The Best Birthday Ever
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The Best Birthday Ever
The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
St. Paul’s 40th Birthday. And some of you here in 1998 were here in 1958. Things are different now, of course. Churches change and neighborhoods change and even whole societies change. We know that WE change as we get older. I remember the days when it seemed that Christmas or a birthday would NEVER get here; and now I think, “Is it here again ALREADY?” You too? LOTS of things change with age. Not long ago, someone noted some of the more obvious adjustments.(1) It was entitled, “YOU’RE NOT A KID ANYMORE WHEN…:”
* Your back goes out more than you do.
* You quit trying to hold your stomach in, no matter who walks into the room.
* Your arms are almost too short to read the newspaper.
* You sing along with the elevator music.
* You are proud of your lawn mower.
* People call at 9 p.m. and ask “Did I wake you?”
* You have a dream about prunes.
* You enjoy hearing about other people’s operations.
* Your best friend is dating someone half his age and isn’t breaking any laws.
* You can live without sex but not without glasses.
* You answer a question with, “Because I said so!”
Enough already. Will Willimon, the Dean of the Chapel over at Duke, says, “I took Gingko capsules for a time last year, after my 50th birthday. Gingko is alleged to help retard memory loss due to aging. I stopped when I realized I had forgotten to take the capsules for nearly a week.”(2)
A few years ago, when I turned 50, my mother called to say Happy Birthday. I asked her how it felt to be the mother of a 50-year-old. She said, “Shut up.”
Three sweet old ladies are sitting in a diner, chatting about various things. One lady says, “You know, I’m getting really forgetful. This morning, I was standing at the top of the stairs, and I couldn’t remember whether I had just come up or was about to go down.”
The second lady says, “You think that’s bad? The other day, I was sitting on the edge of my bed, and I couldn’t remember whether I was going to bed or had just awakened!”
The third lady smiles smugly. “Well, my memory’s just as good as it’s always been, knock on wood.” She raps the table. With a startled look on her face, she asks, “Who’s there?”(3)
Our lesson from the Psalmist this morning is focused on the passing of the years, familiar to us because it is so often heard at funerals. Listen again to some of the phrasing: “all generations… everlasting to everlasting… a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night [three hours].” There is the reminder of the transitory nature of human life: “[humanity is] like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers…our days pass away…our years come to an end like a sigh.” Then those famous words in the sweeping poetry of the King James Version in which so many of us were nurtured, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
A bit depressing? Perhaps. But not necessarily. Psalm 90 really should be the theme song of AARP. This is a hymn for grown-ups. Yes, it takes seriously the passing of the years as any mature person does. It takes seriously the fleeting nature of human life – and the older we get, the more likely we are to read the obituaries every day (and wonder how it is that people always seem to die in alphabetical order). We may not be able to add more years to our life, but we surely can add more life to our years…IF we go about the process with some smarts. The Psalmist’s prayer is, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Wisdom, Lord. Give us wisdom, so that we might make the most of these fleeting years!
Age should not be a hindrance to anything. As most of you know, some years ago, I served as pastor of a Presbyterian church in south Florida. Because of it’s unique character as a retirement destination, that part of the country has come to be known as God’s Waiting Room. Our next-door neighbor was the United Methodist District Superintendent, and he told us that, in one of his congregations, in one year, the minister did 270 funerals; that is about five per week. They say he did the same funeral for everyone, just changed the names. An additional frustration of ministry in that area of the nation is the percentage of folks who come into the church with no willingness at all to do anything. The attitude was, “I did all this back in my church in Cleveland; let some of the younger ones do it now.” Meanwhile, they WERE the younger ones in the congregation. Folks here at St. Paul complain that we are getting older and grayer as a church, but sitting in the balcony there and looking over the congregation was like seeing January in Vermont!
So saying, there WERE a good number of folks who were willing and anxious to be active. They served on boards and committees, they taught Sunday School, they sang in the choir. At our Wednesday evening “Kirk Night” programs, we had a half-dozen folks in their mid-90’s there every week like clockwork.
One of the highlights of my career was officiating at the wedding of a man who was 96 and his bride who was 83. Each had been widowed some years before, both were living in an apartment complex that was owned by the Presbyterian Church. They had begun to keep company, things progressed, and word had it that they wanted to formalize their relationship.
The phone rang in my office on a Monday morning. “This is Raese.” He was a short little fellow, spoke with a raspy voice and always referred to himself by the last name: “This is Raese.”
“Hi Curtis, I bet I know why you’re calling. When do you want to do this thing?”
“O, this week.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “At a certain point in life, long engagements don’t make sense, do they?” Come to think of it, at 96, most folks would not even buy green bananas! I continued, “How many folks do you anticipate will be coming?”
“Now, Curtis, you can’t do that! You would expect your friends to come to your funeral; why not let them come to something they WANT to come to?”
“O, all right.”
“Let’s decide. When should we do this?”
“How about Wednesday night before Kirk Night. That will save us a trip.”
