This is the third of a three-part series on retirement.
From Christ’s fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. – John 1:16 (NRSV)
In my recent reflections about retirement, I thought about how retirement has impacted our view and treatment of the elderly. As a society, we are pretty focused on producing. When I began my recent sabbatical, I struggled with answering the question, “So what do you do all day?” This last year has been a very productive time in my life – but not in a visible, tangible way that I can explain or show to people. But one thing I could fall back on was what I would be doing in the future. I’m still young enough that I could justify my Sabbath now because of the work I will do later.
I still had value.
When we think about retirement and the first several years thereafter, we don’t need to justify what we are doing with our time. Being retired is justified by all the work you have already done. There isn’t much of an expectation that you are going to produce anymore.
But at some point, we age enough that as a society we assume people can’t produce anymore. And we often change our language from “production” to “contribution”: we don’t expect the elderly to contribute to society. And whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, we attribute a lower value to them than someone who can still contribute to society. Further, these folks are often on a “fixed income” or may have outlived their savings are thus perceived as having a further negative value to society.
You must rise in the presence of an old person and respect the elderly. You must fear your God; I am the LORD. – Leviticus 19:32 (CEB)
So how does our view of retirement as the end of our working life contribute to this? We generally don’t have expectations of retired people as being an active part of our society. The permission we give to focus on self and leisure in retirement is permission to no longer produce. I think this is OK – we should all do less producing and more being. But this same permission eventually turns into a belief that we can’t contribute.
But contribution is different from production.
When I pray for my parents and grandma, one thing I pray for is that each loss they experience as they age will be met with a grace. This grace may simply be comfort in loss but I also pray that it is a new opportunity to be in the world – that the loss would neither define them nor determine their ongoing value as people. While this may be a good prayer, I should also pray for myself to see with God’s eyes the ongoing value and worth of the elderly around me.
The graphic I posted last week from The High Calling included Scripture about the role of elders in our society when they are no longer producing: guarding values, interceding, mentoring and sharing God’s goodness. It seems that these are important things for me to consider as I think about “retirement.”
In the church, we talk a lot with youth about how they will live a godly life. We use words like vocation and spiritual gifts in these conversations. As a pastor, I should be using them with those in middle life to think about retirement and those in later life in anticipation and a response to aging. We never stop being a part of our community and we always have something to contribute. Part of our responsibility to one another is to discover and share this together.
I don’t think much about retirement anymore. I haven’t been eligible for a retirement plan in seven years and won’t be for the foreseeable future. While I would like to do some traveling, I’m mostly excited to live into my vocation, which is blessedly aligned with my work. But even if I’m not thinking about retirement, I do still think about aging.
A few years ago I did my student chaplaincy at a nursing home. One of our assignments was to write and share a “feelings analysis.” This assignment required us to write a five-day “journal” reflecting on the losses experienced in aging and what our daily lives may look like in our elder years. I’m closing today with an entry from that assignment.
Tonight I had the opportunity to participate in a worship service for healing and wholeness. The pastor leading the service asked me to participate at the end when individuals come for prayer and anointing. I don’t get to be “pastor” much anymore, and I was grateful for the opportunity.
My hands are more clumsy than they used to be, but they can still hold the hand of another in prayer. I used to hold hands in a firm way – as you might in a handshake. Maybe I thought this communicated my authority as pastor. Maybe it was to encourage others to be strong. Maybe I thought the pressure would remind them that they weren’t alone.
Now, though, I hold hands loosely when I pray with someone. My arthritis made me think about it – since a firm handshake can hurt my hands on some days. But I think I’ve also learned that comfort and strength and the knowledge of God’s presence doesn’t need to be firm or strong. It just is. Their hands might rest on mine or mine on theirs – but they rest. I guess we just rest with one another in prayer trusting that God will comfort or strengthen or heal or do whatever God thinks we need.
This evening brought my thoughts back to the first time I led worship. I really hated public speaking. I could handle the butterflies but I hated that my hands would shake. I guess I didn’t mind being nervous but I didn’t want others to see it. In my quiet time the morning of that first worship service, I remember reading words from 1 Peter that have stayed with me throughout my life and ministry: “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should to it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” It didn’t make my nerves go away but it did provide peace because it is God’s words and God’s strength to God’s glory. It’s not about me, so why should I be nervous?
What I remembered today, though, were the verses that precede this: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”
I can’t do all the things that I used to do. This does make me sad. Some days I give into this because if I can’t do anything, then what’s the point? Tonight reminded me, that I can pray and love – administering God’s grace can be active or seemingly inactive. I also think it’s OK that sometimes I’m sad and that I mourn the loss of people and home and health but just as I would rest my nerves in God’s peace, I also need to rest my sadness in God’s peace. I’m not sure how to do that but I know God will provide.
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. – Luke 2:36-38 (NRSV)