Jeff Haanen

Category

Culture

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CultureSpiritual FormationWork

Anxious America (Part 3)

Advocate for greater access to mental health care through the workplace.

“In my way of thinking, the most important kind of medicine we can practice is the kind of medicine for those who otherwise wouldn’t otherwise receive care,” says Abraham Nussbaum, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who also works at Denver Health, a public safety net hospital. But because mental health services are often not covered by insurance – or are arbitrarily limited by most insurance plans – those who receive mental health care are predominantly wealthy and white. “This is a long-standing social disaster,” says Nussbaum.  

One solution to improve access to mental health care is the growing number of options provided through the workplace. 

It’s becoming more common for employers to offer mental health support to their employees as a workplace benefit. For example, workplace chaplaincy has been a life-line for many blue collar employees. Corporate Chaplains of America serves over 500,000 people and their families nationwide. Marketplace Chaplains employs 2,025 chaplains who serve at 5,461 locations and touch nearly 1.3 million employees, family members and patients. 

There are also a growing number of tech tools and communities available.  Stephen Hays, the founder of What If Ventures, a mental health venture capital firm, had an encounter with Jesus that freed him from a lifestyle of addiction. Today he invests in companies that move people from mental illness to mental wellness to mental performance. 

His research has found that the mental health ecosystem is vast. Companies such as Calm, Headspace, Mindstrong, and Pear Therapeutics have reached substantial size.  Types of companies include digital therapeutics, telehealth, business-to-business benefit providers, peer-to-peer platforms, non-tech businesses, measurement and testing companies, and companies focusing on mental health, wellness and sleep.

Some Christian companies, such as Abide, a biblical medication and sleep App, have reached millions of people, as have devotional apps like Pray.com. Others are just launching into the space between mental health and soul care. William Norvell, a former partner at Sovereign’s Capital, recently launched Paraclete, “The World’s First Soulcare Platform for the Workplace.” Norvell, who has also struggled with addiction, says, “In seasons of life where I had community I was always able to find pockets of light creeping into the darkness.” Paraclete offers businesses “on-demand, confidential conversations” through coaches who help employees with spiritual and emotional needs. 

Whereas government leaders have focused largely on equitable access to public services and preventing more severe cases of mental health like suicide, workplaces are often becoming a primary place to advocate for and receive mental health care. 

Rediscover the link between emotional health and spiritual formation. 

“It’s impossible to be spiritually mature by remaining emotionally immature.” This punchy subtitle comes from Pete Scazzero’s best-selling book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Scazzero, his protege Rich Villodas, author of The Deeply Formed Life, and a host of others are sounding the bell to dissolve the barriers between emotional and spiritual health. 

Brian Gray, the VP of Formation at Denver Institute for Faith & Work believes that growing anxiety calls for a deeper daily spirituality based on the classic spiritual disciplines. “It was the wise man who put Jesus’ words into practice that built his life on the rock,” referencing the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ call to practices, not just doctrine. Because work is a major source of anxiety for most people, a part of Gray’s work is forming leaders to live out the spiritual disciplines at work, further dissolving the barriers between daily life, emotional health and spiritual vibrancy. 

Others are drawing on medieval traditions like Ignatian spirituality to address anxiety and mental health issues that church leaders face. Patti Pierce, a former staff member at Menlo Church (formerly Menlo Presbyterian Church) started a nine-month program called SoulCare after seeing several colleagues fall to sexual temptation. The program, which introduces ministry leaders to practices on interior freedom, paying attention to the movements of the soul, and living a “with God” life, has spread to Orange County and Denver, under the name the Praxis. “I found that the movements of the Ignatian exercises, which are based in the life of Jesus,” says Pierce, “really helped people experience Jesus, not just have cognitive information about him.”

The renaissance of spiritual formation, led in the past generation by leading figures like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, addressed the growing evangelical desire for a deeper spiritual life past preaching and singing on Sunday. Today, those threads are being rediscovered as a lifeline for those searching for more enduring answers than what popular psychology and self-help books can provide alone. 

Our hearts and souls, our emotions and our spiritual lives, are woven together and need to be addressed together. “Ignoring our emotions is turning our backs on reality,” says Scazzero. “Listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God.” 

You’re Not Alone 

In an age of increased anxiety and depression, where mental health struggles seem to be an almost universal experience, Christ uniquely offers the world neither distraction nor temporary remedies, but everlasting good news: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid,”(John 14:27).  As a result, I believe the church’s unique contribution lies at the intersection between therapy and spiritual formation, mental health resources and the life of God.

The church also uniquely offers an anchor for a tormented soul. “The deepest truth of who you are is that you are known and loved by God,” says Kinghorn to those struggling with chronic anxiety or mental illness. “And nothing about your situation can possibly change that.” 

As I think about my own anxiety, I still experience the tingling neck, racing heart, and shortness of breath. Honestly, it still feels like there’s something wrong with me. 

But I’m learning not to avoid it and flee. Instead, I try to exercise, do meaningful work, be patient with others, and open up to friends. I’m leaning into the slow disciplines of naming my feelings, practicing welcoming prayer, and seeking community. And when I need help, I now just ask for it. 

As I do, I’m reminded of a central truth of the historic Christian faith: we are not alone.  

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This article first appeared in The Reformed Journal. 

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CultureTheologyWork

Easter is More than a Metaphor (Op-Ed for the Denver Gazette)

When I think of Easter, I think of the pink crabapple trees blossoming in early April along the north side of Caley Avenue in my home town of Littleton. 

I think of Easter egg hunts on budding green church lawns packed with girls in pastel dresses and boys in clip-on ties, carrying baskets filled with eggs, chocolate, and plastic green grass (that ends up on my carpet). I think of Easter brunch: fruit, egg bakes, and mimosas. And I think of leisurely walks through garden centers, smelling fresh soil, fresh seeds and new beginnings. 

Yet for me at least, the metaphor of Easter as a mere symbol is falling short. This year was simply filled with too much pain. 

This last year, I remember looking into a hazy, yellow sky and feeling the ash fall on my face from raging Colorado wildfires. I remember a friend of mine telling me about the piercing anxiety he felt as he watched from his balcony the dumpster fires move closer to home after the George Floyd protests. I remember walking along Civic Center Park and running my fingers along the splintered plywood now covering the windows of the old Denver Post building on 101 West Colfax. I remember the ghostly feeling of walking through an empty 16th Street Mall on a sunny April afternoon. I remember the tears my daughters cried when I told them their summer swim team, the Franklin Fish, had been canceled.

