Flunking Retirement

David Bartlett

Not many years ago, Richard Wood, former dean of Yale Divinity School, called to tell me that he was “flunking retirement” and not for the first time. This was at least the second job Dick had taken after his official retirement, and he was not particularly apologetic. Not for the first time, I find myself following his example, but not without some second thoughts. 

I retired from the Yale faculty in 2005 and from the Columbia Theological Seminary faculty in 2012, but then moved immediately to a more or less halftime position at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. I like the job; I like the people; I like my colleagues; and I like going to work.

I am well aware, sometimes painfully aware, that many friends my age and younger have been visited by illnesses or limitations that make an active retirement or semi-retirement very difficult. I am well aware that I have passed my allotted three score years and 10 and many of my dearest friends never did.

Those who try to find reasons for my relative health and longevity sometimes appeal to God’s providential plan or suggest that I have been especially blessed. If this is blessing, it is a fickle kind of blessing that neglected many for whom I have fervently prayed.

I do not pretend to explain my present situation and am driven to the weakest of theological categories: I have been lucky.

Nonetheless, glad as I am to be flunking retirement, I have some second thoughts.

I have spent most of my adult life trying to understand the shape of the Christian life from a biblical perspective. Of course I have never used the Bible as a kind of sanctified Dr. Phil with answers for every nagging personal question. The Bible has served as the essential guide to what questions count, and the essential clue to how those questions relate to the life of God.

But on the question of retirement the Bible speaks not a direct word. This is probably because retirement, like neuroscience and Facebook, is a relatively modern phenomenon. On the whole, our biblical ancestors, like many of our more immediate foreparents, worked until they died.

So when Jesus told us to consider the lilies that neither toil nor spin, that was not intended as a particular injunction for people over 65, and when he told us to take no thought for tomorrow he was not directly pondering pensions.

Yet though the Bible says nothing directly about neuroscience it says a good deal about embodied persons – embodied souls. And though the Bible says nothing about Facebook it reflects often and helpfully on friendship, affection, the limits and possibilities of genuine agape.

And God Rested

What I puzzle about when it comes to retirement is a pervasive scriptural motif – Sabbath. The injunction to take one day out of seven has at least two theological groundings. 

First is the imitation of God who graciously can delight in not doing as well as in doing. The Priestly account of creation in Genesis reaches its gracious climax when God stops doing, even stops speaking, and just is. 

Exodus 20 makes the connection of Sabbath-keeping to the imitatio Dei explicit: 

“Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy. … For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” (Exod 20:8,11) 


The second grounding for Sabbath is compassion for workers whose well-being is increased by the quieter rhythms of the seventh day. Now we are called not to remember creation but to remember bondage and exodus. 

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy as the LORD your God has commanded you. … On it you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son and daughter, nor your male or female servant. … Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:12,13,15)

Life’s Seven Days

I am now by any reckoning in the seventh day of my life’s week. I await the eighth day, God’s day of New Creation, with a combination of regret, resignation, and faith. 

But is my unwillingness to imitate God by making my life’s seventh day radically less busy than the other six finally a kind of idolatry? Have I so identified with my job that I find it difficult to identify with my creator?

And when it comes to compassion for those who labor and are heavy laden, what might compassion for myself look like? (Do I really need to turn out one more sermon or article or attend one more session meeting? Give me a break. Give myself a break.) 

To say nothing of compassion for the spouse who most days believes our lives would be enriched if we had more time together. 

To say nothing of the gladness that I give to myself and I hope to others when I let work give way to one of God’s richest gifts – friendship.

And leisure is not laziness.

John Sexton’s fine book, Baseball as a Road to God (Penguin 2013), only illustrates and specifies a more general claim. Sexton draws on Mircea Eliade to describe a baseball game as sacred time and sacred space. Had he relied more on the Old Testament he would know that for the spectator at least a baseball game can be Sabbath. The joy of baseball for spectators is that you sit around and do nothing, often with other people who are also doing nothing. Baseball as Sabbath is the opposite of the fantasy league, where the players plot, scheme, and compete – that is, they work.

A Sabbath retirement should include watching more baseball games, or attending more concerts, or reading a book with no intention of ever quoting it in a sermon or citing it in a footnote. Or rejoicing in a worship service where one has no role in leadership.

I ponder all this quite seriously and somewhat guiltily. I would have taken more leisure to ponder, but I promised to write this article and now I have to get it done. 

Soon I hope to do – or not do – better.

Before his retirement, David L. Bartlett ’67 B.D., ’69 M.Phil., ’72 Ph.D. was Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he was a parish minister and taught at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA., before joining Yale Divinity School in 1990. He taught at Columbia Theological Seminary from 2005-2012 and is now theologian-in-residence at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. His books include What’s Good about This News? Preaching from the Gospels and Galatians (Lyman Beecher Lectures, Westminster John Knox, 2003) and Fact and Faith: Coming to Grips with Miracles in the New Testament (Wipf & Stock, 2007). He is a consulting editor for both the Feasting on the Word and the Feasting on the Gospel commentary series published by Westminster John Knox.