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.

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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.

Praying the Work

In The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things, Leighton Ford describes a time when he was India and he had the opportunity to meet with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Mercy.  He then asks her the following question: “‘How do you keep going…with so much poverty and death and pain all around?'”  And I love the answer that she gives: “‘We do our work for Jesus and with Jesus and to Jesus…and that’s what keeps it simple.  It’s not a matter of praying some times and working others.  We pray the work.'” 1

Praying the work.  It sounds so simple (and on one level it is), and yet it can only be the product of cultivating spiritual disciplines in one’s life and embarking on the path of transformation.  And the result is good fruit as Jesus explains in the Gospel of Luke.  In chapter 6, he states,

A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit.  For each tree is known by its own fruit.  Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush.  A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart.  An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart (vv. 43-45).

I have often maintained that the purpose of prayer is not so much to get one’s own way, to wrestle God into giving us what we want.  Rather, prayer is about transformation.  Observe the Psalms and how frequently the psalmist laments their status, crying out to God and seeking His intervention.  Yet often by the end of the psalm the psalmist is praising God, although nothing in the psalmist’s circumstances have changed.  What has changed is the inward state, the heart and soul, of the psalmist.  The psalmist has moved from the false to the True Self.

Our callings can only be lived out in our lives by moving from our false self to our True Self, and we can only live out of our True Self by first understanding our inner selves and motivations.  Over time, our outward lives will always reflect or betray our inner dispositions. But we cannot change our inner selves or our false self.  Only the work of Another can do that.  What we can do is make space and time in our lives to grow our relationship with God.

Image from Catherine Anderson at http://www.catherineandersonstudio.com/Labyrinth.html

Backyard Labyrinth

So, just as I encouraged engaging in the daily examen to determine what one’s motivations are, and practicing centering prayer to root one’s self in God’s love, I recommend a unique form of prayer in this blog post. It is called walking a labyrinth. I had the opportunity to walk a labyrinth earlier this year. For those of you not familiar with the practice, the labyrinth is not a maze. The goal of a maze is to avoid becoming lost or meeting a dead-end. However, you cannot get lost in a labyrinth as there is only one way in that leads to a center. From there, you slowly walk back out of the labyrinth using the same path. But that is the physical description. The labyrinth is also a symbol of the spiritual life.

When I walked a labyrinth earlier this autumn, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Would I feel or sense anything at all?  What if I walk in, pause at the center, and walk back out feeling no different than before I entered?  However, I can honestly say that something quite extraordinary happens when one engages the process openly and prayerfully.  For one thing, since the labyrinth is usually only marked by paths in the ground and does not have hedges like British mazes, it is all to easy to overlook where one is going and cross boundaries.  Therefore, I found that, rather than trying to view the whole journey at once, I had to keep my focus on putting one foot in front of the other.  Similarly, the spiritual life is all about following Christ, one step after another in slow, daily, transforming obedience – even when we don’t know the way.

But the Lutheran writer Travis Scholl goes even deeper than I in his reflections on the labyrinth and prayer.  He writes this of walking a labyrinth:

When we think of prayer, we think of words, of a conversation.  Indeed prayer is this.  But the labyrinth, as a discipline of prayer, is an act of prayer.  In the labyrinth I pray by taking each next step, one foot in front of the other.  The labyrinth makes of prayer an act, and it makes of action a prayer.  In it, word and act are united, made one. 2

When I read the above as I was contemplating how to compose this blog I thought to myself, Yes, exactly!  Part of my goal in writing this whole blog series is that prayer is part of our calling and living out our calling is prayer.  Just as God uses prayer to transform our inward selves, so will we live that transformation in our callings.  But we can only reach the prayer that is action by first grappling with the darkness that is in our own hearts.  And then, realizing that we cannot change ourselves, we surrender our hearts and our lives to God, and the molding influence of the Holy Spirit, by making space and time for Him.  We present ourselves to God through classical spiritual disciplines such as intercessory prayer, Scripture reading, worship, fellowship, serving the community, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper.  This can also involve some not-so-classical spiritual disciplines such as praying the daily examen, engaging in centering prayer, and going on a silent retreat.

The whole point of the spiritual disciplines is not, as one of my pastors once said, to experience “warm fuzzies”.  We engage in the spiritual disciplines, including walking a labyrinth, so that we might learn to lean into God’s calling on our lives and to “pray the work”.  This work is not just the work we engage in Monday-Friday (though it does include that), but the work of advancing God’s kingdom here on earth, of learning to say “Your kingdom come, Your will be done” in every aspect of our lives.

Prayer is the very source and life of our callings.  Just as Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden, working and tilling the soil to expand the fruitfulness of God’s good creation, so too we must learn to depend on and commune with God in all we do in order for it to bear good fruit.  As I mentioned at the beginning, this is not always as difficult as we might think, especially if, through engaging in the spiritual disciplines, we have cutivated the right spiritual virtues in our life.  As a result, having a kingdom impact in the world can be as small and as unassuming as learning someone’s name.

For example, when I was volunteering for a Ronald McDonald Room in a local hospital, I always sought to pay attention to those around me, seeking to see Christ in them.  One of the individuals I came to know was a janitor.  Most people, in their hurriedness and false selves, can’t bring themselves to be bothered with janitors.  And yet, knowing that every calling has value to God, I came to know this janitor.  Not well, mind you, as it wasn’t long after I started that I received a job offer.  Nevertheless, it came to my attention after I was volunteering there that this person had exclaimed regarding me, “He’s so nice.  He even remembers my name!”  When I heard that, it broke my heart that something so small, and which I really hadn’t even given much thought to, had had such an impact.  How many people must go about their business in that hospital, being more concerned about their Starbucks coffee and talking about the facial store Origins (as I once observed two nurses doing), and not taking the time to know the names of the janitorial staff they see each night or each day?

Make no mistake: I am no super-Christian.  I am sometimes more interested in drinking my Keurig-made coffee at my desk than I am about a customer wandering the halls.  But Scripture makes the claim that we are made in God’s image, His imago Dei.  My hope and my prayer is that this little blog series might help some people, including myself, reflect that imago Dei in themselves and live out their True Self in the midst of their callings.  And it all starts and ends with prayer.

This was part five of a five-part blog series.  To start at the beginning go to The Mineshaft of the Heart.
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1 Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008) p. 193.

2 Travis Scholl, Walking the Labyrinth: A Place to Pray and Seek God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014) p. 16.  To learn more about the labyrinth I heartily recommend this book as it puts the labyrinth in a Christian perspective.  In addition to that, you can also go online to The Labyrinth Society to find labyrinths near you as well as to find additional resources at http://labyrinthsociety.org/.  In addition, I hope to write additional posts on the labyrinth and its connection to calling in future posts.