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It would have to be a limp Christian who could hear or read this wondrous hymn without suffering at least a small shiver along the spine. Here is one of the high moments in the Hebrew Scriptures-a psalm that rises from the deep places of the poet's own soul and then moves out to embrace the people of God as a Father pities and embraces his children. From there, the psalm stretches out still further to consider all of humankind-our short days and fragile careers. Moving on, further and higher and wider, the psalm at its longest reach climaxes with a vision of the universal kingdom of the Lord-the Lord surrounded by hosts, by angels, by all his powerful servants:
Bless the LORD, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will.
Bless the LORD, all his works,
in all places of his dominion. (vv. 20-22, NRSV)
At last the psalmist settles back from searching the ways of God and humanity. Now quietly and with utter awe he ends as he began: "Bless the LORD, O my soul" (vs. 22, NRSV). It is a hymn of exquisite beauty and profound piety, exploring to its furthest reaches the greatness of God. Deep in its middle, we are given some thoughtful lines that often find their way into the readings at a funeral-and with good reason. The words are simple and haunting. They tell us what we know. The words tell us that human life is brief and that one day we shall be forgotten:
As for mortals, their days are
they flourish like a flower
of the field;
for the wind passes over it,
and it is gone,
and its place knows it no
more. (vv. 15-16, NRSV)
The career that begins in a nurse's arms and moves on through school and painful adolescence, on through the years of strength and usefulness, till we become childishly old and have to be carried again-that career seen from near its end can seem so short.
Any pastor who spends time among old Christians will receive, almost without exception, the same answer to his question about it. You ask an aged Christian woman a question about her life: "Did it go fast?" The question touches a sensitive place: "I cannot believe," says the woman, "that my life is nearly over. I remember perfectly what my third grade teacher said to me one day when I handed in my poster. I remember Christmases at home with my family as if they happened three Decembers ago. But now I'm old and little and nearly done."
Walter Burghardt wrote about this when he turned seventy. The decline begins at thirty, he says, but now it is transparent. It is undeniable. Joints ache, tissues dry up, ligaments heal slowly. Things like cabbage irritate one's innards. The flesh that gloried in its strength, that quickened in desire, is now wasting. Once a month, wrote Burghardt, the bell tolls for someone I know.
A Christian person advanced in years slows, turns, and looks back. It has all gone so fast! Now, already, the body that has been a moving temple of the Holy Spirit across the years can move no further. And one day, the Lord whom we seek suddenly comes to his temple and reaches for us.
"Our lives are like grass!" says the psalmist. A blade of grass sprouts and pushes its way up among the crowd of young blades. It stands tall with the rest of the crowd. Then, one day, a good sharp wind lays it low and it is gone. Like grass.
Or like a flower! Once, in this place, under these skies, among these trees, along these lakes and flats, human persons flourished. Persons with roots, growth, color, complexity, and a unique sort of beauty. But now, years later, nobody remembers them. Their place knows them no more.
People are born. They grow-some straight, some crooked, some wild. Generations of people. You do not have to be a romantic or a French existentialist pacing some smoke-filled room to wonder over the meaning of all this parading and passing of the generations. The wise men of the Old Testament already had their wonder about it. You know those places in Psalm 90 and Isaiah 40, in Job and Ecclesiastes, those matchless places where the theme recurs.
"A mortal, born of woman,
few of days and full of trouble,
comes up like a flower and withers,
flees like a shadow and does not last,"
says Job 14:1-2 (NRSV, emphasis mine). Or like a dream, says Psalm 90:5. O God, you sweep us away like a dream!
The Old Testament people of God knew what every thoughtful human being knows. They knew what we come to know. The years move past, taking from us certain treasures and opportunities and strengths and times of innocence. These things seemingly will not come again. And once past thirty or thirty-five-once the sense of transience awakens in us-those years seem to move faster and faster.
At times, it comes home to you. You try to play basketball with your teenaged sons and discover you have lost your quickness. All you have left to offer is bulk. Not unkindly, they say "Dad, you may be old, but you sure are slow."
You visit people you have not seen for a time and their children have grown beyond all recognition. You plan to attend the twenty-fifth reunion of your high school class, and cannot suppress the feeling that it is the midterm exam of the aging process. Life is half over and there is still so much to do.
Carl Jung's theory was that a person from birth until about thirty-five or forty is discovering the world and in some small way conquering it. Anything is still possible. But in middle age, there is some year, some point, some summer when you reach the horizon and see down the other side. You see down the other side and you know that you will die.
Of course, poets and philosophers have tried to say something about this fleetingness, and the pathos of it, and about the profound conflicts that the passage of time arouses in us. But every adult understands. We want our children to grow, but we ache when they do. We ourselves would like seniority without senility. Status without stiffness in the joints! Wisdom without wrinkles!
But it cannot be. So, what does one say about the passing of the years? What does it all mean? Where have all the flowers gone?
Consider two answers. One answer measures our lives and turns away in despair.
"Our lives flee like a shadow."
Or like an hour on a stage.
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: It is a tale told
by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
That is Macbeth. And that is hopeless.
