Grace for Today: Retirement?

given on Sunday, August 8, 2010–first in a mini-series of three

Every day we wake up and start fresh.  As our minds start clicking and we think about the day ahead of us:  What do we need to do?  What is the weather?  Where do we need to go?  What is our purpose?

During our working years, these questions seem to take care of themselves.  We get up, eat breakfast, and take off to our jobs.  There really is no time to question the day ahead, we just have to get out there and do.  The years go by, the work settings change, and suddenly—maybe all too suddenly—we have put in enough years of work to retire!

If we analyze our lives, we have three primary divisions:  (1) from birth through our formal educational years; (2) our work years; and (3) our retirement years.  The lectionary readings this week focused on living a lifetime of faith, and interestingly the scriptures led me to focus on the retirement years, or at least the retirement years as our society has labeled them because in the scriptures retirement is not a defined concept.

Socially our physical lives have been labeled by how our body ages and works—or does not work.  Retirement is a label we have socially defined as the time in our life when we are no longer expected to be part of the work force.  Nowhere in this week’s scripture is there any reference to such an idea.  Nowhere does the Bible say, you are 65 years old and now you are to step away from your productive years.  In fact, the scriptures paint almost an entirely different picture.

Whether reading the Old Testament prophets or Psalms or reading the New Testament gospels or letters, the repeated emphasis is on living by faith each and every day.  There should never be a break in faith, which then implies we understand faith.  In Hebrews, the author defines faith:

Hebrews 11:1-3:   1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for. 3By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

This definition still seems vague and impossible to fully develop.  How do we live by faith?

Interestingly I have found myself intersecting various pieces of my life with the title of a book, coming out as a movie, Eat, Pray, Love.  The first time I saw it, at least consciously, was in a Republic of Tea promotion.  [To explain, my favorite brand of tea is Republic of Tea, and I get mailings and emails telling me of the latest specials, etc.]  When I saw that a tea was named this, I knew I had to have it, so I ordered it.  I could not bring myself to open it though.  The can, as you can see, enticingly and brightly, announces the idea:  Eat, Pray, Love.

I have not read the book and the movie does not come out until this weekend, so I had to do a little web surfing to learn more.  Surely the title meant that faith was wrapped up in it.  Sure enough I found quotes.  These quotes are some of the favorites readers have posted from the book, and there was the connection:  “Faith is belief in what you cannot see or prove or touch.  Faith is walking face-first and full-speed into the dark.”  Going deeper into the context of this quote Elizabeth Gilbert spells out more about faith:

There’s a reason we refer to “leaps of faith”—because the decision to consent to any notion of divinity is a mighty jump from the rational over to the unknowable, and I don’t care how diligently scholars of every religion will try to sit you down with their stacks of books and prove to you through scripture that their faith is indeed rational; it isn’t.  If faith were rational, it wouldn’t be—by definition—faith.  Faith is belief in what you cannot see or prove or touch.  Faith is walking face-first and full-speed in the dark.  If we truly knew all the answers in advance to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be…a prudent insurance policy.

Why bring this up in relationship to God’s grace and the retirement years?  In my understanding, faith in God is a lifelong process.  We cannot live day to day without God’s grace in our life.  We cannot live day to day without faith that God’s love will sustain us from the day we are born with prevenient grace, to the day we die and hopefully be received into heaven.  To retire is not to quit living in faith, it is not giving up our purpose to love one another, retiring is not to stop doing.  Retiring is simply not having to labor in the secular world according to a set of standards established by a job.

What can retirement be, then, for the faithful?  Retirement can be a time to refocus on God’s grace.  It can be a time to follow the words of God without a worry about the cultural expectations that have been placed upon us over the years.  Retirement can be a time when we put our faith into action without worrying about anything else.

In Luke 12, Jesus addresses this in his warning about worry.  In Luke 12:22-26:

22Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap; they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 26Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

All our lives we are taught to take care of yourself.  We are to eat right, get enough sleep/rest, exercise, and work hard.  We are to take care of meeting our personal needs, but also the needs of the family.

After we finish our educational years, we go to work.  By now these principles are well drilled into our minds and we enter the workforce.  We keep going and going and going with the goal of meeting our human needs along with the needs of our family as our primary focus.  Yet, God’s grace has been with us since birth.  Nowhere did God tell us that we had to rush to do this or that, to give our kids the best of everything, to work so hard that we forgot our families, or any of those cultural expectations.  We needed one thing:  FAITH.  We needed to accept God’s grace and use it as our operating system.

