Eunice Jessie De Soto September 13, 1923 – August 27, 2022
September 4, 2022 “A Long Life Done So Soon”
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
v. 2 Psalm 90, as you may remember, is a psalm of Moses, indeed, the only psalm of Moses of the 150 in the biblical psalter. It is a psalm that beautifully and famously compares the grandeur, power, justice, and eternity of God with the sinfulness, frailty, and brevity of human life in this world. Its somber tone is a warning to us to take seriously the issues of life.
v.6 It has seemed obvious to most readers of the psalm that Moses had what he had written in Genesis in his mind as he wrote this psalm. That he refers to human beings as dust and as being returned to dust recalls both the creation of man from the dust of the ground and the curse of man for sin: “for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” But his point is to put man’s life in perspective: our life is the briefest moment in comparison to God’s endless years. And so we should live in the certainty of how soon our life must end.
v.7 One commentator wonders if Moses wrote this psalm near the end of his long 38 years in the wilderness, weary of the people of Israel’s fickleness and living with the sadness of knowing he would never set foot in the Promised Land.
v.8 “Secret sins” are the sins we hide even from ourselves; the sins we never recognize, acknowledge, or confess. These must be, after all, the greatest part of our sin: all the attitudes, thoughts, words, deeds, we so easily take for granted and hardly ever think about, and, perhaps especially, all the omissions, all the things we should have felt, thought and done that we never did. What might our life be; what might it have been if it had been fully consecrated to God. We hardly have any idea!
v.12 Human life is lived in a fallen world that sits under the judgment of God because of man’s sin. Death itself is the judgment of sin but so much else in human experience. The burdens of life in this world, the disappointments, the failures to realize the fullness of life; all of this is because God takes seriously the sinfulness of the human race and has visited upon it his judgment. But none of this registers; it does not change the way people think, unless and until God brings all of this home to our hearts and minds. Unless the painful reality is forced upon us. People, left to themselves, live for the moment; they hardly ever consider the looming end of life and what that means; hardly ever reckon with their situation before God. Alas, this is true too much of even Christians. Death comes to them as an intruder, not as something that has by our express purpose powerfully shaped the way we lived day by day; not as something we had thought about and expected and anticipated throughout the years. And so, as T.S. Eliot has it in one of his poems, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” How different it ought to be for those who know the Lord. Death should come as the end of a long journey that was never going anywhere else, as the destination for which we planned all those years. Moses included himself among those who must learn this lesson.
All of this gloom can confuse the Christian reader of this psalm. But it doesn’t confuse us when life goes dark, when friends or family disappoint us, when evil triumphs, when death comes knocking at the door.
v.17 From v. 13 to the end the faith expressed in v. 1, the faith that Yahweh is our Lord, our dwelling place, reasserts itself. The end of the psalm is a prayer that, recognizing our place, humbling ourselves as sinners before a merciful God, as mortal people who can trust the mercy of the Immortal One, we might find joy and fulfillment even in this dying world and that our life may come to mean something to ourselves, to many others, and to God.
I am a devoted reader of biography and autobiography. I have always loved history – it was my major in college – and, as more than one person has pointed out, all history is biography. Of course it is! History is the story of human life in the world and that story is itself made up of innumerable stories of the lives of individual human beings. Pick up any history and you will find it littered with names; the names of people who did this or that while they lived in this world. I have read hundreds of biographies through the years. Of course, a great many, no doubt most of them, were the stories of Christian lives: the great Christians of the church’s past. Among them, for example, are several biographies of Augustine, a number of Martin Luther and John Calvin. But also Teresa of Avila and Amy Carmichael, Alexander Whyte, Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, J.I. Packer, and Chuck Colson. Biographies of ministers, missionaries, and theologians galore: Scottish and English Puritans, American Presbyterians, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists! But not Christians only. Because every human life, made as it is in God’s image, in one way or another illustrates the truth of God concerning human life, everyone’s life has something to teach us. The 2nd century B.C. Roman playwright, Terence, who, by the way, died at 25 years of age, famously said, “I am a man and I consider nothing human alien to me.” Surely Christians should think the same! People should be uppermost in our thinking and our caring!
