A task for the second half our our lives

By Ruth Burgner

Austin Boggan has spent 24 years serving on the mission field in Asia and Central and South America. A dear friend and former missionary of The Mission Society, he “attended” one of our staff gatherings via speakerphone last year. After our president, Dick McClain, greeted Austin, Dick asked him, “What would you like to say to the staff?” Enthusiastically, Austin belted out, “Just don’t stop!”

At that time, Austin was 84 years old and was (and is) still preaching. In fact, under his leadership, his church had recently started a new Hispanic congregation. “Stopping” didn’t look like anything Austin planned to do anytime soon. His life’s story is a tale of energetically, winsomely, and relentlessly
following God.

Author Richard Rohr says that, unlike Austin, many of us never really inhabit our lives. In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Rohr describes two distinct life tasks. The first task, he says, is to build our “container,” by which he means to establish our identity, security, community, and relationships. The second life task, he says, is to “find the contents that the container was meant to hold” — in a sense, to discover our truest selves. According to Rohr, sadly, “a high percentage of people never get to the contents of their own lives.”

Regardless of whether we agree with Rohr’s analogy, it’s intriguing to think about a “second life task” opening to us as we age — that our later years would not be just a time of slowing and loss, but when we might come even more fully alive to who God created us to be. Think of the ever-vigilant John Wesley in his 80s trudging for hours through snow to collect money for the poor. “Don’t stop,” Wesley also might tell us.

When I first began work at The Mission Society, one of our missionaries was Dr. Tom Horne. At 80, he served a one-year term in the Russian Far East. Then at 85, he re-enlisted and returned to Russia. Dr. Horne had had a sterling career in education and a rich family and church life. But he said (through tears), it was only when he heard about the opportunity to go to Russia and tell Russian schools about Jesus that “I finally knew why I had been born!”

“As the physical dimension of life diminishes, the spiritual dimension commonly increases,” writes Joan Chittister in The Gift of Years. “In fact, the end-time of life is one of its best, one of its most important.”

I have a dear friend and mentor who prays for hours each day and teaches on the life of prayer. At 78, she has suffered many losses and now is encountering significant physical challenges. Even so, she routinely tells me, “It is just marvelous to get old with Jesus! The older we get, the more frail and weak our bodies become, the more we realize how totally dependent we are on the Lord.”

And this is the point, isn’t it? As we walk with the Lord through the years and allow him to detach us from our first-half-of-life wishes for affirmation, safety, power, and control, we begin to see much more clearly that we have been utterly dependent on him all along. And provided we keep our face turned toward him, he will never stop forming us into his likeness.

C.S. Lewis writes, “‘Make no mistake,’ [Jesus] says, ‘if you let Me I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in my hands, that is what you are in for. … You have free will, and if you choose, you can push me away. But if you do not push me away, understand that … I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect — until my Father can say without reservation that he is well pleased with you. … This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.’”

Ruth A. Burgner is the senior communications director of The Mission Society.