Years of practicing our religion, we have followed the basic precepts of faith.  We attended church, participated in Sunday school and/or Bible studies, prayed publically and privately, gave our offerings, served in various roles at church, and said we believed.  Now, retirement and a transition or refocusing occurs.

At this point, others have witnessed your practices, your church loyalty, and you.  They may have watched as you grew in your faith and admired the fact that despite all the trials and tribulations life handed you, you never waivered from your faith.  Only you know, though, the level of commitment you have made to God.  Only you know whether faith is a solid part of who you are or not.  Only you know whether or not you have accepted God’s love and followed his one rule—to love one another.

In Hebrews 11, the author (of which one has never been definitively identified) lists a number of prominent Biblical figures to show how they lived by faith.  The names are familiar:  Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham.  Each one believed so completely in God’s love, that they went against the cultural norms and followed God.  In the study notes of Life Application Bible, the relationship of these figures is summarized:

These people of faith died without receiving all that God had promised, but they never lost their vision of heaven (“a better country—a heavenly one”).  Many Christians become frustrated and defeated because their needs, wants, expectations, and demands are not immediately met when they believe in Christ.  They become impatient and want to quit.  Are you discouraged because the achievement of your goal seems far away?  Take courage from these heroes of faith who lived and died without seeing the fruit of their faith on earth and yet continued to believe.

It is worthy to note that these men all lived believing that heaven was an earthly heaven, not a heavenly one as we now understand.

The evidence of how to live faith is spread throughout the Bible not only in the Old, but also in the New Testament.  The evidence of how well we live our faith may not be so clearly evident right now, but it will be.  Retirement is not retirement from faith.  Retirement years hopefully are faith-productive years.  Not one of these Old Testament figures retired from their faith, they continued to maintain their faith regardless of the challenges handed them, regardless of their ages, or regardless of the community around them.

Look again at the verse, Hebrew 11:1–Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.   The job continues for Christians.  We are to love one another.  Wesley tells us that means we are to do everything we can for everybody we can whenever we can.  The study notes for Hebrew 11:1 states:

Two words describe faith:  sure and certain.  These two qualities need a secure beginning and ending point.  The beginning point of faith is believing in God’s character—he is who he says.  The end point is believing in God’s promises—he will do what he says.  When we believe that God will fulfill his promises even though we don’t see those promises materializing yet, we demonstrate true faith.

Many of us can say we know this, but do we demonstrate this?

Retirement may be where we are today, or at least one of our goals, but does that mean retirement from God?  No.  We may be glad to walk away from the jobs, but we do not walk away from God.  God granted us grace upon our birth.  He has told us that we are to remain in relationship with God all our days.  Wesley took the concept of grace and placed it into four different categories:   (1) prevenient—we are born with God’s grace; (2) justification–we grow in our understanding and consciously become aware of God’s presence/grace in our lives; (3) sanctification—works of piety and works of mercy implementing God’s love in actions; and (4) perfection—the state of grace when we are one with God.

In Luke 12, Jesus tries to explain how completely reliant we are on God with the metaphor of the lilies or wildflowers as referenced in the Message translation:

25-28“Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

29-32“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

Retirement age?  So what.  The true measure of our lives comes with God’s grace.  The true measure of our faith comes in how we live God’s love.  Even if we are physically tired, even if we are physically damaged, even if we are pulled out of our homes to live in new places, and even if we still need to earn income, we do not retire from God.  We must stop our worry about earthly things and continue to study, to exemplify, to share, and to act in love.  Jesus continues to explain this in Paul’s gospel:

33-34“Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.  –the MSG

No one said life is easy.  Adam may have started human trials, but he still received God’s grace.  We are parents, and we know that even the worst hurts our kids seem to inflict upon us does not stop our loving them.  That unconditional love comes from God, our father.  We receive it, we give it, and in the end we receive the most wonderful gift.  All we have to do is accept God’s grace, have faith, and put God’s love into action.

Dear Loving Father,

We live knowing of your grace.  We live trying to learn more about your love and how to live faithful lives.  We know that in this world the calendar continues forward and our human lives make the changes in seasons.  The season of retirement may be upon us, but we know you continue to love us.  Let us hear you tell us what to do.  Let us continue to grow in faith.  Let us share our understanding with others so they too may experience the freedom of worry, the freedom to give, and the freedom of your eternal love. –Amen

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