Every day of our lives ought to be prized as a landmark
Anyone who watched the excellent BBC production of The Go-Between will remember the words of the novel's author, LP Hartley: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
These words speak to me very personally today as I celebrate a big landmark birthday, and reflect upon my personal and professional life since the years following the end of the Second World War.
So much has changed since then, and, yet, some things remain the same. In my boyhood, the medicine was rudimentary, very few people travelled abroad, television was relatively unknown, people made their own entertainment, and they developed naturally the now almost-lost art of conversation.
Today, our medical facilities are so good that they have kept alive millions of people who earlier would have died but, in doing so, they have also created a huge new problem of how to look after the elderly.
The speed of modern travel is so staggering that people take it for granted, yet I retain a boyish sense of wonder at being able to fly at noon from Naples, as I did recently, land in Dublin in the early afternoon, and be home in Belfast by tea-time.
The speed of modern communication is even more staggering. In my boyhood, the bulky radio set was a marvel, but now I can listen live to a crystal-clear radio performance of a classical symphony on my iPhone in the palm of my hand.
In my schooldays, we laboriously wrote lines in a jotter, in my early journalistic career we used typewriters with carbon copies, and we climbed over fields and hedgerows to find a public phone in order to file copy for the paper.
Nowadays we can contact friends and business colleagues all around the world at the flick of a mobile phone or computer switch, and the new social media revolution is swamping our everyday lives. We have made enormous changes in information technology but we live in an isolationist gadget world, where we are fast losing the ability to communicate as human beings.
In Church life there are also enormous changes, with much fewer people worshipping, and many more trying to find their reason to be alive in a materialistic secular culture that offers nothing beyond possessions.
The Christian Churches themselves are becoming steadily more conservative in the face of this secular onslaught, and also the enormous threat from militant and fanatical Islam.
The Gospel message is under threat as rarely before, and there is no quick fix for the Churches which have, by and large, steadily failed to impress the masses with their admittedly difficult, self-disciplinarian way of life.
Yet there is still enormous goodness in the world, many people who show great unheralded kindness, and others who display tremendous courage in the face of personal and family difficulty. They are heroes all.
The sublime truths of religion do not change, despite the many new interpretations of old and well-trusted wisdom, and I believe that the powerful words of Psalm 23 provide an admirable guide for all of us, in life and in death.
When writing about another landmark birthday quite some time ago, I often mention my wife's birthday card to me with the quotation from Goethe.
As I write, I can see the card with its message still pinned on the wall of my study "Nothing should be prized more highly than the value of each day".
When you really understand and live by that philosophy, not just a big birthday but every single day should be a landmark. So here's to today, tomorrow and to my next big birthday landmark, so help me God.