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Psalm 71

A sermon

by Walter B. Shurden

Delivered at the Keenagers Banquet

First Baptist Church, Macon, GA

29 April 2005


            Can you tell me why your  children and then your grandchildren preferred to hear your growing-up stories at bedtime rather than "their" book stories?  Childish eyes sparkled as I told our kids  my growing up stories about my first spanking at school; about the time Jody George and I went to "fist city" on top of the first grade tables and all because each of us was certain that Ann McGaugh loved one and not the other; and about the time I followed my fourteen month older brother to his first day of school and stood with my nose through the fence crying my four year heart empty.

            Why did Sherry and Paula and Walt prefer those stories?  And why now do Emily and Audrey and Ben and Sam and Langley have tastes for the same?

            I think it was because those tales "cut their grandfather down to size."  These bedtime slices of autobiography make us appear real and vulnerable, which is to say "human."  Big people are none of those things to little people. 

            Kids want to hear stories about the people they love.  And they prefer stories that reek with reality, stories filled with failure as well as triumph, with courage as well as defeat, stories with a dab of meanness as well as a pinch of goodness.

            Such stories tell the little ones that they are not alone with their feelings and tears and anger and selfishness and achievements.

            But with all these growing-up stories, have you ever wondered why there are not also some "growing-down stories?"00  Why don't we tell what it feels like to grow-down in the later stages of life as well as grow-up during the early stages of life? 

            Some "young people," who are in our thirties and forties and fifties and sixties, might  like to know what it really feels like to start down the mountain as well as climb up the mountain.  There are thousands of growing-up stories, but very few growing-down stories. 

            At 68 and with each passing year and the dropping of a bit more sand, I find myself often wondering in the night about the ingredients of good, healthy, creative aging. Why not some stories that will help us grow down well?           

            What would those growing-down stories include?  From what I have read and observed and heard, they would be very much like growing-up stories.

            They would be rich and challenging.

                        They would be sad and sorrowful.

                                    They would be joyous and exciting.

                                                They would contain some anger and anxiety.

                                                            They would be humorous and hopeful.

                                                                        In a word, they would be human stories.

            And like the growing-up tales, I'll bet we would never forget them.  My guess is that three words would dominate growing-down stories.  These are the words INDEPENDENCE, DEPENDENCE, and INTERDEPENDENCE.


            Joseph Califano, Jr. was once the secretary of the once Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The last time I heard  he was a national spokesman for something called "Project Independence for Older Americans." 

            I don't know what the Project does, but I like the sound of it. The very name of the organization--Project Independence for Older Americans–ought to bring the elderly of this country to their feet with cheers! 

            To grow old is not to automatically lose control of one's life, is it?

            To equate aging with inadequacy and a lack of competence is simply another "ism" in our society. It is  an ism as pre-judging and dis-torting as racism and sexism.  A prerequisite to human dignity is the right to think and act for oneself.  There is, after all, such a thing as "the priesthood of the elderly." 

            Psalm 71 is a lament from an older person.  One of the slurs hurled at this one who is growing-down is that he is helpless.  "God has forsaken him...there is none to deliver him." 

            And right here, my friends, is the language of profanity: "senile old man," "helpless old lady." 

            Senile old man!  Try that language on Pope John XXIII!  At seventy-seven years of age he became the pope of the Roman Catholic Church, and in five years he revolutionized not only the Catholic Church but the whole of Christendom. 

                        Senile old man! Try that language on Claude Pepper.  This elderly congressman from Florida took America by its shoulders a few years ago and shook it to its senses about the elderly. 

                                    Helpless old lady!  Hang that phrase around the neck of Sister Teresa as she prepared in the early morning hours to hunt out the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta.  These are people who not only took care of themselves; they took care of a good portion of their world!  By word and life and deed they practiced the priesthood of the elderly!

                        INDEPENDENCE is a central word in growing-down stories.


            Dependence is not a four letter word; it is a human word.  It is not a psychological deficiency; it is a spiritual reality. 

            I stuck my nose through that fence and cried for my brother Bob for a very simple reason: I needed him!  And I still do at age sixty-eight,  and I will still need him at eighty-eight. No soldier soldiers alone. A rifle is necessary, but a buddy is every bit as important.

            I had a friend once by the name of Grady Nutt who died in an airplane crash. He was a creative guy. One of the things he loved to do was to  create new words.  He once took the words "together" and "therapy" and came up with one new word: "togetherapy." Isn’t that what the Keenagers Meeting is once a month? Togetherapy!!                     

            And Psalm 71, this old psalm from this older person, speaks of our need of others, of our need for dependence.  "Upon thee have I leaned from birth," cried the psalmist.

