There Is No Going Back, Part Two


In response to a question about aging, Keith Anderson, former President of The Seattle School and friend of Dan Allender, wrote a reflection on turning 70-years-old this past summer. As we are exploring the theme of grief this month, it seemed an appropriate time to share this three-part series. It’s true, there is no going back. That in and of itself brings grief, along with the fact that, as Keith described, we are “finite, flawed, and failed” human beings. And yet, there is much to celebrate. Of wisdom learned, unexpected, joyous moments, and a God who knows us most intimately and does not turn away.

Aging: One writer simply calls it a “further journey,” which seems to ring true for my experience of 70 years. Richard Rohr says the first half of life is “no more than finding the starting gate…the warm-up act, not the full journey.” It is, he says, “the raft but not the shore.” “The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.” What would I say to others about aging? It is surprisingly familiar and wonderfully new. And, it is an invitation to something more, something next, something further.

I spent most of my professional life in a culture that never seemed to age. Students arrived in September at age 18, left in May at 21, and came again the following fall at 18. Only the faculty showed signs of graying, slowing, and wrinkling. The students were always in process, seeking to meet themselves as young adults for the first time, forging an identity through new experiences, and asking the great question of vocation or calling, “What’s next?”

I started my pastoral life in an inner-city church 30 miles from Detroit in Pontiac, MI. It was there I met Raye Ann McGregor, a high school sophomore, one of only four or five kids in the “youth group,” which wasn’t more than a handful of individuals. In my sophisticated way I “read” the situation, strategized a way forward, and innovated a new form of ministry, cleverly called “Coke breaks.” I would meet Raye Ann, Brian, Vickie, and the Starkweather girls after school for a Coke; I knew enough to understand that the best ministry often takes place when you “sneak up” on important topics and questions. Not yet ordained, I was fresh from four years of academic preparation for ministry—a mostly faulty pedagogy, by the way. Academics does not lead well to ministry any more than reading a driver’s manual leads to capable driving. Both academics and the manual help you think well, perhaps, but imagination is not enough—the road must be tested.

I had a long letter recently from Raye Ann, from whom I had not heard in decades. She is no longer a high school student with whom I had talked about life, spirituality, and the future as I listened carefully to her energetic and ceaseless curiosity. She is, in fact, now retired from her own chosen career. And she is restless and curious again (still) about “what’s next?” She no longer goes someplace to work, her children are grown, and she has achieved many of her goals, but she is asking the same questions we all asked before college or a first job or our first beginning steps after required education in public schools or private. It is not an uncommon set of questions, because life is surprisingly cyclical. “What’s next?” is always one of life’s best questions, no matter the season or the age. Beginnings can happen more than once. Because of a lifetime of failures, I have been gifted with new beginnings.

Could it be we learn the most about our spirituality from mistakes made, mis-directions, and failures? Could it be the seasons bring us new and fresh times to start again?

As I wandered into the first months of retirement, I was busy, we were busy, setting up a place for us in a new location. New furniture, appliances, and tools. We were busy and distracted by “the new thing” but always sensing the question of ones who seek to follow Jesus: “What’s next?” What do we sense God wants of us in this new place, new season, and new time? For me, the board positions, calls for teaching or writing, consulting or strategizing have not come. But I have found a return to a pastoral calling that started in my college years and led me to pastoral ministry all my life. Their names are Joe, Pat, Alan, John, Greg, Dan, Samuel, Jim, Jason, Marty, Sam, Carol, and Don. They are people I see almost daily as I go to a local lake to fish. Some are there to fish the trout that are stocked, some to walk for exercise, but I have found time and place to be present to these few who would not consider themselves part of a “congregation” but who know me by name, look for me every morning, miss me when I return to the Northwest, ask me to pray for them or talk about family, physical pain, cancer, the intense heat of the desert, the beauty of our surroundings, and Trump.

I am most agitated about the final topic with these folks, mostly men who are mostly Vietnam Vets with stories that can break your heart. They don’t know me as a former president, pastor, author, or somebody from higher education; I am Keith, and they’re glad I show up in the early hours of the morning because we sometimes get to talk. Aging is only an ending if you forget the question of faith: “What’s next?”

What can I tell others about aging? Well, I can say that at 70, I find that I care less and that I care more. I care less about things that now seem to be distractions. I care less about satisfying others whose opinions so often shaped my decisions over my lifetime—bosses, boards, parents, siblings, or friends. I care less about being busy (read: business) and less about justifying how I spend my time. I care more about pace, rest, deep thinking, imponderable questions, paying attention to this moment, and the preciousness of time with those I love. I don’t think I am less missional than I once was, but I am more content with a pace that is less frenetic than the pace which I had somehow used to justify my value and importance.

