[This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.]
Near the end of Essay 2, Hunter writes,
What is wrong with [the neo-Anabaptist’s] critique is that it doesn’t go far enough, for the moral life and everyday social practices of the church are also far too entwined with the prevailing normative assumptions of American culture. Courtship and marriage, the formation and education of children, the mutual relationships and obligations between the individual and community, vocation, leadership, consumption, leisure, “retirement” and use of the time in the final chapters of life — on these and other matters, Christianity has uncritically assimilated to the dominant ways of life in a manner dubious at the least.
Now, in light of his “faithful presence” theology, what does this mean?
Unfortunately, the book does not delve into these topics (much), and yet when it comes time to actually apply the lessons, that’s where the rubber meets the road. And so I thought I’d take a stab at part of it, anyway. Let’s start with retirement.
I’m 56, and retirement (in theory) is not that far away, although in the present economy, it may be quite a bit further away, you know.
To the typical American, what does it mean to retire? Well, to play golf, to hunt and fish, and maybe to read, garden, and travel. Retirement is a life of perpetual leisure — respite after decades of hard work. Retirement is rest and recreation — which is why so many men never retire. Some of us men prefer work to play. We’d rather be productive than a drain on society. We find our value in our work.
What does God say?
(Heb 4:8-11 ESV) 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
When we die, we join God in his Sabbath rest. Until then, we “strive” — meaning to work diligently.
(Rev 2:10 ESV) Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
If “faithful” means morally pure, retirement is no problem. But if “faithful” means participating in God’s mission — and it does, at the least — then retirement is an opportunity to be all the more faithful, and decades spent in leisure is not being faithful at all.
(Rev 14:12-13 ESV) 12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. 13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
There is no retirement plan in Christianity — not in this life. We rest forever, after we die.
Until then, if we’ve been so blessed that we no longer have secular work interfering with our service to Jesus, we should use the blessing to honor Jesus, not to live a life of sloth and uselessness. We must be busy about our master’s work — to the extent our health permits.
Decades ago, a man aged 65 was at the end of his usefulness and near death. Life expectancies and health last much longer now, but that doesn’t mean we get to be sorry and leaches for 20 or 30 years. Indeed, the men and women I most admire are the ones who retire to go into the mission field — leaving grandchildren and fishing holes behind in order to do what they truly enjoy — serving Jesus.
You see, work is not drudgery if you enjoy it. Church work is a joy and a blessing — if your theology and your heart are right. I look forward to meeting with my fellow elders and the church staff. I find great encouragement and sustenance in these meetings. I’d cut a vacation short to teach — teaching is more fun than lying on the beach.
It’s not that I’m a Type A personality. I just love teaching, eldering, and this blogging thing I do. If I were to retire, I couldn’t make myself garden (it’s HOT in Alabama), and travel isn’t all that great on these old bones. No, the perfect retirement for me would be a life spent teaching and writing and, yes, eldering.
For others, the perfect retirement might be a life committed to working with small children, or to teenagers, or the lost, or even to cutting the grass and gardening — at the church or at a local housing project. I know men who’ve retired to do jail ministry — to go behind the bars and teach the Bible to criminals. And these are very happy men.
You see, if your decades of church attendance haven’t taught you to be selfless and to find joy in service, well, you’ve been in the wrong church, maybe the wrong religion. Christianity is all about the joy of service. Miss that and you have a pretty lousy excuse for a religion.
Rather, the Christian work ethic is found in such passages as —
(Eph 4:28 ESV) 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
The thief isn’t called to work just to support himself. Today, that’s what we’d say: Get a job so you won’t be a burden on society! But Paul says, Get a job so you can be a blessing to society!
You see, giving to others is a blessing. If you retire, then you’ve surrendered an opportunity to be a blessing by giving from the fruit of your labor. That’s fine, if you instead give your labors to God from then on. But if you go play and piddle, then you’ve surrendered the blessing of giving. What a tragedy.
Now, to put this in “faithful presence” terms, let’s think of retirement in terms of being Jesus. As we’ve covered, four important characteristics of Jesus are —
First, his power was derived from his complete intimacy with and submission to his Father. …
[Second is] his rejection of status and reputation and the privilege that accompanies them. …
[Third,] he endured [those degradations] willingly because of his love for fallen humanity and for his creation more broadly. ..
[Fourth] the social power exercised by Christ was the noncoercive way in which he dealt with those outside the community of faith.
Retirement, therefore, should be seen as a time to gain closer intimacy with and submission to God. The key, therefore, is for the retiree to place his retirement and 401(k) at the feet of the Father and ask what God wants done with them.
Some retirees enjoy spending their time building a legacy — doing civic work so that streets will be named after them. Good idea. Wrong motivation. Do civic work or church work so that God will be glorified. Do it for your own glory and you’ll have received your reward too soon.
Some retirees see retirement as an opportunity to be with people just like themselves — fellow golfers, fellow corporate tycoons, fellow fishers. But Christians aren’t to be like that. We are to love all people and serve all people. Retirement is not the time to retreat into a monastery or into a cocoon for the rich or into the wilderness. A retreat is still a retreat — and we’ve been called to engage the world for Jesus.
Finally, some retirees figure they’ve paid their dues and now it’s time for the young people to serve them. They made a retirement out of complaining and demanding. But those who understand the faithful presence of Jesus know that power and influence are to be used in the service of God for the benefit of others. Age and experience should teach us how to be more like Jesus — not his enemies.
Murmuring never has been popular with God, you know. Rather, the retiree should see himself as a model and mentor and coach who lives a life in community with fellow Christians, and yet engaged with the world, devoted to selfless service.
That’s not how the world sees things, but I think it’s how Jesus sees things. He’s not much like everyone else. We shouldn’t be either.