by Vic Pfitzner
I didn’t ask to lose my wife just before our golden wedding nearly five years ago but one of us had to die first. I didn’t ask to grow old, but I’ve always known that getting old and death are inevitable.
As a Christian, however, I know that what matters is not what happens – like the death of a partner and getting old – but how I live at every stage of life. I am not defined by loss, or age, but by my state as a person blessed by God. I remain called by God; I still have a vocation.
It’s easy to have our sense of self-worth defined by loss. There’s the loss of a previous ‘calling’, a career. Retirement can bring relief, but also crisis.
Society tends to define us in terms of what we do in terms of paid occupation.
The second question at introductions (after the exchange of names) is usually, ‘And what do you do?’ When asked that, I am tempted as a retiree to list activities to justify my existence – or to say that I was once an important person with a big job. To hopefully initiate a discussion, I have sometimes said, ‘I don’t do anything really. I’m just a widower and retired!’
Of course, the pain of loss is real. Loss of a spouse creates grief that may include self-accusation over failures to care for and understand the one we loved and lived with for decades. There may be guilt over lost opportunities in our role as parent.
Husband or wife was a noble calling; can that be said for a widow(er)? Then there is the loss of family and friends: old age means funerals and faded friendships!
Obviously, there is the loss of physical and mental strength, one’s ‘parts’ go missing. There is loss of hearing and sight, the increasingly pressing need to make ‘final arrangements’. No wonder we oldies can spend so much time recalling the good times when our lives were complete instead of fragmented. The temptation is to live in the past when we had real vocations! But for Christians, self-worth is not determined by what we do or have done in life, nor by our marital status, possessions, or standing in society – least of all by our looks. It is determined by knowing who we are: people in vocation.
When St Paul teaches that everyone should live the life that God has assigned and in which one was called (1 Corinthians 7:17) he is referring to a twofold vocation. First there is the call to be a believer, a child of God, a saint bound for eternity. Secondly, there is the call to live worthy of that calling in whatever situation we find ourselves. This is the call we generally mean when speaking of vocation (see Philippians 1:27).
What Paul is saying is that my behavior should match my being as a ‘new creation’. No matter what my present position or my social and relationship status in life may be, I am always embraced by the eternal love of God and called to share that love. I am part of God’s amazing creation and called to look after it. I am a member of the family of the redeemed and called to serve those in God’s household. I am a member of a human family of relatives and friends and called to act in their best interests. I am a citizen of Australia and called to obey its laws and contribute to the welfare of society.
Because we are ageless children of God we are never alone. We may be elderly and lack the company and support of a spouse but even these negatives can be turned into positives.
Living the life of a disciple means living with face turned forward to God’s future, remembering the past but not living in it. For those who now live in Christ, all the losses of this life will eventually lead to eternal gain (Philippians 1:21). Our lives may seem to be going downhill, but we have an upward call (3:14) in the Lord who suffered loss on the hill of Calvary before ascending to glory. That’s our final great vocation.
Rev Dr Vic Pfitzner is a renowned Lutheran theologian, a prolific writer on a wide range of subjects of faith and the church, and an emeritus lecturer at Australian Lutheran College. He was a member of Luther Seminary’s founding faculty in 1968, a lecturer there in New Testament from 1968 to 2004, and principal from 1989 to 1997.