The Autumn of Life - Sermon: 24 September 2017

Psalm 71
Rev. David K. Wood, Ph.D.

Of all the seasons, there is none I love or anticipate MORE than the fall. Autumn brings with it sweater weather and the incredible fall colors; it means football and the World Series, Halloween and Thanksgiving and all the preparations leading up to Christmas. Chuck Swindoll, the popular Christian speaker and writer, wrote a book of devotions some years ago he entitled Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life in which he looked at the movement and cycles of the Christian life through the prism of winter, spring, summer, and fall. He said that as each of the four seasons offers its own sights and smells, feelings and fantasies, so do they offer fresh and vital insights into the seasons of life itself and our relationship to God. He sees winter as a season of quiet reverence which is then followed by spring, a season of refreshing and encouraging renewal. Then comes summer, a season of enjoyable and much-needed rest and that must eventually give way to autumn. 

Of all the seasons, autumn is Swindoll’s favorite as well. It is during the fall that the foliage changes along with the weather and birds make their annual journey southward. Squirrels finish storing their nuts, salmon start their swim back to their spawning grounds, and bears prepare for a long hibernation. For human beings, he views it as a season of preparing for our OWN kind of hibernation. It is a time for reflection, a time to think about our lives and gain new perspective as we assess our achievements as well as our failures, as we transition from our youthful years to midlife and then on to the joys and struggles of growing old- in what is often referred to as the “AUTUMN” of our lives. 

However, to be in the “autumn” of one’s life is not necessarily the same as being advanced in years. I know people in their 50’s and 40’s and even 30’s who are tired, who are chronically depressed, who labor from one day to the next lonely and afraid. They exhibit all the symptoms of being in “the autumn of their years.” One of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs is “The September of My Years.” It begins, “One day you turn around and it’s summer. The next day you turn around and it’s fall. And the winters and the springs of a lifetime- whatever happened to them all?” Every one of us will at one time or another find ourselves waking up to that same bitter question, “Whatever happened to the seasons of my life? Where did all the years go?” As the calendar pages continue to turn over, one year quickly ends and another begins. Month after month, year after year, the cycle quietly repeats itself until one day, we realize that we’ve used up most of our allotted time. With our most productive days now behind us and no way to make them up, we can’t help but feel like we squandered so much of it. We sadly lament that if only we had been wiser with our time, we could have been better stewards of those years and achieved so much more with our lives. Such thoughts come naturally in the autumn of our lives.

For many, the autumn of life is not a happy time. Some years ago, Nancy Reagan was interviewed on “60 Minutes” in which she was asked to reflect about her husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s, the same disease that claimed my mother. With great honesty, she said, “The golden years are when you can sit back, hopefully, and exchange memories, and that’s the worst part about this disease: there’s nobody to exchange memories with…and we had a lot of memories.” She admitted that the joy of living was gone and that she now found herself terribly lonely. “Yes, it’s lonely,” she said, “because really, you know, when you come right down to it, you’re in it alone and there’s nothing that anybody can do for you.” 

Back in the 80’s, there was a television series about a trio of older women called “The Golden Girls.” But does anyone ACTUALLY believe that our later years will turn out to be as “golden” as we are often promised? It is estimated that nearly half of all Americans who make it past the age of 65 will spend some time in a nursing home with more than a million living in such facilities already. Over the years, I’ve heard the same complaints from both church members and non-church members alike. Old age has been a real struggle for them and they know it’s only going to get worse. They’re tired of the constant trips to the hospital or the doctor’s office. They’ve seen their retirement income shrink with interest rates being practically invisible. Add to that how many feel powerless as they are no longer able to make the simplest decisions for themselves. They frequently complain to me that they feel forgotten and they especially resent the way people talk down to them or treat them like they’re infants or idiots. They express how they feel degraded, having lost much of the dignity and respect they once commanded. When asked about the glories of growing old, Katherine Hepburn once made the honest comment, “I have no romantic feelings about age. I think we rot away and it’s too damn bad we do,” and that seems to sum up the fearful sentiments of a great MANY senior citizens. The question I would like to address this morning is where does one go to find the resources to give thanks when one is in the autumn of one’s years? Where does the capacity to experience joy and praise come from when one is on the downside of life rather than on its upside? 