Some of us drifted into our professions, as Wallace Stegner once said, “as a fly lands on flypaper.” Perhaps that is not what I hoped for my students all those years, but there is something else to be said about life as that which unfolds. Many years ago, I hosted James Houston from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia for a campus ministry conference. I was chair of the event, so I had the privilege to host him at lunch. I knew about him, but he was not yet someone who would be a mentor and important voice to me. I hadn’t planned to ask a brilliant question, but it was given to me as we stood at the University of Washington in a dining room, trays in hand. I said to him (I had listened well to the introduction made of him earlier in the morning): “You are exactly 25 years older than me (I was 50; you can do the math). What do you know that you didn’t know 25 years ago that would have made a difference in the past 25 years?” (I told you it was a brilliant question.) He didn’t skip a beat. “I didn’t know 25 years ago that the most important things that would happen in my life would happen when I was not in control. I have spent the past 25 years trying to be in control.” Enough said.

I called Jim Koch a few months ago. For almost a dozen years we had breakfast together in the coffee shop of the college where we worked. We talked to each other about everything and shared our lives with one another. One day we both heard something that stopped us dead in our tracks: We both heard each other use our busyness as a validation of our worth. In that moment we agreed to a different accountability: We agreed to hold each other accountable by not using our busyness as a measure of importance. We agreed to seek a spirituality that was more about being present and obedient to the Spirit than about the books written, classes taught, clients seen, miles flown, budgets met, dollars raised, decisions made, and strategies set and fulfilled. Each of these might have value, but we committed ourselves to honor the biblical view of Kairos time (or fulfilled time, or time in the present) rather than Chronos time, which is simply the passing of minutes. We are 1,685 miles apart but meet every month now by phone to return to those rich moments when we were too busy. Companionship is what I care for in my season of this “further journey.” I have lost friends, left some behind, and found the gift of new friends. One of my friends told me that the hardest part of retirement is that “the phone stops ringing.” His words are accurate. And yet, the ones who call and whom I call are necessary in new and yet to be discovered ways.

Two of my greatest friends are writers I have rarely talked to in person. One died recently, which caused me to consider the consistency of his 80+ years of life, spirituality, and ministry. What he wrote 40 years ago is still true and was true for him until the end—again in ways yet to be discovered. Another changed her path, her spirituality, and her calling. What once was valued became newly enculturated and “fresh” to her experience. I am torn between these two because both found persistence in opposite ways. I am drawn to the former and am, at times, frustrated by those who turn away from beginnings and shed what once was life-giving. But still, both have found their own ways toward the third-third of life (and death). What have I honored and kept and valued all my days, and what has taken new forms, new wineskins, and new pathways? Another of the great questions. As our politics collapse into divisive attacks about “true American” ways of conservatism versus the progressive forms, I ask: What do I still carry in my backpack with me, and what is left behind for the new? I find myself drawn especially to people whose convictional life has guided them for the decades. We all change over time, evolve, and grow. And yet, there are commitments that are deeply rooted or we are blown over in the winds that rage in the storms of our families, lives, culture, and history.

An old Hasidic saying is, “Old age is winter to the unlearned. To the wise it is harvest.” Wendy wisely says, “Old age is like painting; it’s what you choose to see, look at, and focus on. You can focus on pain, aching bodies, and limitations, or the beauty, promise, and possibility of what is before you. And we get to do it with a long history of seeing how God has worked to bring us to this time and place.” With Mark Twain, I can say, “I have sampled this life.” With the apostle I can say, “It’s in Christ we find out who we are and what we are meant to do.”

Most of all, I believe aging is learning to enjoy what’s left. I don’t mean fatalistically accepting whatever strands of hair still grow from tired follicles or the few non-arthritic joints that are still strong; I mean instead that we enjoy what has sustained us and those who remain friends and our beloved ones. Stegner’s character in The Spectator Bird “says that when asked if he feels like an old man, he replies he does not, he feels like a young man with something the matter with him.” I understand the feeling.

I continue to look ahead even as I embrace the opportunity to focus on what some see as smaller things or limited things. I choose to think it is a sacramental way of seeing.

