fall a few days apart in May; and mine comes a couple of weeks later.
We try to make birthdays special for each member of the family. Anne usually designs a cake to match the interests of each family member: it might be a railway engine, a sandcastle, a bonfire… If I have time, I like to make cards rather than buy them – that way I can guarantee that each one is unique, designed to suit the individual. And Anne puts huge effort into finding or making memorable presents (she’s been knitting frantically for David’s birthday). When each of our children was born, she planted a blossoming tree or flowering shrub – in the hope that it would blossom again on their birthday each year. And of course we try to arrange some special treat for each child – a party or at least an outing.
We want our children to remember their birthdays as happy events.
But we also want them to think of birthdays as a time for special thanksgiving and reflection. So alongside all the fun, there are serious moments. On any birthday we sing in our morning family worship John Ryland’s hymn (Grace Hymns 122):
Sovereign Ruler of the skies,
Ever gracious, ever wise;
All my times are in thy hand,
All events at thy command.
His decrees who formed the earth
Fixed my first and second birth;
Parents, native place and time,
All appointed were by him.
He that formed me in the womb,
He shall guide me to the tomb;
All my times shall ever be
Ordered by his wise decree.
Times the tempter’s power to prove;
Times to taste the Saviour’s love;
All must come and last and end,
As shall please my heavenly Friend.
Plagues and deaths around me fly;
Till he bids, I cannot die;
Not a single shaft can hit,
Till the God of love sees fit.
Ryland reminds us that it is God who fixes the date of our “first & second birth”
so we give thanks that he has given our children first birth, and pray that he will grant them the second birth. He reminds us that it is God who has planned each event of life, so we thank God for his mercies towards us over the past year, and pray for protection and blessing for another year. And he reminds us that God has fixed the day of our death. So we pray that each of us will be ready when that day comes. Each birthday becomes a day of happy but serious reflection on eternal things.
Of course, such reflection isn’t just for the children. I try to set aside time on my birthday each year to review my own life. And each birthday reminds me more sharply how quickly life passes. I can remember my 21st birthday so clearly. I had finished my final university exams and the results were to be announced on my birthday. I can remember waiting in my rooms, watching the clock, knowing that at midday the results would be pinned on the notice-board in the college gateway. Can it really be thirty years ago? Where have those years gone? Nearly half a lifetime – and they’ve gone by so swiftly.
Again I remember my 40th birthday and the surprise party that the church planned for me at Carl & Wendy’s home. I can remember an envelope being pushed into my hand, and my excitement when I realised that the church’s birthday present to me was a trip to Northern Cyprus to spend time with Andrew & Daphne Swanson. Was that really ten years ago?
Job declared, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle..” (Job 7:6) and he was right. As each birthday comes and goes, I’m conscious of how little time I have left to prepare for eternity. If I think of my life as a day, the morning has long passed, the afternoon is drawing to a close; soon the evening shadows will be falling.
Wise Christians have always tried to use their birthdays as a time for reflection on the past, and preparation for the future.
Here is Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s diary entry for his twenty-third birthday (May 21st): “Preparation for the Sabbath. My birthday. I have lived twenty three years. Blessed be my Rock. Though I am a child in knowledge of my Bible and of Thee, yet use me for what a child can do, or a child can suffer. How few sufferings I have had in the year that is past, except in my own body. Oh that as my day is, my strength may be! Give me strength for a suffering and for a dying hour!”
M’Cheyne’s life was to be short: he died at the age of twenty-nine. Andrew Bonar – one of his closest friends – was to outlive him by many years. But to the end of his life, Bonar continued to use birthdays as times for solemn heart-searching. His seventy-seventh birthday was a Sunday: He wrote in his journal, “Lord, give me the heart for service… I have been taking a solemn view of the Sabbaths of my life. Leaving out seven years, and beginning where I might be fully expected to make right use of God’s holy day, there have been in my seventy years no less than 3640 Sabbaths! What use have I made of these at all adequate to the privilege? It is a most solemnizing, almost an appalling question. Through that time I have enjoyed about ten years of Sabbaths!!”
And this is from the diary of Jessie Thain, another of M’Cheyne’s friends: “It was a sweet calm day. It was also my birthday, which to me is always a solemn day. Oh for a tender heart to mourn over the sins of past years, and also for a thankful spirit to praise the Lord for all the way by which He has led me. Surely I should raise up a stone of remembrance—an Ebenezer—for hitherto hath the Lord helped me. And as I advance in years, may I grow in grace and in the knowledge of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. If spared to see another year may I be very different from what I am just now, much further on the way to Zion, with earthly things more below my feet and heavenly things more in my eye, running with a quicker step the race that is set before me ‘looking unto Jesus.’ Oh Lord fashion me according to Thine own blessed mind and will, and enable me whatsoever I do in word or deed, to do all to Thy praise and glory. Oh Lord give me a real heart_felt desire to serve Thee in this world. Enable me to do so in whatever situation I am; and if it be thy will, O Lord Jesus, open up a way speedily wherein I may be employed much in Thy sweet service. I would live to the praise of Thy glorious grace, desiring above all things Thy name may be magnified.”
One of the men who influenced M’Cheyne and his friends most powerfully was David Brainerd, eighteenth century missionary to the American Indians. Brainerd’s journal reveals his determination to use each birthday as a time for seeking God. On his 23rd birthday (April 20th) he vowed, “to be wholly the Lord’s, to be forever devoted to his service”. The following year, he wrote, “…I hardly ever so longed to live to God and to be altogether devoted to Him; I wanted to wear out my life in his service and for his glory…” He spent his 25th birthday fasting alone in the woods in prayer.
Again, Brainerd’s life was to be short. Like M’Cheyne he died at twenty-nine. But how much he had achieved in those few years! He was a man who knew how precious time is – perhaps it was during those hours spent with God on each birthday, that that lesson was pressed home to his heart.
Charles Wesley, written “On the Birthday of a Friend”.
We could add many more examples taken from diaries and journals of godly men and women. But instead I’ll give you another hymn, this time by Charles Wesley, written “On the Birthday of a Friend”.
Come away to the skies, my beloved, arise
And rejoice in the day thou wast born;
On this festival day, come exulting away,
And with singing to Zion return.
We have laid up our love and our treasure above,
Though our bodies continue below.
The redeemed of the Lord will remember His Word,
And with singing to paradise go.
Now with singing and praise let us spend all the days
By our heavenly Father bestowed,
While His grace we receive from His bounty, and live
To the honour and glory of God!
For the glory we were first created to share,
Both the nature and kingdom divine,
Now created again that our lives may remain
Throughout time and eternity Thine.
We with thanks do approve the design
Of that love that hath joined us to Jesus’ Name;
Now united in heart, let us never more part,
Till we meet at the feast of the Lamb.
There, Oh! there at His feet, we shall all likewise meet,
And be parted in body no more;
We shall sing to our lyres, with the heavenly choirs,
And our Saviour in glory adore.
Hallelujah! we sing to our Father and King,
And His rapturous praises repeat:
To the Lamb that was slain, Hallelujah again!
Sing all Heaven and fall at His feet!
Wesley obviously believed that birthdays should be happy days for Christians. And the supreme happiness is that each birthday brings us closer to the great celebration, “the feast of the Lamb”.
For all of you who are “redeemed by the Lord”, let me join Charles Wesley in wishing you a Happy Birthday, whether it’s in the next few weeks or whether you’ve nearly twelve months to wait. And in the meantime let’s make sure we use every day well: “with singing and praise let us spend all the days, by our heavenly Father bestowed”.