Psalm 71: 1-9, 17-24
September 29, 2002
One of the really neat things about being a parent is remembering back to my own childhood. Through my daughters’ actions and words, my own memories come flooding back into my head as I relive old experiences through their lives.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard the words, “Daddy, tell me a story.” I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered back to when I said the same thing to my parents. I love hearing stories. There are of course the pretend ones, but the ones that have stayed with me my whole life are the real stories, the stories of my mom and uncle riding horses when they were kids, or of my dad driving a school bus in college, or of his experiences in Vietnam.
But I have to tell you that some of my favorite stories are the ones told by my grandfather. He used to be a detective for the railroad, and I would love to hear him tell me about his many adventures and experiences as a detective. As I think back to his stories, and the stories told by my other grandparents, what is most important about those stories is that they are the stories of their lives. Through their stories, they taught me about who they are and what they believe, how they think and feel about certain things, their hopes and dreams and fears, even about their faith.
But not only that, the stories of my parents and grandparents also tell me about myself, about my own origin and history. They give me a sense of belonging, that I belong to a much greater story than simply the 31 years of my own life, that I belong to a much greater history, that I am part of a faith that is much bigger than my own.
I’m afraid that in this day and age, our society has forgotten the stories of our past, the stories of our family, the stories about who we are, the stories of our faith. Too many people today from the younger generations have tried to distance themselves from the older generations. We dismiss their stories as a time gone by, as the old ways, as stories for a history book, while at the same time we claim to be much more progressive, modern, independent, enlightened. Yet everyday, many in the younger generations turn to drugs, gangs, sex and other destructive behaviors in a vain search for identity and belonging. We must be brought back.
We must be reminded over and over again what it means to live in a faithful relationship with God. We must be reminded over and over again that left to our own devices, our own decisions, and our own self-will we will surely die. We must hear from those who have lived through life, who have been through the ups and downs of life, the storms and the calm seas. We must hear from those who have come to realize that the only source of true happiness, joy, and hope is not something to be found in ones-self, but in the only one whom can bring liberation, freedom, and salvation. We must hear from those who have come to understand that we must live a life in complete and total dependence upon God. We must hear from people like the Psalmist, the voices of the older generation, who have lived a life of faithfulness and who can witness to the power and grace of God in their lives.
From the beginning of humanity, people have gathered together to listen to the stories of those who have lived through life. The older generations entertain the younger generations with their reminiscences of the way things were and “used to be.” And it is in the stories of the older generation, that the younger generation becomes inspired to become whatever their dreams encourage them to be, and they vow to imitate, equal and excel the older generation who captures their imagination.
The telling of stories is not only for entertainment. It is a vital role in the teaching and sustaining of a society. It is one of the most important and positive contributions the older generation still has to make. The telling of stories reminds the younger generations of their history, of who they are and to whom they belong. It reminds them of the sacrifices of the older generation, of those who fought and died for a better way of life, of those who lived a life of faithful obedience, of those who give witness to God’s grace and mercy, love and care, sovereignty and providence, miracles and salvation.
There is nothing that can replace the personal witness of God’s love, given to us by the people who love us. It is their testimony that is so powerful that it, more than any formal preaching in church, has passed on the faith since its beginning, both in Old Testament and New Testament times. For that is precisely how we got this far in the worldwide growth of the Church. The real sermons we preach, the really effective ones, are the stories of our lives.
I remember when I was younger; there was an old man who lived down the street from me. His name was Mr. VanDemeter; we called him Mr. Van. Mr. Van would sit out on his porch in a lawn chair and talk to my brother and me for hours. He collected arrowheads and he would take us inside his house to show us his collection. He would tell us amazing stories of his adventures and how he found each one and what they were used for.
One day I was talking to him when he began to speak about the war. Not knowing which war he was referring to, I asked him which war was he in. Mr. Van sat me down and started telling me about how he was in WWII. I do not remember all that he said, but I will never forget that he began crying as he told me about the horrors he had lived through. To this day I cannot watch or read anything about WWII without thinking of Mr. Van and without crying myself. WWII is not a distant, irrelevant history to me. It is not some event that fills the pages of a history book with unknown faces and names. It is a personal memory for me. Not my own memory, but the memory of a man who lived through it and was grateful to God that he made it home alive. It is his memory that has been forever engrained into my memory.
