Saturday, April 30, 2016

Even to Old Age and Gray Hairs

Psalm 71
Easter 6
May 1, 2016
William G. Carter

Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.
18 So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.

There is a comment that I often hear from older people who spend time in the hospital or have some kind of medical episode. They will look me in the eye and with all seriousness declare, “Whatever you do, don’t get old.”

When they say it, I’m never sure what they want me to do. I have every intention of getting old, and prefer it to the alternative. Lord knows, the years are marching on for all of us. For a few among us, those years are still kind. And for the rest of us, well, let’s pray for durability and the continuing ability to bounce rather than break. As the Psalmist says to God in our Psalm, “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again.” (71:20).

Today we honor those in our fellowship who are chronologically gifted. They have been around for a while. Most of them are out ahead in the front of the pack, and quite a few will astonish us if their ages are ever reveal. One of our certified nonagenarians (that’s somebody aged ninety to ninety-nine) could not be here today. She’s traveling the world and has other things to do. As one of her friends said about her, “Ninety is the new sixty.”

That gives me hope. In the last couple of years, I’ve felt time creeping up on my heels. It is good to have a lot of mentors who have offered good advice. Keep walking as long as you can, they say. Enjoy what you eat, but don’t eat as much of it. Start doing crossword puzzles to sharpen the brain. And if you’re going on a long trip, never pass up a rest room. These are all helpful tidbits.

Today’s Psalm has some holy advice to add to such wisdom. It seems to have been written by somebody sensitive to the aging process. “Don’t cast me off in the time of old age,” he says in verse nine. In verse eighteen, he adds, “Even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me.”

Some people think that King David wrote psalms like these. Perhaps so, although, this psalm is not autographed by him or anybody else. Even so, we know David lived to be a senior citizen. According to the first book of Kings, when he “was old and advanced in years,” he couldn’t keep warm.

The servants covered him with blankets and clothes, but he was often chilly. So you know what those generous servants did? They found a young woman named Abishag to be his cuddle buddy, and that seemed to warm him up. The Bible says nothing immoral happened; all I will say is it’s good to be king!

And when David died, the official chronicler of the kingdom declared, “he died in a good old age, full of days, riches, and honor.” (1 Chronicles 29:28) By the way, anybody want to guess what his ripe old age actually was? King David died at seventy years of age.

Thanks to medical advances, good nutrition, and fewer battles with the Philistines, a lot of us are lasting a lot longer. Once it was extremely rare to know someone who is a hundred years ago. Not anymore. My grandmother, at 102 years old, has a great-great grandson. That’s five generations, and it’s amazing.

Yet, as all of us know, with longevity comes trouble. Without any adjustments, our Social Security savings could run out of money someday. Longer lives mean more medical bills. Women who thought they would outlive their husbands may have to live with them a good bit longer.

And I think of Anna Schwartz, who was ninety-six when I went to my first church and became her pastor. She didn’t like the fact that she was slowing down; at eighty-nine, she visited Egypt and rode a camel. Now her wings were clipped. She had outlived her husband. Her son Bob was retired and had health problems of his own. She couldn’t take care of her house.

Her main frustration was her boyfriend Russell, who was a mere eighty five. “I always wanted a younger man,” she said. Every afternoon, he risked life and limb to drive across town to the senior facility where she lived. The drive wore him out and he would fall asleep for the rest of the afternoon. The supper tray would come, and she’d say, “Russell, you’ve got to wake up and go home.” He would shuffle out the door, and then she would say, “I don’t know why I’m living so long.”

What was I, twenty-five, twenty-six years old? I wasn’t sure if she was trying to yank my chain or if she was asking a serious question. One time I said, “Maybe God still has work for you to do, Anna.” She wrinkled her nose and said she hadn’t thought about that. But I had great sympathy for her. Most of her friends were gone, her son needed a hip replacement, and her boyfriend was a bore. Why was she still here?

Well, let me take on that question: why are any of us here? It is certainly not for the sake of the troubles; God knows there are enough troubles in this life. But we know that God is stronger than them all.

Did you notice that, over and over, whenever our psalm speaks of trouble, it counters by asking God for help – or declaring that God has already helped. “You are my strong refuge,” says the Psalmist in verse seven, “My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all day long.” It’s a clue as to why we are here – not to make more money than our neighbors, not to build a bigger garage and fill it with more toys, not to be consumed by the people out there who wish to take advantage of us for their gain. No, we are here to live in relationship with God.

For the Psalmist, it’s a relationship marked by God’s strength and God’s continuing faithfulness. To live with God is the source of our ongoing joy. To remember how many times God has helped us is sufficient for us to live into the future with hope. And to live with a saving, loving God is an experience that must be shared with those around us, including those who will inevitably come after us.

That reminds me: I didn’t finish quoting one of the verses a few minutes ago. It’s verse eighteen: “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.” Even if your memory is getting slippery, don’t forget that part: “I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.”

One of the great privileges of my work is that I get to see some moments that the rest of you might not have seen. We had one of those moments just a few weeks ago. We were baptizing a little boy named Rhys, and it was a big moment as all baptisms are a big moment.

It was a bit different, though, because I was asked to be the elder who walked him down the aisle. Indeed I was the mother’s second choice. Her first choice was her high school math teacher. I think she was unfortunately detained on a golf cart in Florida, so I got to do The Walk.

The baptism went pretty well. But there was a moment in the aisle that took my breath away. Rhys and I got about halfway down the aisle, and I introduced him to one of our ninety-year-olds. She reached out and wrapped his little fingers around one of her fingers and she held on for a moment.

It was an epic moment – the wisdom of long experience touching the future, the continuity of a holy tradition, right here in the present tense. It was as if she was speaking on behalf of all the saints to say, “The Gospel that I received many years ago is also for you, little one.”

In the words of the Psalmist, “until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.” That’s another reason, maybe the really big reason, why all of us are here: to proclaim the love of our saving God.

So we come to the Lord’s Table today to proclaim it again. “Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.” “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to you.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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