Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Celebration of Life (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A mother writes:  “My five year old daughter Jennifer just loves her grandmother.  My mother likes to talk about God with my daughter.   For example she asked Jennifer: “Honey, who made the trees?" "Who made the sun?" "Who made you?”  “God did,” Jennifer answered.   They were having so much fun I decided to go for a walk and left my daughter with her grandmother.   When I returned, I asked how things went.  My mother said: “Fine.  I walked into the living room to find toys scattered everywhere.  I asked Jennifer, "Who made this mess?"  Looking at me with those big beautiful eyes, Jennifer said, "God did!"
Today we reflect upon the celebration of life.   I want to thank Pam Powell for helping us today to recognize the 22 members of PBPC who have reached the exceptional age of 90 or older.   They have been on life’s journey just a little longer than the rest of us.   But keep breathing, keep moving, we will be happy to recognize you when you reach ninety. 
The so called graying of America continues. The number of senior citizens in the United States is rapidly increasing.  The number of seniors grew from 3.1 million in 1900 to 33.2 million in 1994.  By the year 2030, one out of every five Americans will be a senior citizen.   Life expectancy in the United States in 1900 was about 47.  Today, the average lifespan for men is 75 and for women about 80.  By 2040 its projected that the life expectancy for men will be 86 and for women 91.
Life.  We value it.  We cherish it.  We celebrate it.  We try to extend it as long as possible.  Pharmaceutical companies are producing drugs to enhance longevity.  Some researchers claim that red wine has been found to lengthen the human lifespan.  Our lifespan is of course dependent upon a variety of factors like genetics, which we can’t do anything about to social and environmental factors, which we can do something about, such as having access to adequate health care, positive social relationships, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, exercising, getting an adequate amount of rest, eating a balanced diet, coping with stress, and having a positive outlook.  Studies also clearly point out the significant role that religious faith and prayer and worship play in our journey of life.
We gain wisdom about the celebration of life from modern psychology.  Erik Erickson, the noted 20th century American developmental psychologist constructed the classic theory of the Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development.  It ranges from the first stage of - birth to 18 months to the eighth stage of - maturity to death.    Each stage faces 4 tasks - a psychosocial conflict, a major question, a basic virtue and an important event.
In the eighth and final stage, which occurs during adulthood from age 65 through the end of life, the Psychosocial conflict is - Integrity versus despair, the Major question is - Did I live a meaningful life, the Basic virtue is - Wisdom and the Important event is Reflecting back on life.    
He writes:  “Older adults need to look back on life and come away with a sense of fulfillment.  Success at this stage leads to feelings of satisfaction and wisdom and the reassurance that they lived a meaningful life, while failure results in having many regrets and feelings of bitterness and despair over a life misspent and wasted.  Those who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. These individuals will attain wisdom, even when confronting death.”
Now let us turn to the scripture for some biblical insights about life’s journey?  What truths do we learn from the scriptures from a theological perspective?   The Bible declares that human life is a gift from God.  Human life is an expression of God’s grace.  We didn’t create ourselves.  Human beings are created by the design of another.  “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female God created them.   Your life is unique, inimitable, irreplaceable, incomparable, matchless; there is no one else in the universe exactly like you.  
The Bible portrays life as transitory.  We are mortal   Our lives have a beginning and an end.  Our lives are fleeting, swiftly passing by.  The days and years seem to fly by faster and faster.  Is that your experience as well?  Nancy and I can hardly believe that we are now grandparents.  We were married at such a young age.  The psalmist writes:  “O God, we are like a dream, like grass which grows up, that in the morning is fresh and flourishing, and in the evening fades and withers.” 
The Bible declares that suffering, pain, and disappointment are part of life’s journey.  Because of human sin and evil life is not always fair and not always just.  The scriptures look at life realistically.   Take Ecclesiastes for example.  “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.  What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?  A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  All things are wearisome, more than one can express, the eye is not satisfied with seeing or the ear filled with hearing.”  
The Bible declares that we were created for relationships and friendships, with God and one another.  The role of the family and the faith community is crucial along the journey.  We read inspiring stories about Ruth and Naomi, about Esther and Mordecai, about Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, about Jacob and Rachael.   The psalmists say: “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing God’s praise in the assembly of his faithful people.  Worship the Lord with gladness.  For the Lord takes pleasure in his people.”
Recall Jesus’ poignant words on the cross, just before his death, when he spoke to his mother Mary: “Woman, here is your son.”  Then Jesus said to a disciple: “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”  God didn’t intend your life or mine to be lived alone or in isolation from other people.