And this week, I remember the 10 lives lost in the Boulder King Soopers shooting, opening yet again the 20-year-old wound of Columbine that casts a shadow over our “best-state-to-live-in” reputation. 

Springtime sentimentality is no match for the harsh finality of death. 

And yet, Easter is not a metaphor. 

American poet and novelist John Updike once wrote:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

It was as His body;

If the cells dissolution did not reverse, the molecules

Reknit, the amino acids rekindle

The Church will fall.

In other words, the Christian church and faith rests on a single, historical event: the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body. 

Updike writes, “Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping transcendence,” alluding to the categorization of Christian faith as myth. The resurrection was not like a spring garden nor a parable of well wishes. Christians assert, “the same valved heart / that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then / regathered out of enduring Might.” 

The early apostles struggled to believe in an actual, physical resurrection. Thomas famously said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” John the apostle reports Jesus’ reply: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 

The New Testament authors were making a clear claim: Jesus was no ghost. He could be touched. He ate food with his disciples. He had a body. Here was no ancient mythology of life, death and rebirth. Death itself was being unraveled by the Author of Life. 

Denver can feel like a polarized place, like the rest of our country. Yet on Easter morning, men and women across the city declare a single truth with a rare unity. 

From the Episcopalians at Saint John’s Cathedral to the evangelicals of Fellowship Denver Church; from the multicultural worshippers at Colorado Community Church to the Pentecostals at Potter’s House; from the Anglicans at Wellspring Church in Englewood to the Wesleyans at Trinity Methodist tucked between skyscrapers at 18th and Broadway; from the professionals at Cherry Creek Presbyterian in the Tech Center to the homeless at Denver Rescue Mission to the online worshippers quarantined in their homes from Northglenn to Castle Pines — for one morning, each echo the words of an angel, “Do not be afraid, for I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see.” 

So what? What does the resurrection mean for a city still aching with emptiness, loss, and pain?

I believe it means three things. First, it means death is not the end. Second, it means that Christ has come not just to give meaning to life after death, but to bring his life to this world. His bodily resurrection is the beginning point of a new way to be human. And third, it means that the hard work ahead of reopening restaurants, helping students catch up, and rebuilding our economy is indeed work worth doing, because God seems to think this world is worth saving (John 3:16). 

Easter may not be a metaphor, but it is a new beginning. It reminds us that today is a time to plant, to hope, and to begin new projects that can bloom, like a budding crabapple blossom lining the streets of a waiting city. 

Jeff Haanen is the founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the 5280 Fellowship, a nine-month experience in spiritual formation, professional development, and civic engagement for emerging leaders in Denver. This op-ed first appeared in the Denver Gazette.

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Culture

Race and the Gospel: Lament and Hope

The week after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, I got on the phone to call several of my Black friends to see how they were doing. One of our alumni from the 5280 Fellowship, a Black woman working for the state of Colorado, shared her devastation. “I’m not sure how to describe how I’m doing,” she confessed. “I’ve felt numb for most of the week and today the tears won’t stop flowing. I find myself in a space of deep lament, anger, and hurt yet again.”

A day later, I talked to my friend Darius, formerly an executive pastor and now a leader at a local credit union. We spoke on a day when thousands of protestors gathered in Denver’s civic center. “Jeff, thanks for asking about me. I feel…angry, and I want to join them. But tonight, I’m not going to. I have to be in this for the long haul,” he said to me. “After the news cycle and protests end, and most individuals go back to their norms, my Black family would still be navigating many of these racial tensions.” His voice was laced with weariness and pain.

These two conversations reminded me of sessions in the 5280 Fellowship we do each year on implicit racial bias with senior leaders in Denver. I remember Brandon Washington, the lead pastor of the Embassy Church in Denver, telling us the first time as a teenager his dad gave him “the talk.” And the “talk” was not about girls — it was about how to respond as a large Black teenager in Texas when being pulled over by the police. This was a talk my father never had to give to me.

My mind also flashed back to a beautiful, yet heart-wrenching, conversation we had years earlier with Professor Dayna Matthew, a CU law professor who decided to take a job at the University of Virginia. “I’m just tired,” she said, referring to the experience of being a Black woman in Colorado. “Being Black in Colorado is constantly exhausting. I just don’t want to explain my painting of buffalo soldiers to every person who walks in my front door.”

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” says the Psalmist. “How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1-2). The heart-wrenching prayer of David mirrors the pain I’ve heard from our African American friends and colleagues in the Denver Institute community.

And considering the history of Jim Crow laws, redlining, mass incarceration of Black communities, and the persistent racial divisions, even in the church, this lament and frustration is understandable. (This video from Phil Vischer on Race in America is worth watching twice, and then sharing with others.) In the words of Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn, America is complicated

Christians believe that all people are made in the image of God, that all are loved by the Savior, and that sin has seeped its way both into both our hearts and our systems. Christians long for the day when people from every tribe and tongue and nation will worship the Lamb who was slain (Revelation 7:9). Yet we also believe that God calls all his people to “learn to do right; seek justice for the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we are committed to the breadth of the gospel, which means that Jesus’ death and resurrection heals both our distorted hearts and unjust systems, ranging from workplace policies to cultural norms. Now is a time to tell the truth, to seek justice for the oppressed, and to remind ourselves that the gospel of reconciliation must include issues of race, lest we be guilty of believing a truncated gospel. Truth and reconciliation belong together.

Yet, in humility, as an organization that’s been predominantly white and that’s also located in a predominantly white state, we believe that now is the time to learn and do the long, slow work of responding to racial injustice. We have homework to do. 

For me personally, this means reading books like Free at Last? The Gospel in the African American Experience, A Testament of Hope, The New Jim Crow, The Essential Writings of the American Black Church, and the forthcoming Reading the Bible While Black. It means watching films with loved ones like 12 Years a Slave, Just Mercy, Selma, The Forgiven, Green Book, and Harriet. It means pursuing real friendships across racial lines. It means talking to our children about the history of slavery in America. At work it means taking renewed steps to look at whom we have on stage, whom we have in leadership, and how we, corporately, “hate evil, love good, and establish justice at the gate” (Amos 5:15). It also means acknowledging disparities  in power in our workplaces, the vast differences in how we experience our work, and the willingness to rethink vocation from a broader lens. 

And as a Christian — in contrast to the secular narratives filling our news feeds — it also means embracing our gospel, which is a gospel of both redemption and hope. Christ himself is making “one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15-16). Though divisions rack our society, the deepest truth is that, in Christ, we are one new humanity.

