GETTING IT RIGHT

Last week while reading Frederick Buechner’s memoir The Eyes of the Heart, an observation he made about his deceased younger brother got my attention. Comparing his brother to himself he wrote, “I want to get it right about the way he took life as it came instead of, like me, brooding about the past or worrying himself sick about the future.” Read what he said again and consider which brother you are most like.

I wish I was more like his brother, but I am clearly more like the older Frederick. I wish I was better at taking life as it comes, but the truth is I spend too much time, energy, and heart brooding about the past and worrying about the future. How about you?

You and I both know people who are robbing themselves of a fulfilling life in the present because of what happened in their past. To get a better sense of its meaning I looked up brood in the dictionary. It means “to think a lot about something in an unhappy way” or “to dwell gloomily on a subject.”

We all have things in our past that negatively impacted us. The challenge is to keep those hurts and failures from destroying our present. It doesn’t mean we are not sorry for what we did or deeply hurt by what happened to us; nor does it mean we cannot learn from the past. But for our own good we need to deal with the past so that in the words of the Apostle Paul we can “forget what is behind” and “press on” (Philippians 3:13 and 14). Admittedly, for a lot of us that is easier said than done; but as trite as it sounds, we can’t go back. I do know, however, that talking with a counselor can be a great benefit for some who are so wounded by their past they struggle in the present.

We also know people who are too focused on and concerned about the future that they are treading water in the present. For me this is a bigger issue than brooding about the past. One morning last week after my prayer time I jotted down this question to myself: “Am I worrying so much about the future that I am not enjoying today?”

When I think about this habit I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching about worry in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:23-34. After a commonsense discussion about worry Jesus concludes in verse 34, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” In this teaching Jesus is not forbidding our planning or preparing for the future. In the words of Archibald Hunter, Jesus is giving us a principle of living that “taking reasonable care, we are to face life trustingly, accepting each day fresh from God, and leaving the unknown in his hands.” In others words, rather than living a life of worry, we are to live a life of faith.

If I can borrow from Buechner, I too want to get it right about the way I take life as his brother did—as it comes. Both yesterday and tomorrow can be enemies of today. We can’t live either in the past or in the future. To get it right we must live in the present.

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HAVE YOU EVER LOST YOUR FOOTING?

Have you ever lost your footing? I’m fairly certain all of us have literally lost our footing on multiple occasions. But have you ever figuratively lost your footing? In Psalm 73:2 the writer acknowledges “I almost lost my footing. My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone” (New Living Translation). He was speaking figuratively.

When we go on and read verses 3-5 it is obvious he wasn’t speaking literally. “For I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness. They seem to live such painless lives, their bodies are so healthy and strong. They don’t have troubles like other people; they’re not plagued with problems like everyone else.”

If we were totally honest with ourselves, one another, and the Lord I think we all would admit there are times when we identify with the writer of Psalm 73. John Stott notes it’s “a problem which has always baffled the human mind.”

In verses 12-14 his frustration boils over: “Look at these wicked people—enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply. Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason? I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain.”

I think he must be exaggerating but we get the point. Not only are bad people prospering, good people are not. And our writer includes himself among those who are good. He asks himself, “Don’t I get anything for being good?”

Remember in verse 2 the psalmist wrote “I almost lost my footing.” He tells about the beginning of his turnaround in verse 16: “So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper. But what a difficult task it is!” The basic point has been made by so many—life isn’t fair. Would you agree with that? I have heard Pastor Rick Warren say on more than one occasion that God never said life would be fair.

I think he tells us what halted his slide in verse 17, “Then I went into your sanctuary, O God, and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked.” I wrote in the margin of my Bible, “Did he go to church?” Maybe, but whatever he did he got back in touch with God.

When he got back in touch with the Lord things got better. He confesses in verse 21: “Then I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside.” Bitterness is a common outcome of comparing ourselves with others whom we think have it much better than we do.

Verses 23-25 provide great challenge, encouragement, and comfort for us when we realize we may be losing our footing: “Yet I still belong to you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, leading me to a glorious destiny. Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth.”

So I conclude with a few questions you might ask yourself. Have you ever almost lost your footing? Do you find yourself at times comparing what others have with what you don’t have? Are their times when you envy sinners? Do you sometimes think God is not fairly rewarding you for the way you walk with Him? Is there anything on earth you desire more than God and your relationship with Him?

If you have the time go ahead and read Psalm 73 from beginning to end; you’ll enjoy it.

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GETTING OLDER, RETIREMENT, AND AGING

(This is an out of the ordinary blog post as I comment upon a variety of books that deal with the title’s subjects. Nevertheless, I hope readers of all ages will read the report and pass it on to family, friends, and associates in the broad age group these books target.)

