Those final rituals were now behind us – the send-off meeting at the Yacht Club, the sale of our goods at the Rectory and the last weekend spent at the home of a colonel and his wife who understood the hassle of frequent house moves.
We set out at 6am in our own car, accompanied by a hired van that housed what remained of our possessions. Our journey took us through Wales, across the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin, and then northwards through Ireland until at 10.30pm we reached our new home on the coast of Co. Down.
Sheer tiredness characterised those first few months, alongside the novelty of lazy days with nothing much to do. Occasionally guilt would creep up on us. As we watched the odd daytime black and white movie, a voice said: “You ought to be doing something”.
So our first year has been a struggle between enjoying leisure and being seduced into work and responsibility. When a life of ‘full time Christian service’ gives way to the comparative leisure of retirement, what does it mean for us? Let us share from our own experience.
1. Leaving things behind: Coping with bereavement
We came to perceive retirement as a kind of bereavement. First of all, we missed familiar places. We had grown up in Belfast and Blackpool respectively, but this seaside town of Millisle, where God had put us, was unfamiliar territory. We did not know any of our neighbours, and we knew little of the local community.
We also missed friends and colleagues. The telephone and the doorbell, for the most part, remained strangely silent. Gone was the buzz of parish life.
We even missed some of those possessions that we had sold or given away. Although we took pleasure in our new furniture, it sometimes seemed like too much of a break with the past. When we reminded ourselves of all that was involved in the normal process of bereavement, it helped us to understand what was happening to us.
2. A life’s work?: A reappraisal of our calling
We looked back on God’s call to ordained ministry, to missionary work in Taiwan and (in Eileen’s case) to a second career in Christian counselling. A clear sense of vocation had taken us through all this. What happens to that when we retire?
It came to us that our primary call, like that of the early disciples, was to follow Jesus. It was a relationship before it was a job. We were still called to follow him and to bear witness for him whether we were retired or not. Moreover, we now had all the advantage of our gifts and experience behind us to help us in this task. It was daunting, but it was good.
Sometimes we came across friends who were working just as hard in retirement as they had done before. Could it be that a busy round of work was their only means of coping with change? We understand this, as there is a temptation to do this ourselves. The tension for us is between sensing God’s heart and succumbing to a burdensome sense of duty.
3. “All change!”: a reassessment of priorities
Things which previously had been peripheral suddenly took centre stage. The weekly house-clean and the visit to the supermarket became major events on the calendar.
Such things, however, do not occupy the whole of our time, or even a greater part of it. We can go for walks without any sense of haste. We can sit and chat after breakfast. We can pursue our hobbies. Some may enjoy singing with a choral society or swirling at the local dancing club. For ourselves, there is more time for creative writing, art-work, reading and walking. We also have opportunity to become more a part of the spiritual life of our neighbourhood without having to be responsible for organizing anything. Above all, we have more time to pray.
4. “Who am I?” - a transition from doing to being
In the past, if somebody asked, “What do you do?” we could tell them about our missionary work or our pastoral work.
Suddenly, we can no longer be identified in this way. We don’t do anything: we are retired. The emphasis changes. It is not a question of what we do, but of what we are. There is time to cultivate our own spiritual walk. God has always loved us as people rather than as workers for him; but retirement serves to make this all the more obvious. The distractions which might have hindered our spiritual progress are removed, and we are free to become all that God wants us to be.
Eileen found this shift at times scary. With nothing to ‘do’, would she stagnate? To her delight, the Lord has assured her that retirement is a time of completion. She is learning to enjoy this more relaxed walk with her Lord, where healing continues and past wounds are understood.
5. Home truths: a new way of relating to family.
There are not many like ourselves who are retired, but not yet grandparents. For those who are, their great contribution is that of time. They can relate to their grandchildren without having to dash off to a meeting or put the oven on for the next meal. There is often a close bond between these two generations. Many older people say how much they enjoy the fun of the children without the responsibility. By talking and playing with them they are making an important contribution to their growth and development.
There are changes also in the way we relate to our own children, even if they happen to be in their 20s, 30s or 40s. We are always there for them.
Sometimes they make mistakes, but we are learning to keep quiet and only to give advice when asked.
For some of us, there will come a day when roles are reversed. Through physical or mental infirmity, we may find that we have to depend on them much more than we used to. Most of us would prefer to avoid that, and maintain our independence.
6. Knowing one’s place: a change of location
Some people, on retirement, are able to remain in the same house as before.
