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Psalm 71:1-8

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me; turn your ear to me and save me. Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. 

Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of those who are evil and cruel.

For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb. I will ever praise you. I have become a sign to many; you are my strong refuge.

My mouth is filled with your praise, declaring your splendor all day long.

My maternal grandfather died in 2009 when I was 25-years-old. When I look back on the journey of my life, God has placed countless significant people at important junctures who have shaped me into the man I am today. Two people rise to the top of that list in my memory. My grandfather, Harold Kampen, is one of them.

He was a man of devout faith and integrity. Apparently, he could be stubborn, but I only ever perceived that as strong convictions. In the year 2000, when my grandma died of a heart attack while my grandpa was in hospital recovering from a stroke, it was grandpa – only just recovered – who was a rock for our faith in that difficult time. I remember him, in the funeral home before the visitation, saying, “I’ve seen dead bodies, more than I wish…” (He survived WWII as a teenager and went on to serve in the Dutch military, stationed in Indonesia during the colonization – a time he didn’t ever discuss with detail.) “But I’ve never had to touch one.” And he reached out and put his hand on my grandma’s, crying. He looked over at us, withdrawing his hand, and said, “Don’t do that. It’s not her. It doesn’t feel right.” But then he held us and prayed with us; he trusted in God and in the grace of his Savior – both for my grandma, and for all of us left behind to journey on.

Over the years that followed, especially as I went off to university and then seminary, we would talk theology and Bible, he would ask hard questions and I would push back with my own. Eventually, the strokes returned and dementia started taking my grandpa away from us. I remember his frail body in a hospice bed, holding on to tennis balls because that prevented his hands from seizing up and being unable to open again. I remember drool needing to be wiped away from the corner of his mouth – I remember thinking I was being robbed of my grandpa and was left with only a shell of the man I knew and loved.

But there is a story, told by my mom and her sister, about those last days. He was unable to communicate anything meaningful; my mom would sing hymns and he seemed to calm – but more was hard to tell. And yet, at one point in the midst of this, with clarity and a conviction we hadn’t heard for some time, my grandpa said, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.” A powerful and beautiful quote from Job 19:25.

Even in the midst of the end, even when dementia regularly robs people of the capacity for faith, even as his body was failing, he proclaimed the gospel of the resurrection and the hope Jesus provides in death.

Even when it seemed impossible to do so, he finished well.

Psalm 71 is a prayer for a senior saint to finish well. We don’t know the author, but it seems clear it is someone looking back on a life of faith and struggle in God, praying that God, who has been a refuge, rock, and fortress, would help them “when I am old” (vs. 9). References throughout of “since my youth” (vs. 5, 17), or “from birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb” (vs. 6), and “do not forsake me when my strength is gone” (vs. 9), and “Even when I am old and gray…” (vs. 16) give us a picture of someone coming in the final third of life asking God to help them be strong and an example to those who will follow.

As a pastor, I have walked with families through the valley of the shadow of death a number of times. I have been at bedsides while people breathed their last and I have helped families leave bodies in the grave as they walk away – leaving a piece of their hearts forever in that place. And while it is rarely in our power to give, I have learned that one of the best things you can give a surviving family member as someone is dying is a good death.  A death faced in the strength and hope of our faith. A death entered into through the truth that “I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ;” this truth really is our only comfort.

And not just at the end which is death; but at the little ends which precede it: whether retirement or stepping back from public leadership; whether slowing down working hours or picking up more volunteer hours; the final third of life, and the final moments of life, are a place to experience and proclaim the goodness of God. And as members of faith communities and Christian families, senior members living well in the hope and strength of our faith; senior members intentionally discipling new leaders and encouraging young people; senior leaders humbly, and often quietly, serving the community is vital to the community's well-being and growth.

Notice the words of the Psalmist in his prayer, “I have become a sign to many…” (vs. 7) People are watching. People are looking. And if you are a senior member of the Christian community, you are an encouragement to the rest of us by your faith and your faithful living. Sometimes it can be tempting to say, “I have served my time. It is time for the community to serve me.” Sometimes it can be tempting to expect the church community to wait on you as a reward and thankyou for a lifetime of service. 

And to be sure, we are grateful; and we must be better at communicating that gratefulness. And yet, there is no retirement from Christian service; there is no rest from the call to disciple believers.

In the 19th century, Anglican preacher Charles Simeon retired after 44 years of ministry. Afterwards a friend discovered that he still got up at 4AM to pray and study scripture. His friend suggested he could take it easier now that he was retired. Simeon replied, “Shall I not now run with all my might when the winning post is in sight?”[1]

At my grandpa’s funeral visitation, before we closed the casket, I put my hand on his – and he was right, it didn’t feel right – but I whispered, prayerfully, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Your journey has ended; let us take up the journey.” Because the Lord was his refuge, rock, and fortress, he finished well – and we are all blessed for it.

Lord God, my refuge and my strength, help me to finish well. Help me to show others who you are as I trust in you. In life and in death you are my hope and comfort. From my youth to my old age, be near to me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

[1] Story told in Keller, Songs of Jesus, 161.