Kay and I have been praying for ourselves and for many of our companions that we would “finish well”.
What would finishing well entail?
No doubt our thoughts on the subject will not cover all that it means, but the following are some of the ideas that we have gleaned as we have processed this with many companions. We are finding them helpful as we live into this last phase of our lives.
One of the ideas that came out in early discussions with others is that this is a question that should be pursued early in our journeys because that’s when we make the decisions that will result in ending our days well. It is a major mistake to wait until the end of our lives to begin to think about what it means for us to finish well. If we are not building into our lives the character of Jesus throughout our lives we will not be able to be what God, and we, want us to be in the last phase of our lives.
Some Ideas From Scripture About Finishing Well
Surely Jesus must have finished well. However, I don’t think we would think we had finished well if were both a refugee at an early age, homeless during our years of service to others and then at the age of 33 we were falsely accused of a crime, sentenced to death, and then crucified. Jesus has a different measure than our human standard which includes things like stress-free living and long and prosperous lives. His perspective, as recorded in John 17 indicates the following things were the important things in his finishing well.
- I have brought You glory here on earth.
- I have finished the work You gave me to do.
- I have revealed You to, and equipped, those You gave to me.
Then there is the case of Moses: from a position of power at age 40 he tried to help his people but fled from Egypt when he failed. He spent the next 40 years in exile. He then led his people for another 40 years but did not even get into the Promised Land. That looks to me like he never accomplished his life’s goal. Ruth Haley Barton, in her book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership summarizes his finishing well in these words,
“The season of letting go is the time when we might give our retrospective, as Moses did in the book of Deuteronomy, summarizing lessons learned and battles fought, telling stories that inspire, offering wisdom and instruction from years of leadership experience. It is time to give blessing to those who will go on without us and to encourage and empower those who will lead.”
Thus Moses was helped in this process of relinquishment by equipping, encouraging and empowering the next generation of leaders.
The summary of Paul’s life as he recorded it in 2 Corinthians 11 does not look like he was finishing well:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged severely and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea, and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”
But Paul wrote some other things as well:
“I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace”.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”
But what do we do when we screw up? How do we deal with the debilitating power of sin and failure? David, a man after God’s own heart, is a clear example that even the best of us are far from perfect. We take consolation in the fact that David and other godly people recorded in Scripture, were not perfect. In most cases their stories are more like the up and down of the yoyo than a steady upward road that leads to perfection. And so that leads us to the necessity of confession and forgiveness that is so clearly taught by God throughout the Bible and certainly made clear by Jesus. The words of David:
“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Thus, here are some of the things we can learn from the lives of Moses, David, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus that will let us traverse the last phase of our lives in ways that are life-giving for us and for others:
- Finish the work God gives us to do each day.
- Live in ways that demonstrate we know that everything we are and have is a gift from God.
- Walk in an intimate relationship with the Lord celebrating the successes and confessing the failures.
- Engage with, and empower, the next generation of godly women and men to join us in the work of the Kingdom.
We read a fascinating book by Richard Rohr, Falling Upward in which he describes some of the characteristics in the second half of our lives that would indicate we are finishing well. Here are a few of his thoughts:
“If you have forgiven yourself for being imperfect and failing, you can now do it for just about everybody else. If you have not done it for yourself, I am afraid you will likely pass on your sadness, absurdity, judgment, and futility to others.”
“You learn to positively ignore and to withdraw your energy from evil or stupid things rather than fight them directly. You fight things only when you are directly called and equipped to do so. Most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself. Holier-than-thou people usually end up holier than nobody.”
“Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have.”
“So many people I know who are doing truly helpful and healing ministry find their primary support from a couple of enlightened friends—and only secondarily if at all, from the larger organization.”
“If your politics do not become more compassionate and inclusive, I doubt whether you are on the second journey.”
“If you are on course at all, your world should grow much larger in the second half of life. But I must tell you that, in yet another paradox, your circle of real confidants and truly close friends will normally grow smaller, but also more intimate.”
In November of 2011 Jack Murta, Tom Cooper, Albert Cooper, Wes Anderson, and Kent met for a time of discernment about their lives. As they thought about life in later years these ideas about finishing well surfaced.
- It is essential that we agree on a joint vision with our wives as to how we are to use our time, energy, and money. And especially on who the people are to whom we give priority in our use of these resources.
- Understanding the present calling of God on our lives is essential. Is it the same one with which we began? How has it changed over time? What is it to be in this latter phase of our lives?
- We have no control over many health issues that come in later life but we can be diligent in exercise, food discipline, and living with less stress - we have some control over these.
- One factor in what opportunities we have to serve the Lord in the later phase is to discover who wants to be with us. Have we lived in such a way that people are seeking time with us?
- It is very desirable to have at least one other couple who can walk with us to help us discern and deal with the important issues in our lives. In the same way that as an individual we need one who speaks truth into our life, our marriage needs another marriage that brings truth to it.
- We are elders and we are to embrace the role of an elder. This will be reflected in various ways for each of us. It will certainly include our role as father and grandfather. It will probably mean less pioneering and innovating and more responding with wisdom and counsel to those who enquire.
- We want to learn to live at a slower pace as energy lessens but at the same time refuse to plateau or to tread water spiritually.
Then nine years later, Katy Crane asked us: “What is your thinking about aging?”
