What? Me, retire?

Sometimes it hits me that I am actually getting older.

You too, eh?  Thought so.  The years fly by, and our lives rush past.  But what are we rushing towards?  Are we living with purpose, or just filling our lives with activity?

My oldest son will be thirty this year, and my daughter – the baby of the family – will soon be nineteen.  Two of my four children are now married, and Marion and I are looking forward to the birth of our second grandchild in June.  Each of our children has a clear sense of purpose and direction.  They have set their course in life.  Marion and I find that our responsibilities as parents are rapidly diminishing.  We are entering a new season of freedom.  This raises a question.  Assuming that God grants us good health and the Lord delays His return for a few years yet, what kind of life do we want to live in the interim?

This is a question that only people who are somewhat prosperous get to ask themselves.  Last Friday evening, Marion and I, along with maybe 30 other people, enjoyed an evening at Le Nordik Spa in beautiful Chelsea, just north of Gatineau, as guests of an investment company in which we are relatively small-scale participants.   We enjoyed the free drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and found the presentations informative.   We also enjoyed getting to know a delightful couple about our age who run a small resort near Plevna, Ontario. Like us, they are looking to divest themselves of some of their present responsibilities so that they can have more free time.

Our conversation with D. and H., however, revealed both similarities and differences in our approach to investing.  Like them, we have been self-employed for years, have no pension plan, and have relied on investments to provide for our future financial needs.  Like them, we look for investments with inherent value, investments that are based on something more substantial than just the mood swings of the marketplace.  However, unlike them, we don’t place our hope in even the best investments, because we know that our lives are a vapour, and all our plans are subject to God’s sovereign counsels.  In view of this, we place our hope in His faithfulness.

D. and H. told us that their reason for buying into this particular investment was so that they could sleep at night.  When I heard this, I realized that we were coming from a different perspective.   I shared my investment philosophy with them:  I try to pick investments that are fundamentally sound, and then once I’ve made my decision I make an intentional, conscious choice to leave the results in God’s hands.

As a result, I rarely have problems sleeping at night.  After all, in the end I’m not in control anyway.  If God sees fit to turn all my carefully-chosen investment targets belly-up, that is His perfect right.  He is God, after all.  He’ll just have to provide for me some other way – because He did promise that if I seek His Kingdom first, everything else I need will be provided for, one way or another.  So, why should I worry?  I do need to plan, as best I am able – that is my responsibility – but having done that, I need to put the plans in His hands and leave them there.  I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the only approach to investing that leaves me free to devote my time and energy to living for God instead of worrying about my future prospects.  One way or another, my future is with God.  In view of this, worrying about finances (or about anything else) is a total waste of time and energy.  It’s completely unproductive, and Jesus warned that if allowed to take root in a believer’s life it will make the Word of God unfruitful.

Let me be completely clear.  I have no apology for having funds to invest.  As a young man, I thought all capitalists were evil (conveniently overlooking the irony that some of those evil capitalists had helped me financially).  I have come to see that this view is much too simplistic.  Jesus counted both the poor and the wealthy among his followers, and he didn’t condemn those who were wealthy for being prosperous.  What mattered was where they placed their hope.  Our hope is the anchor of our lives; it determines how we live.  As a believer in Jesus, my hope is in the resurrection.  I am looking for a new heaven and earth, the home of righteousness.  I know that I am accountable to God for whatever I do with what He puts into my hands.  Some would say that if I believe this, I should just give it all away.  I used to think this way myself, but I’ve come to see that this is not the only faithful response to God’s gift of prosperity (for more on how my thinking changed about finances, click here).   Marion and I have come to believe that it is part of godly wisdom for us to seek out sound investments, with the goal of being completely financially free in our older age, so that we are able to be a blessing rather than a burden to our children, and so that we are free to serve the Lord with the years that remain to us.

But here again, I find that my vision differs from that of many investors.  Money truly is not all that important to me.  It is really only a means to an end.  Financial freedom allows Marion and I to decide how to use our time.  We are already much closer to this goal than we were a few years ago, and I am enjoying the flexibility of being in a form of business that allows me to take increasing amounts of time off without leaving the business entirely.  I am sure that I will not find it difficult to fill this extra free time.  Most of my friends who are already fully retired tell me that they have plenty to do.  So I have no concerns at all about finding ways of filling my time.