We learn it well only if we practice sabbath. Wendell Berry wrote, “Sabbath observance invites us to stop. It invites us to rest. It asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues without our help. It invites us to delight in the world’s beauty and abundance.” At other birthdays I thought the world needed my help. It drove me to preach, teach, parent, write, serve, challenge, change, all of which was something needed, I suppose, to keep me engaged in important work. And yet…without a sabbath way of life, we stay driven and driving and believe in our own importance. You know people like that—hard to be around for very long, delighted by their own value to the world, annoying in their arrogance. Aging seems to require the slowing down of humility which, ironically enough, creates wisdom.

In the later years, we downsize, or we regret it. We must carry and move furniture, boxes of books, clothes, pictures, equipment, and memories unless we learn the great lesson of leaving the past behind in formative ways. For decades I carried Italian-made Fabiano mountain climbing boots that stood on the summits of Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, and Little Tahoma in the Cascades. Three knee surgeries later I knew it was time to let go of those boots but to keep the photo of me atop Columbia Crest proudly in my Chicago Cubs hat and backpack, which I hope will matter to a grandchild one day in the future. Before I retired, I started to downsize my library, knowing the thousands of books I once owned were no longer read and my space would be small. I kept only those I know I will read again. (I have started, but I also find inexpensive books on, an app for those who left behind a full salary.) We downsize the material things, but there is something as well about “leaving the past behind” so we can “press on to win toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” I don’t know what you need to leave behind, but I find some of the lyrics from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song a very wise place to start:

And I can tell by the way you’re talking
That the past isn’t letting you go
But there’s only so long you can take it all on
And then the wrong’s gotta be on its own

And when you’re ready to leave it behind you
You’ll look back, and all that you’ll see
Is the wreckage and rust that you left in the dust
On your way to the jubilee

And I can tell by the way you’re listening
That you’re still expecting to hear
Your name being called like a summons to all
Who have failed to account for their doubts and their fears

They can’t add up to much without you
And so if it were just up to me
I’d take hold of your hand, saying come hear the band
Play your song at the jubilee.

I used to sit with first-year college students in mid-November just as they prepared to go home for Thanksgiving, many of them for the first time that year. My assignment was to talk about how to go home again. I mostly invited them to talk about their worries or fears and concerns: “I don’t know if they’ll see me as different. I feel like I’ve grown so much.” “I don’t know if my old friends will try to draw me into the old things I used to do that I don’t value anymore.” I talked about some other things:

  • Your parents may have changed your room into an exercise gym for their use; you may sleep on the floor now
  • Your siblings have taken favored status position and will see you as a competitor now
  • Your old friends have also found new friends and may be concerned you’ll still want to do the old things you all did in high school.

Mostly we talked about going home as you came to college: with excitement, openness, curiosity, humility, aware that you are in a major transition that needs to emerge and unfold—there was no roadmap then and there is no roadmap now. If someone gives you a roadmap for aging, hope that it’s only printed on one side so you can find use for the back side; the front side will have little value.

Aging is hard work. You hurt every day, seemingly in different parts of your body than yesterday, so we learn a spirituality of suffering and limitations. “For when I am weak, I am strong,” the man said. It is more aspirational than achieved some days, but I think his words are accurate. In my 60s and now 70s, I am living with what I cannot control or change or fix. The list is long. What’s left is a shorter list, but one does not measure worth by weight or mass or quantity. I have fewer friends but precious ones. I have fewer phone calls but treasured ones. I have fewer experiences but deeper ones. In these years I find myself coming home more readily and even greedily. Coming home, I have learned, means I stop moving away. Busyness has been my way of moving away. Now I come home more often, which poetically and ironically speaking means I am less homeless than I once was when I was “important.”

There are longings, regrets, unfulfilled dreams, unresolved conflicts, and pain to be endured, of that I am sure. Stegner wrote, “It reminds me too much of how little life changes: how, without dramatic events or high resolves, without tragedy, without even pathos, a reasonably endowed, reasonably well-intentioned man can walk through the world’s great kitchen from end to end and arrive at the back door hungry.” That too is what aging has become for me. Not bitterness or enormous loss, but awareness that when I am finished with time, I will still want more time to complete or fix or resolve or simply to still experience what there is. I am not yet content to die and be finished; the reason I hold my faith with such ferocity is that I believe in my bones that resurrection is more real than all that is, that when my body says “it is finished,” my spirit will just be getting started.

