Life Long Leaning: Psalm 71

Last week I told you that Jesus was a life long learner.  In Luke 2:11 we read that, as a boy he grew in wisdom and knowledge, and in favor with God and human kind. And in Hebrews 2:9,  we read that as an adult, by the grace of God, he tasted death for everyone.  If I may borrow a phrase from Whittier, Jesus had “…knowledge never learned of schools.”

Every believer ought to be a life-long learner.  John Calvin said that Christian maturity is based upon our maintaining a kind of perpetual adolescence. No matter how old we are, we have got to be ready to learn the lessons that God still wants to teach us, and ready to take-on the tasks that God still sets before. This is true for the youngest and oldest among us. We may retire from a life of labor, but as Christians we never retire. In Revelation 2:10 we read that it is those who are “faithful unto death” that receive “the crown of life.” 

This morning, I want to point out that the author of Psalm 71 was a life long leaner.  The psalmist reverses the logical flow of life, but he beautifully describes what it means to be a child of the covenant.  In verse 5 he writes, “O Lord, you are my hope and my trust from my youth.”  Remember the words, “hope” and “trust.” We will come back to them.  Then in verse 6 he writes, “Upon you I have leaned from my birth.”

Do you remember when you first leaned upon God?  Most of us were leaning upon God even before we were aware of it, because most of us are children of the Covenant. We were born to Christian parents who offered us to God in baptism long before we could walk or talk.  Then  our parents raised us in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and in the fellowship of the church in hopes that we would someday confirm the covenant that they made for us. Most of us did just that.  When we were still just a youth, a young boy or a young girl, we stood before the gathered congregation to affirm our faith in the God of our parents, the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. 

If you want to learn what it mean to consciously lean upon God, do a quick word study of the word “hope.”  It occurs more than 200 times in the Revised Standard Version.  In the Bible, as in life, people hope for good things.  The wise among us hope for the light, of additional wisdom and understanding. The vast majority of us hope for a happy family life, including parents, a spouse, and children and grandchildren, and a long life to enjoy them. Those of us who live in a civilized nation hope for “peace in our time” and for the economic prosperity of our nation.  Remember, even the most devout Jews hoped the Messiah would bring economic prosperity to Israel.   Finally, those of us who are sick, hope to get well; and those of us who face hardships and difficulties of every kind hope that our trials will soon pass.

One of my favorite stories is about a wise eastern potentate who decided he wanted a watchword to live by that would be applicable to any situation of life.  So, he gathered together all his sages, put them into one large room; and told them they must not come out until they had determined that watchword.  After a very short time behind closed doors, the sages came before their master,  and one of them handed him a scrap of parchment that contained just four words, “This too will past!” In other words, no matter what you face in life, “This too will past!”

In 2nd Corinthians 11:24-28, which many scholars call the “Perils of Paul” the apostle demonstrates what it means to live by this watchword to perfection.  He writes:

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea;  on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.…(and on and on).

The good news is that Paul survived everyone of these trials!  God did not deliver him from them, but God deliver him through them. Every time the apostle survived a trial, he trusted God more and more! In 2nd Corinthians 1:8-10 he makes that very plain.  He writes:

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.  Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely (trust!) not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead;  he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.

Paul was delivered of every trial of life, save one, the last one. Tradition says that Paul was beheaded in Rome. Nobody survives the last enemy, death.  Unbelief declares that death is the end of life.  According to the skeptic, Charles Algernon Swinburne, life is such a wearisome business that death is even to be desired.  He writes :

We thank with brief thanksgiving, Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever; That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river, Winds somewhere safe to sea.

The Bible begs to differ! In his book, “The Riddle of the New Testament,” Noel Davey says that every single line in the New Testament was written in the conviction that, on the 3rd day following his death on the cross, Jesus Christ rose again from the dead, the first born of many brothers and sisters. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the guarantee of our own!  It stands as the massive sign that God has not abandoned us in our little world of time and space, but, in the person of Jesus, God has penetrated it, shattered it, and begun its transformation. The Resurrection gives us the confidence that if we lean upon God in this life, we can continue to lean upon God in the next. 

Of course, leaning upon God means different things during the different stages of life. 

1. As Children we lean upon God by leaning upon our parents.  In Exodus 20:12 we read:  “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you.”  The New Testament says that this is the first commandment with a promise.  If children want a long life, they should love, honor and obey their parents. Of course, there comes a time when every child must leave the nest. However, we must not strike out upon our own until we we have learned the basic lessons that our parents can teach us. God intends that children should see further down the road and further into the future than their parents, yet, God knows children can do that only when they stand upon the shoulders of their parents like midgets standing upon the shoulders of giants.

