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!