At the time of this writing I am 65 and have been “semi-retired” for a little less than two years. I read my first book about the subject a few months before I turned 61. Shortly after that I began talking seriously with the elders of the church I served about when I would step down from my position as Senior Pastor. During the almost three years that followed prior to my stepping down I read a variety of related books.

For the first year and a half after I stepped down I continued to read a great deal, but I didn’t read anything about retirement or aging. The last two weeks, however, I have read two books that have informed, challenged, and encouraged me so much I wanted to write about them.

The book I read last week is a new book I saw advertised in a Christian magazine and ordered because of the title. Written by R. Paul Stevens, Aging Matters: Finding Your Calling for the Rest of Your Life (William B. Eerdmans, 2016) gives those entering retirement much to consider. Stevens gives his foundational point when he writes, “We do not retire from our calling even if we have retired from a career” (p. 17). The word calling in the title lets readers know Stevens is writing from a Christian perspective and he relates a variety of biblical passages. He asserts “that while one chooses a career, one is chosen for a calling” (p. 32).

Aging Matters features three sections divided into 9 chapters as well as an introduction and epilogue. The three chapters in Part One (“CALLING”) deal with “Reframing Retirement,” “The Immensely Important Matter of Late-Life Calling,” and “Late-life Calling and the People of God.”

For me the most convicting and helpful part of the book was the three chapters in Part Two (“SPIRITUALITY”). In chapter four (“Aging as a Spiritual Journey)” Stevens affirms that in aging we should become deeper spiritually. Part of the journey involves avoiding “The Vices of Aging” (chapter five) and part of it includes embracing “The Virtues of Late Life” (chapter six). While the vices discussed are not in themselves unique, they do present a unique challenge to the aging. For example, pride expressed by “the refusal to learn and the refusal to take instruction” may be intensified for the older person. The same is true for envy, wrath, sloth, avarice-greed, gluttony, and lust. He does the same thing with embracing the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love relating them specifically to those who are older. (At the age of 65 I am intensely interested in becoming deeper spiritually.)

Part Three (“LEGACY”) has three chapters dealing with “Leaving a Multifaceted Legacy,” “Life Review and Life Preview,” and “The End that is the Beginning.” The chapter dealing with legacy (seven) is practical dealing with financial matters. Chapter eight presents five challenges for “Preparing for Death” and six principles for “Finishing Well.” The most striking challenge for me in preparing for death was “practice progressive relinquishment” and the most practical principle for finishing well was “practice thanksgiving day and night.” The final chapter is a biblical and theological discussion about death.

Stevens cites numerous sources and I knew as I read the book I wanted to go deeper. The first citation is a powerful quote at the beginning of the book’s introduction: “Success in retirement depends in great measure on the way we lived beforehand.”  It was taken from Paul Tournier’s Learn to Grow Old (Harper & Row, 1983) and I ordered it before I finished Stevens. First published in French in 1971, Learn to Grow Old was the best of the 15 books I have read in the last five years about getting older, retirement, and aging. It was also the most challenging. Even though I read it in two days, it was not easy reading. As I read the book I noted in the front cover several passages and page numbers I want to “reread for myself.”

Since Learn to Grow Old is an older book, it is outdated in some places. Sensitive readers will object to what is now sexist language, but to disregard all the great material because of that would be a huge mistake. As might be expected from a psychiatrist, Tournier includes a lot of psychology that sheds light on what he writes. There is also a good bit of autobiography that also contributes to the overall presentation. And while he is clearly a Christian and writing from that perspective, those who are not Christians will not be “put off” by his faith. Tournier was 73 when he wrote the book and had been reading about the subjects for three or four years.

Tournier was invited by his publishers to write a book about retirement, but he goes far beyond the original assignment.  Instead of chapters the book is divided into six parts that are longer than chapters in most books. Part I addresses “Work and Leisure” and how leisure will be a factor in retirement. Part II (“Towards a More Humane Society”) and Part III (“The Condition of the Old”) are primarily an overview of how “the old” are viewed and treated in society and how that needs to change in a variety of ways. Part IV is a creative discussion about finding “A Second Career” after retirement that is fulfilling and not primarily for monetary compensation. After all the years of finding validity in one’s work, Tournier suggests one must find personal value in one’s own person. He defines career in this chapter in a very broad way. Part V is about “Acceptance” and was for me the most basic and challenging part of the book. Using my own words, he writes about “positive acceptance” in terms of saying “yes” to things that we do not chose and would like to refuse. Through acceptance we grow as persons and find meaning. Having started addressing the issue of death in Part V, in Part VI he continues the discussion and raises the issue of “Faith.” Again, while Tournier writes from a Christian viewpoint his discussion about faith is not overbearing, but honest and gentle.

These two books have several things in common. At the time of writing both authors were/are in their older years. They write at least in part from their own experience. Both make it very clear that it is best if people begin to prepare for retirement long before they retire. Both emphasize the need to keep reading, learning, and growing in retirement and old age. Both stress the need for acceptance and submission with regard to the entire process of getting older, retiring, and aging. Finally, both deal practically with death in a helpful way.

