A Symbol for Retirement

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Entering my third year of retirement, I realized that I have been searching for some way to gain perspective on this time in my life – a lens through which to view it or a symbol to represent it and suggest meaning for it. What is retirement? Obviously, it began with the end of something: my forty-year career in pastoral ministry for which I had begun preparing, more or less, at age twelve when I first declared my intention to become a minister. So, on June 30, 2012, an approximately fifty-four year process in my life concluded, and my wife and I moved for the first time as a couple into a home of our own with no church next door and no church community in which we belonged.

My second-to-last sermon as a pastor I titled, “Called for Life.” The next Saturday, at a farewell picnic given for us by the congregation, my executive presbyter and friend presented me with a book, Called for Life. Something ended but not entirely, concluded but did not close. How am I to understand this paradox? My job was done but my work not finished? I had no appointments, no meetings scheduled, and no position in a local church. I became a “minister of the word” (as I was called at ordination) without a pulpit, a “minister of the word and sacrament” (as I was later renamed) without a communion table or baptismal font, a “teaching elder” (as I was most recently renamed) without a gathering of people with whom to pursue understanding.

I knew what I was retiring from, but what was I retiring to, or do we retire only from something but not to anything?

Symbols, images, metaphors, and similes – these representations express attitudes and understandings but also shape and guide them. Is retirement the head of a trail, the end of the road, both, or neither? I knew what I was retiring from, but what was I retiring to, or do we retire only from something but not to anything?

One symbol for retirement is the autumn of the year which represents the autumn of a life. If childhood and youth are the springtime, then adulthood’s years of work and maybe parenthood comprise life’s summer. Middle age has been said to begin when I stop wondering if and how I can do what I have set out to accomplish and start wondering instead why I am doing it – what meaning it has – but at retirement, that race is over, however well or poorly I ran. Career is a term in the past tense. Yet I still have plenty of life in me. So, I’m in the autumn of my life when the leaves turn color but are still bright and the days cool but still pleasant. Winter is coming, but it’s not here yet. We can travel, hike, garden, work out, read neglected books from the shelf, and pursue other interests for which we lacked time in our summer. There may be signs that vitality is waning, but it’s not gone. Leaves have begun to fall, but the sky is clear and bright blue. It’s autumn.

Crasser images for retirement include “over the hill,” “on the shelf,” and “out to pasture.” The rocking chair has been used as a symbol, which makes it easy to see why more than a few seniors soak their retirement in alcohol. There is in our culture a certain amount of shame in answering the question, “What do you do?” with, “I’m retired.” Am I doing nothing? Am I an adult in second childhood, just playing my days away and perhaps napping them away as well? Do I need to prove to others and so to myself that I’m still active and productive? Someone has described the stages of retirement as “Go-go, slow-go, and no-go.” That’s cute, but to my mind also demeaning. Must I keep “on the go” to outrun the questions of retirement, aging, and mortality and convince myself that I’m still alive?

I share this symbol with some serious hesitation and maybe even trepidation

I think I have found what for me offers a better symbol for my retirement. Please notice I did not say it is for you or your retirement. There is no blueprint, no pattern, no step by step guide, and no simplistic shortlist of truisms about this stage in life. Furthermore, I share this symbol with some serious hesitation and maybe even trepidation because it is sacred to a group of people with whom I feel a spiritual kinship but do not belong as a member. I am not a Jew but a Gentile Christian, and this symbol has already been appropriated by Christians, often in ways that fit neither Judaism nor Christianity. So, the truth is, I think, I am borrowing for my understanding of my retirement a portion of something much greater, but I hope that the portion I am borrowing is faithful to the greater whole. It is the Sabbath.

My guide has been the Christian theologian Jürgen Moltmann, but he has led me back to one of his guides who has long been one of mine also, Abraham Joshua Heschel. The particular books that have offered me the Sabbath as a symbol for retirement are Moltmann’s, God in Creation, and Heschel’s volume titled, The Sabbath, specifically its prologue, “Architecture of Time.”

Moltmann has called my attention to the understanding that in the Priestly account that opens the Bible with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” the week of creation is not encompassed by six days of labor (God’s making of the world) culminating with the creation of humanity in God’s image and likeness but, rather, by seven days culminating with the Sabbath. The Sabbath, not humanity, is the crown of creation. In the seventh day, God is present with the created world: present in time, in being (which biblically means being with), at rest from creative work, the business of making things. It is the presence of God with us and our world that crowns the creation.

Heschel begins his Prologue:

Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.

. . . There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. (page 3)

Because I have only just begun to consider this symbol for my own current living, I will not attempt to elaborate it at length here. The Sabbath is presented to us first in the Bible as God’s own day of being with the creation God has seen as “all very good.” I think, I hope, I pray, there is in retirement a restful time of being with, starting with God and extending to the people I love and reaching out into neighborhood, community, church community, world, and creation (what we call nature). I have time now to be with. I have time to live in time instead of rushing through it, spending it, measuring it, fretting over it’s passing too quickly, and trying to squeeze more busyness into it. I have time to experience life with. I have lived and worked by the clock and calendar as they measure and control the various cycles of church life and pastoral ministry, of the school year and family life, and of social life also. I have done my forty years (biblical for a long and full time) of work governed by clock and calendar, and I think I can say that mostly it was good, although I certainly have my regrets and if-only’s. Maybe now I can live in time rather than racing or being pushed through it. The race is done, but the time of restfulness need not be empty time but can be full time, maybe fuller time than I have known before.

Maybe now I can live in time rather than racing or being pushed through it. 

The Sabbath of the Jews is too deep and full a well for me to claim, and certainly my retirement cannot be equated with the Sabbath, but perhaps I can accept a cup of water drawn from the well for a sojourner in the land. That cup of water comes as understanding that I am being given the gift of time, time to be with and be alive with, time to live with in time.

There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. ~Abraham Joshua Heschel

3 Comments on “A Symbol for Retirement

  1. Yvonne Custis

    Great piece! Gives me reason to think about my own retirement and how busy I have allowed it to become. Autumn is a wonderful time and to be thoroughly enjoyed.

  2. Christina Wible

    My image for retirement is “starting over.” I retired from my corporate job over 17 years ago now. I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to finish my second master’s degree. I was going to be clergy. I was going too… Well I had a lot of plans. But as you know when you plan God laughs. So in these 17 years I have learned that retirement is not one single thing, it is a kaleidoscope of things, changing with the seasons. Sometimes it is walking down the street on an autumn day. Sometimes it is taking a second or a third job just to pay real estate taxes. But whatever it is it definitely has more variety and more freedom than my pre-retirement work did.

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