Further Adventures of a Boy and His Kayak

Paddling my kayak along the frigid Potomac River just before New Year’s, I turned reflective. This quiet time on the water is perhaps my best place to find the detachment I need for real focus. It’s rare. At year’s end, I wondered about why I do something this challenging at 75: what’s this all about? Perhaps it has to do with something lost I’m trying to recover. Some would likely hold with Friedrich Nietzsche that “In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.”  Maybe this is my nascent form of the recovery of boyhood, my playtime. But it seems to me somewhat less the boy I seek than the young man, full of the strength of his arms and legs, glorying in seemingly endless energy. Future decline then seemed nothing more than a passing zephyr. Yet shoulder pains interrupted this explanation and begged to differ. No, I believe it’s something less obvious that draws me out there.

Recently, I was rereading Cicero’s essay on old age (De Senectute) where he envisions a discussion between Cato and some young men who come to inquire about what it’s like to be old in years. The response was a good one I hadn’t considered: “I do not now desire the bodily strength of youth, any more than when I was a young man I desired the strength of a bull or an elephant. It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength.” As he goes on, Cato explains that we have the bodies that were designed for the tasks appropriate to them. As a Stoic, of course, he ascribes this to the nature of things and that old age is a time for thought, for reflection, for writing of what one has observed over the years and youthful vigor would only detract from that task.

Yet, I think there is a deeper truth—God never intended that we grow old to begin with. His original design was that we be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with civilizations and cultures that would extend his Kingdom from the Garden of Eden to the ends of the earth and have the bodily vigor to do so, to walk with him always. But sin changed all that as creation was broken; everything was broken. While in the redemption of creation which Christ brought began to make all things bad turn back toward good, the bodies we were originally to incarnate will only be realized in the resurrection. Still, I think Cicero is onto something. As God restores his Kingdom purposes slowly but surely, I believe he has taken our bodily decline into account and has given us unique tasks as we finish this earthly life appropriate only to those of many years and of many tears. Elders who have the aches and failures and disappointments of a long life under the sun also have gradually learned better the goodness of God through it all and the importance of relying upon him entirely. That only comes with time or it has with me anyway. This understanding can only, more fully at least, arrive with the passage of time that erodes the hubris of youth, replacing it with wisdom. Godly wisdom but hopefully humility more so for all the grace received. That is a later in life gift.

Like all gifts we are told not to hoard but to share them. The great, yawning gap of loneliness that has descended upon the West owes much to the growing disconnection between the old and the young as our digitally connected lives actually disconnect us from our designed humanity. We thought to quench the created desires within by the promise of technology and a consumer culture to meet all our needs but have arrived at a place where amusing ourselves to death is our destination.

As always, I turn to C.S. Lewis who saw all this longing for connection as particularizing our age as he writes in The Problem of Pain:  

You have never had it. All the thing that has ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it – tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should ever really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself - you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’

We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

“It,” and the “thing we were made for” are of course the restoration of our connection to the God who made us to join the Father-Son-Holy Spirit dance of eternity made possible only by his coming for us in the flesh and then in the Spirit. The wisdom of an older generation bears witness to this discovery after their many other searches have proven fruitless and failures accumulate. In our years of declining bodies, we are by God’s grace more apt to be focused on others coming behind than our own rising stars. We are better prepared to reconnect the links to them and to help connect them to God, to love him and fulfill the unquenchable desire that lies within each of us made in his image. That is our end-of-life calling.

If we take more time to “paddle” quietly and reflect over our blessed lives, chances are we will see all this more clearly then come back to shore and get on with it, persisting to the end. We have more work to do, good work long designed for older bodies with younger souls.

The Last Lap: Finding Contentment in Finishing the Race

Not too long after joining our vibrant and decidedly young church plant, our 30-something pastor invited the congregation to look around at the “elderly” people in their midst. With a mixture of laughter and some embarrassment, necks began craning. A bit chagrined, those few of us with gray or little hair joined in the laughter. He said that we were great sources of wisdom and mentoring for those coming behind. Later, my wife light-heartedly advised our pastor that if he ever used the term “elderly” to describe her in the future, she was out of there. Embracing our aging is an uneasy alliance. A short book has helped me a great deal to get my arms around being an elder. I recommend it. 