As I conclude this brief survey I want to highlight eight more books I have read over the past few years dealing with these subjects. I found each of these helpful and would recommend them to those who are interested in reading more.

THREE HELPFUL BOOKS ON DEATH:

THE ART OF DYING: LIVING FULLY INTO THE LIFE TO COME BY Rob Moll (IVP Books, 2010). An excellent resource about death from a Christian perspective.

(Here is a YouTube link to a message/sermon I preached entitled “Dealing with Death” inspired by Moll’s book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zG8SwFUuE-s)

OUR GREATEST GIFT: A Meditation on Dying and Caring by Henri Nouwen (HarperOne, 1994). A brief pastoral consideration of death by a well-known Roman Catholic priest.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books, 2014). An honest and gripping look at dying from a surgeon’s experience and perspective.

TWO HELPFUL BOOKS ON RETIREMENT:

Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life by Johann Christoph Arnold (The Plough Publishing House, 2013). A practical book about the post-retirement years from a Christian perspective.

PURPOSE and POWER IN RETIREMENT: new opportunities for meaning and significance by Harold G. Koenig, M.D. (Templeton Foundation Press, 2002). Another practical book about retirement.

THREE BOOKS ABOUT GETTING OLDER WITH A SPIRITUAL FRAMEWORK:

FINISHING OUR COURSE WITH JOY: Guidance from God for Engaging Our Aging by J.I. Packer (Crossway, 2014). A short book by a great biblical scholar, theologian, and teacher.

FALLING UPWARD: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr (Jersey-Bass, 2011). An informative read by a Franciscan priest about spiritual growth in the second half of life.

SOULS IN FULL SAIL: A CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY FOR THE LATER YEARS by Emilie Griffin (IVP Books, 2011). Another informative book for older believers by a prolific author.

Please share this post with others who may be interested in this information and reply with questions and comments below.

Readers who have specific questions or would like more information about any of these books are invited to send me an email at bobmmink@gmail.com.

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IT’S EASY TO CRITICIZE THE PASTOR

It’s easy to criticize the pastor and I know that for two reasons. One is I was a preaching pastor for almost 40 years in two churches; and the other is that on many Sundays the last 20 months I have been listening as a worshiper in a variety of congregations. That means I have been criticized, and I have also criticized.

The reality is that like all positions of leadership and being up front pastors will be criticized. As has often been said: “it comes with the territory.” Pastors should not be surprised by criticism. And the criticism, of course, is not limited to their preaching. In my book A Pastor and the People: An inside Look through Letters I have a chapter entitled “Troublesome Letters” in which I include a variety of critical letters I received. To be fair I received many more letters of gratitude and appreciation than I did criticism, but the “Troublesome Letters” chapter is important.

Why do people criticize pastors? For many reasons. Charles Stone, who has written a lot about pastors, suggests seven reasons church people criticize pastors: they lack spiritual maturity, they feel they are losing the church they once knew, they don’t feel they have a voice, they don’t deal with change very well, they need to find something or someone toward which to vent their hurt caused by other life issues, they are truly malevolent people committed to your demise, and they have a point. Reasons two, three, and four in Stone’s list are all pretty much the same and do account for a lot of criticism. I have no personal experience with regard to reason six. I think reasons one, five, and seven are worth greater consideration.

We could probably attribute most criticism of pastors to a lack of spiritual maturity (Stone’s first reason), but not all of it. And if we look beneath the surface we will see a lot of venting of unrelated hurt (reason five) in people’s criticism of pastors. That’s a good thought for criticized pastors to keep in mind. But the reason I am most interested in is number seven: they have a point.

Pastors are not above or beyond criticism. No one is. In the introduction to A Pastor and the People I suggest “Perhaps the bottom line in receiving criticism is to ask if it is valid.” That requires a measure of humility, but the uncomfortable truth is that the critic may be right. In the opening to the chapter on “Troublesome Letters” I acknowledge “Not all of these letters are troublesome because they are critical. Several of them are troublesome because they are true” (p. 79). Pastors need to admit it when they are wrong without thinking the admission will diminish their status. It many cases it will enhance it.

To both pastors and those who criticize them I would encourage making a real effort to understand the other. Keep in mind that although it is not a spiritual gift, there is a place for constructive criticism. None of us is perfect. Criticism is rarely pleasant, but it is sometimes needed. As Pastor Jason Byassee notes, “it is comforting that God only has, and has ever had, sinners [imperfect people] to work with.”

Please share these thoughts with others and consider leaving a reply below.

If you would like to read Chapter 8 (“Troublesome Letters”) in my book send me an email at bobmmink.com and I will send you a copy of that chapter. Or if you would like to check out the book or order it click on the picture below.

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