The Stages of Life: Part One
A Reflection for Another Year
I open my eyes to a new year, get up from my bed, and walk to the bathroom. In the mirror I see a person, familiar to my minds-eye, but a year older. The hair loss, the worry lines, and the dark circles under my eyes reflect more than twenty years of giving heart and soul to heal the bedridden church. I’ve urged her to rise from her mattress and walk, step outside of the institutional structures that have defined her, and now inhibit her, and walk in the light of day. In all of that time there have been flickers of awareness. There have been glimpses of life. But the prognosis never changed. The Western church is dying.
What am I to make of this man staring back at me in the mirror? Has he been a success? Has he been a failure? My own culture urges me to interpret my life as a book written in three chapters; Chapter One (0-25) is entitled “Learning and Growing.” Chapter Two (26-67) is, in modern Western culture, entitled “Building Career, Wealth and (if you can) a Stable Family, ” and Chapter Three (68 until death) is vaguely entitled, “Retirement.” I’m supposed to continue in the second chapter of life in this new year. But it doesn’t excite me. I feel as though I have made as much of a name for myself as I am ever likely to as a pastor. Am I supposed to use the next decade to push for more money, more success, more significance? My knee begins to ache at the thought. I consider the three times I get up to go to the bathroom every night. I look at the nine vitamins, the statin and the allergy medication I take each day. Will working harder, with less energy and less effect, really make the final chapter of my life better? Or will it simply postpone retirement until I can no longer enjoy it? Somehow staying in chapter two for ten more years feels false and empty.
I remember a book I have been reading off and on entitled, “From Strength to Strength.” It was written by Arthur C. Brooks a successful, type-A person who found himself in the same time of life I find myself in this year. His spiritual path led him to Jesus by way of other religions and cultures. In India, for example, he found an ancient view of life written in four chapters, not three. The first chapter (0-25) is the same as ours. It’s all about learning. The second chapter shares the same theme of building a career, a family and wealth. But it is shortened to something like 26 to 50 years of age, making way for two more chapters. I’ve tended to think of the second chapter of life as the peak years of my life. This more ancient view sees chapters one and two as a “staging area” for the greatest adventure of our lives; the second half of life which, in chapters three and four, which are still to come.
Life in Three Chapters:
Chapter One: (0-25) “Learning and Growing”
Chapter Two: (26-67) “Building Career, Wealth and (if you so choose) a Family”
Chapter Three: (68-death) “Retirement”
Life in Four Chapters:
Chapter One: (0-25) “Learning”
Chapter Two: (26-50) “Building a Career, Family and Wealth”
Chapter Three: (51-75) “Preparing for the Greatest Adventure of Life”
Chapter Four: (76 and Beyond) “The Greatest Adventure”
I refocus on my reflection in the mirror with four chapters in mind. I can feel the excitement building. I don’t want to throw in the towel. I want the greatest adventure of my life to still be in front of me.
Suddenly I remember visiting a small, aging church, years ago when I was still in seminary. A friend of mine was the solo pastor and I was visiting to encourage him. When it was time for the congregation to greet each other I turned to an elderly man on my right. He had a wonderful welcoming smile. Then his dentures fell and he turned away embarrassed. I turned to my left, to another elderly man who was looking down but had his hand up for me to shake. It took me a moment to realize that his neck was frozen; he couldn’t look up. I shook his hand but I was unnerved by the idea that some physical issues would be part of my experience of life one day. I remember, out of fear, making a note to myself to work in a church with a wider range of ages than the one my friend served.
The memory quickly shifts to my first call as the associate pastor of a big steeple church in South Carolina. I was glad that there were people of all ages in the congregation. But I couldn’t hide from my fear of aging. I was responsible for visiting elderly members in a local nursing home. The nurses in that home would position the wheel-chair bound patients just outside of their rooms every day. Their shoulders would droop, their heads would bob and their eyes roll as they fell in and out of sleep in that long hallway. I said “Hello” to each of them as I walked past on my way to visit church members. They would perk up and look longingly at me in the hope that I had come to visit them. When I walked past I could see their shoulders droop again in disappointment. My fear grew, not just of the physical limitations of aging but of the loneliness that captures so many people in the latter stages of life.
Those memories fade as I focus again on the man in the mirror. Something wonderful is happening inside of me. This new way of thinking about the next chapters of life has cast out my fear of aging and replaced it with a strategy. I am now 58 years old, almost 59. I’m squarely in the third chapter of this ancient way of life with 16 years until I reach the final stage which will be the new pinnacle of my existence. In preparation for that fourth chapter, I will gather all that I have learned about my spiritual journey thus far. I will use it to help my oldest son, who has just begun the second chapter in earnest with his marriage to my new daughter-in-law. I will share it with my youngest son who, by entering college later this year, will beginning the last phase of the first chapter of his life. My wife and I will use it to help us engage “empty nest syndrome” and transform this time of our lives into a fruitful third chapter of our life together. I will dedicate myself this year to writing a book about this experience, sharing the adventures and challenges along the way through Substack, with a prayer that you, my readers, will find it inspiring and helpful in your journey through the four chapters of life. I am excited about the upcoming year. It is time for another adventure!
Make Good Happen is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.