Red, gold and brown leaves flutter to the ground. This is my favourite season here in Australia. Although I could do without the brown leaves in my backyard, whose only redeeming feature is the satisfying ‘crunch’ they make when you walk on them.
落叶归根 – luo ye gui gen – falling leaves return to their roots. Taken literally, this Chinese proverbs describes the way that dead or dying leaves, fallen from a tree, break down and provide nutrients for the roots of the very same tree. Figuratively, it describes the way that elderly people sometimes want to go back to their homeland so that they can die there.
Homeland … where is my homeland? In China, most people could tell you the name of their 老家 – lao jia – ancestral home. Not so for most Australians. In one sense, I’m a tiny bit confused about where my roots are. But in another sense, I’m as clear as can be. As Christians, our home is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). “Absent from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) … what hope we have!
The 50+ checks
“I’m having the 50+ checks right now,” the lady on the exercise machine next to me at the gym-for-middle-aged-women said today. (That’s not the name of the gym, of course. It just describes it.) The rest of us looked puzzled. “Boobs and bowels,” she explained in blunt Aussie terms. It turns out that she is waiting anxiously for a phone call that she hopes never to receive. Her friend had received a telephone call after a routine mammogram and gone on to months of potentially life-saving treatment. My exercise buddy, however, is hoping for a simple email to say, “Thank you for coming to the breast-screening clinic recently. We are pleased to let you know that……”
I know what it is like to wait anxiously for phone calls you don’t want to receive. Even now, every time the phone displays ‘No caller ID’, my heart both plummets and pounds. That used to be the hospital calling to say, “We need another test,” or “The scans are not clear,” or “This is the next stage of your treatment plan.”
Whether it is now or later, the fact is that all of us will one day be like the leaves that fall from deciduous trees in autumn. The question is whether we fall in a blaze of colour and glory, or whether we shrivel up and drop off like the the crunchy bits of brown that litter my porch these days.
An Aged Gent
We rarely think of the ancient King David as an aged gentleman, but that he was at the end of his life. It was then that he put quill to parchment … or fingers to lyre strings … or dictated words to a scribe … or whatever they did back then, and left us with Psalm 71. This is a psalm which portrays someone going out in a blaze of colour.
That wasn’t to say that he was confident. He wasn’t. He was nervous. He was anxious. He didn’t try to pretend that everything was okay. But in the midst of it all, he consciously turned his focus to his Maker.
King David wasn’t nervous about calls from medical professionals. His concerns were more immediate. As his physical abilities decreased, he was afraid that his enemies would conspire to kill him. It might have even been his son, Absalom, whom he feared would try to ‘knock him off’.
Psalm 71 is one of those ‘bulls eye’ psalms, the ‘bulls eye structure’ more formally called a ‘chiasm’, where similar ideas form rings around a central focus. It is a form of poetry where the matching concepts and structure reflect or contrast one another throughout. Pull out a Bible, if you’re interested, and see what I mean. I will list just a few key words from each section below.
A summary of Psalm 71
Going out in a blaze of colour
King David went out in a blaze of colour. Thinking back to the analogy of autumn leaves, he was like a tree to which photographers flock. Not for him an ignominious end.
Of course, very few of us have the luxury of leaving the legacy of poetry and kingdom that David did. However, all of us can echo similar sentiments of trust in this same faithful God. All of us can pour out our hearts, laying before God our concerns in the autumn of life, and at the same time constantly coming back to a place of confidence in our Creator.
‘Go out in a blaze of colour’ is easy advice to give when I’m a 50+ middle-aged woman who has ‘passed’ round one of the 50+ tests. It’s easy advice to give when the chapter of dreaded ‘no caller ID’ phone calls is, God willing, behind me. But it’s not me giving the advice. It’s King David.
King David left us with a model prayer for those in the autumn of life. The sentiments are as relevant now as it was back then, though the specifics vary. I often admire autumn leaves these days. And I find myself reflecting on the recent passing of not just one but several godly people who each went out in a blaze of colour. ‘This was her favourite coffee shop,’ I think. ‘That chair is where that dear man always sat,’ I note. They exemplified Psalm 71 in the autumn of life in glorious colour.
Others I know are going through exceptionally tough times even now as they await heaven – difficulties right up there with rebel sons contriving to overthrow one’s kingdom. In their tough times, I see them living out Psalm 71 in the autumn of life. I honour the God they serve because of their example. They are going out in a blaze of colour.
God is faithful. We needn’t pretend that we have it all together, but at the same time, we mustn’t lose sight of the faithful God in whom we take refuge.
落叶归根 – falling leaves return to their roots. When the autumn of my life comes, may I, too, return to my Creator in a blaze of colour. And may that be true for each of us whose citizenship is in heaven.