I want a new word for the change Lori and I enter July 1, 2017. It’s labeled retirement, which sounds a lot like vanishing. How about advancementor re-engagement, perhaps even being reinvented?
Life thus far falls into three blocks: 1) birth to high school graduation, 2) college, marriage and seminary, and 3) four decades of service as a pastor with Lori a teacher for 28 years. We are aging (me 63, her 62) but not yet old, in great health, and with many opportunities. Our disciplines of tithing, serving, living well but simply, and saving are about to offer a freedom few have ever experienced. We will soon work for ourselves.
The notion of retirement for all but the wealthiest is a recent historical invention fueled by the foundation of Social Security and the post-war economic boom, with corporations and institutions offering retirement plans. For most of history, people worked till disability or death, and death came much earlier.
Only a hundred years ago the average age of death for the inferior gender was 46.3 years and for the superior 48.3. Today, a man who reaches 65 will live, on average, to 84.3, a woman to 86.6. When I asked my doctor dad the reason for the great extension, his answer was, “Clean water and antibiotics are 90% of it,” and when I asked why life expectancy was shorter in the South, he smiled, “We think of gravy as a beverage!”
There is a new map of the adult life span. We’ve added nearly four decades without an equivalent depth of thought about how to spend and expend it.
One common model is the work hard and then play hardmodel, and as a pastor on the S.C. coast for fourteen years I observed it up close. Golf unending, great vacations and grandkids. Life’s a breeze, the American dream.
But I did not like the downside I often observed among those who chose, or fell into, this pattern as if it was a life script. Sometimes depression, sometimes alcoholism, but often something worse, the curse of becoming a trivial, shallow, boring person. The biggest thing was always the next thing. Retirement as disengagement and the pursuit of endless diversions is not good for the soul. What they most often lacked was a life of study and a place to serve that made a difference.
I remember a retired real estate broker from the Upstate who came to me in Georgetown, plopped down in my office, and said, “I’m bored, what can I do?”
“Here’s a number,” I said. It’s the chaplain at the Georgetown County Jail; he needs help with literacy training and life skills classes. He could use you.”
“I wasn’t expecting something that challenging,” he complained.
“Then go back to your prosperous misery,” I said with a smile.
I did not hear from him for six years, then one day the phone rang, “Pastor Phil, this is George, remember me?”
“Yeah, the rich guy with the boredom problem.”
“Well, I’ve been working with the chaplain twice a week for six years. It’s changed my life. I’m more like these guys than I ever thought. We don’t need to be throwing so many men away; we need to give them hope. Do you have any idea how many never had a father? Some have become like sons to me. Thank you, and thank Jesus.”
After a moment of silence, I said, “You think there might be a God?” And when we hung up, I prayed, “Lord, keep me as alive as this man.”
So, what’s ahead? The fear and joy of being first-time homebuyers. Having to furnish a home after living in parsonages for forty years. A chance to spend time with two disabled brothers from the Gulf War and to care for, and no longer rush, our three remaining aging parents. A chance to serve Christ in new ways without the seven-day-a-week pressure of being a general practitioner pastor. A chance for Lori to now accompany me on mission and teaching trips to Africa, Turkey and Honduras. Time to recover my facility with Greek and publish my commentaries on Romans and Luke. An opportunity to visit at least twenty churches in Greenville, including the Orthodox and the Coptic, to see what God’s doing in the Upstate.
The most challenging question is, “How will I be a Christian when I’m no longer a pastor?” In order to hear the answer, you can ask the editor to keep me on as a columnist!
Phil Thrailkill is pastor at Main Street United Methodist Church in Greenwood. His weekly sermons are found at msumc1.org. He can be reached at Pthrailkil@aol.com or 864-229-7551.