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I retired in January – the first of January –too short a time yet to figure out exactly what it’s about. Makes it hard to know what to say when people ask: “how’s retirement?” But that’s OK, as it pushes me to think about what it could be, which, in turn, has me thinking about something I learned when I was teaching World Religions at Northwestern College (that’s the one in Iowa, not Chicago).

What I’ve been thinking about in this regard is the traditional Hindu teaching about the phases of life. There are four, they say:

  • Brahmacharya when someone is a student preparing for a career
  • Grihastha when someone is holding down a job while raising a family, or doing it on their own
  • Vanaprastha which literally means “forest dweller,” but is best interpreted in our context as retirement
  • Sannyasa which few enter into, as it describes a life completely given over to the spiritual disciplines necessary to find release from the endless cycle of reincarnation (a central Hindu tenet that underscores how different it is from our more linear Christianity)

What grabs my attention about the third phrase of life is what it suggests about the spiritual possibilities retirement can open up as the weight of vocational responsibilities fade away. A Hindu website describes Vanaprastha this way:

In ancient times, once reaching this stage people would start detaching themselves from family life and the pursuit of material ends by moving to the forest to devote more of their time to spiritual practice, living among other seekers of solace, knowledge, peace, and freedom. Most people have stopped retiring to the forest, instead choosing to spend more time giving back to their communities, as they deepen their spiritual practice.

What are the four stages of Hindu life? – Hindu American Foundation

The goals of Hindu spirituality are different from Christianity – very different – but understanding retirement as a new phase of life offering opportunities to “deepen our spiritual practice” is, it seems to me, a healthy approach to take. At the very least it keeps us from thinking that retirement is simply an anxious limbo into which we enter before our inevitable end. Retirement in this case can be seen, instead, as a Kairos moment for fresh growth and development in our relationship with neighbor and God. It’s not the prelude to an end; it’s an entry point into a fresh take on that which matters most.

It’s not easy for us to think of retirement this way. We are products of a culture that celebrates youthful productivity. Retirement in this case often means being relegated to the not-all-that-useful category, as younger, more vigorous folk step into the productivity line we have just abandoned. The fact that many of my age (that would be just shy of 70) either put off retirement or seek out new ways to prove their usefulness simply underscores how difficult it can be to retire in a culture like ours. Other cultures give greater honor to the elderly, admiring and seeking them out for the wisdom they represent. Ours says: “your time is up.”

Unfortunately, the church is not immune from this kind of thinking. I was involved with several church revitalization projects during my twenty years in pastoral ministry. And the subtext that often drove those projects was – find a way to get more young people involved. That was understandably necessary in circumstances like this. But there was another subtext that undergirded the first — that a vital ministry was only possible with people who had the physical and mental vitality of youth. The old people were welcome to stay, but they needed to take a back seat to the next generation when it came to doing meaningful ministry.

How, I wonder, might this be different if the church – in a true counter-cultural move – programmed themselves not only to be welcoming of “forest dwellers,” but built a vital ministry around them. Because, really, what those of us who are retired need most is a supportive community surrounding our efforts to use this Kairos moment to develop a fresh new approach to our relationship with neighbor and God. This is the milieu in which that happens best; the fertile soil in which an aging body and mind can rediscover the joy of living in that space where God’s gift of eternal life is not just something waiting for us at the end, but the place in which we live and move and have our being.

This is not saying that the old folk have to be in charge (there are good reasons why people retire, and relinquishing control of institutions is one of them), but that a more purposeful approach to finding creative ways for vintage saints to find “knowledge, peace, and freedom” in our relationship with God and each other is, or at least should be, an essential ministry of any church where “forest dwellers” reside.

So “how’s retirement?”

Well, fortunately my wife and I have found a church that values those of us in our later years as there are a number of growth-inducing entry points for us in the life of this community. There is a lot of fertile soil here. How it’s going from this point on will now depend on what we do with it. It’s one thing to have space to grow. What matters most, however, is how we use it.

John Hubers

John Hubers recently retired after serving as a Reformed Church in America missionary partner with the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He and his wife served as a missionary pastoral team with churches in Oman and Bahrain. John also taught missiology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He holds a PhD from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in World Christianity and Global Mission.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Like Yoda! But I would prefer a drier forest.

  • RZ says:

    Church culture-building is tough! It requires a commitment to shalom itself, and that inherently contradicts special interests, those diminishers that keep us from truly knowing each other. I have not forgotten Debra Rienstra’s assertion a week or so ago. Churches are supposed to be diverse, intergenerational, supportive, long-haul COMMUNITIES.

  • Marlyn Visser says:

    When I read John Hubers’ comment on fertile soil, I reminisced Henry and Mary Hubers purchasing an eighty acres in Sioux County during the late 1950s. I recall, he being in his early stage of “Brahmacharya’, bucking brome grass hay bales from grandpa and grandma’s waterway. Now that he has retired from his “Vanaprastha” I wonder if by inviting him to return and have him observe the lust waterway ; would it convincingly assure him that God guided him to his ordained “Sannyasa” ? P.S. I will let you drive the tractor this time John.

  • John Hubers says:

    Wow, Marlin, such memories.

    Grandpa Hubers died when I was 12, so that is dredging deep. But how good to honor that memory.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    John, in a couple of years you might find yourself occasionally helping out and generally encouraging your younger colleagues who are not yet in the woods. That’s what our common friend Johannes Dose is doing.

  • Lisa Vander Wal says:

    Great piece, John (which hit me where I live!). I especially resonated with your last paragraph because we too have found such a faith community.

  • Ken deBoer says:

    We’ve started attending a church where, in the middle of the message, the pastor stopped, pointed at us a retired couple, and said “We’re glad you are here, we need you”. It’s a church plant and our demographic is almost completely missing.

  • John Hubers says:

    That’s great to hear. The churches I served in Bahrain and Oman were all working folk as retirement sent them back to their native countries. I often bemoaned the lack of vintage saints.

  • Ron Wells says:

    I am older than you. I’ve been “in retirement” for seventeen years.

    I like everything you’ve said, and I wish you well. My only problem concerns the matter of health. In the past few years, I have seen friends and former colleagues die, and some in great pain or discomfort. I had one colleague who only made it two years into retirement before an illness befell, and took her soon thereafter.

    So, “how is retirement” is a question whose answer turns in some large part on continued good health.

    As said, I wish you well.

  • John Hubers says:

    Thanks, Ron. And I return that hope to you.

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