Life’s Best Chapter: Retirement
By Johnnie Godwin
Both work and retirement started early for me. As a seven-year-old boy, I began selling newspapers on the streets of my west Texas hometown. Hard work remained part of my life until 1992 when at age fifty-five—much earlier than I had ever imagined—I was suddenly forced to leave the workplace. The human resource director commended me for my hard work for so many years but told of the board of trustees’ mandate for new leadership in our corporation.
My twenty-two-plus years of hard work in six upwardly mobile positions in the corporation and my loyalty to it received a thank-you and an explanation of my retirement benefits.
Shortly after my unexpected retirement, my wife, Phyllis, went to a missions conference where a lifelong friend was attending. Since my retirement was common knowledge, my friend asked what I planned to do next. Phyllis responded with what she had heard me say: “He’s praying to know what to write in life’s next chapter.” My friend nodded but counseled, “Tell him not to leave it unwritten.” When Phyllis brought this message home, it made an indelible impression on me. I realized the importance of planning, deciding, and getting on with the retirement chapter of life, or else it would be unwritten. I had no control over my downsizing, just as I hadn’t had control over many other circumstances in life. But my friend’s counsel helped me realize that I could choose what I would write on each page of life’s last chapter. I wanted it to be the best chapter of my life.
Although forced early retirement seemed like a disaster, it was an open door to the unfolding drama of God’s will for us. My wife and I understood that retirement paradigms that consist primarily of self-indulgence or unproductive aimlessness only waste precious time. A right paradigm would include a shifting accent to rest, but would also include work and learning what to do meaningfully with time.
During the youthful years of our marriage, Phyllis and I were volunteers to be career missionaries. But at the last stage to appointment, we got a medical rejection. With the healing of time and the arrival of other opportunities, we began to make other choices that seemed to be God’s will for us. The next thirty career years were rich and fulfilling, but we never lost sight of our commitment to missions.
As we moved into retirement, I got a call from the president of a Christian publishers association who asked me to head up a publisher’s exhibit and delegation to the International Book Fair in Beijing, China. Part of this assignment was to help Christian nationals learn to do their own publishing and marketing. We partnered with and equipped Hong Kong Christian publishers to be prepared for the July 1, 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. In this work, Phyllis and I found a home and a family among the many Christian publishers in Hong Kong. We still counsel and encourage the Christian publishers there as they serve as good citizens of their country. About our first sense of calling and puzzlement over God’s will, we had everything right except God’s timetable! Now, in retirement, we had the feeling of being missionaries as we helped spread the gospel where Communism had failed.
Choose the Best
Realistically, retirement may not be the best chapter of life for everyone. Experiencing retirement as the best chapter is not automatic; it calls for wisdom, commitment, perspective, energy, endurance, and faith. Just as we may dread coming to the end of a great book we are reading, we usually aren’t ready to finish the book of our lives on earth. But part of reading a book is coming to the end and finishing it. The end is important. The same is true in our earthly book of life. We want to finish well and to make the last chapter the best chapter.
Someone once wrote, “The pleasures of old age are not less than those of youth, but they are different.” In the last chapter of life, we can reach a new level of peace and blessings—perhaps after many storms in earlier years. Although there may indeed be storms of life in retirement, the hurry of life is over. A special sense of freedom comes in choosing what to do with our time. Earlier chapters of life tend to be tied to a sense of have-to rather than want-to in what we do. Retirees who want to can pursue their curiosities, try something new and different, travel near or far, gain new skills, become a Good Samaritan, and say yes or no to requests for their time.
The last chapter in life is also harvest time for satisfaction. We begin to recall the satisfactions of life’s experiences. We experience joy when we see part of our best genes at work in our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. We realize that, in a sense, the last chapter will not be the end of our lives on earth, even after we are gone. This kind of satisfaction comes as our thanksgiving for blessings is greater than our griefs over losses in life or scars of life.
Say Yes to All of Life
Psychologist Paul Tournier saw the successful writing of the last chapter of life as the final chance to say yes to life. About his own life he stated, “My old age has meaning. I can live through it with my gaze still fixed before me, and not behind me, because I am on my way to a destination beyond death.” For anyone who has entered retirement and hasn’t yet said yes to life, there is still hope as he/she comes to life’s last chapter. This hope requires a conversion, a transformation, an about-face that moves from the negative to the positive. This kind of change is not possible for the individual to make alone. It is the experience of surrendering with a trusting yes to God’s gift of grace—the Lord Jesus Christ. Then the end of life’s book will not be the end of life; rather, it will be the beginning of another sequel in eternal life which never ends. But, even though we often picture ourselves writing our final chapter when we’re old, we must be prepared to write this part of our life’s book at any moment.
Once when I was on a jetliner, the pilot came on the intercom and told us we would need to prepare for a crash landing because of a malfunction in the landing gear. As we circled the airport to use up fuel, I began to check my spiritual life. I was ready to live or die because I had already accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. Fortunately, the landing gear held and we landed safely; but my peace and ultimate safety hadn’t depended on a landing gear. It had depended on my relationship to God in Christ. Being prepared for whatever lies in our future brings a special peace to our lives.
Take Charge of Life’s Last Chapter
None of us can choose how long we will live, but we can choose the quality of our life and the contributions of our life. The Bible says, “I have set before you life and death...therefore, choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). The condition of our inner spirit is above and beyond biology and chronology in determining the value of our life. When our inner spirit stays young and alive, we can keep on making timely decisions that result in some of life’s best moments. Good stewardship of time is the deliberate choice to live life decently and in order by giving priority to what is most meaningful in life. At age thirty, Jesus fully knew He was living life’s last earthly chapter. Yet He, who was always busy, never seemed to rush and never counted Himself too busy to help others. In obedience to His Father, Jesus decisively and timely chose to write the last chapter of His life for us.
Retirement is a time when we should prioritize our relationship with those we love. Now is the time to speak and act, to tell those close to us that we love them, to ask forgiveness and give forgiveness. It is the time to make our wishes known through a formal will so that we can pass on our possessions to the ones we would like to have them. It is a time to share what we would like to happen after we die. There is nothing morbid or foreboding about making known the type of funeral service we would like or the songs and scriptures we would like to be read. This sharing can be a great comfort to our loved ones during their time of grief.
Life is like a book, and the last chapter may be short or long. But with God as coauthor, we can live as good stewards of each day of our lives, and chances are, our retirement will be life’s best chapter.
A Prayer for Retirement
Father, help us to enjoy the blessings of retirement and be aware of our responsibility to live it productively all the way to the end of this earthly life.
May we have wisdom to continue living meaningful lives, motivation to continue choosing life, and courage to face whatever You give us.
May we trust Your help to complete our book of life and Your promise to exchange our tents for a mansion. Amen. (adapted from How to Retire without Retreating by Johnnie Godwin)