"O Lord...be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go."
- Psalm 71:1-2
John Kauffmann was a devout Pennsylvania Mennonite and writer, who for many years shared his work and class time with those of us who attended the St. David's Christian Writer's Conference on the campus of Eastern College each June.
Already in his 80s by the time we met, John was the granddaddy of the group. However, I'm not sure who inspired us more: the elderly gentleman or his daughter Martha, also a writer, who cared for him at home and accompanied him each year to St. David's.
Was the elder Kauffmann still productive? By all means, yes. For years John turned his love for singing into writing his own hymns - one for each Sunday of the year. By the time he died at the age of 98 he had composed more than 800 hymns. The year we shared a session on hymn writing, I felt humbled as well as inspired when he sang one of his creations for the rest of the class.
But I remember John Kauffmann most for something else. Each year on his birthday he would read the Psalm that corresponded with his age, and consider that part of the Bible his own personal Scripture for the year. Since he lived almost a century, he was nearly two-thirds of the way through the Bible's 150 Psalms by the time he died.
As I approach another birthday, I wonder: Could I do that, personalize the corresponding Psalm each time I have another birthday? Or, considering the Psalms were written as long as 3,000 years ago by a variety of people whose circumstances were decidedly different from mine, is it irrational to assume their thoughts as my own? I turned to the thoughts of others for help.
• "The Psalms express the whole range of human experience from dark depression to exuberant joy. They are rooted in particular circumstances, yet they are timeless ... We (moderns) are stirred by the same emotions, puzzled by the same problems, as the psalmists of old" (Eerdmans' Handbook to the Bible).
• "The Bible has been thought of as God speaking to people. But in the Psalms, people speak to God" (Kenneth C. Davis, Don't Know Much About the Bible).
Davis, the contemporary "scholar" on my bookshelf, also reminds me that the Psalms are poetry, or better still, hymns written to be sung. In fact, in his off-hand style he calls them, "God's Greatest Hits!"
OK, time to turn to Psalm 71 and see what thoughts that Psalmist and I have in common. (I almost gave up my experiment when three different Bible commentators called this one, "A Psalm of old age," although I could hardly argue with the obvious.)
As usual, the language and symbolism of this combination music and poetry appealed to the writer and musician in me, and were simply lovely to read. A half dozen times the words "rock" or "refuge" are attributed to the writer's God; twice he speaks of playing a musical instrument in praise to his rock solid God.
Another writer summarizes the Psalm this way: "Trouble has schooled the psalmist in trust; nothing can make him despair. As long as God is with him, the future is full of hope."
Troubles, I've had a few, too. At times I might have filled my "psalm" with more negative memories than with the good things I've also experienced. The upbeat psalmist who looks back on a life already lived with gratitude while facing an unknown future with hope, is a comparison I can't truthfully say I've always made.
But if I read this Psalm daily or, better still, make it my daily companion, perhaps the thoughts of the upbeat, hopeful psalmist - and the attitude of my hymn-writing, Psalm-reading mentor - will also become my own.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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