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.

Brother Owl

Whoo. Whoo.  

Whoo-who-whoooo.  

I can hear the calls and responses of two owls in the dark night beyond.  I look out the window in a vain attempt to see them.  Even after turning the lights off, the owls remain obscured by the darkness of night, hidden among the even darker silhouettes of trees.  I spend some moments listening to their plaintive cries, wondering why their low sounds seem so comforting…

In our culture today, the image of the owl is fashionable.  I walk into stores and see cutesy owl images on everything from handbags to scrubs to wall hangings.  What is so ironic about this is that an image our society celebrates, and sees as symbolic of wisdom, was also representative of, in many ancient cultures, a concept our society fears: death.1  In societies from Native Americans to Egyptians, the owl was a symbol of death.  And for the ancient Israelites, who had a habit of taking concepts from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors and putting theological twists on them, the owl is representative of mourning and destruction and desolation.  Not quite death, but close enough.

In Isaiah 4:23, we read, “I will turn her into a place for owls and into swampland; I will sweep her with the broom of destruction,” declares the LORD Almighty.”  And the author of Psalm 102:3 compares himself to, “a desert owl of the wilderness…an owl of the waste places”.  This bleak usage of the owl in Scripture caused me to ponder even more strongly my sense of having a kindred spirit in the owl.

I found a possible connection in the music of the singer/songwriter Josh Garrels.  In his song, “White Owl”, he sings the following lyrics:

When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road

Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to take the greatest flight

Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight 2

When I read or listen to the above lyrics, I am reminded of one of the more interesting symbolism of owls.  According to one website, “In some middle and far eastern cultures, the owl is a sacred guardian of the afterlife, ruler of the night, a seer and keeper of souls transitioning from one plane of existence to another.”3  When I think of that in connection with the lyrics above, I am reminded of Jesus Christ.  Today is Holy Saturday, the day in between the days when we celebrate the death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.  It is a time when we meditate on the bleak in-between time of his crucifixion and his victory over death as he rose to life.

Scripture has the following to say about that time: “But all who knew Him, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things…It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.  The women who had come with Him from Galilee followed along and observed the tomb and how His body was placed.  They they returned and prepared spices and perfumes.  And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:49, 54-56).  When I read this passage, I wondered why it was included in Scripture.  It seems so mundane.  But I am struck by the description of the women.  In the face of death, in this time of mourning and hopelessness, all they can really do is observe and then rest.

When it comes to death, you and I are like the women who followed the passage and burial of Christ’s body to the tomb: mere observers.  Mere followers of the Way.  We need one who will make the path straight and safe, who will guide us along the Way from life to Life.  While Josh Garrels might be singing about followers of Christ as being like owls who navigate the darkness of this world, it is Jesus Christ himself, the Great White Owl, who went before us and makes the way possible.  He, the Great White Owl, bridged the divide between us and God the Father in his death and resurrection, and is the ultimate guardian and keeper of souls as we transition from this world into the new heaven and earth.

…I reflect on the above things as I prepare to go to bed.  Lying down, I can still hear the cries of the owls in the night.  I can almost imagine that, as the keepers of the night that they are, they are watching over me.  And as I surrender myself into the care of Another, and as sleep begins to pull at my consciousness, I thank God for the death and resurrection of Brother Owl.

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1 While it is the case that many ancient cultures viewed the owl as a symbol of mystery, wisdom, secrets, mysticism – in short, gnosis – there are just as many, if not more, that perceive it as representing death.  African, Egyptian, Celtic, many Native American, and Hindu cultures all saw the owl as relating to death in some way.  See, for example, “Symbolism and Mythology.” Wikipedia.org. Web. 25 March 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owl&gt; and “Animal Symbolism: Meaning of the Owl.” Whats-Your-Sign.com. Web. n.d. <http://www.whats-your-sign.com/animal-symbolism-owl.html&gt;.  I hope to write a follow-up post at some future date on the other meaning of owls: wisdom.

2 “Love &War & The Sea In Between.” Josh Garrels. Web. n.d. <https://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/track/white-owl&gt;

3 “Owl Symbolism.” Macramé Owl. Web. 5 Mar. 2016. <http://macrameowl.com/owl_symbolism.html&gt;