Monday, August 30, 2010

Now I am sixty-five... (with apologies to A.A.Milne)

My inspiration

Cambridge, England

After a week that included torrential rain this particular day dawned bright and fair. I knew it was coming, but had stuffed the idea to the back of my mind, paying little attention to it until two or three days before it actually occurred; now I found myself early that morning sitting with my bible, my journal, and feeling glum. All sorts of thoughts ran through my mind, some of them less than charitable. I had turned sixty-five and there was no way on earth that I could ever again pretend I was young. Having been raised and worked my whole life in a culture that glorifies youthfulness, it had been possible to kid myself, but the march of time had brought any lying to myself to a conclusion.

As the day progressed greetings started popping into my Facebook inbox, together with cards through the letterbox. Most were gracious, some were humorous, one or two were rude, and my former churchwarden deigned to call me an "old man," not that I felt that old. In fact, in some ways I feel younger now than I did ten or even fifteen years ago. My brain is still working pretty well (after a fashion), and my elder daughter following her mother's genetic line has more gray hair than I do! The body is working pretty well, too, and the crippling back pain that marked my middle years seems to moved on to make someone else's life misery. I admit that I tire more easily, and am now convinced that televisions have been designed to encourage an evening nap before going to bed.

But here I am at that age when most of us are supposed to collect our clock with a little plaque on it and ride off into the sunset. Sixty-five has been perceived for several generations as the age at which you graduate from being a useful member of society to one who is spending your children's inheritance, as the old bumper sticker goes. That is changing -- for example, I cannot receive my full US Social Security for another year, while people all around us here in Britain are hopping up and down with fury about a proposed hike in the retirement age, but it will take several generations for this particular birthday to lose its sense of hope for some, and stigma for others.

I thought when I was around 45-50 and gasping under the load of college bills that retirement looked an awfully attractive option, but as the years have passed since then I have been changing my mind. I have friend and peers who are rejoicing in their new-found status as retirees, but while I respect the decisions they have made, sometimes for very good reason, it is not something that I find myself attracted to.

There are all sorts of reasons for this, but first among them is that I am not ready to leave the pitcher's mound and disappear into the dugout. Friends have said as they move toward retirement that they feel pretty worn out, and a slower life beckons. I fully understand that, and on a cold wet English winter's day when it is dark until long after breakfast and barely teatime before the sun sets again, I find myself wondering as I back my car out of the driveway why I am doing this to myself. But most of the time I find myself looking forward to the day ahead and the opportunities that are awaiting me.

Being on the staff of a theological seminary means that I no longer have to be at the helm of something, for which I am truly grateful, but in a creaking economy it can be frightening to find myself in the midst of raising a huge sum of money to insure the college's future strength and vision. Yes, I do sometimes wake up at night worrying about the challenges that lie before me. I miss parish ministry, but at the same time I get regular opportunities to preach, pastor, baptize babies, marry young couples, and bury the dead -- and that is a huge privilege. But it does mean that what I once got paid for I now do as a hobby (there is a certain penuriousness about the Church of England when it comes to clergy fees and expenses if you are a non-parochial priest).

The challenge of our campaign at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, will keep me busy for several years yet, and meanwhile I am part of a congregation where I am able to make a significant contribution -- I might slow down a little but thiswill mean that my modus operandi is altering to be more that of the tortoise/turtle than the hare! I believe with all my heart that those of us who have been around for a while still have a huge contribution to make, even if it is not as part of the mainstream of our society or church.

I have been reading a book by several faculty from Duke Divinity School and one or two others entitled Growing Old in Christ, and have found myself appreciating their notion that growing old, becoming a elder, is not the problem that our culture wants to make it be, but a privilege that the church would do well to honor -- and we would do well to live into. My emotions like the idea, but I am still in the process of getting my mind around it.

The evidence suggests that my generation are likely to have a devil of a job adjusting to being old, senior, elders, golden-agers. Many have not saved for this chapter of their lives, some have ragged familial relationships, and others still are likely to find that the hedonism of their youth will not hold them into old age. This places a huge opportunity in front of the Christian churches, and it will be those of us who are in the final quarter of life who are best positioned to help them over the ultimate threshold that awaits us all.

Am I happy to be sixty-five? Not really, but it does seem that there is an awful lot waiting to be done. As Billy Graham once said when asked about retirement, "I don't read anything in my bible about the apostles retiring." I have been on a bit of a Robert Frost jag of late so let me leave the last words with him as he paused in the New Hampshire snows:

The woods are lovely dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


Tregonsee said...

Congratulations! As someone who retired at 57, on my dime, not the governments, I can assure you it need not be a death sentence. The only time I even think about my old career, it is with the wistful thought that in those days, I could get some rest.

Bruce Robison said...

Belatedly, Richard, Happy Birthday. Appreciate this very thoughtful reflection. "Fresh woods and pastures new."

Bruce Robison