I’m not suggesting that you were going to, but in case you were, and didn’t know the intricacies of a proper etiquette, let me say there is no need to congratulate me or wish me a “happy birthday.” It’s not that I’m a curmudgeon, it’s just that I have never gotten into the habit of celebrating the day. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad that I was born and am quite happy to note that I’ve come this far.
When my mother was alive, she would regularly remind her adult children of the significance of “coming this far” – especially when we reached the age of 39 – the age at which my father died in a car crash. Somehow, outliving my dad’s cut-short life-span became an accomplishment.
But surely there is more to reaching age milestones than just recognizing survival markers? And there is. Today I turn 57; in the blog world, this is my first birthday since I began writing More Enigma than Dogma.
For agists out there, 57 may seem ancient (which it is), and out of touch (which I am), and on the way down (which is true). There is no doubt that I have entered what Walter C Wright calls, The Third Third of Life, and I greet this reality more of a coming of age than of aging.
In fact, in a course I took on Living Elders with Dr. James Houston, I titled my paper, “Coming of Age: Becoming a Spiritual Elder.” The trigger to this realization was reading Henri Nouwen’s fine little book, In the Name of Jesus, where he writes:
As I entered my fifties and was able to realize the unlikelihood of doubling my years, I came face to face with the simple question, “Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?
This is the right question. It was right when I first took early steps of faith toward Christ, and it is the right question for this great transition period now. It is the kind of question that brings about a course correction, because it is a question of relationship.
Coming of Age in Retirement
I have not yet completed my “first year” of retirement, after 33 years in the Fire Service, but I have encountered a lot of confusion about what “retirement ought to be.” Gordon T. Smith observes,
Western societies use the word retirement to speak of a transition that occurs in our careers or occupations… for many people retirement has come to be associated with a life of leisure… from daily work in the office to a daily stroll on the golf course… As Christians, we may retire from our job or career, but we do not lose our vocation. We can and must continue to discern the calling of God and to ask how he is calling us to make a difference within the options and limitations we will inevitably face.
Thus, I faced the need to refine my understanding of vocation (a good distinction from the word “occupation”), in order to be guarded from what Ralph Winter called, “the virulent disease of retirement.” I might characterize it as the virus of losing transcendence. Here’s how Kierkegaard puts it:
What is called the secular mentality consists simply of such men who, so to speak, mortgage themselves to the world. They use their capacities, amass money, carry on secular enterprises, calculate shrewdly, etc., perhaps make a name in history, but themselves they are not; spiritually speaking, they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything, no self before God – however self-seeking they are otherwise.
It’s taken this long to get this far?
Honestly; there is something tragic about coming this far and “not being yourself” – not having a self before God. After all, isn’t this what the journey is about – – coming to know who you are to the One who made you for Himself. I keep coming back to the significance of our identity being found in Christ who redeems our uniqueness and gives worth to our personhood. Thus, I have come to recognize that among other things, my vocation is to decipher the enigma of our worth.
What mystery is bound up in coming to understand your worth? It is the mystery of the curriculum of a short life through a school of detachment, as Paul Tournier identifies:
Old age is often spoken of as a school of detachment which ought to prepare us for death. For all that, we must distinguish between detachment from things and detachment from persons… However detached we may be from things, death remains a harsh wrench because it brutally ruptures the bonds that attach us to people, bonds which become even stronger with old age… Death is indeed the moment of truth which upsets all our vain categories.
The Moment of Truth:
It has taken me this long to come this far… and there is further to go. I’ve come to know that life and death are God’s creations, as is time and timeless eternity. For those who can detach from things and search for the moment of truth, there lies an open secret (Proverbs 2:5):
… then you will understand the worshipful awe of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.
Yes of course: this is more enigma than dogma.