My concern lies in a different direction.  I don’t just want to fill time, I want to fill it well.  Leisure time, after all, is a form of wealth.  It is a trust from God.  What is the point of being financially free if I waste my freedom on living for myself, with no higher goal than satisfying my own desires and whims?  What a waste of all life’s hard-won lessons!  That kind of life is not worthy of the one who gave His life for me, and it will bring nothing but shame and regret when I stand before God’s judgment seat.

Financial freedom is a perfectly valid goal for a disciple of Jesus – but only if I use my freedom to serve others.  Jesus has set me free from the control of sin so that I can bear fruit for Him.  I am so thankful for God’s mercy and goodness that if He grants me financial freedom, I want to use the opportunities that He gives me to be as fruitful as possible.

So, what will Marion and I do as we move closer to financial freedom?  To maintain our health we’ll undoubtedly live at a somewhat slower pace than we did when we were in our thirties, but our intent is to devote our time and energy – and as much of our annual income as we are able – to making disciples and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  Of course, we’ll also take time to enjoy our relationships with our children and grandchildren – after all, God is a God of relationships, and the family is one of the fields of ministry in which He has called us to be stewards.  We will probably also be looking for opportunities to do some travelling.  But because we just aren’t wired to live a life of perpetual leisure, we will be looking for travel opportunities that allow us to use our gifts to strengthen the people of God and serve the needy.

I’m not looking forward to retirement.  How boring!  I was made for the glory of God, so I intend to live out my years seeking His Kingdom and living for His glory.  No, I’m not looking forward to retirement.  I’m looking forward to being redeployed.

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No more plastic Jesus

The other day at work, one of my colleagues passed around a link to a stunning video of the power of quickly-rising floodwaters in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. The video showed a row of cars being first set afloat, then carried downstream, then being deposited in a jumbled heap as the flood passed on.  A few days earlier, Marion and I were powerfully impacted by a news report showing a distraught woman whose house had been flooded.

We can all sympathize intuitively with the victims of disasters such as the recent widespread flooding in Australia, Hurricane Katrina in 2004, or the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.  Such powerful events have the ability to rivet our attention.  They threaten our sense of security.  We are shocked and disturbed as we picture what it would be like for our own lives to be overturned by such unstoppable forces.

We ask ourselves why such things happen, and various explanations are offered, none of them totally satisfying.  Some say “God is just, and such terrible events are His righteous judgments”.  Others say “God is kind and compassionate, and such terrible events are contrary to His will”.  Still others say “There is no God or else such things wouldn’t happen.  Life makes no sense”.

Evidently people in Jesus’ day wrestled with these kinds of issues too.  Luke records that on one occasion Jesus’ disciples came to him with what must have been a hot news story at the time.  Pilate, the Roman governor, had killed some Galileans while they were at worship in the Temple, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar.  When they approached Jesus for a comment on this horrific act of cruelty, He linked it to another contemporary event – the death of eighteen people who were crushed when a tower collapsed on them.  With surgical precision He sliced deftly through the arguments of all three viewpoints listed above.

To those who assumed that the victims must be especially terrible sinners, Jesus said “That’s not your call.  Instead of judging them, judge yourself”.  So if you want to claim that disasters are judgments sent by God on other people, you won’t find any support from Jesus.  He never lets us off the hook, never lets us get away with focussing on someone else’s sins.  He always turns the pointing finger back at the one doing the pointing, and says in effect “Instead of playing judge on someone else’s life, govern your own life”.

On the other hand, for those who assume that a loving God would never judge anyone, Jesus’ comments are equally disturbing.  He deftly sidestepped the question that everybody wanted Him to answer (“Were these events direct judgments from God, or not?”).  Instead, he pointed his listeners to a far more pressing issue, telling them : “The victims of these disasters were no better or worse than you – so wake up and smell the coffee!  Unless you repent, you will perish too”.   Sounds like a warning to me.

What?  Jesus gave warnings of judgment?  Didn’t he teach that God loved everyone?  Absolutely – but He also very clearly and repeatedly spoke of a coming day of reckoning.  He evidently thought his hearers needed to be warned – and if they needed a warning, don’t you think the same might apply to us? Although it may not be a popular view, the truth is that God has never suspended His right to judge.  While it may not be what we want to hear, Jesus indisputably portrayed these terrible disasters as a wakeup call from God – a reminder that none of us knows when or how our life will end or when Christ will return, and that one day we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

But didn’t Jesus come to give His life so that we could be forgiven?  Exactly!  If there won’t be any judgment anyway, why bother?  Jesus isn’t stupid – He didn’t come to sacrifice his life and die a horrible death for nothing.  He gave His life because God is both just and kind.  Because God is kind, He yearns for us as a loving father might agonize over a rebellious teenager, patiently waiting for us to come back to our senses and embrace His mercy.  Yet, because He is just, God cannot allow the sin and evil of a rebellious race to continue forever.  For those who insist on maintaining their independence, the day of reckoning must come.