The other answer begins the same way: "As for man, his days are like grass; the wind passes over it and it is gone. . . ." But then this second answer turns a corner in verses 15-18 (NRSV):
As for mortals, their days are like grass. . . .
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to
everlasting on those who fear him. . . ,
to those who keep his covenant. . . . "
A tale told by an idiot-signifying nothing. That is the hopeless, godless possibility. But then there is the other possibility. Life is the story of a people, a drama of a living, quivering, moving body of people; a body with many parts, in a drama with many parts to play-a drama into which each of us must be fit. This is a tale told by God and signifying everything of final importance in this life and in the life to come. It is the drama of the tragic fall of human children and of how a resourceful God has come among us to lift and to place on their feet people who had fallen. God has done this for no more final reason than his own chesed, his own lovingkindness.
The only meaning our lives have is a meaning conferred by this everlasting love of God. This is the love that has planted the generations, cultivated and delighted in us, worried over us and worked among us when we were laid low, and that one day comes for us, not as a grim reaper to cut us down but as a faithful husbandman who wants to transplant his trees to a place where their leaves shall never wither-a place, as Revelation says, where their leaves can be for "the healing of the nations." These are lives that gain whatever meaning they have in being treasured by God and then in being spent to increase the divine pleasure. Lives that actually bless God himself. "Bless the LORD, O my soul."
So many God-fearing folk before us have known this, as one can tell by visiting one of those wonderful old New England cemeteries where you find all the Yankee names and the whimsical epitaphs. Etched into the headstones you find sayings like this: "I told you I was sick." Or like this: "Here lies John Macdonald. My surgeon was Dr. Anthony Wendell."
In one of these graveyards are a couple of tombstones placed many years ago over the bodies of Christians who tried to live strongly out of the love of God and to please him who first loved them. In the granite of one tombstone is carved: "Hosea MacKinnister. He made grand the name of God." On another stone, this: "Murdo Hamilton lies here. In his life he blessed God."
Who were these people? Small farmers or grape growers or tradespeople? What were they like? What were their questions? What did they fear most? How were they surprised by joy?
Nobody knows now. Their place knows them no more. But Hosea MacKinnister made grand the name of God and Murdo Hamilton blessed God in his life. And now the Lord only knows who these men were-and who they are forever and ever. The love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him. God-fearing men and women-people who face God with mixed awe and love-God-fearing men and women come to see both things our text speaks of, both the brevity of human life and the everlastingness of God's love. And they see them linked together in a special way.
The brevity of human life! How quickly it goes! People we care about move away. The works of our hands become obsolete. Our treasures rust or rot. Family members die. The streets and home of our youth have changed. For many of us our youthfulness itself is gone. In fact, there is nothing in this earth that can finally satisfy our deepest longing because there is nothing in this earth that really stays. We ourselves are transient people.
As for mortals, their days are like the grass. . . ;
for the wind passes over it and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more. (vv. 15-16, NRSV)
The fact is that twenty-four hours a day, we are headed toward death. We shall be gone. For virtually all of us, there will be a time when nobody knows who we are or what we wanted or why we did anything. This is a fact to which we must turn, and from which we must learn. It raises questions. A high-powered job that destroys our faith or runs wild through our families, scattering children and terrifying everybody who loves us-what good is that job in the face of our death? Our restless attachment to toys and games-what good is that attachment, given our short careers and certain death? The stress and self-absorption and ambition that drive us-what is the point, given our status as pilgrims?
I think the brevity of our lives is a teacher, telling us in our regret of it, in our sorrow and longing over it, that we were made for something more-that we have something eternal in us. The fact is that we were made for God, and our seeking hearts are restless until they rest in him. The fact is that we are loved by God-so deeply, so searchingly, so securely, that we are held and treasured even when we have made an outstanding mess of our lives. The eternal thing in us is the lovingkindness of God.
The end of summer tells us that we are like the grass of the field-short, trembling in the wind and the rain, flattened by things we never saw coming. If that were all there were to say, then, like every secularist, we would clutch each other and whisper, "Tough luck" to those who had been laid low.
But there is more. Our days are as the grass of the field. Yes, but that grass glistens-and not just when we are young, innocent, and in love. That is the pagan notion of English romantic poets and the early movies of Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.
No, the only splendor in the grass we will ever know is the everlasting love of God who created us to stretch toward him. This is the one in whom we find a still point of rest as the shadows lengthen and the wind rises. This is the God whose Son has done terrible work among us, the Son who walked the way of sorrows with us, and who at last made death die. This is therefore the God toward whom we grow, who holds us through all the difficult years, who embraces us when we are battered and bent. This is the God who one day comes for harvest.
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone
and its place knows it no more. (vv. 15-16, NRSV)
Unless we are interrupted by the Second Coming, every one of us in this place shall die. We shall be gone.
But it is all right, because
the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting
to everlasting on those who fear him . . . ,
to those who keep his covenant." (vv. 17-18, NRSV)
Someday, nobody in these parts will know who you and I were or what we wanted or why you did anything. But God will know. From everlasting to everlasting, God will know.
For this deep splendor, and for all the tender mercies of God, we say: "Bless the LORD, O my soul. And all that is within me-bless his holy name."
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.