            Of course, this voice in Psalm 71 is the voice of a Jew.  And in Judaism, to lean upon Yahweh was to lean upon the people of Yahweh. Communion with God always meant community with the people.  Rabbi Harold Kushner in his great book on Judaism said that Judaism is not about believing but about belonging. It is not about a creed; it is about a community. Dependence on God meant someone was leaning on God's people.  It is not irreverent but right in light of biblical theology to say that God is not enough by God’s self.  God's everlasting arms find expression in our arms!

             Where there is no community, there is no life.  All of life is dependent on other life.

            And so are the elderly.  While the independence of the elderly must be rigorously defended, the elderly, and the young as well, will have to come clean about our dependency

                        It is not a sign of failure or of worthlessness to have to say, "I can no longer work at this job, it has gotten too big for me." 

                        It is not the end of life to make the honest confession, "I can no longer take care of this house.  It is too much for me." 

                        And while it may be a sad day, it is not the final day when I throw my keys on the table and say, "I cannot drive any longer; I've driven others all my life; now I must be driven." 

     The danger is that we shall make a cult out of either independency or dependency. Health and wholeness is not found in either extreme.  The attempt at  radical independence for the elderly and for all of us is clearly a dead-end street. It simply is not the way God made us; it is not the shape of reality. 

            But neither is a paralyzing dependency the mark of the fulfilled and fulfilling life.  Somehow the elderly, and all of us who are growing older, must find a better way.  And the better way is that of INTERDEPENDENCE.


            Henri Nouwen tells a legend that comes from the island state of Bali where in a remote mountain village old men used to be sacrificed and eaten.  A day came when there was not a single old man left, and with the disappearance of the elderly, the traditions were lost.  Soon the people wanted to build a great house for the meetings of the assembly.  However, when they came to look at the tree trunks that had been cut for that purpose no one could tell the top from the bottom.  If the timbers were set the wrong way, it would set off a series of disasters in the proposed building.  A young man came forward and said if they promised never to sacrifice another old man, he would show them a solution.  They promised.  And he brought forth his grandfather whom he had hidden; and the old man taught the community to tell the top from the bottom!0

            Years really do give perspective, don’t they?  Vision, for all the dimness of fading eyesight, is often clearer in the growing down part of life than in the growing up years. Telling what is really important in life seems to come easier with the passing of the years, doesn’t it?

            And another thing I have learned is that older folks need no protection from the tragic truth of life.  They have bumped sin and tragedy long before the rest of us came along.  My experience says that of all the people on earth, Grandparents and great-grandparents are the hardest in the world to surprise! 

            No stereotype is further off base than the one which pictures the elderly  as fragile, without understanding, inflexible and unforgiving.  Older people  have known for years what it is to be hurt by those who are dearest and nearest in life. Not only so, but they, too, have been petty and petulant and have deliberately and intentionally hurt even the people they love.  They have had to forgive before and they have had to be forgiven before.  Keenagers  are exceedingly hard to surprise about life!!                   

            Little wonder that this older person who put experience to words in the seventy-first psalm cried out: "So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I proclaim thy might to all the generations to come."  The elderly can help the rest of us tell the top from the bottom!      

            What we need to hear from your growing-down stories is how to tell the top from the bottom of life.  But we need something else.  We also need to hear you say you need others.  We need you to tell us how to love you best in these years in which you have so much to give.

            "We are all connected!" aren’t we?  The word is INTERDEPENDENCE.

            Morton Kelsey stood before the largest living creature in the world, a giant Redwood tree which had celebrated three thousand five hundred birthdays!  Like you would be, Kelsey was awe-struck. 

            Nearly three hundred feet high and a hundred feet around, it was thirty feet in diameter.  But here is the most amazing fact: IT IS STILL GROWING!  Each year it adds five hundred more board feet to its girth.  Mused Kelsey, "What zest for life this tree has!" 0

            Twenty years from now, God willing, I'll be eighty-eight years old.  My grandchildren, who for reasons I need not explain call me "Wibis," will be 38, 37, 34, 33, and 20 years old.  I honestly hope that I will be the kind of person that they can walk away from and say, "What zest for life ole Wibis has." 

            And then I want to say to them, "Sit down, Emily and Audrey and Ben and Sam and Langley, and let me tell you a growing-down story. Let me tell you a growing-down story

                        about the time I . . . recognized my priesthood . . . and celebrated my independence, 

                                    about the time I . . . realized that no soldier soldiers alone . . . and I accepted ny dependency on your parents and you, 

                                                about the time I . . . celebrated the fact that we are all connected . . . and I embraced our interedependency. 

            I hope those five young people will remember those stories of INDEPENDENCE, DEPENDENCE and INTERDEPENDENCE for fifty years more.  I hope they will live those stories. And then in the year 2075 I hope they tell those stories to their grandchildren.






 1. As cited in Kathleen Fischer, Winter Grace (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 116.

2. Henri J. M. Nouwen and Walter Gaffney, Aging: The Fulfillment of Life (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1976) 23

3. Morton Kelsey, Reaching (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989) 12.