Rites of Passage – Turning 50

The traditional church rites of passage deal with birth, marriage and death. However, there are other events in life which deserve marking too – not least special anniversaries and birthdays. Recently I was asked to conduct a service for one of our African members turning 50. The service didn’t take place in church – but rather in the local Shire Hall, where the family had put on a party to mark the special occasion. What is more, the party began with the service. I confess that I found myself challenged by this open display of Christian faith. I love parties – but I have never begun a party with a service. Our African brothers and sisters shame us in the natural way in which they link faith with festivity.

The outline of the service was devised by the family: viz. an opening prayer, two hymns of praise (‘O Lord my God when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hand hath made’ and To God be the glory’), a responsive reading of Psalm 121 followed by a thanksgiving message, the cutting of the cake, a toast to the ‘celebrant’ (me!), a vote of thanks, and a closing prayer.

So how did I handle the service? I felt we needed a brief build-up to the opening prayer, so after a brief introduction I read from Psalm 139 (I could not think of any other passage in the Bible which deals with birthdays), and then came the opening prayer! I began proceedings in this way:-

The American poet Robert Frost once said: “A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman’s birthday, but never remembers her age”. That may be true – but there are exceptions to this generalisation. Today is one of those days. For today we come to celebrate Teju’s 50th birthday!

As we celebrate her birthday, let us remember the one who made her. For as the Psalmist declares in Psalm 139:

Lord, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb. I thank you, High God – you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvellously made… Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you. The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day” (Psalm 139.13-16 as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in the Message)

So let us pray:

O God our Father, the giver of life and the author of all that is good, we thank you for creating Teju – moulding her and forming her not just within her mother’s womb but down through the years making her the woman she is – a woman with a zest for life, with love for family and friends alike. Thank you Lord that in good times and in tough times you were there for her. Thank you Lord for all that you have enabled her to do and to be. Thank you Lord for your grace displayed to her and to us – and above all that you for your grace displayed to us all in Jesus.

You will note that the prayer concluded with a reference to God’s grace, which in turn formed the natural bridge to two hymns celebrating God’s grace for us all displayed in Jesus.

Psalm 121 was a great choice for a significant birthday, for it is ‘the traveller’s psalm’. Initially sung by pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem, the Psalm can easily be applied to the journey of life and to the challenges which we may encounter along that journey. As I said in my sermon: “The prospect of the journey ahead can be quite frightening. Who knows what might happen to us or to our loved ones?”

I went on to say that from the Psalm we learn three things:

  1. Our help comes from the Lord. Some people have argued that religion is a crutch, only for the weak and the neurotic, as if the strong can do without God! But that is a nonsense. Just as it would be stupid to try to climb Mount Everest without a rope & a ice-axe & all the other paraphernalia of climbing, so it is stupid to try live life without God’s help. God is not just for the weak – he is there for us all. Indeed the truth is that in our own strength all of us are weak – all of us need him if we are to rise to life’s challenges.
  2. God acts as our bodyguard. He, the ‘great insomniac’ is there on hand to help. He doesn’t just guard from a distance – waiting to receive a 999 telephone call. His protection is more immediate and personal. He stands near at all times – ready to reach out his arm & steady us when we slip.
  3. God helps when it really counts. The fact that we are Christians doesn’t ensure that we will be spared all pain and sorrow. However, when trouble comes, God can protect us from the evils that suffering all too easily brings – evils such as bitterness, cynicism and despair. Yes God will be there to give the help that really counts. He was there 50 years ago when Teju set off on life’s journey – and he will be there at the end of life’s journey, and in all the years between

At this point I inserted a prayer of blessing (author unknown) for Teju as indeed for everybody:

May our living heavenly Father guide and keep you in his care.
May the blessings of his Holy Spirit all be yours to share.
May God’s wisdom be the light that leads your footsteps every day,
And his presence be your companion as you walk along life’s way

And so we moved on to the cake, the toast, and a brief closing prayer, before the party proper began.

What a wonderful way to mark a special birthday!

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