There are so many fascinating people. Fascinating for their God-given genius, for their accomplishments, or for their goodness. Or, contrarily, in the case of those who lived their lives in rebellion against God, for their evil, for the harm they did, for the misery they visited upon others.
I’ve read biographies of Julius Caesar, of Genghis Khan, of Napoleon, of Adolph Hitler, and of Winston Churchill. I’ve read lives of scientists, such as Einstein and mathematicians such as Paul Erdős, the Hungarian, and Ramanujan, the Indian; biographies of generals and admirals, of explorers, of inventors, of men who went to the moon, of a great many U.S presidents, of literary figures, and of scholars. I’m reading now the biographies of Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, and of John Marshall Harlan, the one and only great Supreme Court Justice of the second half of the 19th century, a committed Presbyterian, and a man of goodness and genius whose curse it was to sit on the Supreme Court for years with eight moral and intellectual mediocrities whose decisions – Harlan was often the sole dissenter to the Court’s opinions – created resentments we are still living with today. All these lives have something to teach us because they were, no matter what else may be said about them, the lives of divine image bearers, and so they illustrate in weal or woe the life of mankind as Holy Scripture teaches us that life. And they empower the biblical message by giving it in flesh and blood!
There are some great advantages to reading biography, the story of a particular human life. One is that it forces upon you a reckoning with the shortness of time. There is a beginning but there is, as well, an end. And when you read the story of a single life in a single narrative, you cannot help but notice that the life ended; whatever the person was and did, he or she died, and the world went on without him or without her. Another advantage is that helps you to see more clearly the connection between the beginning and the end of a person’s life. As we see in this psalm, there is a morning and there is an evening to anyone’s life, there are the typical seventy or eighty years; in other cases many fewer years, in some cases, as in Eunice’s, more. There may be, indeed, in the life of anyone who merits a biography, there will be, crises and turning points, great success and, perhaps, great failure. But the life itself is one, from beginning to end and much of what it became was the result of how it began. The morning and the evening are connected; together they shape the story. And then there is this advantage. The story of any life, if indeed it is well and truly told, will betray a lesson, a meaning, a significance. Perhaps many lessons, but always some lesson. True enough, the meaning of a person’s life is often lost, even on the biographer. I have read a number of biographies that are chock full of meaning, even though the biographer himself seems oblivious to it.
This evening I want you to think of Eunice’s biography; her life story if you will, but think of it with the 90th Psalm, as it were, being sung in the background; with Moses himself whispering to us, “See, did I not tell you it would be this way?” I have neither the knowledge nor the time to tell her story in detail, as a biographer might; someone who would interview all those who knew her; who would research the circumstances of her early life in the archives of her county, town, and school; who would visit the sites of her life, read what letters remain that she wrote or received, and so on. But with the help of Psalm 90, we can certainly find in Eunice’s story lessons for our own lives.
Here is the first. Eunice is one of those countless multitudes whose Christian faith began, if not already in the womb, as was the case with John the Baptist, very early in her life. So early, indeed, that she had no recollection of its beginning. Her story in this way is the same as mine and the same as that of many of you. She was what some have called a “cradle Christian.” Raised by faithful parents to know and love the Lord Jesus, to revere his Word, to obey his commandments, the Lord drew her to himself before she was old enough to know what was happening. As with vast multitudes of other believers she had no recollection of ever stepping out of darkness into light, as does someone who becomes a Christian in youth or adulthood. She grew up in the light. It could be said of her what Paul said of Timothy, her faith first lived in her parents and grandparents. It is all the more appropriate to apply those words to her, since Timothy’s mother was named Eunice! There was a very happy morning in Eunice’s life!