“Your call reminded me to process all of this in light of the gospel,” a Black friend recently told me, “and for that I am grateful.” 

I too am deeply grateful for Christ-centered Black leaders who are teaching me to see, think, lament, labor for justice, and endeavor to look again at work, culture, and race in light of the gospel.

CultureTheologyWork

Known By our Love? | 2019 DIFW Annual Report

Hi Friends,

As we were preparing this year’s annual report, we could have never predicted that three weeks in March would change everything. A virus spreads, millions are out of a job, and as the economy shuts down, nearly everybody’s daily work has changed. This is a time to lament. But at Denver Institute, we also believe it is a time to love. 

In this year’s report, I ask: are Christians in our society today known for their love? At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, our mission is to form men and women to serve God, neighbor, and society through their daily work. Leaning on Jesus’ Great Commandment, we believe our daily work is an opportunity to love God, serve our neighbors, and demonstrate the gospel to an unbelieving world. 

We live in uncertain times. However, as you’ll see in this report, there are reasons for hope:

  • Angela Evans, a 5280 Fellowship alumna and journalist at the Boulder Weekly, shares about her vocation to highlight vulnerable communities through her writing;
  • Last year, over 1,000 people came to events last year covering topics like “God, Energy and the Environment” and “Teaching Character Formation in Public Schools”;
  • Denver Institute was even mentioned by the New York Times as a thought leader in the national faith and work movement.

As we move into 2020 and beyond, would you consider financially supporting the Denver Institute community? Your gift goes directly toward creating more podcasts, short courses, events, publications, and transformative experiences. Your giving forms a community that can respond with grace, truth, and love to the greatest challenges of our time through their vocations. 

Thank you for your generosity. As the nations are in an uproar, my prayer is that we might, “Be still and know that I am God…The LORD Almighty is with us” (Psalm 46). 

With deep trust,

Jeff Haanen

Founder and Executive Director

PS. You can give by returning the enclosed envelope or by visiting denverinstitute.org/give.

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CultureEducation

School Closures, Coronavirus, and How to Take the First Steps Educating Your Kids at Home

Your kids are home. You are home. You both need to get work done. What on earth does working and homeschooling look like? 

Millions of American kids are, for the first time ever, being homeschooled. As it turns out, I happen to be married to a brilliant thought leader in the homeschooling world, Kelly Haanen, the director of the homeschool enrichment program at Ascent Classical Academy in Lone Tree, Colorado. 

In this guest “post,” Kelly sent a note to parents of full-time K-12 students at Ascent classical academy, giving them tips about how to approach homeschooling for the first time. 

If you find yourself trying to reorganize your daily schedule around your work and your kid’s school work – all day long – this article is for you. 

As a homeschool parent and director of Ascent’s Homeschool Enrichment program, I want to offer you all a word of encouragement, and a few ideas, as you approach the next month of facilitating your students’ education at home.

First, I genuinely believe that amidst the chaos, we have been given an opportunity. For a few weeks we will be forced to slow down, to be present with our sons and daughters, and to learn alongside them. We chose to send our kids to a classical school because we care about what they are learning and who they are becoming. Second, balancing your own work responsibilities and their school work may be tough. But let me encourage you: you will be given tools and resources from Ascent teachers, you as parents are capable facilitators of your child’s learning, and the ideas below will help you create a flow and schedule for your day.

There are a million great ideas and resources out there; you may have seen the colorful daily schedules and offers for free online learning. Many of you are experienced teachers or previous homeschool parents. I don’t intend to add to the noise; I simply want to offer a few practical ideas that help us through our homeschool days.

I have four kids learning Pre-k through 6th grade material. I work part-time, and I’ve found that daily rhythms and structure are essential to keeping us sane!

Daily Structured School-Time Tips

1. Space. You don’t need to create an elaborate school room (much of our school day happens at the kitchen table). You do want to make sure you have a space where supplies are easily accessible and students can work without being distracted. Turn off whatever screens you can. If creating this space seems difficult in your home, give them headphones with classical music to help them focus.

2. Schedules. Many of you will be working from home and will need to find creative ways for you and your kids to get work done. Routines and consistency will be your best friends. Decide on the best time of day for you to give your kids 1-2 hours of attention, (note: most kids learn best in the morning hours) then stick to it daily, even if it means waking them up in the morning. Your older students will be able to work independently for much of their school time, but your younger students will need your help. My kids love to use this timer as we move through our school day.

3. Rewards. It’s okay to offer them some motivation! Make it simple – chocolate chips for math problems, stickers for completed work, extra outside time if they finish early, a learning game on the iPad, or more of anything that motivates them.

4. Recess. As you plan for your school time, make sure to include some breaks. Give them snacks and make them move their bodies. Send them to the backyard or download a workout app to use when they need to get moving.

What about the rest of the day??

Finding a few hours a day for structured learning still leaves us with lots of hours with kids stuck at home. While there are plenty of ways to spend unstructured time (creating, cooking, cleaning, reading, playing, pretending, exercising, educational apps, playing instruments, listening to music) most of us will need consistent time each day to work when our kids don’t need our attention. Here are two daily essentials in our home.

1. Outside time. Give your kids significant time outdoors. Bundle them up if it’s cold. Give them an umbrella if it’s raining. Send them to the backyard. Let them ride their bikes around the block. Tell them to collect leaves or pull weeds.  

2. Quiet (alone) time. I can’t stress this one enough. Plan in at least an hour when you send everyone to a separate space. My kids devour audiobooks during this time (download the Libby app to check out free audiobooks from the library). In our home this is a no-screen time, but they can play with Legos, puzzles, draw, knit, read or anything alone and quiet. We keep it simple and consistent.

Lastly, let them get bored – without a screen. It might be painful for a day or two, but you’ll be surprised how quickly they start coming up with ideas on their own.

My prayer is that none of you find yourselves exhausted and overwhelmed. Spend some time this weekend creating a plan with your kids. Developing a daily rhythm that works for your family is key! Reach out to teachers with questions. Ask me or a friend for help. Then go ahead and find some good movies on Netflix (Planet Earth, PBS programs, or movies based on classical literature are a great place to start) and relax! 

This too can be a time to learn the true, do the good, and love the beautiful. Feel free to reach out with any questions.

