Loving later life

In March 2014 I retired – or at least I retired from stipendiary ministry. Fifteen months later I thought I would engage in a spot of ‘self-appraisal’ and came up with the following statement:

I am still in the process of making the transition into retirement. When, if at all, that transition will be complete I have no idea. If I am to believe Nathan and Beth Davis, the transition is never complete: ‘It is a never-ending process partnering with God to refocus yourself, constantly discovering avenues in which God can use you, and constantly learning new, deeper ways to facilitate communion with God and others’ (Finishing Well: Retirement Skills for Ministers, Springfield Missouri, 3rd edition 2008).

To my amazement I do not hanker to be back in the pastorate. That era is over. Instead I rejoice in the new freedoms which are mine. In a way that was never true before, I am now a free agent – and what a difference that makes! Freedom, however, does not do away with discipline. Most days I am in my library, reading and writing. Along with the writing of four electronic books on ministry, with my grandchildren in mind I have written my autobiography, This is my Story. Along with the daily discipline of reading Scripture and praying, there is also the weekly discipline of writing a blog.

As very much a sociable being, I found the transition from no longer being at the centre of church life challenging. Thank God friendships with many have been retained, while at the same time there are new friendships to make. Perhaps not surprisingly, after a long ministry my former church has struggled to find a minister to succeed me and as a result I have been worshipping at Chelmsford Cathedral where I have appreciated not only the Anglican liturgy with its focus on the Eucharist, but also the opportunity to be part of another Christian fellowship. Since leaving Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, I have also been instrumental in bringing together retired Baptist ministers in Essex for occasional lunches, which again has created new friendships.

There have been new opportunities for service. In addition to teaching an intensive MA module in ministry in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and Australia, I have been involved in a new Cathedral project entitled ‘Breakfast with the Bible’. Then there is my chairmanship of Ministry Today and the College of Baptist Ministers. Beyond the confines of the church I have been able to be more involved in Rotary, and will soon be the President of my local breakfast club; even as I write our local MP has invited me to be an agent in the General Election count. I confess that I enjoy these new opportunities for service in the wider community.

I recently came across these words of Sir Francis Bacon: ‘A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds’. I thank God for the new opportunities which have been mine. So far I have thrived in retirement, and so have been blessed with the experience of ‘successful retirement’, which according to Nathan and Beth Davis ‘occurs when an individual is able to thrive physically, vocationally, socially and spiritually in retirement’.

Imagine, then, my sense of shock when I read Loving Later Life: An Ethics of Aging (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan 2015) by Dutch theologian Frits de Lange. The author argues that “the models of successful, productive, healthy and active aging have a strong anti-aging tendency, and in support quotes an article from the Journal of Aging Studies by Chris Gilleard:

Achieving at an advanced age the accomplishments of youth is little short of achieving the appearance of youth. The goals of government and gerontology are not to venerate old age because of its agedness, the way we might venerate an old wine or an old building, nor do they seek to make old age successful by the number of years achieved. Successful old age is old age without old age.

I thereupon felt somewhat deflated, as if I had no right to seek a ‘successful retirement’! To be fair de Lange’s concern is not with the ‘Third Age’ but with the ‘Fourth Age’, which he describes as “a shadow land of diminishment and the portal to death, the results of our inability to eliminate the impairments at the end of life and to push the vital and healthy Third Age until the very moment of death”. He goes on: “Opposed to the healthy ‘wellderly’, found mostly among the youngest old, are the ‘illderly’…, usually the oldest old. The Fourth Age is the ‘densification’ of old age and represents the abhorrent reality of real and deep old age”. To cope with the Fourth Age, he says, we need to develop “the ethics of love”, which in the first place involves loving our aging selves and only then loving the aged. It is a challenging book – as indicated not least by the final two sentences: “It is essential that we develop compassion for speechless old people, those who feel cut off from the rest of humankind and are unable to express their complain any longer. We must sit down with them and share their cry.”

I am not quite sure where this leaves me at the moment, apart from realising that sometimes that I – along with other ‘active retireds’ – can be a little too glib when we talk about ‘successful retirement’. The fact is that old age can be cruel. And yet, I would like to think that the lines from Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra will prove true for me:

Grow Old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made!
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God, see all, nor be afraid’.

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