Sunday, July 31, 2022

A Brief Word About Retirement

My Bible time this morning was in Luke 12, where we find one of the parables of Jesus. It's often called "The Parable of the Foolish Farmer." Remember him? He's the guy who tore down his old barns and built new ones. I always chuckle when I read this parable because, as a farmer myself, I have built new barns (though I've never torn down an old one except to move it from a neighbor's farm to mine.). For example, my son and I built this gambrel barn for hay storage. 

This is just one of many barns we've built. As I said, building a new barn often brings me back to Jesus' parable. What on earth is he trying to teach us?

These days, this question is all the more urgent for me. Though I'm still teaching a few classes each year, I am officially "retired." As with so many other baby boomers who have completed their careers, I keep asking myself, "What do I do now?" Traditional concepts of retirement mimic the foolish farmer in Jesus' parable, do they not? 

"I'll eat, drink, and be merry." 

"I'll hang up my work gloves, sit around watching the cows, and wait for the sun to go down." 

But, like Jesus' farmer, retirement isn't just about living longer. What matters is how we choose to make something meaningful out of our remaining years on earth. The question is, "What to do with all this leftover life?" 

What a man is supposed to do when he retires is not altogether clear. Periods of transition are always unsettling, for everybody involved. I always thought growing old meant one's bulb dimming and one's body falling apart. Today, however, people are taking longer to grow old. And, I might add, to grow up. At least that seems to have been our foolish farmer's folly. He dreamed of a kind of male menopause. "It's time prove your virility on the golf course, old boy, or through your bank account." Of course, all this only masks an increasing sense of uselessness. "I want to count," we tell ourselves, even as we sit back and gloat on our past careers. 

I think what Jesus was saying to this farmer is, "A man can't base his life's work on the things he has acquired. It would be nice if you thought more about your influence than about your career." Which leads me to ask myself at least three questions:

  • What, in the end, do I want my life to add up to?
  • Is it too late to add more meaning to my life?
  • Do I want others to remember me as the man I have been up to the point of retirement or as something else?

I suppose it all depends on how one defines "retire." If you look up synonyms for the verb "retire" (as I just did), you come up with:

  • discard
  • dismiss
  • resign
  • retreat
  • depart 
  • pull out
  • relinquish
  • separate
  • surrender
  • vacate
  • withdraw
  • abandon
  • renounce
  • abdicate
  • forswear
  • repudiate
  • back down
  • opt out

Which of these shall I use when people ask me if I am retired? 

Hopefully, none of them. You see, Jesus is teaching us that what men need for a satisfying third act is something to live for that is bigger than their possessions. You certainly can never go back to what life was like before. Somewhere in the hidden recesses of your mind, you recall someone saying, "Don't back up; severe tire damage." Instead, you have to find another way to be useful.

Craig Blomberg, in his excellent discussion of this passage in the NIV Application Commentary, notes that our foolish farmer is not acting imprudently. He builds new barns in order to store what God has provided. "His error comes in how he views what has become his." Blomberg then adds:

He will not share his abundance, but keep it for his own private use. His goal is to ease back and withdraw from life. He will "eat, drink, and be merry." He feels no concern or responsibility for anyone else. The essence of greed is keeping what resources God brings your way for yourself.

This leads Blomberg to ask:

  • How do we use what God has given us?
  • Do we seek to pile up treasure for ourselves?
  • Is generosity our habit? Or does compassion take a back seat to our personal desires?

There are the kinds of questions we would do well to ask ourselves, regardless of our age. 

As I enter my third and final act, I desire to do so with a heightened sense of accountability to God, with a desire to honor the values that Jesus sets forth in this parable and elsewhere in his teachings, and with a desire to reflect more intentionally on how I make choices with my time, energy, and resources. "The fundamental test for the use of resources," concludes Bloomberg, "is whether they become tools of service that benefit others and enable them to be in a position to serve God better." 

Do you remember John Glenn? He was the first man to orbit the planet when he was 41. Thirty-six years later, at the age of 77, having passed the rigorous physical that all astronauts are required to go through, he boarded the space shuttle Discovery and became a pioneer -- again. 

My wife's grandmother died at the age of 105. A women's Bible teacher all of her life, she had to adjust to a life of quiet solitude. When I last saw her, she was sitting in her rocking chair, praying for her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. The many years she served as a women's Bible teacher at her church in Dallas had morphed into a full time prayer ministry at home. 

It would be easier, of course, if faithfulness in our dotage could be determined as easily as measuring the air pressure in our tires. But in the end, we must rely upon God to show us how we can best serve him in our older years. Allowing him to use us as he sees fit might well be the best preemptive strike against the sameness and sourness of retirement.