Your advocate,

Kelly Haanen, Director of Homeschool Enrichment

Ascent Classical Academy

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CultureWork

The Coronavirus Sabbath: 9 Things to Do When Everything Is Canceled

Everything is shutting down. Not just major league sports, but swim practices, rec centers, local libraries, and office buildings. And public schools. In my home state of Colorado, even public schools are shutting down for at least two weeks.

This causes lots of problems. For instance, how are workers like barbers, mechanics, and home health care workers – those who can’t work from home – supposed to not only stay safe, but also care for kids who are home from school? Also, how long should employers hang on to employees in the midst of drastic short term revenue cuts? These are big questions that need answers.

However, for a brief window, the Coronavirus also presents an opportunity. As I write this, my office building has shut down, all of my kid’s soccer and swimming practices are canceled, and my calendar is opening pretty fast for the next two weeks. The cancelations have caused both anxiety and sadness in our home (we really enjoy seeing people in our community!) but I wonder: could we also see this unique time as an opportunity to deeply rest and restore our souls?

On the dusty sands of the Sinai desert, Moses descended from the mountain with a message from God. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8-9).

God gives the command to take a day of rest for three reasons. The first is trust. Sabbath is a chance to reorient our hearts toward trusting that God is the ultimate provider. It is an invitation to lay down ultimate trust in our money or our work as the source of security, and to release the chains of anxiety and restore us to our proper place as created beings, dependent on God the Father for every good gift (James 1:17).

The second is identity. Why not work every day of the week? Only slaves do that, suggests the Bible (Deuteronomy 5:15). God is the one who has redeemed his people from slavery, and Sabbath was to be a continual reminder of their liberty and identity as God’s people. Forced slow-downs like this current pandemic make me ask myself: have I submitted myself to a yoke of self-imposed slavery?

The third is justice. The Sabbath law includes a command to allow those with the least cultural power (children, servants, foreigners) to rest so that they “may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12). In the midst of Coronavirus, this word is particularly poignant, as many tech workers will “work from home,” yet many with the least power will have far less ability to choose their hours and work location. Issues of justice and power will quickly rise to the surface as the global economy begins to hemorrhage.

If you are one of those who finds yourself with more time on your hands in the next two weeks, what would it look like to take this time and use it intentionally as a Sabbath rest?

Here are nine Sabbath practices to consider as the world begins to shut down for the coming weeks:

1. Prepare.

The Jewish “Day of Preparation” was a weekly rhythm of preparing to rest well – and it required extra work. Jews would store food and goods so they wouldn’t need to purchase them on the Sabbath day. They informed Gentiles (non-Jews) of their intention to take Sabbath rest.

Consider taking just an hour or two and consider how you might restructure time in the coming weeks. Many people waste Sabbath with entertainment or “vacation,” trying to vacate their daily lives. Instead, pause, find a friend or family member, and sit down together to consider how you might use this time to quiet your heart and life. Be intentional with this time.

2. Feast.

The idea of Sabbath as dour law-keeping is from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, not from God. In Jewish tradition, Sabbath was a time for richly eating and drinking. It was one of the “festivals of the Lord” which prohibited fasting and outward expressions of mourning (Leviticus 23). Sabbath was to be a “delight and joy,” recounting God’s grace toward his people (Isaiah 58:13).

In these next few weeks, you may consider having old friends over, or even neighbors who may feel particularly isolated. Yes, keep your physical distance, wash your hands, and be safe. However, nearly all state and local governments think that small gatherings with basic precautions are okay.

Consider having a lavish feast with co-workers, family members, or low-income neighbors as a way to express gratitude to God.

3. Worship.

In Lauren Winner’s short, accessible book Mudhouse Sabbath, she notes the difference between contemporary visions of a day or rest and the biblical vision of Sabbath. “Whom is the contemporary Sabbath designed to honor?” she asks, tongue in cheek. “Whom does it benefit? Why, the bubble-bath taker herself, of course!” In contrast, Winner says, in the Bible the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. The difference between “indulge, you deserve it” (the popular vision for vacation) and “drink in the joy of God” could not be starker.

As you plan your Coronavirus Sabbath, leave time for communal worship (especially in smaller groups under 100), for long and short periods of silence, for prayer walks, and for studying Scripture. Worship is the center of Sabbath.

And worshipping Christians in this cultural moment have a unique opportunity to show the world that not fear or disease is at the center of our world, but the Triune God.

4. Re-create.

Sports, hobbies, music – these all can play an important role in a Sabbath period. Jewish culture was built around its festivals and celebrations. Recreation as “re-creation,” rather than leisure or vacation, can be an ingredient in renewal. 

The Benedictine monks practiced ora et labora (work and pray.) They endeavored to be aware of God’s presence while farming, working, or even doing dishes. Can you do house chores or math lessons with kids during this time, yet quietly listen to God’s voice? Or internally are you “cranking work out,” nervous about all you’ll need to do when life returns to normal? The difference between the two heart attitudes is the difference between work and rest, Sabbath keeping and Sabbath breaking.

Yes, rec centers, stadiums, and theaters are closing. But the world outside your door is open for slow walks, long breaths, and deep smiles.

5. Remember.

Remembering was a core Sabbath practice for the Israelites. Even amidst the pain of unfaithful kings, the breach of covenant, and eventual exile, they found new life in remembering the Exodus and their nation’s birth out of slavery.

Take time to write down the good gifts God has given in your working life. Get out picture albums, call old friends or co-workers, or ask your parents about their first memories as children.

All is gift, said the Ignatius of Loyola. It often takes loss and forced silence to see this liberating truth.

6. Love your neighbor.

It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath,” Jesus said as the crippled man “stretched [his hand] out, and it was restored” (Matthew 12:9-12). The Pharisees saw this and conspired to kill him, calling him a law breaker. But Jesus saw that Sabbath was for the restoration of all his people, especially the poor, widow, orphan and foreigner.

During this next two weeks, consider visiting shut-ins (while, of course, taking proper precautions), visiting the grocery store for a neighbor without transportation, or caring for the kids of those who still have to work even though their kids are home from school.  My friend Dr. Bob Cutillo, a physician at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, once told me, “Don’t serve the poor. See through the eyes of the poor.”

As the Coronavirus transforms American life, take some time to think: how is the affecting the lower wage workers I know? Or the elderly? Or even my own neighbors?

Christians have the unique opportunity to demonstrate hope over fear in the time of Coronavirus.

7. Practice simplicity.

“Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free.” The classic Quaker song offers a counter-cultural freedom from the entertainment and accumulation-complex of our culture: to possess less and intentionally simplify your life is to experience deep freedom.