Our thinking certainly includes the ideas we have just written. And here are other aspects of aging that came to us as we pondered Katy’s question:
Learn to be at peace
- Relinquishment is foundational to our living in peace.
“To follow Christ means that we must let go of excessive attachments to passing pleasures and possessions, to ploys of autonomous power, to tangible goods as if they were ultimate.” With Christ in the School of Prayer by Andrew Murray
Relinquishment is learned over time. It is helpful for us to be willing to let go of even small things as we move through life because this makes us more able to let go of bigger things at the end of our lives.
- There is also a peace from realizing that as we age, the people around us do not expect as much from us. For many of us it is our own internal boss who keeps laying expectations on us to reaffirm our value by being productive. The following quote highlights this issue in our lives:
“As we stay faithful to the journey into the center of our being where God dwells, we are freed from our bondage to the expectations of others and our own inner compulsions. We die not only to the expectations of others but also to ourselves – our addiction to performing, to look good and being perfect, to attaining more status than is good for us.” Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton
- Our minds become less stressed when we discover that at this time of our lives it is time for our younger family and friends to be the initiators with us instead of us continuing to make things happen. It not only makes our lives more peaceful, but it also is part of the process of passing the leadership in matters of the Kingdom on to the next generations.
- Paul encouraged believers in Rome that “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Sometimes we hold on to grievances keeping them buried so they don’t disturb us too often. Or we know we have not treated someone well, but we keep that buried so we don’t have to humble ourselves and admit our wrong. We can’t have peace unless we do everything we can to be at peace with all the people who are, or have been important to us. There may be someone who refuses to reconcile with us, but we can still be at peace if we address every relational problem.
The word that comes to mind when seeking to be at peace with others is ‘forgiveness’. Ronald Rolheiser in Sacred Fire covers it all:
“As we age we need to forgive—forgive those who hurt us, forgive ourselves for our own mistakes, forgive life for having been unfair, and then forgive God for seemingly not having protected us—all of this so that we do not die bitter and angry.”
- Our peace is also disturbed by our attachment to our possessions. We have heard it said, “I own things, but they don’t own me.” A nice thought but it is not true. The things we own need our time and energy to take care of them. They own us. So as we age, it is helpful to reduce the number of things that own us. For twenty years we lived in a large house on two acres on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. This was not only a wonderful place for us and our family, but it was also a place of retreats for many of the people with whom God gave us favor. It was a place for spiritual development days, smaller groups for weekends, and times of celebration with many others.
When we moved from this home in 2015 we had to get rid of some things that “owned us”. We begin by deciding what possessions would be necessary in our new small cottage and then we got rid of the rest. We gave things to family and friends, we sold a few things, and we donated everything else to people in need in our community. We did not even think about renting a storage unit. Too often a storage unit is where things live because they were once of value. They rest there until they die of old age.
Peace is multiplied in our lives through the freedom we have with so much less maintenance. Not just the time and energy freed up with so much less to maintain, but we don’t have to be preoccupied with thinking about what needs to be done to care for more things.
- As we were thinking about this move, Mary Jane Dellenback gave us wise advice: “Do it sooner rather than later. Sooner while you have the energy for the hard work of downsizing, and sooner so you bring your vital selves into this community where you will be for the last phase of your lives.”
- One of the things we are learning to deal with is the difference in the rate of our energy decline. In the past so many of the activities of our lives were done together. When we no longer have the same energy we can’t function as we have in the past. The following quote is helpful in thinking about this.
“The trick is to understand one’s own calling – and not to understand the idea of calling simply in terms of ‘what to do with my life,’ but to ask periodically what is ‘the call of the moment.’? Do I renew my commitments or is it the time to let go of what has ceased to yield growth and call forth the best that is in me? Both can be honorable choices.” In Praise of Incompletion by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre in Weavings
At the time of this writing, Kent has more energy for people while Kay has more desire for quiet. So how do we navigate this difference? For us, the way forward has been staying in agreement about the activities of our lives: Being in agreement about what God has called us to do together; being in agreement about what each one of us is called to do without the other. And often the one with the most energy (Kent) can use that energy to sit quietly enjoying the company of his wonderful partner. Thus we continue to partner in the life God has given us.
- Peace comes when we have made the difficult decisions as we face declining health. This is one of the more emotional issues that people face as we near the final part of our journey on earth. Dr. Timothy Johnson communicates well what Kay and I are thinking about for this time of our lives, when he said that even though he is a medical doctor he wants to die at home rather than being kept “alive” through all the miracles of modern medicine. He has made this wish an open discussion with his family because he knows that our families are often the ones who find it the most difficult to let us die. Make the decisions and put it in an Advance Directive which lets you and your family relax with this issue.
- And we are to be at peace as we relate to the people God has in our lives. The following helps us guard against one of the common faults of old age:
“Lord, you know better than I know myself that I am growing older and will some day be old.
Keep me from getting talkative, and particularly from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion.
Release me from craving to try to straighten out everybody’s affairs.
Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details – give me wings to get to the point.
Teach me that occasionally it is possible that I may be mistaken.
Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a saint – some of them are so hard to live with – but a sour old woman is one of the crowning works of the devil.
With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all – but you know, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.” Little Book of Prayers by a Mother Superior who wishes to be anonymous.