Still Bearing Fruit

In recent years there have been a number of books published on the topic of aging, dying, and the Christian faith.  No doubt, this is to meet the needs and to answer the questions of an aging church in the West and to help those in the latter half of life respond to spiritual concerns about growing older.  While there are other books that examine the spirituality of the second half of life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward readily comes to mind), R. Paul Stevens takes a more unique approach in that his book relates primarily to the question of what one’s calling is in later life, and especially after one retires.

The book is broken up into three sections and the first part deals solely with calling.  The first chapter is notable for it’s argument that retirement is not a biblical concept, in that in the ancient world one had to work as long as one was able.  After a brief history of how retirement came about, the chapter one looks at how retirement can be a catalyst for growth and of a broader and more biblical concept of calling. While Stevens does not suggest we should not retire, his emphasis is that the idea of idling one’s remaining days in self-leisure is not a Scriptural notion and that one can still contribute to society, even if one is not receiving remuneration.  This last point is addressed in more detail in the second chapter as the concept of calling is explained and some guidelines on late-life calling are provided.  And the third chapter takes a closer look at some Scriptural examples of those who lived out their late-life calling faithfully, with special emphasis on Abraham and Jacob.

The second part of the book reflects on the spirituality that comes with aging.  Here, I felt the book had some similarities to Richard Rohr’s book, especially in chapter four where midlife is viewed as a time of transition from doing to being, and from living to accomplish much to living into a more contemplative lifestyle.  Stevens lists a few ways that aging provides opportunities for us to grow spiritually.  The next two chapters detail the potential vices and virtues that arise as one grows older.Aging Matters

The third section looks at how one’s calling affects others beyond one’s death in what we refer to as “legacy”.  Chapter seven is about different facets of one’s legacy, including factors to consider when bequeathing a monetary legacy.  There were two things that stood out for me in this chapter that are not talked about often enough: one’s non-monetary legacy, to include out investment in other people and how that affect our relatives for good or bad even after we are gone, and the importance of writing a living will.  The next chapter, chapter eight, is about preparing for death by reviewing the life we have lived and along that review to enable us to “finish well”.  And the last chapter looks forward to what we can expect in the life, in the new heaven and new earth, and does so by way of clearing some misunderstandings on the nature of death and on Scripture says about our life after death.

Overall, this was a welcome book to the growing bodies of literature on calling and on aging.  While some, perhaps much, of it was already familiar to me, I think Stevens did a great job at exploring the intersection of calling and the spirituality of aging.  He draws upon and interacts with some interesting thinkers in this area, some of who were familiar to me, including Catholic Richard Rohr and Jewish Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and some who were unfamiliar, such as psychiatrist Paul Tournier.  I think one of the best features of the book was the Scripture studies at the end of each chapter.  One of the studies that impacted me most was Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren upon his deathbed.  Having practiced vision divina with an artist’s rendering of that scene and knowing Jacob’s history, as one who stole his brother’s birthright and blessing, made it a very impacting study on aging, calling, and gaining wisdom from one’s mistakes.  Ultimately, Stevens, who has written a number of books on calling and the workplace from a faith perspective, and who is also in the third third of his life, draws upon a lifetime of wisdom and experience.  To the extent that this book passes on his accumulated wisdom to the next generations, I would say he has embodied the generativity that he wrote about in this book.

Small Beginnings

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.