Could you take some time in the next two weeks to develop the habit of giving things away? What is causing anxiety in you? What could you use without owning? What could you just as easily share as possess?

8. Renew your mind.  

During Sabbath, consider taking time to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2). Read not only religious books, but anything from neuroscience to wildlife biology to the history of water rights in the West. Our careers have a way of making us technicians – we know everything about one topic, but remain in the dark about most of the world. Reignite your curiosity and sense of wonder.

Shut off the technology, and find paper books that you can sit with, engage, and genuinely enjoy.

9. Make plans to continue Sabbath rhythms after your “Coronavirus Sabbath” ends.

We’re created to work (Gen. 2:15) and Sabbath days are meant to end. This awkward Coronavirus scare too, will end, and soon enough, we’ll be headed back to normalcy.

But what about the rhythms of the next few weeks could you take with you in the responsibilities of “normal life?” What practices do you want to take up? And which do you want to lay down?

And with whom do you want to practice more sustainable rhythms of work and rest in the future? Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time notes that Sabbath is a communal, not individualistic, activity. Could a spirit of Sabbath rest come to permeate even your working life, your family, your friendships and your community?

In our culture, most are engaging the Coronavirus with a spirit of fear and anxiety. Yet God says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,” (Is 41:10).

Sabbath rest allows us to pause and see the great, colorful symphony that is God’s world. Even a “forced sabbatical” like this, when offered to God, can help us develop the spiritual muscles to hear the voice of God, see the beauty of creation, and embrace our place in it. 

Everything may be shutting down right now. But, even as we take proper precautions, as Churchill once said, let’s “never waste a good crisis.”

Photo credit.

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This article was adapted from a chapter on Sabbath in my book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life

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CultureTheologyWork

What’s Really Happening to American Christianity?

The Pew Research Center recently published an alarming report: “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Since 2009, the religiously unaffiliated have risen from 17% of the population to 26% in 2018/19.  And today only 65% of Americans identify as Christians, down from 77% only a decade ago.

The report points out that there’s a generational dynamic at work as well. A full 8 in 10 members of the Silent Generation are Christians, as are 3/4 baby boomers. Yet today, less than half of Millennials call themselves Christians, and 4/10 are religious “nones.”  That is, when asked about their religious affiliation, they respond “nothing in particular.” There are now 30 million more “nones” in America than there were just a decade ago.

Sobering stuff. Whether it be church attendance or looking at the religious preferences of Whites, Blacks or Hispanics, the decline of Christian belief in the past generation of Americans seems to be picking up steam.

Some push back on this thesis. Glenn Stanton, a conservative researcher at Focus on the Family, claims that news headlines about the “dying church” are overblown. He accurately points out that the greatest numerical declines are in mainline churches, and that the numbers of evangelical Christians are holding strong. Indeed, even Pew reports that though the overall number of Protestants among US adults has declined from 51% in 2009 to 43%% in 2019, among Protestants the number of evangelicals has grown in the last decade from 56% to 59%.

Stanton and others point out what is happening is that the “middle is falling out.” That is, those who used to be nominally Christian now feel no need to say they’re a Christian of any sort when a pollster asks. So many of these people get lopped into the “nones” category but are not necessarily atheist or agnostic. “Nones” is a complex category of those without strong ties to a denomination or faith tradition.

Historically American exceptionalism held true in religion. As other rich countries secularized rapidly, especially in Europe, America didn’t follow suit. But since 1990, we now have about 30 years of data that says belief is indeed falling in the US.

What sense should we make of this data?

Though I wouldn’t use the word “crisis,” (the internet doesn’t need one more alarmist article), I would like to lay out three problems that confessing Christians need to pay attention to as belief recedes in America.

(1) The politicization of faith is reshaping how Christians express their faith in public and how they’re perceived by the broader culture.

As I read over these Pew research findings, I ask, “How would many of the Christian young adults in Denver respond to the question: ‘Are you a born-again evangelical?’”

My guess is that many wouldn’t claim the term “evangelical” because the word now has political and fundamentalist connotations. Though we work with many who would consider themselves theologically conservative, they’re also culturally-engaged, justice-minded, and have found themselves exiled from either the political right or left. As pastor Tim Keller has eloquently said for many, historic Christianity doesn’t fit into a two-party system

Senior writer for The Atlantic Derek Thompson makes a convincing case that a few historical factors led to American losing its faith. One was the moral majority, led by figures such as James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, aligned Christian belief with Republican politics. Another factor was that after 9/11, all religion got lopped together with extremism. Either way, there are millions that now hold orthodox Christian belief, but don’t align with either the right or the left.

I see this every day at Denver Institute. As a matter of fact, my guess is that one of the main drivers of event attendance is that there’s a growing number of Christians (and, I’d argue, a good number of the “spiritual but not religious”) who want to distance themselves from political narratives about faith, but desperately want to find “their tribe.” They want to find others who care about faith and our culture, yet don’t find those communities either in their churches or their places of work. They’re looking simply for like-minded friends.

As old alliances peter out, a growing number of philanthropists, investors, business leaders, and other professionals are embracing vocation as a way of being public about faith without being political. Teaching students, attending to patients, serving clients, and fielding customer calls can be every bit as much a public act of faith as voting.

Indeed, I’d say daily work is becoming central to a growing number of Christians who are committed to living out the Lord’s prayer “May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” yet are uncomfortable with the categories placed on them by a shifting culture.

(2) The retreat from culture sounds appealing…but it isn’t a real option.

In the past several years, some have suggested that attempts to renew culture should be abandoned completely and we should prepare for a new dark ages, in which Christian communities can only preserve the knowledge of the truth – like medieval monastic communities – as culture caravans into an abyss.

Yet my conviction is that a retreat from culture undersells how deeply connected we are in the modern economy. For every meal we eat, for every message we send, for every mile we drive, we need each other.

We can’t fully retreat from culture. Culture is the air we breathe.

The world we live in influences our emotions, our thoughts, and our dreams. And by not talking about these realities in our faith communities (or by simply turning up the worship music and smoke machines) what generally happens is that we unthinkingly adopt the norms of the world around us.

Which leads me to my last point….

(3) The accommodation to a secular culture poses a real problem for Christians.

Why is it that social media and news is filled with such vitriol, including many who profess Christian belief? Ed Stetzer, a missiologist at Wheaton College, has helped to sort this one out for me in a single image.