“Fine. I will be over this afternoon to go over the details with you.” I went over, sat down with Curtis and Mary, and deadpanned, “The first thing I need to find out is do you have your parents’ permission?” They looked at one another for a brief moment, then they looked at me and chuckled.
Meanwhile, word had gone out through the congregation that Curtis and Mary were getting married. Over and over we heard the refrain, “Curtis is getting married? There’s still hope for me!”
The big night arrived. Curtis and Mary got to the church, were ushered into a parlor, and finally called to the Narthex for the big event. The large double doors swung open, Curtis and Mary stood at the head of the long center aisle. Both looked back and forth surveying the scene in front of them. The church had been decorated as if this were the biggest society wedding of south Florida’s season. Beautiful flowers. Candles up and down the aisles. Magnificent music. And on top of that, some 270 friends in attendance. Curtis later told me, “When I saw all that, I almost backed out.”
The service proceeded as per normal. At the conclusion, we all adjourned to the Fellowship Hall for our regular meal. We had set up a special table for the newlyweds – china and candles rather than the normal paper plates. It was the only wedding reception in my experience to have a missionary speaker.
Two weeks later, I ambled back to the Fellowship Hall prior to our Wednesday evening meal. Curtis and Mary were there all alone, 45 minutes early, as was their custom. I went over to them and cheerfully said, “Hi folks, how is everything?”
Curtis slowly looked up at me and asked dryly, “Do you handle divorces too?”
“Now, Curtis, you hush. What is the problem?” It seems that now that the two of them were married, they had to combine the contents of their two small apartments. They were deciding what to keep, what to give away, what to throw away, and they were driving each other nuts! Fortunately, they worked out their passing difficulties and settled into a delightful relationship.
Lord, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
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We have had forty years together at St. Paul. I guess that qualifies us as middle aged. As we mentioned earlier, some have noted that this congregation is lots “grayer” now than back in those early days. Of course we are. Thank goodness. We LIVE longer now than back then. But that is no excuse to slow down. Check with Curtis.
How will we WISELY approach the NEXT forty years (or however many years God gives us together)? You remember Robert Fulghum’s best seller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?(4) When it comes to choosing our emphases as a congregation in years to come, we could paraphrase that and say, “All I really need to know I learned in Sunday School.”(5) Wisdom would encourage us to recommit ourselves to the basics.
For example, we learned…and we should teach…that “God is great and God is good.” God is big and strong and mighty and there is nothing our God cannot do. God made this world. God made the animals and the birds. God made you and me. This world is God’s and everything in it, and even when it is not so obvious as we might wish, one day, in God’s own good time, “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” Can we share that word?
We learned “Jesus Loves Me, this I know, For the Bible tells me so.” We memorized, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” We learned that Jesus is living and dying proof of God’s love for you and me and the whole wide world. Can we share that word?
We learned, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world.” We who lived through the sixties remember the Civil Rights struggles. We remember the sit-ins. We remember the assassinations. We remember the race riots and the tear gas. But if we ever gave thought to that song we sang, we knew that things had to change. Things are better now, but they are not where they should be. Can we share that word?
We learned “The B I B L E, yes, that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the word of God, the B I B L E.” What is God’s will for my life, my family, my nation, my world? For answers, there are many good books in the world, but there are none like THE good book. Can we share that word?
We learned, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” We believe that we have a mission in this world. We were taught, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”(6) The gospel is good news – it deserves to be shouted from the housetops, printed on balloons, slapped on billboards, chanted at ballgames, posted in cyberspace, scrawled across the sky. Can WE do it? Can we share that word?
St. Paul is just one week shy of our 40th birthday. As we said at the beginning of this, we are different now – the neighborhood is different, the church is different, society is different. We no longer enjoy the “Field of Dreams” luxury of “If you build it, they will come.” A recommitment to the basics of the faith is surely appropriate. And if we want to grow numerically in the process, we will remember that 80% of all church members BECOME church members because someone invited them. That will mean a recommitment to the enthusiasm of youth that DID share the word and encouraged friends and family to come to this wonderful church you discovered.
What will the coming years hold? In many ways, it is up to us. Lord, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” The good news I bring to you this morning is if you WANT it, you’ve GOT it. Scripture promises. James 1:5 – “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” What do you want for your birthday, St. Paul? A wise heart? Hallelujah! Then this birthday will be the best birthday ever.
Let us pray.
O God, we are grateful for the years you have given us in this place. We are grateful for the faithful people who have served diligently through the life of this congregation. Now we look forward to what the coming years have in store. Help us to continue to be faithful to the end that Jesus Christ may be glorified in all we say and do. We make our prayer in his holy and precious name. Amen!
1. Dale Hunt, via PresbyNet, “Jokes,” #5355, 12/26/97
2. William H. Willimon, “Autumn on Campus,” The Christian Century, 12/3/97, p. 1116
3. Dale Hunt, via PresbyNet, “Jokes,” #5305, 12/14/97
4. New York: Villard Books, 1989
5. See Presbyterian Survey, 9/90, pp. 22-24
6. Matthew 5:16
Copyright 1998, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.