We have a big week ahead, with Easter looming, but today we talk retirement. Of course, we’re moving from winter to spring and as we make this transition the snowbirds are moving from the south back to northern towns and cities. Kyle in Somerset, Kentucky emails in. “Hello, Pastor John! Do you have any thoughts on ‘snowbirding,’ the practice of retirees who leave for warmer climates during the cold months and return when the weather gets warmer? As a minister in a local church, I have seen segments of the population disappear in the winter and it seems to have an impact on the life of the congregation. Do you see this as an acceptable practice for believers? How can church leaders address this issue with care and without giving unnecessary offense to those who have worked hard during their careers and feel this is their prerogative? Thanks for any insight you can give.”
I just turned 70, all right? So I feel an increasingly privileged position from which to make pronouncements about the evils of the American Dream of so-called retirement.
And you live year-round in Minneapolis!
So I do. I do. I live it. It is natural to go to Florida in January from Minneapolis. That would be a natural thing to do. Helpful, maybe not. But natural, yes. So this question about snow birds is part of a larger question about how those of us who have stepped away from our lifelong means of livelihood should be spending the last 20 years of our lives. That is the big question, much bigger than just snowbirding.
“God has not given us 70-somethings a lifetime of experience with God and with the world to be shelved while we putz around endlessly with our hobbies and games and leisures.”
The Bible is not silent about this, because it is not silent about life. And the period between 65 and 85 is called life. It is not something else. In fact, it is a crucial part of life, because it is the last period of preparation before we stand before the Lord face to face and give an account for every idle word and moment, according to Matthew 12:36. Snowbirding is just one of many lifestyle issues that come with being fairly wealthy western people. Most of the people in the world don’t have these choices, right? We have these choices, many of us do. We could just pull up and go and rent and live in another place.
It is in the same category with questions:
- Should you have a lake home?
- How many homes should you have?
- How many vacations should you take? And how long should they be? And where should they be? And how expensive should they be?
- Should you go to the lake every weekend during the summer and teach your grandchildren how to skip church?
- Should you spend thousands of dollars on eating out every year?
- How many cars should you have and what kind?
- Where should you live and what kind of house should you buy?
- What neighborhood should you live in or should you just rent?
And on and on and on the lifestyle questions go, right?
I have tried over the years, both in writing and in preaching, to address these things generally rather than specifically. I have never — to my knowledge, anyway — said in public, “You can’t live here. You can’t buy that. You can’t have that.” Because it just seems to me that the Bible doesn’t do it that way. It doesn’t go about specifying those kinds of things so that we have a nice list that we can all check whether we’re being naughty or nice with regard to the things we buy or not. Rather, it seems to me that the Bible goes about it in a much broader, more general way — and that is what we should do, too.
My approach has been — and I commend it to others — if that is a pastor asking about what to say about his snowbirds: Call for a radical Christian wartime lifestyle based on clear biblical passages of love and sacrifice and suffering in ministry and the brevity of life and the lostness of the world and the suffering of those around us. All of which, I think, have the tendency — for virtually everybody — to guard us against luxury and opulence and to move toward need rather than toward comfort and security, toward generosity and simplicity. That is the drift of the New Testament, rather than maximizing our own comforts and luxuries now.
So on the issue of snowbirding, I wouldn’t scold older people in my church who do this, especially not from the pulpit. Rather, I would spend a few years trying by word and prayer and example to create a mindset in the church which knows and feels that self-sacrifice and generosity and ministry in love are where true joy is found, and I would try to show over and over from the Bible, from modern life, that following the mindset of the world to maximize comfort and escape hardship is the path of boredom and guilt and emptiness in the end. I would labor in the exposition of the Word to create that mindset in the church before I address specifics like snowbirding.
And then I might get more specific with regard to a period called retirement. And I would try to create a mindset among older people in the church that this is a golden opportunity, not for coasting and resting and playing and self indulgence, but for ministry and service and meeting needs and making disciples and showing love — maximizing usefulness, not maximizing physical pleasures through leisure and luxury. God has not given us 70-somethings a lifetime of experience with God and with the world to be shelved while we putz around endlessly with our hobbies and games and leisures and let all of that experience with God and with the world that should be making us useful — we just don’t want to shelve it.
So very practically, I would try to get everybody to buy J. I. Packer’s — or maybe I would buy them and give them away. But everybody over 60 in my church would get a copy of J. I. Packer’s book called Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Aging, a pretty clever title. Packer develops a biblical vision for what these older years might look like. And I just jotted down here a cluster of quotes. I am going to read them. Here is what he says:
Aging is not for wimps.
So far as bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of the race of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out.
Retirees are admonished in our day, both explicitly and implicitly, in terms that boil down to this: Relax, slow down. Take it easy. Amuse yourself. Do only what you enjoy.
I see this agenda, well meant as it is, as wrongheaded in the extreme.
I think it is one of the huge follies of our time, about which some frank speaking is in order and indeed overdue.
For the moment, I leave aside its lack of Christian content and focus on the fact that it prescribes idleness, self-indulgence, and irresponsibility as the goal of one’s declining years. This, over time, will generate a burdensome sense that one’s life is no longer significant, but has become, quite simply, useless.
The challenge that faces us is not to let physical slowing down produce spiritual slowing down, but to cultivate the maximum zeal for the closing phase of our earthy life.
Oh, I love that. The last phrase: “Maximum zeal.”
So this is Piper now talking. The key question with regard to snowbirding is not a matter of schedule or geography or temperature. It is a matter of ministry. The question to ask is: Do you move, wherever you move — Florida, Mexico, New Mexico, Phoenix, wherever you — do you move as a means of maximizing ministry, maximizing spiritual growth and impact? Is there a greater impact for ministry in Florida than in northern Minnesota? Will you have a more integral influence for Christ in a big megachurch that you visit in Florida than you would have if you stayed in your rural church in Wisconsin or Kentucky or wherever? Are you thinking mainly of comfort or are you thinking mainly of meeting needs — comfort or meeting needs — not just your own needs, but the needs of others?
And so, lastly, that is the kind of question I would be asking. If a pastor has established a vision for a ministry mindset between 60 and 85, he might then be in a position to speak individually with his snowbirds with a view to challenging them for something fulfilling and useful and joyful on the homefront in the cold of winter. And my guess is that a lot more spiritual heat of soul and warmth of love would be generated by ministering in the snow than by migrating with the geese. Maybe not, maybe not. But I think that is the question to ask.