The short of it: Fifty years ago, the broad cultural consensus on social issues had a Judeo-Christian consensus. This included “convictional Christians” (those who really believe the doctrines of historic Christianity) as well as congregational Christians (occasional church attenders) and cultural Christians (those who don’t attend church by just call themselves Christians because of family or tradition.)

Today, that consensus has drastically shifted. Today the broad cultural consensus is secular on most social issues, and those who hold traditional views feel backed into a shrinking corner. Hence, you get many self-professed Christians who seem to be among the most combative voices out there, hoping to recover a nostalgic vision of American Christian that supposedly peaked in post-WWII America.

Here’s what I think. There are many Christians who are searching for a way to be hopeful yet not combative; who want to be faithful to the countercultural way of Jesus yet engaged with the world around them; who are among the many “Christians who drink beer” and are tired of the culture wars, yet are simultaneously deeply concerned about the world we live in.

Yet in my view, there are very, very few models for this kind of life.  If I work for a Fortune 500 company, what practices should I embrace, and which should I abstain from? What does faith look like in the immensity of modern health care? When has my faith become individualistic and consumeristic? How should I practice my faith in my family, community, or workplace? When have I accommodated to mainstream secular culture, and what on earth does it mean to be “distinctly Christian” in a pluralistic society? How shall Christians remain “activated” as followers of Christ during the week

In our post-Christian culture, we are no longer Nehemiah, trying to rebuild the walls around a once-great Jerusalem. We are now Daniel, looking for ways to be faithful to God in Babylon.

Actually, doing this requires hard thinking, faithful imagination, and robust communities of practice – communities that we’ve only just begun to build.

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Architecture and DesignArtCraftsmanship & Manual LaborCultureEconomyEducationFaith and Work MovementFinanceNonprofitScienceTechnologyVocationWork

Faith and Work Bible Study

Friends, a happy Labor Day to you!

To celebrate your work, I wanted to give you a gift: a free Bible study on Faith and Work.

The study is structured around people’s stories. In a series of articles, I highlighted the way people are living out their faith in the workplace.

Each study has a brief story Bible study participants can read at home. After each article, and before the study, we encourage you to Pause and Reflect on what the story might be telling you about God’s call for your own work.

The Bible study is structured around six sections: Introduce, Discuss, Explore, Apply, Closing Thoughts, and Prayer. It also has additional Resources.

Here are the weekly topics for “His Story, Our Stories: Encountering God Through Our Work”:

(1) “Light for Electricians,” (Creation)

(2) “Investments for the Kingdom” (Calling)

(3) “Showing Hospitality to Strangers and Spring Breakers” (Fall)

(4) “Productivity and Grace: Management and Labor at a Denver Manufacturer,” (Witness at Work)

(5) “A Well-Designed Journal Can Change Your Life,” (Culture)

(6) “A Growing Charter School Planted in Rocky Soil,” (Organizations/Companies)

Enjoy!

Looking for more material? Visit Scatter.org.

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BusinessCultureEconomyTheologyWorkWorld

Dreading Monday (Comment Magazine)

The spiritual crisis underneath our jobs.

Reviewing: 

Working The New Press, 2004. 640pp. 

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory Simon & Schuster, 2018. 368pp.

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change Currency, 2018. 416pp.

“I had no concept of the horrible dread I would feel getting up in the morning to spend all day sitting in an office trying to waste time.”

Rachel grew up in a poor family yet graduated from a prestigious British university with a physics degree. Yet soon after graduation, student debt forced her to take a job as a “catastrophe risk analyst” at a big insurance company.

Rachel recalls the day she hit an existential tipping point at her new job:

The final straw came after months of complaining, when I met my friend Mindy for a drink after a week of peak bullshit. I had just been asked to color coordinate a mind map to show, “the nice-to-haves, must-haves, and would-like-to-have-in-the-futures.” (No, I have no ideas what that means, either.)

She ranted at me, and I ranted at her. I made a long, impassioned speech that ended with me shouting, “I cannot wait for the sea levels to rise and the apocalypse to come because I would rather be out hunting fish and cannibals with a spear I’d fashioned out of a fucking pole than doing this fucking bullocks! . . . We both laughed for a long time, and then I started crying. I quit the next day.

Rachel ended her tear-strewn reflection with a response to those who would call her experience of work just a “Millennial problem.” “So, yes, I am the queen crystal of Generation Snowflake melting in the heat of a pleasantly air-conditioned office,” she said, remembering her grandmother’s words to toughen up. “But good Lord, the working world is crap.”

Nearly five decades earlier, Nora Watson, a twenty-eight-year-old staff writer for an institution publishing health care literature, shared her own lament for her new career.

Jobs are not big enough for people. . . . A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has become so divorced from my job except, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.

Much has changed about the global workforce in fifty years, yet there are two feelings, felt deeply by millions of Rachels and Nora Watsons across the world, that have endured the test time: the feeling that the modern workplace is an assault on our human dignity, and that work ought to have some broader purpose than just a paycheque, but seems forever beyond our grasp. 

In an age of abundance, we are better fed, housed, and cared for than at any time in world history. Yet three books on work—two new and one old—show that our core longing for our jobs is not fundamentally economic, social, or political in nature.

It’s spiritual.

Purpose, Pain, and PR Researchers

In August 2013, American anthropologist David Graeber published an essay titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” After more than a million website views in seventeen different languages, stories came tumbling into Graeber’s inbox. A corporate lawyer who believes, “I contribute nothing to this world and am utterly miserable all the time.” An advertiser, whose job, by his own admission, “is a combination of manufacturing demand and then exaggerating the usefulness of products sold to fix it.” Judy, an HR assistant, whose job never requires more than one hour a day. “The other seven hours were spent playing 2048 or watching YouTube.”

Graeber had a hunch that many jobs don’t “really do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists.” His book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory tells the stories of hordes of men and women who believe their very own jobs are just that—bullshit. Rachel, quoted above, is one of those people.

Lest we think Graeber is just cursing to sell books, he offers a technical definition: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Graeber even has a taxonomy to describe these largely white-collar workers: “flunkies” exist only to make others look important; “goons” are those whose work is to aggressively propagate their employer’s agenda; “duct tapers” exist to fix some kind of glitch in a large bureaucracy; “box tickers” do jobs that allow their companies to say they’re doing something that it is not, in fact, doing; and finally, “taskmasters” are those whose work consists purely of assigning more work to others.

