Rethinking Retirement

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By David Williamson.

Legendary sports writer Sid Hartman turned 100 on March 15. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune produced a full 18-page special section of the paper that day celebrating Sid’s 100th birthday. He was a local and perhaps national legend in part because every notable person he met or interviewed became one of Sid’s “close personal friends.” Subsections of the special section of the paper called him “Forever Young” (title of a song written by another Minnesota legend, Bob Dylan), and another section referred to Sid as “Mr. Awesome.” The paper affirmed that at 100 Sid still produces three, sometimes four long columns filled with interesting detail, and a weekly hour long TV sports interview program.

When asked why he continues to work, he said: “I get to do what I love to do.” He could have had a very highly affirmed retirement 30+ years ago. But comfortable retirement was not an active option. He simply does, and continues to do (and the paper gratefully accepts) what he loves to do.

Increasingly, I have been thinking that “retirement” is not a goal or destiny for the people who understand themselves to be persons created for and “called” to their work. Sid was fortunate, as a young man, to find himself doing what he loves to do. He had already experienced and demonstrated an interest in newspaper publishing. Without the help of sophisticated, standardized career assessment tools, Sid started doing what he was good at, gifted for and liked, and is able to stay with it past his 100th birthday.

As I thought about Sid, and thought about people of active Christian faith, I don’t think the concept of retirement is biblical. The concept of Sabbath is very biblical – a critically important concept for personal and communal renewal, renewing or rightsizing of society or the individual. But in the biblical world, most people did not live past their physical or mental limitations; relatively few lived to 65 or beyond.

Associated with what in most cases is actually imposed retirement, is the understanding or process of assessing giftedness. Today there are sophisticated, researched tools for discovering skills, interests and passions. Work in ancient times was more based on apprenticeship, family as well as community needs. Jesus was probably an apprentice to Joseph, a carpenter or stonemason. Joseph perhaps did that kind of work because of the opportunities presented in the Roman-occupied region of Galilee, economic necessity or opportunity. Today, however, we have the blessing of being able to explore options and to have our response to these options or other opportunities assessed. People like Richard Bolles (What Color is Your Parachute), a priest/pastor/author, made career assessment a sophisticated-but-simple process to help us explore, discover and affirm what we “loved” doing and were able to demonstrate sufficient capacity at practicing the skill.

I believe that prayerfully we can determine our ‘“giftedness” for particular endeavors. These skills or this giftedness is influenced by, but not determined by, our age or life situation, especially in 21st-century America. If we are born or gifted with skills, interests, likes and dislikes, these capacities go with us thorough our lives, unless something extraordinary happens. We bring our skills and passions, fine-tuned by experience, to our tasks. Like Sid Hartman, we can continue to do what we love and have a passion and/or calling for into the last pages of our lives, and do not need to be stopped or re-directed because of economic constraints or societal assumptions. We can claim these “senior” or “older years” with vigor, enthusiasm and a sense of calling.

Forced retirement is an economic or societal norm – and an increasingly outdated one – rather than a biblical norm or mandate. Considerable good, current thinking and research, even theological reflection is needed here.

So, if we do (work) what we love, and what we do makes a contribution to the whole, we can continue to work to 100 or whenever. Remembering that “retirement” is a social construct, we may find ways for ourselves and other believers to continue to do and contribute what we love, for the well-being of the church and society – the whole community.

After a recent hospital stay triggered by recurring pneumonia, where they checked him for possible Corona-19 infection and possible transmission, Arthur Rouner, an effective pastor and Christian leader now in his 90s, wrote this: “When the doctors brought up ‘no-resuscitation wishes’ my response was clear: ‘I want to live, as long as I can and still be useful. I am not ready to have you let me go.’” I have watched Arthur’s “usefulness” for many years. I can attest to the reality that he is still useful and I am very glad he is still around. And, as I pick up my morning Star-Trib, I’m glad to still read Sid’s column.

Feeling considerable passion for that which has been my life passions and commitments (Jesus and the gospel of the kingdom, including the theology of work), I am not ready to “retire” and do the “expected life stage things,” but energetically give myself to Christ and the needs and opportunities of the world that I touch. Keeping on, “To God Be the Glory” – for the things he has done, and that I get to participate in.

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