When I was a pastor here, I thought about Verna’s funeral many times. I think there was a day when Verna’s presence was so prominent in our church that if she had died in those days, this room would have had hundreds of people in it. But the longer we live, the longer we outlive those who know us.
I’m sure that’s true for me and you as well as Verna. After a certain point, with every passing year, fewer and fewer people will be coming to our funeral.
And when I stepped down from being a pastor here, I thought, “Well, maybe I won’t be serving at Verna’s funeral after all. Then came the phone call from Keith, and I jumped at the chance to do it.
A Companion in Prayer
You may wonder why. For the 33 years that I served here, excepting the staff, no one crossed my path in this church more than Verna. She was a moving fixture. Well, she wasn’t always moving. She was often in a corner somewhere, quite still, hunched over her Bible. But it was more personal than that.
I’ve done some computing, and I think I can say this without exaggeration. In the last 36 years of my life there is no one — not staff or family — with whom I have spent more hours praying than Verna Erickson. This is because for many years we had about five thirty-minute prayer meetings each week: Tuesday and Friday morning, Wednesday evening, Saturday before service, and Sunday before services. I was at all of them. Verna was at most of them. The hours we accumulated in prayer together were untold. As predictable and as awkward as some of those prayers might have been, a peculiar kind of bond develops — the kind of bond that makes a pastor want to serve at the funeral of this very special person.
There are other reasons why I am honored to be part of this funeral. One is that Verna loved my family. She adored Noël. No one has ever spoken more highly of my wife than Verna. And she knew all my children by name and asked about them, even after long intervals in the nursing home when she had not seen them for years.
And one more thing. Lots of people who did not know Verna well would feel perturbed at the way she showed up at every church meal, wedding meal, funeral meal, and how she helped herself to the milk in the kitchen. But those people probably didn’t know what I knew. More than once, Verna handed me her entire pay check endorsed to the church. I can’t say if she actually thought this, but my guess is that she said to herself, “I give my money to the church. And then I eat here.” I was just fine with that. As long as she took care of herself or at least let us help her take care of herself. So you can see there are a number of reasons why this is a precious privilege to me.
What I would like to do is give a few observations and exhortations from Psalm 71. It’s not a psalm about death. It’s about getting old and approaching death.
My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all the day. Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. (Psalm 71:8–9)
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. (Psalm 71:17–18)
I know I could have spoken about the spectacular biblical truths that Verna
is more alive right now than we are.
She has no more pain or discomfort.
She is not at a loss for how to speak or carry herself in ordinary social gatherings.
She has completely ceased to sin.
Her attitude and her words and her deeds will henceforth be perfect.
And best of all, she no longer sees through a glass dimly, but face to face with the Jesus she spoke of so fondly in her prayers, and whose word she meditated on day and night.
We could linger over all the good things that are true of Verna right now and forever. And that would be good. It would be wonderful.
Strength for Aging and Dying
But it seemed to me that it might be good mainly to encourage and exhort and strengthen you for the challenges of aging and dying. Every one of you will have to endure it unless you die suddenly and early.
At the beginning of life and for the first few decades a person needs great energy to be a success. Youth is made for the young. The demands in sports, and the early demands of marriage and parenting and homemaking call for enormous energy.
At the other end of life, when we are not bringing people into the world, but preparing to leave, energy is not the key to success. The day will come when you can’t even get out of bed. And at that moment you can be a success. The key to getting old and dying well is God’s word and God’s grace. And oh, how full of the word Verna was. And how much grace we saw in her life.
Seven Resolutions for Aging and Dying
So I would like to take the wisdom and grace of Psalm 71 — the prayer of an aging man — and give it to you in seven very brief exhortations. And since I am one of these old men now, instead of saying you, I am going to say us. And instead of saying, You do, I’m going to say, Let’s do. And in the process, I think we will be greatly encouraged about Verna and the path we must follow behind her.
We could call these seven resolutions from God’s word and God’s grace for aging and getting ready to meet Jesus. Each of them is based on Psalm 71.
1. Let’s resolve to take refuge in God rather than taking offense at our troubles.
In you, O Lord, do I take refuge. (Psalm 71:1)
We have a refuge from every storm and every enemy. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
When we forget that we are safe in God, we start to take offense at our troubles. I don’t want to get old complaining. If Verna had a complaining side to her — and we all do — she’s done with that. She will never complain again. Oh, for that day!
2. Let’s resolve to remember with wonder and thanks the thousands of times we have leaned on God since our youth.
For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth, upon you I have leaned from before my birth. (Psalm 71:5–6)
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. (Psalm 71:17)
God’s grace is like a river that flows out of the future of God’s promises every day of our lives and spills over the waterfall of the present moment of fulfillment and gathers in an ever-growing reservoir of past grace.
And as we look back we should be filled with thankfulness. And as we look forward that thankfulness should turn in mighty hope.
3. Let’s resolve to speak to God more and more about all his greatness, until there is no room left in our mouths for murmuring.
My praise is continually of you. (Psalm 71:6)
I will praise you yet more and more. (Psalm 71:14)
The longer we live, the more we should praise. Isn’t that amazing? We are so prone to think of our waning powers and be discouraged. But for God’s children the day is getting brighter and brighter.
Verna is in ecstasy right now. If we could only keep this before us, we would praise him more and more. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
4. Let’s resolve to be people of rugged, undefeatable hope and not give in to despair, even in the nursing home, and even if we outlive all our friends.
I will hope continually. (Psalm 71:14)
This will be a great battle. It was for Verna. It will be for us. We will get to the point where we feel useless and too weak to do any good. And the temptation to despair will be huge.
But this old man said, “I will hope continually.” And Peter said, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
Jesus commanded us: Always pray and do not lose heart (see Luke 18:1).
And Paul knew exactly what the danger of aging is:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
5. Let’s resolve to go out of our way to find people to tell about God’s wonderful acts of salvation that never run out because they are innumerable.
My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge. (Psalm 71:15)
I proclaim your might to another generation. (Psalm 71:18)
Nothing is more energizing than speaking of God’s wonders to someone else.
6. Let’s resolve to remember that there are great things about God above my imagination, and soon enough, like Verna, we will know these too.
Your power and your righteousness reach the high heavens. (Psalm 71:18–19)
There will always be things that are over our heads. We are not God. So let’s let God be God and wait patiently for the day when we will know even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
7. Finally, let’s resolve to resist all stuffy stereotypes of old people, and play and sing and shout with joy whether we look dignified or not.
This old man said,
I will also praise you with the harp
for your faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing praises to you with the lyre,
O Holy One of Israel.
My lips will shout for joy,
when I sing praises to you. (Psalm 71:22–23)
There won’t be any phoniness in heaven. There will only be complete authenticity. We will discover what childlikeness was really meant to be.
Finally and Forever Free
Won’t it be wonderful to meet Verna, who will be beautiful, in her prime and so emotionally complete and authentic that she will look you in the eye and with great mature, thoughtful, joyful sincerity thank you for how much patience you showed her?
We will be free. For freedom Christ has set you free. Let’s do this. Don’t lose heart.
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:9–10)