Almost nothing about life after sixty (I’m nearly sixty-three) has turned out the way I expected it would when, as a youngster in my thirties and forties, I would occasionally look ahead to what I might experience when I became a senior citizen.
I expected that I would spend these years well established in some ministry setting, enjoying the fruit of a lifetime of faithful service to the church. I ex- pected that I would be in demand across the country—and maybe around the world—as a conference speaker and itinerant preacher, having built a reputation for effectiveness and impact as a teacher and a pastor.
I never expected to lose my job as a Bible college instructor at age fifty-eight and, consequently, to join the ranks of the long-term unemployed. I never expected to retire. In fact, I don’t really think that retirement is a biblical concept. I certainly never expected to be forced into an early retirement, for which I am woefully ill-prepared, both economically and psychologically.
I never expected that my only daughter would enter her thirties as a single mother, nor that my wife would enter her sixties as a cancer survivor. And I never expected that, forty-two years after I was ordained a minister at Elkview Baptist Church near Charleston, WV, I would feel so spiritually homeless and estranged from organized religion.
I have less money, less energy, and less optimism than I thought I would have at this stage of my life. I don’t see or hear as well as I used to, and my memory is less reliable than it used to be. I wasn’t prepared for any of that.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not ready to spend my days sitting in a rocking chair, watching Judge Judy and “waiting for God.” I’m just surprised that, as I get older, so many things are so much different than I expected.
Most surprising of all, I think, is the fact that, in many areas of my life, I am far less confident of being right than I used to be. What’s more, I find that it doesn’t matter as much as I thought it would.
I grew up in Christian fundamentalism where doubting was a sign of spiritual weakness and challenges to established doctrine and ideology were, uh, discouraged. My first post-high school training for vocational ministry was taken in a fundamentalist Bible institute. I enjoyed my time there and made some life-long friends, but the approach to ministerial preparation was more like indoctrination than education. The aim of fundamentalism was (and is) to encourage adoption of a predetermined body of data, a prescribed method of interpretation, and a preferred pattern of behavior. I emerged from that experience confident in what I believed and certain that I was right.
I soon found out, however, that I was really not predisposed to a fundamentalist mindset. In pastoral ministry, I was confronted by those who raised objections to what I was teaching (which was, essentially, what I had been taught) and posed questions related to theology, sociology, and spirituality. My doctrinaire responses proved inadequate, both for my questioners and for me.
Little by little, over many years, I came to understand that no single system of belief possesses all the truth. I moved from a position of always wanting to be right to a position of wanting to make sure, as much as I could, that I had considered all the possible alternatives, including the possibility that absolute certainty might not be achievable in some matters.
Along the way, I became less arrogant, less cocksure, less abrasive in relating to those whom I had once regarded as misguided, ill-informed, or just plain wrong. I had to write a few letters and make some phone calls to ask forgiveness for behavior both brash and intemperate. I had to admit that, in some cases, I had been the one who was wrong. In other cases, both sides had merit, and the proponents of disparate positions were all honorable people.
The upshot of all of this is that, well into my seventh decade of life, I seem to have more questions than answers, and that’s probably the way it should be. I am less certain about some things that I used to think I had all figured out. For example, I don’t know what mechanism God used to create the universe, although I am now pretty sure that He did it a very long time ago (and I didn’t always believe that). I don’t know what the return of Christ to the earth will look like, or when it will happen, but I am convinced that my earlier assumptions in that regard were likely incorrect.
I believe that the death of Christ on the cross and His subsequent resurrection from the dead are the provision of God to deal with human sinfulness, but I am no longer confident that I can explain precisely how that process works. I only know that it does.
I have lots of questions about the correct “Christian” position on a whole host of social issues, including the question of whether there can be or ought to be a single, correct “Christian” position on many of the most divisive issues of our time.
I have changed my mind about a lot of things. But even in matters where I believe I have now embraced the correct position, even in those areas where I believe I am right, I like to think I hold those convictions more lightly, more tenuously, more humbly.
That is not to say that I no longer believe in absolute truth. I have determined, however, that the designation “absolute truth” must be reserved for a limited category of beliefs and not applied, willy-nilly, to everything I believe. I am a “credal Christian,” which is to say that I actually believe what I declare every Sunday when I recite the words of the Nicene Creed. That constitutes a body of absolute truth, and almost everything else is up for discussion.
Well, it has happened again. A blog post in which I had intended to make a particular point has gone in an entirely unexpected direction. I had fully expected this post to focus on the questions which plague my mind as a result of the circumstances in which I find myself at this stage of my life—circumstances far different from those I imagined years ago when I was planning my life and asking God to rubber-stamp my plans. I really intended to engage in some griping and whining and other manifestations of ingratitude and self-pity. Instead, God has intervened, as He often does, and has transformed a recitation of disappointments into a reflection on what really matters. Who would have expected that?