Disturbing?  Well, yes – but also comforting.  If we are willing to stand in the light of His scrutiny, Jesus’ message is wonderfully good news.  No event, no circumstance is meaningless.  For those with eyes to see, every event points us to God’s coming Kingdom, which has already broken into history in the person of Jesus, and will be fully established when He returns to reign openly as King.  The day of reckoning is not the end of the story.  For those who throw themselves on His mercy – including all the innocent victims of all the injustices of history – Jesus holds out the sure hope of a restored earth and a resurrected, glorified body.  But you can only get there by dealing honestly with the One who gave His life for you, and who knows you better than you know yourself – what you have been, what you are and what you can become.

Upheavals and troublesome events of all kinds are inevitable in a wondrous, beautiful, yet messed-up world.  But the world won’t stay messed-up forever.  For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, life’s disasters serve a redemptive purpose, upsetting our neatly ordered lives so that we can see again our need to humble ourselves and turn to the One who made us, Who has given His life to save us, and Who is coming to rule.

Back in the sixties, the song Plastic Jesus took a tongue-in-cheek poke at popular religion :

I don’t care if it rains or freezes
As long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus
Sitting on the dashboard of my car

A plastic Jesus won’t save you when disaster comes.  The real Jesus, however, most certainly will – that is, if you are willing to go through the fire and the water with him, for the sake of the glory that is to come.

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Humour, honesty, humility and holiness

I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.

Last Wednesday evening at Life Group, we had an absolutely hilarious time talking about childhood adventures and various embarrassing and humorous moments in our lives.   (For those who aren’t familiar with Life Groups, they are small groups of people within a church who meet together in homes to build friendships and support and encourage each other.  Some churches call them small groups, connect groups or cell groups).  Anyway, to return to my story – at Life Group last week, we laughed more than I have laughed in a long time.  It all started when we got talking about raising children, and I mentioned that Marion and I still occasionally hear stories from our children about some childhood misadventure that we knew nothing about.  This started the stories flowing, and for the next hour or so we heard story after story about each other’s lives, punctuated with much hilarity.

This might not seem like a very spiritual way to spend an evening, but as I listened to the stories and the comments that were going round the circle, I realized that in sharing our misadventures, foibles and embarrassing moments, we were doing something very significant.  Telling stories on ourselves in an atmosphere of faith helps us to understand ourselves and one another better.  It gives us an opportunity to grow in love, humility and honesty.  The letter of James – one of the most practical books in the Bible – instructs us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed (James 5:16).  In an atmosphere of faith, laughing together about our foibles can be a form of confession and repentance.  One young woman in the group said that she used to be very concerned about others’ opinion of her.  This of course is very common.  It’s called pride, and is a major stumbling block that keeps us from a healthy, productive relationship with God.  This young woman said she found the shared laughter very freeing.  I believe all of us found the same thing.  It’s hard to stay puffed up with pride when you are laughing at yourself.

I am in the middle of doing year-end bookkeeping for my incorporated IT consulting practice.  I am a stickler for getting my bookkeeping right.  Accurate bookkeeping is important to me because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also important to me because I don’t want to get a nasty surprise down the road, when my corporate tax statement goes to CRA.  If  there are hidden surprises in my company’s books, it could cost me dearly.

The apostle John (1 John 2:27-28) reminds us to let ourselves be instructed by a real, not counterfeit, anointing so that we will be confident and unashamed at the coming of the Lord.   Honesty before our friends – in an atmosphere of humility and dependency on God’s mercy – provides a climate in which the true anointing of the Holy Spirit can operate.  This true anointing teaches us to walk in the light, with no pretending, no masks, genuine love, and therefore no need to be embarrassed or ashamed before the Lord.   The result is holiness – not artificial, external holiness but the real thing.

Having shared our stories and laughed at ourselves and one another, we sang a simple song of thanksgiving, broke bread together and prayed simple, unvarnished prayers for each other before heading home.  The prayers were real because we were being real with each other.  I believe God was pleased with the way we spent our evening.

In fact, I was thinking that we could rename our life group and call it a 4-H club.   Humour – honesty – humility – holiness.  Yeah – 4-H !  Great new name for our life group.  Pat and Beth will be so pleased.

Wait – didn’t someone already think of that name?

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