Do we ever retire?

Next Sunday we are having a party to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. All the neighbours along our particular stretch of what is a busy main road are coming together for a festive lunch. That in itself is quite an achievement – for we are not a natural community. It is so much easier to be neighbours when you live in ‘cul-de-sac’ (‘dead-end’ road for those not from the UK) or on some quiet street. In the normal course of events we scarcely see one another – let alone talk to one another. But the Queen has brought us together – or at least she has become the excuse for an exercise in neighbourliness.

No doubt when we come together on Sunday we shall talk about the Queen. We will again ask the question ‘Will the Queen ever retire?’ On present form, the answer is clearly ‘no’. I confess that at times I feel uneasy at the way in which the Queen continues to be so active. Two years ago I was present in the congregation when she together with the Duke of Edinburgh came to Chelmsford Cathedral to celebrate the centenary of the diocese – as I saw this stooped elderly couple walk down the aisle I felt guilty at the way in which so many of us in the UK are happy to encourage them to continue to fulfil their royal duties. Surely when you reach your 90th birthday you entitled to put your feet up?

This in turn brings to mind a conversation I had earlier today with my 94 year-old mother. My mother, who is almost blind and is in a care home, spends a good deal of her time listening to audio-books supplied by the Royal National Institute for the Blind and by the Torch Trust (a Christian outfit which supplies ‘wholesome’ Christian books!). Today she said that she sometimes felt guilty spending listening to all these books – would God approve of this use of time? My answer was a definite ‘yes’. I reminded her that we go through different seasons in life: there is a time for actively serving God, and there is a time for resting.

Or is there? Recently I read Aging Matters: Finding Your Calling for the Rest of Your Life (Eerdmans Grand Rapids 2016) by Paul Stevens, a professor emeritus attached to Regent College, Vancouver. He argues that we should work until we die. He quotes James Houston, the founding president of Regent College: “Retirement is not in the language of the Christian”. He points out that the Bible knows nothing of what we call retirement, except one obscure reference in Numbers 8.23-25, where the Levites were to retire at age fifty.

Stevens quotes with approval George Vaillant who said that retirement can be a rewarding thing if four things are done:

  1. Retirees should replace their work mates with another social network
  2. They must rediscover how to play
  3. They must cultivate creativity. Vaillant notes that Moment did not begin his water lily panels until 76; Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals at 78; Leopold Stokowski signed a recording contract at 94; and Grandma Moses was still painting at 100!
  4. They should continue life-long learning.

Stevens goes on to speak of the opportunities for development that ‘retirement’ offers. It can open up possibilities of work that better fit one’s gifts, talents, personality, and life experience.

At my particular stage in life I happily agree with Stevens. Although I have been officially ‘retired’ for over two years, I could not dream of frittering my life away on the golf-course. Instead the moment Caroline goes off to work, that moment I go to my library and sit down at my desk and work. This week, for instance, I have prepared two Bible studies and written three articles – and have been busy making preparations for my year as president of my local Rotary club.

The other week Caroline and I were having supper with two ‘retired’ friends, when the other husband who has his finger in a host of ‘pies’, asked almost out of the blue, “Paul, do you have a three or five year plan for the next stage of your life?” It so happens that I do have a three year plan. But what will happen as I grow older? Should I still be having a three year plan for my life were I, like the Queen, to reach my 90th birthday? Does there come a stage when even the Calebs of this world are no longer up to scaling mountains?

At my final annual appraisal when ‘retirement’ was beckoning, the external ministerial facilitator asked me two questions. First he asked me what my plans were for retirement – whereupon I launched into a list of goals I had set myself. He then asked: ‘And what if in the first year of your retirement you have a major stroke or go ‘ga-ga’?” Wow! That second question was a blow below the belt. Yet it was a wise question: for it reminded me that ultimately there will come a time when I need to ‘be’ rather than to ‘do’ – and what then?

Although Scriptures don’t give much guidance, there is a word from the Psalmist which seems to me to be apposite: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90.12 NRSV). Ultimately it seems to me that the challenge of retirement is to grow in wisdom. Or as Lord Douglas Home, the former British Conservative Prime Minister, said: “Retirement is one’s last chance to get priorities ordered”.

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