And lest we think these are isolated incidences, one poll in Holland found that 40 percent of Dutch workers believe their jobs have no reason to exist. Graeber dedicates nearly a third of the book to describing these jobs as acts of “spiritual violence.”

Ellen Ruppel Shell, a journalist for The Atlantic and Boston University professor, takes a different approach in The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change. Shell zooms out to tell us the broad story of work in our time, told through the eyes of educators, technologists, manufacturers, and laundromat operators. The overarching story is one of middle-class jobs slipping away as the working class languishes, and the new global aristocracy holds ever more power.

There are plenty of jobs left, but they’re mainly bad ones. In 2016 the American unemployment rate sank to below 5 percent. “But many Americans had a reason to feel less gleeful. Fully 58 percent of the job growth was in occupations with a wage of $7.69 to $13.83 an hour, while 60 percent of jobs in the midrange—$13.84 to $21.13 per hour—had vanished.”

Shell’s odyssey for a solution to the growing divide—which extends far beyond the size of a paycheque—takes the reader from Finnish classrooms to small manufacturers in places like the Navy Yard of New York’s Lower East Side. Makershops, employee-owned co-ops, and universal basic income are all proposed as the balm for the wounds of a digital age.

Shell calls her readers to embrace the worker’s own ability to construct meaning for themselves. The source of that meaning floats somewhere between creativity, agency, relationship, and economic dignity. “Rather than credit employers with giving us the ‘gift’ of ‘meaningful’ work, let’s agree that the meaning we gain from our work is no gift, but very much a product of our own efforts,” Shell writes. In this story, it us up to each worker to make meaning for herself.

A half century ago, another journalist, Studs Terkel, took up his tape recorder to listen to the American worker in his book Working. A collection of oral history, Working records the knotted, unfiltered voices of farmers, switchboard operators, spot-welders, hair stylists, proofreaders, and industrial designers. (Nora Watson, quoted above, is one of Terkel’s interviewees.)

Terkel gives voice to near universal human experiences at work.

  • We bemoan jobs we feel we can’t control. (“Who you gonna sock? You can’t sock General Motors . . . you can’t sock a system,” says Mike LeFevre, a steelworker.)
  • We feel like our jobs make us into machines. (A receptionist says, “A monkey can do what I do.” A bank teller confesses, “I’m caged.” A fashion model bemoans, “I’m an object.”)
  • And we often feel the need to defend our dignity in the face of “daily humiliations.” (Peggy Terry, a waitress, hears from a customer, “You don’t have to smile; I’m gonna give you a tip anyway.” She replies, “Keep it. I wasn’t smiling for a tip.”)

Terkel ends his introduction to the book with the insightful Tom Patrick, a banker turned fireman. “I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five and it’s just shit. You’re lookin’ at numbers,” Patrick remembers, as if to remind the ages that the phenomenon of bullshit jobs is nothing new. “But [as a fireman] I can look back and say ‘I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.’ It shows something I did on this earth.’”

Patrick hints at the sense of participating in a larger story through one’s work—a story that has, like a dream, been largely forgotten by a secular society.

Falling to Pieces

Spiritual atrophy is spreading amid many of the world’s workers. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic makes the case that work has become a religion for the college educated, and, as with all idols, is making its adherents miserable. Charles Duhigg of the New York Times seesthe same sickness plaguing his fellow Harvard-educated elites. Yet researchers like Princeton’s Angus Deaton and Anne Case believe that “deaths of despair” among white, middle-aged Americans—who are largely working class—are a part of the same “moral and spiritual crisis.”

Secular society is indeed beginning to crack.

Richard Rohr once said, “When people lose a meaningful storyline for their lives, they disintegrate both personally and culturally.” We rarely connect the spiritual and the cultural, but reading WorkingThe Job, and Bullshit Jobs side by side makes this connection hard to miss.

Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs may fall short in supporting many of its claims (I do actually know quite a few PR professionals and corporate lawyers who do good, important work), but it rises to the surface a vast and very real phenomenon: most people don’t like their work, and they spend the majority of their time doing something they’d rather not. And to those experiencing such a crisis of meaning, it feels something like spiritual death. And the spiritual consequences quickly become cultural. Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute shows that loneliness is tearing America apart. And even though GDP has grown at a healthy 3.5 percent, evidence of social collapse is all around us.

“Only if a man works can he live,” wrote American theologian Landon Gilkey in 1966 about Japanese internment camps in World War II. “But only if the work he does seems productive and meaningful can he bear the life that his work makes possible.” The story of work in our secular age is increasingly about finding ways to make meaning in our lives and careers from activities that feel abjectly meaningless.

The Job is written with warmth and optimism. But what’s missing is also what’s telling. Ruppel doesn’t even consider religion or belief in God as a valid motivation for work, but instead forces people into a secular box that calls people to create meaning for themselves, apart from any religious sources. (She briefly mentions the idea of vocation in connection with Yale researcher Amy Wrzesniewski’s research in job, career, and calling, but the context is about calling as “passion”—not a response to the voice of God.)

Again, if our cultural problem is intrinsically moral and spiritual, can we expect a healthy labour market when the labourers in that market are feeling the effects of a deep spiritual sickness?

Terkel’s Working is perhaps the most honest book of the bunch. It suggests no solutions and allows humans to express their deep humanity. Yet it also shows us injustice, despair, envy, shame, and pride. To where should a secular world look for hope?

From Soul to System

The Anglican priest George Herbert (1593–1633) believed that the elixir for our work was found in Christian teachings of vocation: “Teach me, my God and King / In all things Thee to see, / And what I do in anything / To do it as for Thee.” Christianity teaches that work is not first a social phenomenon, a policy problem, or an economic activity. It is first a response to God, an act of obedience that makes manifest our freedom and reflects God’s love.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky adds in his classic The Brothers Karamazov, “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”

From the perspective of secular society, this instinct is often overlooked, but at other times we subsume it into a larger humanistic narrative of being the captain of our own souls. Yet from the perspective of Christianity, worshipping yourself, your company, your family, or your workplace identity creates chaos. It is idolatry. The only way to heal society is to first heal the soul.

The challenge with both Bullshit Jobs and The Job is that they suggest political policies to fix spiritual and moral problems. The two are related of course; policies are certainly worthwhile and important, and corporate structures can certainly make living dignified, meaningful lives either harder or easier. But cultural issues facing workers can’t be considered in isolation from our deepest beliefs about God, ourselves, others, and our place in the world.