We must tell each other, young and old, the stories of our lives. The stories of how our lives have been forever changed by God’s grace. We must tell others our stories so that they will never forget about God’s goodness, love, and mercy. We must tell them that our God is not just a god of an ancient people in ancient history, but that our God is a living presence in our history and in our lives today.
The Psalmist’s God is not a god of fleeting emotion or wishful thinking, his God and our God, is a rock upon which he has stood his whole life. His God has been a fortress and refuge upon which he has sought and continues to seek safety from those who try to do him harm.
The Psalmist’s confidence and hope is not in any mere “supreme being”, but in the Lord, the God who acts, day in day out, in the re-creative, re-newing, and reconciling love in people’s lives, so much so, and so often that his mouth cannot tell of all his deeds; in fact they are even beyond his understanding.
But this does not stop him from witnessing to God’s grace. He wants to continually praise God for what God has done and will do in his life. This is his evangelical mission in the remaining years of his life, and his strength as a portent and witness comes from the Lord God Almighty.
“For thou, O Lord, art my rock and my fortress…
my hope, my trust…thou art my strong refuge”.
The Psalmist reminds all of us what it means to be a witness to the grace of God. He reminds us that our mission in this world is to tell others about the Gospel until the day we die. Even though the Psalmist has lived a long life and is an old man who is “old and gray,” he wants to continue to pass on what he has received and learned and experienced.
“O God, Thou hast taught me from my youth; and I still declare Thy wondrous deeds. And even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Thy strength to this generation, Thy power to all who are to come.”
Everyone who lives long enough becomes “old,” but not everyone “grows” old, that is continues growing despite physical old age. In many ways it is harder to continue to grow internally, as a person, as we grow physically older. The many supports open to us when we were younger are either no longer there or weakening. The vigor of our physical bodies diminishes with age. We can still think a pretty exciting and fulfilling life, but we find the very thinking about it tires us out. Our bodies no longer have the strength or the sustaining power they once had.
Worse than that, the older we are, the more likely we will have fewer friends, especially those lifetime friends. The longer we live the more of them we bury. They are no longer there to inspire us, support us, and be company for us. Yet, in the absence of friends and loved ones and in absence of physical, bodily agility, we are reminded that we depend even more on God than we ever did before. Our dependence on God is less and less theoretical and more and more practical as get older, and so we grow, we grow in awareness of our absolute dependency on God.
Growing in awareness of our absolute and total dependence upon God for everything is indeed growing. It is not something to be bemoaned or regretted. Indeed, the more our bodies force us to sit still and think, the more we can bring to the forefront of our minds the countless experiences of God’s grace and presence in our lives. Because God is an ever-present the reality, the richness of our past experiences come alive in the present and we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and our life is again rich and full, full of grace, peace, and love.
Like the Psalmist, the older generation, and all of us for that matter, has also been called and given the strength of God to be God’s portent and witness. We have been reconciled by God, saved by the blood of Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit for loving service and faithful witness. This loving service and faithful witness does not stop when we reach a certain age, rather it is our evangelical mission in life, from the day we took our first breath until the day we breathe our last breath.
To a person who thinks he or she must be active or young in order to be a good witness, or that just telling someone our stories is nothing but a minor mission, to God it is THE mission. It is the stories of those who have lived a life knowing God’s presence in their lives that young people need to hear. Just like infants look to adult examples to learn how to eat, drink, walk, talk, so too, we all look to other people, including the older generation, to learn how to grow old ourselves.
But even if you are younger, you don’t have to wait until you are older to tell your stories. Like the older generation, the younger generation has a responsibility and obligation to tell their children and the children of this world, who are the next generation, of God’s living presence and work in the world. All of us, every single one of us in the sanctuary today, has a story to tell. Make your story known. Tell it in your homes. Tell it in your schools. Shout it from the mountaintop so all the world can hear.
“My mouth shall tell of Thy righteousness, and of Thy salvation all day long; for I do not know the sum of them. I will come with the mighty deeds of the Lord God; I will make mention of Thy righteousness, Thine alone. My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to Thee; and my soul, which Thou hast redeemed. My tongue will utter Thy righteousness all day long.”