That Which Abides

I said, O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations. Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands. They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end. The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee. (Psalm 102:24-28)

Eternal God, we are set midst bewildering and frightening changes. Longing for a sense of permanence, we are transient creatures, and the scenes we know today vanish so surely and quickly from our gaze. We need thee as our fixed and abiding center of faith. Help us to remember that thou dost not change, nor is there any variableness in thy judgment and in thy mercy. Set over the days of our years the awareness that on thee we can depend for the vindication of every just cause and the forgiveness of every sin which we, in godly sorrow, bring before thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A man is musing upon the swift changes of life and upon its impending end. As he reflects, he is reminded that the scenes of life appear and then, like the cool dew before the rising sun, disappear. Perhaps his mind wanders back to childhood, to familiar scenes, the village or town or countryside where he spent his earliest years. They’re gone. Memory of those scenes is made sweeter by the widening chasm of the years. Or maybe his thought focuses for a moment on those dear faces and strong characters who sat around the hearth when he was a boy or walked past the house where he played. The elders of the neighborhood who, it seemed then, would always be close by, with their firm expressions, their strong arms and rough hands which could become so tender in comforting childhood heartbreak. Alas, they are gone, he realizes as he shakes his head.

In this frame of mind, a man sets down this living song, realizing that change and time are working their steady erosion and unending decay. Scenes and friends of other days are all passed away, and he himself is marching toward a grave. Maybe as he looks up, he says, “The good earth and large blue sky will remain as fixed points in a constantly changing scene.” But then the writer realizes that the earth, which has borne countless generations, is under sentence of decay and death, and the broad, blue blanket of the sky has its rendezvous with change. The heavens shall perish. “They shall wax old like a garment,” he says. As a piece of clothing, they shall be put off when worn and threadbare, and he himself, the thinker, was on his way to becoming a corpse. He who mourned at many a grave would soon be the mourned for. Where he had followed funeral processions, others would follow his. Thus, from his pained and saddened heart, there leapt a prayer, quivering in its urgency, trembling in its poignancy: “O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days.” Midst all this fluidity, in the very presence of all this change, there was a fixed point, one who would outlast the burning suns and outlive the stainless snows. God is eternal! “Thou art the same,” he cried, “and thy years shall have no end,” so states Psalm 102. Here in this hope, the psalmist takes his stand.

There are times when we are sharply reminded of the swift shift of life’s scenes and circumstances. We meet an old and treasured friend after years of not seeing each other, and an almost painful tug is at the heart upon noting the changes the years have wrought in the countenance of that friend. A fragrance, a sentence in a book, or a picture suddenly reminds us of the dear, dead days that come not back again, and we know again a kind of sweet sorrow in our memories. We are under sentence at the same time to continue moving. There is here no abidingness in the things that are physical. Childhood’s gay skip soon becomes maturity’s dull trudge. The middle years pass so rapidly into the evening season, when so much of living is a memory of days that were and are no more. All the while, around us there is the increasing number of empty places where once sat those we knew and loved. We think of them and pause a moment with the wistfulness of Tennyson when he wrote, “Oh, for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still.”

Then again, we lament when we read these memorable words from the wise old book: “All flesh is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth.” We need midst the flux and change abiding-ness. The men who go to sea have little that is fixed. You can stand on the deck of an oceangoing ship and you will see water, water all around, as a familiar piece of poetry has it. All the heaving, foaming waves look the same. There is no way in watching the ocean to gauge distance, since there is no fixed point in the never-resting sea by which to measure movement. The skies overhead offer no landmark, save one. The seaman sets his course by the North Star, for midst all the ceaseless, changing turbulence of earth and sky, the North Star remains fixed, and thus he charts his course.

Amidst this restless, rolling, raging sea we call life, is there a North Star, a fixed point in the creation, a constant in the presence of change, an abidingness where all else is decay? Yes, there is one, only one, the psalmist would say. God is here! We must sail life’s voyage by his position or become derelicts on the face of a heaving sea. God is the same. He shall endure. “His years have no end,” wrote the man. His judgment hangs over our years. Have you ever thought what it would be like to have a God deciding our faith who is subject to change in his view of right and wrong? Deep within us, there pulsates a desire to do right, to be right. I do not believe that any mentally and spiritually healthy person desires to do wrong. There is no pleasure in our transgressions, really. We are in quest of peace and satisfaction, and if our choice of goals is sometimes dreadfully wrong, it is not because we will to be evil. We desire the right. Suppose for a moment that the God who is the umpire of our deeds was shifting and changing in his standards of goodness and evil. What an impossible scramble life would be! Where there are no standing rules, no abiding principles that stand no matter what happens, those who live under such misrule are frustrated, and those who deal with such meaninglessness are rendered helpless and bewildered.

Our American leaders in international relations used to say that one of the key problems in dealing with certain lands was that it had become a cardinal point of a sort of diplomacy to make words mean what the rulers wanted them to mean at any given time. Our moral sense need not be outraged in our dealing with God because while human fads may shift and change, God’s laws remain the same. The Ten Commandments are as basic to God’s law as they were that fateful day when Moses stood in the trembling, smoking mountain and took dictation from God’s own prompting. Mr. Lincoln recognized this when, amidst the smoke and roar of the Civil War, he wrote, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondmen’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with a sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous all together.” God’s judgments abide. God still frowns on deceit and trickery as much as he did the day that Jacob was driven from home by his plot against Esau. God still despises envy as much as he did when he turned his back on Saul or, rather, Saul turned his back on God. He despises our adulteries as much as he did when David let Bathsheba’s beauty lead him to stain his honor. Yes, people may change what they call right and wrong, but God’s truth abides.

Jesus underscores this when he says, “For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law until all is accomplished.” He makes the scroll of the skies and the rolling hills and level plains the surety, the bond for the abidingness of God’s word. God remains the same in the spur he puts on our spirits. We desire to be at ease spiritually as well as physically. We want to stop striving, to quit trying. But God is in our lives, reminding us that we have not yet reached our goal. We have here no abiding city. We are pilgrims and strangers. We are not the saints we ought to be. But every time we bend our knees, and every time we sing the songs of faith, and every time we think about God, a stab of sorrow crosses our hearts. As the lovely hymn has it, “Lord, I long to be perfectly whole.” This yearning toward something which we do not quite envision ourselves results in a constantly recurring pain and prodding. We sense, if only by dim surmise, our imperfections. This desire for fulfillment inspires the finest literature and noblest art. It is the universal instinct of people, as if once they occupied some Eden which they have lost and once knew a stature which belongs to them no more. A Negro spiritual put this universal longing of humankind into a plaintive assertion: “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” God is the same in meeting this need. As another psalm says, “Thy mercy is from everlasting to everlasting.”

We are strange creatures, setting our hopes and dreams against the apparent facts, or so it seems. We must die, and yet the instinct to live is deep within us. We would protect our loved ones, and yet we are so utterly helpless when they must face physical pain and spiritual torment. Our faith is, at its summit, in the confidence that God abides to give meaning and merit to our days, and because he lives, we shall live also. Here and hereafter, God abideth, our shelter midst the stormy blast and our eternal home. Then every day, let us live in that faith until the evening comes and the busy world is hushed and our work is done. We’ll then still forge ahead and leave the rest to God.

Gardner Taylor

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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