Finishing Our Course with Joy, J. I. Packer. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014.
Summary: A meditation on aging that combines coming to terms with the physical changes in our bodies while pressing on to complete our course of actively serving the Lord.
J. I. Packer was a middle-aged scholar when his book Knowing God found its way to me as a college student. I had a chance to hear him speak on revival in Ann Arbor in his mid-fifties. Now I have passed that milestone, while Packer is still an active scholar and writer at age 91. I personally can’t think of a person I’d rather listen to teach about aging and finishing well in Christ.
This pithy little book of meditations on aging is worth its weight in gold. It opens with a remarkable tribute, from a Commonwealth citizen to Queen Elizabeth II (who is a few months older than Packer, also 91 at this writing):
” The Queen is a very remarkable person. Tirelessly, it seems, she goes on doing what she has been doing for six decades and more: waving in shy friendliness to the crowds past whom she is transported, and greeting with a smile one and another; children particularly, whom she meets in her walkabouts. It is more than sixty years since she publicly committed herself before God to serve Commonwealth citizens all her life. She has done it devotedly up to now, and will undoubtedly continue doing it as long as she physically can. So we may expect to see more of the porkpie hats and hear more of the clear, easy voice as her reign continues. She is a Christian lady resolved to live out her vow till she drops. She merits unbounded admiration from us all” (p. 12).
This quote should give you a sense of the theme of this book. In his first chapter on “We Grow Old” he discusses facing honestly our physical decline, but also talks about ripeness as a positive image of old age, and commends three ideas:
- First, live for God one day at a time.
- Second, live in the present moment.
- Third, live ready to go when Christ comes for you.
Packer thinks that the wrong way to pursue this is to kick back and take our ease and follow the typical retiree life of leisure activities.
In “Soul and Body” Packer talks about what it means for us to be embodied persons and explores the opposite temptation of aging leaders who refuse to relinquish power, or do so reluctantly and take it out on their families. Pride and insecurity may prevent us to recognizing when our advancing age suggests that it is time to hand off to rising leaders.
“Keeping Going” begins to fill in Packer’s vision of avoiding the perils of leisured retirement, and the stubborn and fearful refusal to let go of formal leadership roles. Packer proposes a life where we continue to be learners rooted in a mentally engaged study of scripture that seeks growth as thoughtful, discerning, and vibrant disciples. And while we may step aside from formal leadership roles, we should be open to the ways we might exercise influence leadership through our relationships, particularly intergenerationally. He commends Paul’s statement that he has finished his race (2 Timothy 4:6-8), and sees this as a call to clear goals, purposeful planning, resolute concentration, and supreme effort so that we might finish well our own races.
“We Look Forward” builds on this and the future hope toward which we run, beyond the finish line. He reflects on the marvelous “upgrade” that our resurrection bodies represent, the hope of being with the Lord, and the reckoning we will face that determines, not our salvation, but the opportunities we will enjoy in those new bodies, connected to how we’ve lived in these. And so he concludes with the opportunities we have now, even in advancing years. We may have five, ten, or twenty years or more where we will be able to serve in some ways to advance the Lord’s kingdom. Will we do this with a maturity, humility, and zeal that encourages others to press on in their own races, their own life course?
How grateful I am for this word from one three decades ahead of me who is still running his race with joy. I need his warnings against the temptation to take our ease, and finish before we’ve finished in terms of our lives of discipleship and service. He challenges me in my own work of leadership to be diligent in preparing to pass the baton to others while preparing for new roles of service that steward the gifts and lessons of life to bless others in the church. He challenges me to growing and learning in Christ. The followers of Christ who I’ve seen end their lives best have lived like this. By God’s grace, I want to be one of them.