Today we have the luxury of a longer life expectancy than earlier generations, and a better safety net. Men at age 65 can expect to live an average of 18 more years; women, about 20. That is a big block of leisure time, a glorious gift, and a world of possibility that was not available to previous generations, and may not be possible for future ones.
Retirement, according to a popular conception, is a time to finally throw off the chains of bondage and do whatever the hell we want. Finally, after all these years, we exit the rat race and real life can begin as we cash in our reward for a lifetime of wage slavery. In my view, this conception of retirement is sadly lacking.
Undeniably, there is a freedom in retirement that was not there before, as long as health and finances cooperate. There is a world of possibility out there. It’s like being 18 again, except better, because we have the hard-earned wisdom of a lifetime to guide us. I have a long, ever-changing bucket list that has included riding the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Moscow to Beijing, learning to play the blues and building a dream house on an island.
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Jesus told a parable about a rich farmer who had several years of good harvests, so much that he had to build new barns to store it all. At that point, he told himself, eat, drink and be merry, for there is plenty stored up for many years. But Jesus called him a fool, because he had stored up treasure for himself, but was not rich toward God. His soul could be required of him at any moment, and then what would happen to his plans for merriment?
Jesus had plenty to say about the misuse of wealth. Woes are pronounced upon the wealthy, while the poor are blessed. He lived in a world in which there was a vast gap between obscene wealth and desperate poverty, with few in the middle. It was a cruel and oppressive world.
Yet, a closer reading of the Gospel reveals a more nuanced message. The possession of wealth is not automatically condemned, because a number of wealthy disciples were commended by Jesus. Zacchaeus was a wealthy tax collector who promised to give half of his wealth to the poor. Mary, sister of Martha, anointed Jesus’ feet with an obscenely expensive ointment as an act of devotion. Joseph of Arimathea donated his own, over-the-top, hand-carved tomb for the body of Jesus. Matthew was a head tax collector, therefore wealthy, but was chosen as one of the Twelve Apostles.
Today, a form of wealth is the financial and physical ability to spend a third or more of one’s life in retirement. In the words of Jesus, is that wealth directed toward God, or toward self?
Knowing that I am a minister, you might see where this is going. Contribute to the church! Give to the poor! All that is good of course, but being rich toward God also means caring for our own souls, as well as loving God and loving others.
To that end, there may be nothing better than a soul-enriching voyage on the Baltic Sea, extended visits with the grandkids, learning to play an instrument, volunteering at a museum, writing a memoir or jogging on a beach.
Or, as the poet Mary Oliver recounts in “A Summer’s Day,” a day strolling through a field and meditating on a grasshopper can be a soul-enriching day of prayer.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
The Rev. Larry B. Bell pastored churches in Cayuga County for 23 years. He is presently a freelance supply preacher, and also serves as historian for the Howland Stone Store Museum in Sherwood.