2. As young men and women, we lean upon God when we begin to make the choices that will make us.  Let me say that again:  We make our choices and then our choices make us.  Friends are the family that we choose, and we should choose carefully. Norman Vincent Peal, the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” was just a cub reporter when he approached Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company for an interview. At the end of the interview, Peal asked Ford to sign his notebook. As Ford took the notebook, he asked, “Norman, who is your best friend?”  Peale stumbled at the answer.  As he did, Henry Ford wrote,  “To Norman Peal: Your best friend is the one who brings out the best in you.”  Jesus called his disciples his friends. At least one ancient Christian community, called one another friends. When you choose our friends, we make a choice that will make us, so let us seek friendships that God would approve.  Likewise, we want God’s help in choosing a vocation.  In his book, “Becoming Adult Becoming Christian,” James Fowler says there are too extremes to avoid when choosing a vocation. First, we ought never to choose a vocation that rubs us wrong, like a hair shirt on a monk. If our work is ill-suited to us, we despair.  Our vocation ought to be to us like wings on a bird, it should lift us, and not drag us down. Second, we ought never to choose a vocation that is too easy, and beneath the abilities God has given to us. If we do, we will spend a life time regretting it. To quote Whittier once more, “Of all the sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’  Finally, as young adults we certainly want God’s help in choosing a partner.  We all want to fall in love. I have.  Its fun! Yet, what we call falling in love has nothing to do with love as described in the Bible.  Psychologists tell us that the feeling of falling in love is just the temporary collapse of the ego boundaries: Two people try to think and act as one.  This feels great; but, unfortunately, it often cuts our brain power in half, and we do some really stupid things. Falling in love is temporary.  You remember the old Nancy Sinatra song, “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, just about the time we hit Jackson, that’s when the fire went out.” Being Love is different from falling in love.  Being in love is requires work.  In 1st Corinthians 13,  Paul says”

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;   it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.   Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

If you think that any of that is easy, you are wrong.

3. If we choose well and start out well in life, people in their middle years simply continue what they have begun.  Barring external forces outside our control—like illness or war, most of us enjoy life for a decade or two until something comes along to us up. Then, somewhere between the ages of thirty-five and fifty we face a four fold crisis brought on by age and change. 1) We must rethink our relationship to our bodies, because our bodies are starting to show wear and tear.  2) We must rethink our vocation, especially if we have chosen that vocation poorly.  3) We must rethink our relationship with members of our families, including our parents, our mates, and our children, and it matters not if they are living or dead. It is harder to come to terms with your mother of father if they have already left us, but we must still do it, and some immature people are still at it well into old age. 4)  Finally, we must rethink our relationship with God. We have to consciously re-choose God, just like we did at first. If we do this, then we will Master through the other challenges of midlife. If we fail to do this, we will certainly muddle through the challenges of midlife.  If we fail to negotiate midlife with integrity, we run the risk of making shipwreck of what is left of our lives.

4. We must deal with the challenges of old age.  The author of Psalm 71 plead with God not to cast him off in old age when his strength was spent, and his enemies increasingly active against him. He plead with God to hold on to him, when he could no longer hold on to himself.  Old age is a fearful thing. We ordinarily refuse to accept it in ourselves until others make us aware of it. I knew I was an old man the first time when I went into McDonalds and the beautiful young lady behind the counter looked up at me and said, “What can I do for you, Sweetie?” I knew I was an old man when I was painfully walking up the tall steps of the central YMCA, the same steps that I use to run up with ease, and I noticed that a dozen or more attractive young men and women were walking down as I walked up, and not even one of them acknowledging my presence in their world.

Our society often values older people much less than we value younger people. In his book, “The Price of Everything,”  Eduardo Porter tells the story of a man named Feinberg who was appointed by Congress to fairly divide payments from a Government Fund to the families of two-thousand, eight hundred and eighty 9/11 victims.  Here is how he did it. First he assigned a flat rate of two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the loss of each life.  Second, using the common wisdom of our court-system, he tied the remaining portion of each payment to the earning potential of each victim. He gave the families of the bankers who died on 9/11  more than he gave the families of the janitors who died on 9/11. Likewise, he gave the families of men in their thirties an average of two-million, eight-hundred thousand,  while he gave the families of men in their seventies only six-hundred thousand dollars.  Tragically, he gave women an average of 37% less than he gave men of comparable age and position, because in 2001 that represented their earnings potential. Several years after it was all over, Feinberg expressed regret over these disbursements.  He published a paper in which he wrote, “God forbid, if something like this ever happens again, congress should pay the families of every victim the same amount.”  Yes!  How can you put a value on human life.  An old man in his seventies may discover a cure for cancer.  An old woman of 85 may write a book that changes the lives of millions.

When it comes to the elderly, we who sit on church boards make some of the same mistakes Feinberg made, especially when it comes to the young and old.  We often sit around wringing our hands, saying, “We need more young people!”  Seldom do we sit around wring our hands and saying, “We need more old people!”  That is a shame, not only do older people need to lean upon God every bit as much as younger people; but, older people have just as much to  give to the fellowship of the church as younger people.  Young people bring the church enthusiasm, energy, and a glimpse at the future that is coming to us. Older people bring the church time to spend in service to God,  decades of valuable experience, and the material wealth that young people have yet to acquire. Some of us have grown so old, we can’t do much ministry, but we can still sent our money to do it!  As a pastor for 41 years, I would not want to have to choose the young over the old, or the old over the young. Thankfully, I have never had to make that choice.  The Bible sets an equal value on the young and the old, indeed, upon every human life, male and female, straight or gay, bankers and janitors, preachers and laity.  God wants each of us to serve him, and he wants a church to demonstrate what it means to lean upon him from the cradle to the grave.


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.


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