The Bible declares that life has seasons.  We need to be aware of them, to grow in them and learn from them, to be patient in them, to persevere in them, to maintain courage and a positive outlook in them, and to trust in God and God’s guidance in each of those seasons.  We consider for instance the years spent in school, seasons of joy and seasons of grief, the season of marriage, the season of pregnancy and birth, the season of parenthood, seasons of success and seasons of failure, seasons of moving to new communities, seasons of spiritual or health crises, seasons of becoming empty nesters and retirement. 
Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”  God establishes seasons or special times in our lives.  We need to seek to understand God’s timing, God’s lessons, God’s moment, God’s purposes and plans in the seasons of our lives.
The Bible declares that life is to be treasured.  Do you treasure life?  I love the sentiment expressed in Genesis 25:7: “This is the length of Abraham’s life, 175 years.  Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man, full of years, and was gathered to his people.”  There is a distinct note of completion and fulfillment in these words.
The Bible speaks of the importance of a positive and hopeful attitude.  “I Thessalonians says:  “Rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you.”    Life is to be lived in thankfulness and hope and gratitude for God’s grace and mercy.   It is to be lived with a sense of appreciation for one’s blessings and gifts.  Do you have an appreciation for life?
God wants to use us for His glory and purpose at all stages of life.  God is not finished with us when we grow older.   Yes, there is social security I am told and retirement in life, but there is no retirement in the Kingdom of God, or in other words, in God’s plans and purposes and will for our lives.
Regardless of our age, God calls us to be his hands and feet and voice and servants in this world.  Remember when the angels told Sarah, whom by the way we would have honored today that she would give birth to a son.  What was Sarah’s reaction?  Sarah laughed and said:  “Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old?”  God’s plans will not be denied.  Sarah was 90 and Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born. 
Yes, God has created us in His image in such a way that our creative energies still flow as we grow older:  Tennyson was 83 when he wrote “Crossing the Bar;” Verdi was 74 when he produced Othello; Lawrence Welk was 89, when he stopped leading the band; Lucille Ball was 77, when she concluded her brilliant comedic career; Jack LaLanne celebrated his 70th birthday by towing 70 boats across the Long Beach Harbor by holding a rope in his teeth, while handcuffed and wearing leg shackles.  That gives me something to shoot for when I turn 70.  Mother Teresa was in her mid- 80’s and still ministering to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta and sportscaster and Padre’s baseball announcer Dick Enberg is still going strong at 78. 
I think of people I’ve known over the years, like Bob, who started a prison ministry at 65, Katherine who was visiting Alzheimer’s patients in her eighties, Jan who in her nineties was writing letters to church visitors, and Virginia who in her nineties was active on the church prayer chain.  Such people are an inspiration.
Yes, we know that our heath plays a major part in our ability to get involved and use our talents as we age.  That is true.   But so does attitude, and so does faith, and our desire to serve God and please God and praise God and obey God. 
I think of older members of our congregation at PBPC who serve God effectively with dedication and enthusiasm and are active in Christ’s ministry in the church and community.  Each of us has been given gifts and talents that God calls us to use at different ages.   Volunteer opportunities in the church or in the community are endless.  No, God is not finished with us quite yet. 
God wants us to gain wisdom in this life.  An unexamined life is contrary to the will of God.   In psalm 90:12 we read: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”   The book of Proverbs says: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the awareness of the Holy is insight.”   Fear of the Lord in the Hebrew sense means having a sense of awe about God, deference for God, respect for God, and reverence for God.   Wisdom begins with acknowledging deep in our being that we belong to God and are to glorify God with every fiber of our being rather than our seeking self-glorification.  So the days and years spent and how you spend them count, they matter to God.  The late Norman Cousins wrote: “Death is not the greatest tragedy which can befall a person; rather, the tragedy is in what dies in a person, while he or she is alive.”   An examined life means striving to live wisely.    
As you celebrate life are you gaining wisdom?  I hope I am.  I truly hope so.  Knowing that our days are numbered should cause us to ask questions like: “What is God’s purpose for my life and am I fulfilling it?”  “What do I want to accomplish before I die?”  “Am I going to use my God given talents or let them lie dormant?”   “Am I going to serve and care for others or expect others to serve and care for me?”  “Am I going to be a generous?”  “How can I be a good brother or sister, nephew or niece, wife or husband, or father or mother, uncle or aunt, grandfather or grandmother, great-grand father or great-grandmother or friend or neighbor?”
 I close with the words from this poem by William Courtenay:  “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Let us truly celebrate life’s journey in light of the one who is our dwelling place in all generations, from everlasting to everlasting.   Amen!

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