Purposeful retirement

I became a senior citizen in 2021, a transition I had largely ignored for most of my life. As a public high school teacher, then a pastor, youth director, church musician and, lastly, an editor and publisher for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) curriculum development, I prized the “now” — the challenges and rewards of the moment. As a husband, father and friend, I earned the most satisfaction when I could help solve a problem, relieving another person’s burden — I was a proud helper-fixer.

Now, the career path that provided such a profound sense of purpose and community has ended. My life’s purpose is unclear, unless the free money the government and my pension manager send me every month for the rest of my life counts as a purpose! Deep down, I know that I have earned my retirement income. Still, the monthly deposits in my account sometimes leave me feeling like a freeloader.

People advise retirees to find a purpose. They offer ideas such as volunteering at the hospital or greeting at Walmart. But when I imagine donning the greeter’s vest and smiling at arriving customers, I go cold. Does being useful mean that I have to get another job or adhere to someone else’s schedule?

I resent the idea that being useful means going back to work. Surely there is a way of being that is purposeful without relying on the routine of work.

There is! I have decided to become a sage, a wizened old-timer who holds the meaning of life and gives it freely to others. I will adopt a coffee shop that serves real coffee, not the fancy stuff, sitting as an elder in the gates of old. I’ll be lavish with my wisdom, offering it to any who will listen — or not. In family conversations, I will master the art of chiming in with pithy sayings, like “Those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves” or “You think you have it tough? Let me tell you what tough is” or “When I was your age …” The problem? Neither of these – sitting in judgment or offering unsolicited advice – is wise. They are at worst intrusive and at best passive-aggressive.

True wisdom can only be a gift of later life if we devote ourselves to a “presbyopic” perspective. If we focus our vision, we will see that God was present in surprising ways all along the way. We didn’t see it earlier because we were so consumed with control and making things work. Now in retirement, when we don’t have control over much, we can choose to see – and testify to – the surprising, dangerous, wondrous and gracious presence of God.

The grace of God is like yeast that a woman hid in 60 pounds of flour (Matthew 13:33). After mixing the ingredients, the woman rested the dough. Resting is purposeful, trusting grace to work its wonders. We keep the Sabbath in part to acknowledge that we are not God. We rest from work one day a week, trusting God to provide. We sleep at night, putting ourselves in the most vulnerable of positions, trusting God to see us through to the dawn.

I’m persuaded that one of the purposes of retirement is rest — not napping, necessarily, but active resting. I will rest with my reflections and reminiscences like bread dough that sits and waits for the fermenting agent to activate. Rather than regretting my mistakes and missteps, I will rest in the knowledge that my experiences were opportunities for God to heal and restore. Instead of remembering how difficult it was to lose jobs along the way, I will rest in knowing that God always led me through, always made sure I had a net. Rather than questioning the love or even the existence of God upon the death of my son David, I will rest in the divine mercies that gave me 30 years with him. This same God wept at my loss and promises me that “I shall go to him” (2 Samuel 12:23).

As I look back on my life, I realize that I didn’t make much happen. When I tried to force things, the yeast died, and the dough didn’t rise. When I didn’t know what to do, I often did my best when I did nothing, allowing God to surprise me — and my best response to God’s grace was in gratitude and giving God’s
grace away.

Twenty years ago, I served as organizing pastor for a new church development in San Antonio, Texas. Over 10 months, it became clear that my health deteriorated from the all-consuming work. As a helper-fixer, I was stymied. I didn’t help anyone or fix anything. I resigned from my position after a conversation with an old friend, Bill Lytle. Bill told me his story of leaving a job before securing another, likening the experience to a trapeze artist who had let go of one bar, suspended in midair, the other bar nowhere in sight. Bill testified to his belief born of experience that God was actively with him in the net below and the trapeze bar that eventually appeared. He said that waiting and resting in the in-between space was terrifying and filled with grace; if he had the chance, he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

In a way, my late friend Bill Lytle has passed the baton to me. I now see that I can’t appoint myself to be a sage. It takes practice resting with my memories, learning to recognize God’s grace in the past so that I can better see it today.

I will still adopt a coffee shop that serves real coffee, but I plan to look and listen instead of sitting in judgment. Who looks like they could use a friend, someone to listen, someone to pay attention? When invited, I will rest in that person’s stories and reflect on the love and pain in their memories without judgment. I will offer my stories, and perhaps together we will notice the surprising grace of God in each other’s lives. I will try to keep the “when I was your age” comments at a minimum in family conversations. Instead, I will look and listen, learning to read the room. When appropriate, I will offer my mantra, borrowed from philosopher Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus: “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” And if I ever want to become a Walmart greeter or hospital volunteer, I will know to rest in those experiences and anticipate the surprising presence of God all along the way. That’s purpose enough for me!