Christianity sees the need for redemption for both individuals and powerful systems. It crowns workers considered lowly by society with unsurpassable worth and dignity. Hotel janitors, landscapers, HR consultants, and even goons, flunkies, duct-tapers, box-tickers, and taskmasters have deep value. They may have bullshit jobs. But there are no bullshit people.

Yet Christianity also casts a wide net of responsibility on the powerful, and calls for reform. Policy makers, entertainers, CEOs, nonprofit leaders, and unions—indeed workers themselves—are called to reorient systems toward what’s good for employees, customers, and communities as persons. To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48).

A recipe for healing cannot be found in policies alone, but must move from souls quickened by divine love to reforming systems designed for human flourishing. This is what Christianity can offer our global conversation about work.

The enduring value of all three of these books is that they clearly show a world that’s dreading Monday. Each of these books is worth an honest reading to hear the unedited (and often profanity-laced) anguish of so many of those whom God so dearly loves (John 3:16). Yet they also make clear a call for Christians and their neighbours to look squarely at the systems—and morally questionable jobs so many despise—in need of reform.

Christian faith offers a secular world a picture of a God who was crucified on the roughhewn beams of his own work, and offers hope to all people at all times and in all situations.

Even to those melting in the sweltering heat of pleasantly air-conditioned offices.

This essay first appeared in Comment Magazine.


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CultureWork

Why We Should Redeem Retirement (ERLC)

“What am I going to do with my retirement?” 

The anxious question came from Anne Bell, a recently retired researcher at the University of Northern Colorado. As a staff volunteer for the 5280 Fellowship, a young leaders program in Denver, Anne decided to give her first year of retirement to young professionals struggling with questions about calling. Bright and soft-spoken, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and carrying her teacher’s bag, today Anne came to the office with her own questions about calling. 

As our staff team discussed our weekly reading, Anne looked out on the snow-capped mountains from our seventh-story office. “What do you think, Anne?” I asked. She paused. Her voice began to quiver. “I just don’t know what I’m called to,” she confessed. “I need to know what’s next.”

The world is undergoing a massive demographic shift. Nearly 80 million Baby Boomers will retire in the next 20 years, at a rateof nearly 10,000 per day. By 2035, Americans of retirement age will exceed the number of people under age 18 for the first time in U.S. history. Globally, the number of people age 60 and over is projected to double to more than two billion by 2050. 

But today a growing number of Baby Boomers like Anne Bell – both Christians and their neighbors – are discontent with current cultural assumptions about retirement, and are asking better questions about work, calling, and purpose later in life. 

Today, the dominant paradigm of retirement is about vacation – how to afford it, and then how to make the most of it. A Google search for the word “retirement” shows articles, ads, and tips on how to save enough money for it, and a host of books on how to enjoy it. Retirement gifts follow suit: a coffee mug that reads “Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension.” A kitchen wall-hanging with the acronym R.E.T.I.R.E says Relax, Entertain, Travel, Indulge, Read, Enjoy. The wine glass that reads, “I can wine all I want. I’m retired.” 

Yet cracks are showing in the hull of the never-ending vacation view of retirement. More Boomers are questioning whether living in a Corona commercial can satisfy the heart’s longing for purpose over a lifetime – even if they could afford it. Mitch Anthony, author of The New Retirementality writes, “Retirement is an illusion because those who can afford the illusion are disillusioned by it, and those who cannot afford the illusion are haunted by it.

Some church leaders have responded by saying retirement isn’t “biblical,” (which is of course true, since retirement is a modern construct. The closest the Bible comes is Number 8:25.) “Lord, spare me the curse of retirement!” says John Piper, the former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis and best-selling author. The late Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, said, “Most men don’t die of old age, they die of retirement…Where in the Bible do they see [retirement]? Did Moses retire? Did Paul retire? Peter? John? Do military officers retire in the middle of a war?”

Yet the problem here is that most people can’t imagine working 30, 40, or even 50 years without more than two weeks off. Work is often painful. Mind-numbing tasks, humiliating bosses, a lack of autonomy, crammed schedules, co-worker conflict, new technology, oppressive hours. The author of Ecclesiastes writes: “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind,” (2:17). Work can be creative service. It can also be toilsome pain. 

Might the gospel lead the world’s aging population to a new way forward, which both questions the “dream vacation” view of retirement and a life of unbroken work?

Becoming elders, not elderly 

A new generation of older Americans are seeing retirement as a chance to take a season of sabbatical rest in order to listen to God’s voice, rethink work, and commit to serving their families, neighbors, co-workers and communities as elders.

Bradford Hewitt retired in November 2018 from his role leading Thrivent Financial, a Fortune 500 not-for-profit financial services organization with a faith-based mission. “After being in an executive leadership role for 25 years, I’m planning for the next stage of service,” says Hewitt. “Before I start, I decided to do a sabbatical. The pace of being in leadership is intense. My idea of a sabbatical is just the opposite. I know I need to slow down and listen to God’s voice before I jump into something else.”

More Christians like Hewitt are spending early retirement in an intentional 3, 6, or 12 months of worship, feasting, silence, service, reflection, and learning in order recalibrate their hearts to hear the voice of the Caller.  

Rather than buy into a culture that sees old age as a problem to be solved (think of “anti-aging cream”), a new generation of older Americans is also embracing aging as a “crown of dignity,” wrinkles and all (Proverbs 16:31). 

Far from being an insult, the term “elder”was once associated with wisdom, character, and leadership ability, the assumed fruit of experience and age. “Stand up in the presence of the aged,” says Leviticus (19:32). The term elder (zaqen) is used in the Old Testament as an indication of one’s nobility. The elder taught wisdom at the city gate, the ancient place for public dialogue (Job 32:6–10). 

Gordon Smith, president of Ambrose University in Calgary, believes two ideas – wisdom and blessing – are the biblical model for fruitful living in retirement. “To bless is simply to affirm the other, to take particular delight and joy in the other in a nonjudgmental manner,” he writes. 

Smith tells the story of speaking at a family camp for Christian doctors and dentists. “These men seemed to have no other agenda than to enjoy the teens at the camp. And they had an immeasurable influence on my two [teenage] sons,” Smith remembers. “It seemed like they never used the word should, which all teens hate, and had no other plan than to bless my sons and the teens at the camp.” 

The psalmist writes, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green,”(92:12-14). Retirement may not be biblical. But becoming an elder filled with life, hope, memory, and wisdom for a coming generation certainly is.

This is an adapted excerpt from my book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life (Moody Publishers, May 2019) and was recently posted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

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