“Teach us to number our days that we might apply our hearts unto wisdom.” – Psalm 90: 12
Most of us think the second half of life is largely about getting old, dealing with ill health and letting go of life; but the opposite is far more true. What looks like “falling down” can actually be experienced as “falling upward,” as Richard Rohr observes. Our failure can mean gain rather than loss. For only those who fall flat in life are able to understand the meaning of ‘up.’
In the first half of life, we are naturally and rightly preoccupied with establishing our identity—climbing, achieving, and performing. But those concerns will not serve us as we grow older and embark on a further journey that involves challenges, mistakes and loss of control. In this stage, we may enter upon broader horizons and deeper suffering that takes us beyond all our previous comfort zones.
It is a profound paradigm, and perhaps the most resisted and counter-intuitive message of Christianity: “the way up is down.” It’s one of life’s great mysteries that even failings can be foundations for spiritual growth. The heartbreaks, disappointments and first loves of life’s first half can be stepping-stones to the spiritual joys God has in store for us in the second half.
I’ll soon be retiring from my official role with Canadian Baptists. ‘Retirement’ is a definite, inescapable marker and milestone, like autumn naturally following upon the earlier seasons of spring and summer. Gone are the previous questions: What will I be when I grow up? What trade will I pursue? Where will I go to college? Whom will I marry? Where best to settle? As I seek to ‘count my days aright’ in the autumn of life, I’ve found it helpful to frame retirement in the following dimensions:
Retirement is a time of harvest. It’s a time to enjoy the fruit of one’s labours, to look on children with pride, hold grandchildren with joy, and lavish them all with ongoing loving direction and prayer.
Retirement is a time for reflection. I am drawn to be still before the Lord as retirement nears—like pulling over at an ONRoute rest stop on Highway 401—for the journey is long and it helps to pause and reflect. When I was growing up, there was a sign on my neighbour’s wall: “Only one life ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” It didn’t impact me much then, but now the words “soon be past” give more focused meaning. Where have all my moments gone? And were they, mainly, mostly, at all about Christ?
Retirement is a time for re-direction. The fruit of reflection is often redirection. Have I been on track? Am I on track now, or at least near the pathway intended for me? Am I in the Way of Jesus or just in the way, following another purpose? What is there left for me that I have to do before this life’s journey is complete?
Retirement is a time for reality. If I’m still around in 25 years, I’ll be 90! Colours fade, leaves fall, and the grey-white barrenness of winter is inevitable. As I’m weaned from earth (as I’ve prayed to the Spirit of God in the old hymn countless times), other levels of sickness, suffering and loss will unfold. So I walk forward soberly, knowing that great ends and losses (identity, health, friendships, this physical life itself) are yet to come. I do not want to be preoccupied or consumed by inevitable sorrows, but they will surely come.
Lastly, retirement is a time of beauty. It’s a unique time to appreciate the complexity of fall colours, to bask in the bounty, wonder and mystery of God’s creation and to still feel the passion and enormous privilege of life on this planet in the present.
If I were to reduce the span of my life to two words, I’d choose gathering and scattering. A farmer’s son, this earthy metaphor is part of my very being. I now live far from the wide fields of my early years, but gathering remains essential to my life. I’m continually collecting experiences, pictures, movies, articles, words, and conversations, with an almost insatiable curiosity. I do so in a ‘research mode’ with endless tangents and non-linear conclusions that may unsettle some, but I find it an inescapable part of my wiring.
But gathering is not enough; I must also scatter. With much raw data gathered into mind and heart, and with my file-cabinets, computer drives and iCloud almost filled, I cannot but find ways to get it out. One way: I have 20 different blogs to update regularly. Otherwise, if there’s a message in my bones, I still must preach it, write it, dance it, Nikon-it, You-Tube-video it, or sometimes just laugh and joke it out.
My wife says I preach like a Monet painting: rapid-fire strokes, splatters and colourful dots—a juxtaposition of biblical scenes, metaphors and personal stories. Stick with me long enough and a picture will emerge. Not everyone does and, truthfully, I don’t always get myself. I couldn’t teach what I do or how I’ve done it at a seminary. My mode of discovery has often been more by instinct and hunch than by rigorous research. But the discoveries I’ve made are also sometimes born out of prayer, and I know myself to have been oft-times directed, thwarted, preserved, challenged, even spanked by God’s Spirit.
I have so much to share, and so do you: sharing who and what we are and who we’re on the way to becoming. I believe it to be vitally important to our mental and emotional health that we keep giving it away: scattering and sharing. For we are here each and every day, merely (!) because God says so—no more; no less. Each day we’re given something to do, someone to love. We are God’s channels, like small lengths of pipe through which flow God’s ways and God’s work in this world. We are “step-down transformers” through which the Power of the universe—boundless love, grace, redemption, hope, and healing—can enliven people in desperate situations and needs. As priests, all believers bridge others to God and God to others in word and deed. So much to share!
But if you ain’t got it, you can’t share it. If you’ve not assimilated the divine you can’t give it away. If you have, you won’t be able to stop. Like Daniel, filled with a consuming message like fire in his bones, you can’t contain nor constrain it even if you would. Such evangelism is the passionate overflow of what God is doing in our life. We don’t have to take a course to learn how to convey it, nor will we be able to stop.
Am I in the right place, doing the right things, full to overflowing as I seek to answer God’s call upon my life? I want to continue paying attention—to life, to God’s Story and to the particular and unique story God is writing through me. I want to gather more of it up, as I ponder the past and enjoy the present; and I want as best I can to share it, letting the Spirit and my resonance with God’s Word to be fleshed out through my life.
I recall that the French word for wounded is ‘blesse.’ Again with Rohr’s and the Scriptures’ insight: there can be no blessing without suffering, no healing without hurt and no wisdom without wounds. It’s part of the journey; perhaps now is the best time to embrace it.
I also want to try to pay more attention to those with whom God wills for me to spend life, receiving others not as accidentals or intrusions but as God-appointments, for me and for the other.
Will you join me in giving yourself daily to God, in seeking to grow in wisdom and in further faith and reverence towards God and his good purposes? I have so much to share. But God has so much more to share with us.