J.I. Packer in Finishing Our Course with Joy, the latest of his many marvelous writings, begins the book in his usual forthright manner: “We grow old.” While Packer falls into the self-described “oldest old” category—those above 85—his audience is those 65 and older. In this short book, after cataloging the physical and mental consequences of aging, he presents the heart of his message: to debunk the assumptions of the culture and the church that the elderly are only recipients, not practitioners of service to others.

Beginning with Psalm 92’s emphasis on fruitfulness in old age, Packer’s thesis is: “[S]o far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of the race of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out. The final sprint, so I urge, should be a sprint indeed.” He recognizes that this contrasts sharply with what many Americans assume is the normal and mature thing to do—slow down, relax, enjoy your life, you’ve earned a rest. His insight is that there is a specific temptation that lurks amidst the elder years and the church does little to help resist it by relieving the “Q-tips” from any serious responsibilities. In fact, most churches cater to the elderly with small trips and social events, helping them slip into a slower life of leisure, travel, and crosswords until they are called home. This is “one of the huge follies of our time” he says forthrightly, a belief which deserves to be debunked as unbiblical, narcissistic, and a squandering of all that God has built into one’s life for such a time as this. I agree.  

Other than the humility borne of accepting bodily limits and loss of societal status Packer discusses the vocation or calling for the final phase of life. As my wife and I both grapple with this question in our latter years, the third chapter on “Keeping Going” was the most valuable to us. Anyone older than or approaching 65 needs to consider thinking about and planning for what Packer outlines here as our work ahead. He sees God using this final phase as the time where he hones and buffs us into Christ’s likeness before calling us home.

As such, he says, we first need to overcome the age-specific allure of using retirement as a warrant to make self-indulgence our priority, a time where we call our own shots, do what we desire, since we no longer have to commute, wear a tie, or answer to a boss. Yet, quoting Billy Graham, he affirms with him that the word “retire” is not in the Bible. The great heroes of the faith finish the race well, bursting the tape as I was taught when beginning to run the quarter mile, not simply jogging the last steps as fatigue grabs legs and lungs.

In personal terms, this winding down may seem natural enough. Not only has the world pensioned us elders off, we are starting to feel that our bodies are running out of steam, so that reducing the demands we make on ourselves can even seem like appropriate self-care. By moving to think this way, however, we undermine, diminish, and deflate the role we have been prepared for in this last lap, reducing us from laborers in Christ’s kingdom to sympathetic spectators; more passengers whom society or the congregation carries by means of their exertions.

And here is where the tension lies for my wife and I as a couple and for many of our peers. If we have the health, and if we have the means, should we not enjoy what we couldn’t in our more constrained youth? After a life of work don’t we owe it to ourselves to take a nap or a long lunch or travel, to enjoy what I’ve come to call “adult day camp.”

Packer says no—that this freedom provides us the opportunity for serious catechetical (not simply devotional) Bible study and intergenerational leadership through influencing younger persons’ lives with wisdom and caring as older mentors. Keep learning and teach others. 

But more than accomplishing these tasks, Packer is urging upon those of us who are finishing the race to run it with zeal. An uncommon word, zeal is how he sums up the attitude he encourages among his generation. In fact, zeal is a word God uses to describe himself and the approach that led Jesus to the cross—zeal for the Kingdom. This is not to the point of burnout or exhaustion but the implication is that, particularly in old age, vigorous work and faithful commitments are acts of faith fueled by our ultimate hope in the One who gives us zeal, God himself.

As I was finishing this little gem of a book, I was reminded of a sunny and warm kayak ride I had taken a few weeks earlier in Florida. Setting out from the dock, I paddled by one large boat after another, all lined up in front of beautiful condos sitting along the channels leading out into the bay. I began to notice that many of these boats had names that spoke of a hope for the good life: Dad’s Dream; Finally; No Egrets; and Last Office. The one that especially caught my eye was a particularly large boat emblazoned with the name Contentment. As I looked up at this massive craft, I found myself wondering, “Is this guy really content now?” Not only was it a cash-eating cow, but there it sat, gathering barnacles and the deterioration that accompanies any idle boat--or life for that matter.

I think Packer has it right. As hard as it may be, even in old age we are called, prepared for, and needed by those who come after us.  Thus we persist, we run. Indeed, we are to run and keep running until we hear Christ say “well done.” In that we can be content.

This article first appeared on the Washongton Institute for Faith and Vocation website, March 2014.