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.

your True Self at work

In The King’s Speech, Colin Firth plays King George VI (Bertie), a man who finds himself in the position of King to the British Empire after his father passes away and his morally irresponisble, elder brother abdicates the throne.  The only problem is that King George VI has a speech impediment, a handicap most troublesome when facing the prospect of having to confront the lengthening shadows of Hitler and the Nazi regime.  The movie shows King George’s wife taking him to a speech therapist named Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.

While the various techniques no doubt help King Geoge to speak more confidently and boldly, it seems the movie has a different explanation of what really helped King George, whether historically rooted or not.  For in the movie, the two become friends, and in the midst of that friendship King George confronts something even more paralyzing for him: his past.  He does the hard work of sorting through the demands being placed on him, the effects of his brother’s debauchery, and his father’s emotional unavailability.  As a result, King George begins to discover and reclaim aspects of his self that had been buried.  The turning point seems to come when Lionel Logue, in provoking Bertie by sitting on the throne, causes him to shout out, “Because I have a right to be heard. I have a voice!” 1  King George – Bertie – has found his True Self.

You and I also have a True Self.  But before I explain what that is, as I mentioned in my last blog post, so often we live out of three needs: the need to be needed, the need to be in control, and the need for acceptance and approval.  I also encouraged readers to try an exercise in which they examine their selves in the workplace or wherever their calling happens to place them and reflect on where they happen to be living out of a need to be needed, a need to be in control, or a need for acceptance and approval.  When I promoted that exercise I was not asking my readers to do something I don’t.  While I may not journal what I discover about myself it is something I try to do every day when I go to lunch.  It helps to refocus my priorities.  Often, I discover that my anxiety has increased throughout the morning as a result of attempting to meet deadlines so I can receive acceptance and praise.  Or I may realize I attempted to appear to know more than I do as a result of needing to be in control (or at least needing to appear to be in control).  Or I may find myself inordinately pleased with myself when receiving praise or requests from others thinking that perhaps my coworkers and supervisors are finally realizing just how much they need me, but in reality revealing nothing other than my own need to be needed.

When we live out of these three areas, whether in our vocations at work or in God’s calling in all area of our lives, we are living out of our false self.  As authors Richard Plass and James Cofield define it in their recently published book The Relational Soul, “the false self is an image we create.  Most of us create an image that is socially appropriate.  As a result we receive affirmation and praise.  Yet at its core, our construct is still an image, a façade.  It is foreign to our truest identity as beings created in the image of God.” 2  Similarly, Richard Rohr defines it as one’s “role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of [one’s] own mind and attachments.”

If your false self is the socially desirable image you craft, then your “True Self is who you objectively are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God”. 4  It is the transition from the false self to the True Self that Jesus was talking about in the Gospel of Matthew when he told his followers: “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever loses his life because of Me will find it” (vv. 24-25).  I’ve always found versus like that confusing and troubling, but I believe that in addition to describing the necessary suffering that comes from following Christ in any society it is also describing a surrendering of our images of self and finding our real self in Christ.  I think it also helps to make sense of what it means to be in Christ and for Christ to be in us as Colossians 3:3 describes: “For you have died, and your life is hidden in Christ with God.”  Thankfully, Christ died not only so that we might be freed from our false self and its sinful ways but also so that we might find our True Self, which is that aspect of ourself hidden in Christ. 

Unfortunately, unlike my last post I do not have a nice little exercise for you to try which might help you rid you of your false self and discover your True Self.  That would be nice, but in Falling Upward Richard Rohr seems to indicate that is only suffering that can lead us to discover our True Self.  I do believe he is correct in that suffering is a necessary component in shedding the skins of our false selves.  However, short of that I have also found that what occurs internally during Centering Prayer is paradigmatic of what occurs when we transition from false to True Self.

Again, I will not ask you to do anything that I myself am not willing to do.  So realize that once a month I go to a monastery not far from where I live and engage in Centering Prayer, a period where you do nothing but sit in God’s presence and incline your soul toward God.  You are not talking as the point is to sit and listen to God.  In fact, you seek to empty your mind of thoughts insofar as certain distractions naturally arise within you.  In that case, you simply repeat a short phrase that helps to center you in God’s presence such as, “Lord, here I am”, “Father, your servant is listening”, or “Abba, I receive your love”.  (Many other examples could be given, and the phrase that is selected should ideally be a Spirit-guided process, but that gives you an idea.) 

During a discussion session at the monastery, it was asked of us how Centering Prayer could help us in discovering our True Self.  The answer that was given by a participant was that in sitting there, simply being with God, we find our self grounded and rooted in God’s presence and love, rather than in the busyness and accomplishments of our doings.  Our existence is more foundational and more important than anything we may or may not do.  And let me be very clear: Centering Prayer is not something we do to transform ourselves.  The work of transformation is that of the Holy Spirit and it is a gift of grace.  Still, Centering Prayer is a time whereby we set aside our programs and agendas and make space and time for God to grapple with the soul, trusting ourselves to His care. 

As I mentioned above, what goes on internally is paradigmatic of the transition from the false self to the True Self, because it is a simultaneously freeing and unsettling process.  When I come away from a session of Centering Prayer I feel extremely at peace with God, myself, and others, but there is also what Richard Rohr calls a “bright sadness”. 5  I realize that in doing nothing but simply being myself for a whole morning, I have sacrificed some aspect of myself that feels that it needs to be doing something to feel worthwhile.  I come face to face with the reality that I do not create meaningfulness for myself, although my false self would like me to believe that I do because it is so much more reassuring to believe we have control over something than to admit we are in control of nothing.  As I engage in Centering Prayer I begin to surrender my need to grasp onto everything and live into the truth that God can be trusted and that all is grace, even those things that threaten my false self….especially those things that threaten my false self.

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1 The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper (2010; London, UK: The Weinstein Company, 2011), DVD.

2 Richard Plass and James Cofield, The Relational Soul: Moving from False Self to Deep Connection (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 61.

3 Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass), 84.

4 Ibid., 86.

5 Ibid., 117.