One great resource the Bible offers us can be found in Psalm 71, this morning’s scripture lesson. It is the prayer of an old man who has been taken from his homeland to die in exile. We don’t know how long he has been there but we do know that his faith has been tested by remaining captive in a strange land and having to endure the incessant taunts of his enemies. His prayer alternates at times between lamenting his situation and asking God for help on the one hand, and expressing his dependence upon God and thanking him for all his faithfulness on the other. He confesses in the opening verse, “In thee, O Lord, do I take refuge” and two verses later, “Be thou to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for thou art my rock and my fortress.” He says, “For thou, O Lord, art my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. Upon thee I have leaned from my birth; thou art he who took me from my mother’s womb.” Thus, his trust has been an integral part of his life from his earliest years on and he credits God for being there again and again for him, sustaining and guiding and protecting him. 

However, despite his confidence, he still has moments where his faith wavers, especially in face of those who mock him and try to convince him that his God is powerless to deliver him. With v.9, he cries, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. For my enemies speak concerning me, those who watch for my life consult together, and say, ‘God has forsaken him; pursue and seize him, for there is none to deliver him.’” But faith ultimately triumphs because he knows that God remains faithful even when WE are faithless. Though old age may rob us of our looks and deprive us of our strength, it will never rob us of the love and favor that our God has for us.

Throughout the rest of the psalm, he praises God for his continued faithfulness. With v.14, he resolves, “But I will hope continually, and will praise thee yet more and more. My mouth will tell of thy righteous acts, of thy deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge. With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come, I will praise thy righteousness, thine alone.” As he draws near to God in prayer, he discovers his trust rewarded and his strength renewed, vowing he will praise him as long as there is breath in his body. 

With this psalm, we now know where to find those resources which will sustain us even as we find ourselves in the autumn of our lives. Like him, we TOO must affirm, “In thee, O Lord, do WE take refuge…for thou art OUR rock and fortress. Thou, O Lord, art OUR hope, OUR trust since the days of OUR youth…Therefore, OUR praise will continually be of thee.” And even when it becomes a struggle for us to say this and our faith wavers just like the old psalmist, if we continue to declare it all the same, we will see how our God will faithfully pull us through. There is much we don’t understand about God for God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not are not our thoughts. But this much we DO know- that our God loves us with an everlasting love and he promise he will never leave or forsake us REGARDLESS of what stage of life we happen to be in! 

But notice that Psalm 71 ends on a triumphant note of faith and praise despite the fact nothing has yet changed in the psalmist’s life. He’s still in exile in a strange land; still tormented by his enemies; still an old man growing grayer and more toothless and more bent over with each passing day- and yet because God has faithfully accompanied him throughout his life, even when he was hauled out of the land of Judah, he knows that God will not abandon him now. It is impossible for him to give up on God or his promises!

To my mind, nobody embodied this heart and spirit of the author of Psalm 71 more than Beulah Travis did. Beulah, who passed away several years ago at nearly a hundred years of age, was an incredible woman of faith and love and a long-time member of the First Presbyterian Church of Syracuse, NY where I served as head pastor. She will always be for me the model of what living with faith and hope in the autumn of life is all about. More than sixty years ago, she moved from being a Sunday School teacher to becoming the Christian Education director at Old First, at a time when there were over 500 persons in the C.E. program. However, what began as a temporary assignment ended up lasting almost two decades. In 1970, at the age of 63, at a time of life when people are discussing retirement options, she was thinking about her next project. During that time, she became concerned about the church neighborhood which was already beginning to decay. The majority of homes were owned by absentee landlords and occupied by families with only one parent. She knew we needed to find a way to reach out to the kids living there, many of whom had little supervision and often lived in an atmosphere of neglect, drugs, and sometimes abuse. 