~Zechariah 4:10

What Erik Erikson did when he gave description to the stages of life development, Beth Booram has done for the process of birthing a God-given dream.  In her book, Starting Something New: Spiritual Direction for Your God-Given Dream, the reader is introduced to the various stages of discerning, shaping, and birthing a dream.  The basis of the book comes not just from the above Scripture passage, but also from her own experience of fulfilling a dream to start an urban retreat center. Starting Something New Each chapter also features other individuals who have followed the Holy Spirit’s promptings, following the format of interview, chapter reading, and reflection questions.  The examples range from entrepreneurs who started their own small business to Christians who started a non-profit organization to individuals who simply felt called to use their talents differently.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book lies in the reflection questions or discernment questions at the end of each chapter.  It really is almost as though one has a spiritual director through this book, asking the insightful, Spirit-prompted questions that spiritual direction is all about.  I think anyone who has a desire to start something new should consider reading this book, but this is an especially excellent “go-to” book for spiritual directors themselves.  As for myself, I have been in the process of following my own God-given dream over the past year and this book has helped me to understand where I am at in the birthing process.  It has also helped keep me from getting ahead of myself and God.  Having seen some progress in fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was in Germany, I’ve been somewhat anxious to get started, wondering if I should pusue this path or that, when I know I need to wait and follow Christ’s leading.

I do want to point out that while one chapter does mention writing a business plan for those whose dreams require it, this book is less about the technical details of creating a new venture and more about the discernment process and stages of a dream.  The result is a book that is applicable not just for entrepreneurs in business or non-profits, but for all who feel a “small beginning” stirring in their heart.  To learn more about the book, the following link will take you to a beautiful promotional video for the book: http://www.ivpress.com/videos/3597.php.

The Call to Play

How do we attain a sustainable work-life balance?  That question is one that the book Work, Play, Love: A Visual Guide to Calling, Career, and the Mission of God seeks to answer.  In the book Mark Shaw provides a unique approach to that answer and to the ongoing discussion of calling and vocation.  His answer is to use Proverbs 8 as a focal point from which the overarching narrative of Scripture is interpreted.  As he delves into the passage of Proverbs 8 and its emphasis on Lady Wisdom’s existence before God spoke creation into being, the reader discovers that a crucial interpretive key is that Lady Wisdom, as a craftsman and worker at God’s side, “delighted” in all things.  Mark Shaw refers to this delight as important to recovering a sense of play and enjoyment in all that we do, everyone we are with, and everywhere we are.  All of this he summarizes as Lady Wisdom’s call to play.

From there he examines our call to work in Genesis, how things went awry, and several other callings that find their ultimate dependence on and fulfillment in the call to play, the call which “precedes” the beginning of the space-time universe.  These other callings are revealed over the narrative history of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and include the Exodus call to freedom, the David call to relationships, the Isaiah call to “wow”, and the Jesus call to dance.  If the calls I just listed seem a little unusual for a book on calling, it makes much more sense when the reader interprets those passages of Scripture in light of Proverbs 8.  For example, God’s leading of the Israelite people out of slavery and providing them the Ten Commandments was in fact His way of keeping them free from slavery to other things and their passions with the practice of the Sabbath as a way to practice their freedom from work.  However, that is only one example and Mark Shaw goes into more depth than that.

Overall, I found this book to be delightful, combining depth of though with straightforward prose.  Of course, Mark Shaw sought to do that intentionally when he quotes Milan Kundera, a Czech novelist, in stating one of his goals for the book: “My lifetime ambition has been to combine the utmost seriousness of question with the utmost lightness of form.”  I would also like to comment on the unique feature of this book and that is what the author refers to as “back of the napkin” drawings.  Work, Play, LoveThis might seem juvenile, and one individual even commented to me that it looks like a kid’s book.  But Mark Shaw was intentional in this respect as well, perceiving that “doodles” can free the mind in ways that heavy-handed writing cannot.  This is yet another example of combining lightness of method with seriousness of thought.

While I am a part of the millennial generation toward whom this book is targeted, I believe the author’s approach, both in method and in theological thought, is effective.  In fact, I believe it is so effective that I would recommend it also to the generation of whom the person who said it looked like a kid’s book belonged: the Baby Boomers.  Yes, many of them have the majority of their working days behind them, but it’s never too late to discover new depths to God’s calling on our lives, including the call to play.  And that’s a feature that this book embodies very well even as it stimulates the mind.  It is a creative incarnation of Lady Wisdom and her call to play.