I give good gifts. It is itself a gift I have. My grandson just graduated high school and left for a two-year program which will lead to him becoming a firefighter. We gave him a check because good grandparents always give money. I gave him a water cannon squirt gun that shoots 70 feet as a means of stress relief. I actually gave him two, one for himself and the other for his roommate. I made a deal with Josh, who will soon blast Benjamin from a hiding place to start a summer of water attacks. But I also asked my son-in-law, a firefighter, what piece of equipment would have meaning for him. There is a belt a firefighter wears around their coat which holds the radio—the source of protection, for victims and for themselves, in the midst of a burning building. The radio can save their life. A firefighter at Jon’s station hand-makes such belts and tools them with the name of the station house (Black Butte, OR) and the name of the firefighter (Benjamin Carl White). We had a family gift-giving time, but no one was prepared for what was to come. I told Benjamin the story of how the belt came to be, and he dropped his head and said nothing for almost 10 minutes. He choked back his tears and looked at this symbol of his chosen calling, his future, and his journey into adulthood. We had the sense as a family to let the moment bring all the emotions it needed. He told us later he saw it as a symbol of leaving behind the childhood he enjoyed as he looked ahead to the future which God has called him to. “I was born for this,” he said to his grandmother. Looking back is one of our greatest gifts as we age. We can see generations past and generations future. As we give good gifts, we are, at the same time, receiving the gift of glimpses into tomorrow, postcards from the future.

We are on Penn Cove on Whidbey Island as these words are written. The VRBO is right on the edge of the water, which is our front yard. We have been here before and love the sounds, smells, and sights of mountains and water that is the home to a mussel farm where sea lions romped in our front yard last night and this morning. It is a vacation rental. Perhaps that explains a missing piece: There is no clock in the walls of this place. Not on the stove or kitchen walls or anywhere. It is as if time is not meant to be a quantity to be studied or watched carefully or somehow “used.” In my retirement, I have come to know time as an entirely different dimension. I no longer am bound by the clock and the meetings, appointments, and responsibilities which it measures. But I know there is another clock which also will bring an end to time as I now know it. One brings freedom and sometimes a silly giddiness that I can’t tell you what day it is because I am not checking to see my clock or calendar. It also brings a sobered awareness that time is finite. I don’t suppose I used to believe that—not for me. I knew it to be true because I was a pastor who buried dozens of people, young and old, a baby, and child. But I never lived my life making decisions based on my finitude. I have a “bucket list,” as the popular phrase goes, but I do not plan based on that list. I am content to dream…yes, even the old dream dreams.

To dream means to envision that which is yet to come. One can do that with faith or with fear, with cynicism and bitterness, or with hope and contentment. To celebrate my 70th birthday, we watched On Golden Pond, one of the great movies about aging and family. It was to be Henry Fonda’s last film and one of Katherine Hepburn’s best. He was the cynic, obsessed with death and finitude, she was filled with a love of the remaining moments. At one point he had a slight heart attack and fell to the porch floor, dropping a box of Ethel’s (Katherine Hepburn) mother’s china. She drops to her knees thinking he is dying and tells him she sees him dressed in his blue suit at the funeral home. Wryly, he asks, “How did I look?” “Not good, Norman, not good.” She begins to cry and then says reflectively that death doesn’t seem so odd anymore, more like something she has known of life itself. We do not know the moment of our passing. It will come when its time is right. Of this I am sure, “God is who He said he is,” and will be as present in that moment of death as in our moment of birth—for life does not end at our death. As birth was the transition from the darkness of a watery womb to the harsh brightness and sounds of life, so death will be a passage, another passage from life to more life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die…” Let it be.

I have had the privilege of knowing some people who ask good questions. Dave Brandt is one of those. He hired me once and didn’t hire me another time, but I tricked him and got him to serve for a decade on my board, where he became my boss all over again. His curiosity is seemingly endless. Conversations with him aren’t lectures, orations, or treatises, but true discourse. I don’t know how he does it, but he always stirs the pot of good conversation. It’s not that we “settle” things or (re)solve problems or do more than open a door to more questions. That makes his curiosity such a gift. I hope you have people like that who are able to embrace that which may not be “covered” in a conversation but “uncovered” and left to simmer. One of the great questions in my life came from an African man who said his village didn’t greet one another with our question, “How are you?” but asked, instead, “Are you at peace?” Our nation faces a crisis in listening because we have lost not only the civility to ask good questions, but the curiosity to believe the other has much to say. Wendell Berry’s novels and poetry have always invited me to the place of curiosity and discourse with worthy questions. In the older years, we have time enough to sit with the questions that have long puzzled us. Berry wrote,

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

In old age we can sing because we have learned to rest in not knowing. My list of unanswered questions about which I am baffled is long and interesting.

I wonder what your list might include?