There was also, therefore, a happy sameness to Eunice’s life. She was an ardent Christian from her morning to her evening. The same commitment to the Lord Jesus and to his church and kingdom, the same love for the Lord’s people and house, the same love for the gospel of God’s grace, the same interest in the salvation of souls, animated her life as an old woman as it did when she was a girl. Hers was a Christian life from beginning to end.
Here is a second lesson. Her sturdy faith was, as it must be in every Christian life, of vast importance because, as Holy Scripture tells us will inevitably be the case and as we read here in this great psalm, the life of a Christian in this world will often be difficult and sad. There will the testing of our faith as well as its triumphs. This dear woman had her share of sorrows and trials. She became a teenager during the Great Depression, difficult times for farming communities in Minnesota, an experience that those who know her will tell you marked her life. Take another look at the picture on the cover of your bulletin. Only a woman who came through the Great Depression would decorate the bridal arch with toilet paper! It was what she had! Her dear husband came home from the war, in some ways, a different man than he was when they married, just a few weeks before he went to war. He remained a faithful Christian, to be sure, and a loyal husband, but the trauma of combat, particularly severe combat in Harry’s case, had its effect on him, as it had on multitudes of men. Life was not for her as it might have been had there been no war.
And, of course, Eunice suffered the loss of loved ones as those invariably must who live to old age. And, as every believer, she had her share of disappointments of various kinds. I know of some, but surely there were others. But, on the other hand, it would be difficult to find a woman of sunnier disposition than Eunice De Soto. Her Christian faith, her confidence that God was her dwelling place, imparted an almost impervious optimism to her. I’m sure that she was depressed from time to time, but I rarely saw any evidence of it. What I saw continually was a cheerfulness and a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work hopefulness and expectation.
She was, I think, in this way very much a Psalm 90 woman. She experienced the darkness of life as we all must who live in a world that stands under God’s judgment. There was the sigh and the wrath of God as in v. 9, the secret sins of v. 8, the toil and trouble of v. 10, as there will be in every Christian life. But rising above it all was that clear faith that expects the Lord “to make us glad for as many days as [he has] afflicted us.” And there was much that was good and happy in her life.
And there is this lesson. Moses expects believers to be workers! The Lord’s favor is going to be found supremely in this: that the Lord will establish the work of our hands! If Eunice were anything, she was a worker. She was always up and doing and if not up and doing she was thinking about what next had to be done. Like the virtuous woman of Prov 31, she was up early and to bed late. She was still employed when I came to Tacoma in 1978; she was still busy at work; she was also busy at home and busy at church, but, somehow, she found time to potty-train the Rayburn children! And what work she did! The Lord established the work of her hands to the profit of untold numbers of human lives, Christians and unbelievers alike.
Now, in all of this, Eunice was hardly unique. There have been and will be vast multitudes of Christian women whose lives were like Eunice’s in these ways, in the ways that our Christian faith imparts to human experience and human character. All Christian biographies are the same even as they differ so much in detail from one to the other. There are people among us this evening whose story will be much as Eunice’s story was and is. She is not someone that the world will remember. She is also like us in that. When we are gone some small number of people will shed tears; there will be some who will care to share recollections of their time with us, and some who will regret that we are gone. But the world will move on, those who knew and loved us will themselves leave the world, and in a very short time there will be hardly anyone who remembers that we ever lived. Hardly anyone, except the one who matters the most, the one who gave us life and new life in his Son, and the one with whom our souls will live so happily as we await the resurrection of our bodies on the Great Day.
What we find in Psalm 90 is a reflection on time, the time of our lives, the time between our morning and our evening. What we find, in other words, is a philosophy of life. It shows us life as it must be, with all the bark on, but also life as it can be and should be through faith in God and Christ. And the great summons of the psalm is that, if we are wise at all, we will reflect on our time, its brevity, and its once-for-all opportunity. Time in a fallen world, yes; but time that for a child of God is the one and only opportunity we will ever have to live by faith and to love and serve God in the way that matters most, which is to say in the way that is most difficult. Life in heaven will not be life such as it was here. That world is perfect and when we are there, we will be too! The person, man or woman, boy or girl, who takes Psalm 90 to heart, will find its most famous words ringing in his or her soul, not once but time and again.
“Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
God has given you a wonderful power; the power of your imagination. It enables you to see things that you otherwise could not see. Open the eyes of your imagination. See your life from beginning to end. What do you see? Look beyond to heaven and hell and to the Last Judgment? What sort of life will you want to have lived when eternity stretches before you?
In the Autobiography of Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher of the 19th century, perhaps the most influential preacher in the history of the English-speaking world, I found this fascinating anecdote. A married couple, tourists, together with their guide, were crossing one of the great glaciers in the Swiss Alps, when the husband slipped and fell into one of the huge crevasses. He was roped to the others, but the rope broke, and the depth of the crevasse was so great that not only could he not be rescued, his body could not be recovered. Think of that woman’s life from that point onward. Talk about life as a sigh!
Forty years later she was at the foot of that same glacier with the very guide who had accompanied her and her husband on that hike that ended in such tragedy. She had been staying for some weeks at a hotel near the foot of the glacier because calculations had been done and she had been told that the ice that held her husband’s body was nearing the front of the glacier. She watched and waited and, at last, her hopes were rewarded. His body was released from the ice and his wife saw again the man she loved and lost. But the pathos of the story lies in the fact that she was then an old woman while the body at her feet was that of a young man. The ice had preserved him as he had been. The years had not left the same mark on him that it had on her.
Now, take that sad story and apply it to yourselves. See yourself as you were years ago, or, for those of you who are young, see yourself as you will be years from now. After all, that is your life; it is everyone’s life. You were young once and now you are old; or you are young now, but soon will be old. See your life as a whole, from morning to evening. What it is like? What will be its story when others tell that story? What will they say about you? What sorrows will there have been; and what satisfactions? What work of yours, if any, will the Lord have established?
It is an almost universal experience in human life and often commented on by those whose biographies I have read. The body ages but the ego does not. I’m 72 years of age. I am reminded of that fact every time I look in the mirror. But my ego, my inner self, is the same as ever. It seems no older than it was 20 years ago, or thirty, or forty. I hope I am a wiser man than I was when much younger, but I don’t have a powerful sense in my soul that I am an old man. I am an older man; but not on the inside as on the outside. My soul has indeed accumulated experiences; but I seem in many ways to be the same as I ever was. I suspect it was the same for Moses. After all, we are told in the Bible, that he was vigorous into his old age, indeed able to climb a mountain the day of his death. His mind, his heart were as full of life as ever they had been. He could remember his life years before in Egypt and in Midian as if it were yesterday; and see himself then as he was now, on the Plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. It is a God-given power to see such things and then to reckon with what we see! Psalm 90 is given to us that we might see our lives as they actually are; not as, too often, we imagine them to be.
As a Christian, now recollecting my life, I cannot help but mourn all that I have failed to do and to become, all the good work I should have done and never did, all the good effect I might have had on others if only I had used my time more wisely. My life is drawing to its close and I have done so little. That too, I have learned, is a common regret among serious Christians. Biography after biography has shown me a godly man wishing he had done so much more with his life than he did. If only we had fully realized how precious our time actually is, how quickly it will end, and what satisfactions God will grant us if we devote our time to him. How he will establish our work if only we seek that blessing from him every day. I’m sure Eunice had similar thoughts, hard a worker as she had been, and as faithful in prayer as she was. But, much as, alas, still more might have been done that was not done, how much was done, and one well, in her life. And what then of us? How much might be done, should be done, can be done in your life and in what remains of mine. That is the summons of Psalm 90, and you will think no more important thoughts if you think your way carefully through this psalm!
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