We had to move because we lived in a tied house and were required to move out. We had never planned to retire to Northern Ireland. But one day Eileen was visiting her sister in Millisle, when they went out of curiosity to inspect a house that was currently being built, and Eileen felt as if the Lord was saying, “This is your house”. So here we are, rather bemused, but enjoying the experience. Most people go looking for a house for retirement, but in this case the house found us.
Given the need for a decision about location, there are a number of questions we can ask ourselves. What are the churches like? Do we want to be near to our children? Are there good local facilities for us as we get older? We live near a bus route, and there are plenty of shops in the locality. It is an unlikely prospect, therefore, that we shall move again, unless we are obliged to go into a retirement home.
7. Church connections: relating to the local church.
For many there is a big dilemma. Do we go to the nearest church, which may not be particularly lively, or do we travel a few miles to become part of a thriving congregation? We personally feel an obligation to belong to our local Anglican church. That does not preclude the occasional visit to a thriving church in a town near by. We are fortunate also, in our adopted town, to be able to meet with a group of keen Christians, who come from different church backgrounds..
For those of us who have been pastors, it is a big adjustment to being simply members of the congregation. We may be able to use our gifts within that local fellowship, and we may also be asked on occasions to conduct worship and to preach elsewhere. In fact, we can enjoy happy opportunities for ministry without bearing the heavy responsibilities, which used to be ours. The danger here is being caught up in a ‘need to be needed’.
There is supposed to be a wisdom that comes with age. If we think we can lay claim to this, then we may find that we can be there to give advice to our pastor (if it is sought) and to be a voice of good sense in the church as a whole.
8. Standing and staring: learning to enjoy simple things.
“What is this life, if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?” We have probably all heard this poem at one time or another; even if we do not recognise the author, William Henry Davies. For many of us it is only when we come to retire that we have the chance to put it into practice. My wife and I enjoy walking along the seashore and trying to identify the oystercatchers and other birds that we see. We sit in our recliners after breakfast and comment on the changing colours of sky and sea. There is time to read good books, to enjoy the better TV programmes, to go to concerts – especially the free BBC ones! In these simple pleasures, we find that our awareness of God is enhanced.
Retirement is also a time when we can learn to play. We like the poem about the 70-year-old lady who wears purple hats, runs a stick along the railings and learns to spit. We are regaining the experience that life is fun – something that so easily gets crowded out in the midst of a busy career or denied by our striving to get things right. Eileen was very pleased to come across Adrian Plass’s account of Heaven’s playground in the CD, ‘City of God’.
9. “In sickness and in health.”: adapting to ill health.
Some are blessed with good health. For myself (Roy), I still enjoy jogging every morning, I tend to run upstairs rather than walking and I can still enjoy a cold swim in the sea. I am fortunate. There are others of my age who have to live with chronic infirmity.
As we get older, we will experience more limitations. Our seeing and hearing may not be as good as they used to be, and our movements will get slower.
How important that I do not place all my reliance on my physical wellbeing.
If I starve my spirit, then, when my physical health deteriorates, I have nothing left. When I was a young curate, I used to sit down with elderly people and read from Psalm 73:26: ‘My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.’ Now I have nearly reached the stage when a young curate (if they still exist ) will be able to read it to me.
10. “It Comes to us all”: a new perspective on death.
We began by looking at ‘bereavement’ Now we finish by looking at ‘death’. This is simply being realistic. Death is the one event that every one of us will have to face. Once it seemed a long way off. As we get older, it comes much closer.
When she read through this, Eileen found herself reflecting on the subject, and feeling anxious not about death itself but about what would lead up to it.
Recently the Lord reminded her of the time, a long while ago, when she nearly died. In her first term of missionary service, she fell into a coma as a result of food poisoning, and found herself living in Psalm 23 on the edge of the ‘valley of the shadow of death’. A friend who had died the year before walked past her. As Eileen went to run after her, suddenly the Lord’s love enveloped her like warm cotton wool and she heard a voice say: “No, it is not your time yet”, Then she regained consciousness. She now feels she can look into the future with growing confidence, knowing that when the time comes the Lord will be with her.
Love is the one thing that remains after death. We want to experience more of that love in our relationship with one another, with our neighbours and with God himself. Heaven is also about worship. We want to be able to slip happily and easily into the experience of heaven itself. The joy of retirement is in sitting lightly to our possessions and achievements as we become more occupied with the eternal. We are discovering how to live one day at a time, yet keeping an eye on that fullness and sense of completion that still lie ahead.