God has a greater task for me

I have hanging up in my library an illuminated ‘text’ which reads: GOD HAS A GREATER TASK FOR YOU THAN ANY YOU HAVE UNDERTAKEN. it is not a text from Scripture – but what a more general ‘inspirational’ text. It was given to me by my father after my tenure as Principal of Spurgeon’s College had come to an unexpected end, to encourage me to believe that there was still a future for me in ministry. To my surprise that future involved a return to the pastorate – and for the next 21 years God blessed me beyond measure in my ministry at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford.

Since my retirement in 2014 the text has remained on the wall – but appeared to have little relevance. Can retirement be viewed as “a greater task” than “any you have yet undertaken”? Although I have had a very positive experience of retirement and have enjoyed the new opportunities which retirement has presents, it was only recently that the words of this text have again strongly resonated with me – but in a context I had would never have imagined.

For after reading a host of letters from friends this past Christmas about the ‘aches’ and ‘pains’ that they were experiencing as a result of growing older that, I realised that probably in the not too distant future I too would be at that stage – and that with it would come the ultimate challenge of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. At the moment I am a busy retired minister: I regularly contribute to the Sunday programme of  Chelmsford Cathedral’s Breakfast with the Bible; I am responsible for a midweek evening fellowship group; I lead the Cathedral’s welcome team. Beyond the Cathedral I live out my calling in preaching and teaching. In the wider community I chair a very active Essex Cambridge alumni club and am involved in a small but lively Rotary club. I am a husband, father and grandfather. My days are full of activity. But the time will probably come when I will no longer be able to serve God through the activities in which I am presently engaged. Then the challenge will lie in who I am rather than what I do. As the Swiss medical doctor, Paul Tournier, wrote in Learning to Grow Old:

From then on a man’s value is judged not by what he does, but by what he is, not by the position he occupies or by his titles, but by his personal maturity, by his breadth of mind, by his inner life, by the quality of his love for others, and by the intrinsic, and not the market, value of what he brings into the world.

Or as Paul Clayton, a minister in the American United Church of Christ, said in Called to Life, a book written to help ministers find meaning in retirement:

We are called not only to do God’s work in the world, but also to be God’s people in the world… That identity is marked by integrity rather than greed, care for others rather than self-absorption, humility rather than arrogance.

Then, when illness strikes or death looms, and there is nothing we can do, what will count, said Clayton, is our “witness of courage and faith”.

I freely confess that as a life-long ‘activist’ I will find the restrictions of the final stages of old age challenging. With the apostle Paul, I will need to learn to “be content” (Phil 4.11). This will not come to me naturally. However, as Paul makes clear, contentment is ultimately rooted in Christ. For he went on: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4.13). United with Christ Paul was able to face whatever life might throw at him. Indeed, it was Paul’s experience that it was precisely in his moment of utter weakness, that he experienced the power of Christ to the full. For it was when he was troubled by his thorn in the flesh, that the Lord said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12.9,10). God willing, this will too be my experience. It will certainly be “God’s greater task” than any I have yet undertaken!

4 comments

  1. Dear Paul,
    Thank you for your recent reply to my last response to your blog, and forgive me for writing to you again (I will try to reduce my responses as other people should have their share of your attention).

    At the beginning of this week’s blog you mention the fairly well known now I think, cut-short time as principal of Spurgeon’s College. I have always wondered what this was all about and have never been able to get to the bottom of it?! I think it was something to do with you wanting to introduce change at the college, but beyond this I have no idea of what it was and have been very curious to understand why the authorities at the college should feel so strongly about bringing to an end your eminent leadership over many years.

    Be grateful for your reply to this if you are able to share it. As you will gather I was not an insider at the time of SC and only picked up vagaries.

    With blessings,
    Martin

  2. Thank you Paul for this reminder to all of us growing older that our lives do not have to be defined by activity. Great quote from Paul Tournier.

  3. Thank you so much for this thoughtful piece. The challenge of being not doing is one of the hardest we face in life in my view and retirement brings it into sharp focus. Thinking of mum at 92 and several friends and clients approaching 60 and starting to think of retirement this was for me a really helpful piece of what my colleagues like to call “thought leadership!” Thank you

  4. Paul…thank you for this latest blog. It resounded with me too. I remember some years ago (in my 50s) going to an Anglican Renewal Ministries meeting somewhere in Worcester Diocese and going forward for prayer. I was used to ‘words of knowledge’ on these occasions and was not surprised when the minister laid hands on my head, prayed and said: ‘Clifford your ministry has hardly started yet!’ I said nothing but thought:’how daft’ .I’ve been ordained 20 years, slaved away in difficult parishes, and now I am told that I’ve hardly got started’.
    But it tuned out to be correct. My rather apparently fruitless time in my Worcestershire posts caused me to write a Lent Course for Radio Stoke which has now become the main Lent Course for Ely Diocese 20 years later. It starts this very week on Ash Wednesday. The bearing of fruit and God multiplying ministry after apparent failure has been one of the reasons I wrote the book ’10 Churches, 3 Crises, 1 God’, which you so kindly reviewed for me, Paul.
    But retirement has been very productive so far (like for yourself) and I couldn’t help feeling that Chelmsford Cathedral is a more important placement than you think it is. I really would like to do something more on the book you wrote about retired Baptist ministers worshipping in Anglican churches. There is such a lot more to explore here.
    Meanwhile the final state of moving from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ hasn’t quite kicked in for me yet; but I am expecting it! Meanwhile my athletic daughters have dragged me from my armchair to run in a 10k Road Race next Saturday at Rhayader. I expect a. to finish, but b. not to be doing it in 10 years time! Meanwhile (Paul) may God multiply what you are continuing to do with His surprises. (Clifford Owen : 80 this year)

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