One of our buildings--the McConaghy Youth Center--was occupied on Sunday mornings but she wondered whether it couldn’t be used the rest of the week as well. So, in 1970 she launched “Exploring Your World.” It began initially as a summer program but it proved SO successful that within two years it expanded to include a year-round pre-school and after-school program. Neighborhood children received instruction in various educational and social skills and were given the opportunity to explore the world around them through field trips to the library and the zoo. For almost forty years, “Exploring Your World” continued to serve the downtown Syracuse area, attracting an enrollment of about three hundred students a year. Before she died, the Presbyterian Women Association honored her as one of their “Women of the Year” for her decades of outstanding service at our denomination’s General Assembly. Reflecting on her years running it, Beulah said:

I was a young sixty-three when “Exploring Your World” began, and I continued working as its full-time director into my nineties. People are always asking me where I get my energy, and I just tell them it’s not my nature to keep still. I have to be busy. I also love kids. I think they’re nuts, but so am I. I know it’s an uphill battle to reach a kid whose home life is full of negative experiences. But every so often, we do get through to someone, and the joy of watching that one life bloom helps make up for the ones we can’t help. I have always been a positive person, and I never say something can’t be done. Instead I figure out how to make it work. This I attribute to my faith. It keeps me going and never lets me down.

Several years ago, Beulah was moved from Summerfield Village where she enjoyed a large group of friends to a different retirement complex some thirty miles south of Syracuse and which was closer to where her son lived. Although she wasn’t happy about moving, when she arrived at her new home, she immediately resolved “to make lemonade out of her lemons” as she told me. At the age of 93, SHE VOLUNTEERED TO SERVE AS THE MAIL LADY FOR THE WHOLE COMPLEX, a chore that allowed her to spend time visiting with all the residents there. She said, “David, can you believe there are people here who don’t receive any cards or letters, people who rarely have a visitor. I have an opportunity to bring a little cheer and comfort to them every day.”

Friends, when I am looking for resources that will help people navigate the “September of THEIR years” with faith and with hope, I first turn to the promises that come to us in the scriptures- a word from God that can be trusted. And of course, as we’ve learned this morning, one powerful example for us is our text- Psalm 71, written by one while still in exile. After God’s Word, I think of those individuals who have come to incarnate that word and promise in their OWN lives, people just like Beulah Travis. But I don’t stop there. I think of the older members of THIS and OTHER congregations I have served who week-in and week-out continue to give so much of their time and energy and resources. I think of you who volunteer to serve as Elders or Deacons, overseeing the various ministries and programs of the church and preparing for Communion each month; I think of you who assist with the monthly luncheons as well as the meals and receptions for funerals and special occasions such as we had this week following the funeral service for Sylvia Moran. I think of you who remain in contact with our home-bound members- phoning or visiting them, regularly sending cards and letters or worship bulletins to let them know we care, or it might be something as mundane as helping out with the office work when Lynn, our secretary, can’t be in. For me, YOU remain a living, breathing testament of how to faithfully and gracefully approach our later years!

And finally, with Christ as our friend to guide us and walk beside us, they don’t have to be NEARLY so fearful or threatening as we would imagine them to be. Day after day, he enables us to live confidently and courageously in the sure knowledge that we are loved with an everlasting love and that NOTHING will ever be able to separate us from either his presence or his love. If we know that he is for us, then WHO or even WHAT could possibly be against us REGARDLESS of what may await us just down the road. As we close, I’d like for you to now bow your head as I lead us in a special prayer about “growing old gracefully.” It’s called “The Commodore’s Prayer” and it first appeared in the The Baltimore Sun on December 16, 1962. Let us pray: 

Lord, You know better than we do that we are growing older and will someday be old. Keep us from the fatal habit of thinking we must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release us from craving to straighten out everybody's affairs. Make us thoughtful but not moody; helpful but not bossy. With our vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all; but you know, Lord, that we want a few friends at the end. Keep our minds free from the recital of endless details; give us wings to get to the point. Seal our lips on our aches and pains; they are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by. We dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing humility and a lessening cock-sureness when our memory seems to clash with the memories of others. Teach us the glorious lesson that occasionally we may be mistaken. Keep us reasonably sweet, for a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil. Give us the ability to see good things in unexpected places and talents in unexpected people; and give, O Lord, the grace to tell them so. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.