Over the years, I have read a little by Jim Packer. In 2003, while teaching at Regent’s College in Vancouver, I spent an afternoon with him. We talked about Christian things plus England, cricket and steam trains. On the Sunday I heard him preach and he served me communion. He is undoubtedly old-school British and a thoroughly low-church divine. These traits creep into his writing. Who else could construct a 10-line sentence (p. 55), use the words ‘willy-nilly’ (p. 67) and ‘unsnubbable’ (p. 97), or talk about ‘the baptism of children’ (p. 99)? He is a singular original.
We grow old
So here is JIP, that elderly – he was 88 when this book was published – theologian emeritus of the Anglican Church of North America, who, in 99 pages of enlarged font, urges old-ish Christians to gee up, press on and finish their course, with joy. Or, as the vernacular subtitle of the US edition calls it, ‘guidance from God for engaging with our aging.’ Or, as summarized on p. 96, ‘… this book urges Christians of all ages to repudiate … the world’s winding-down ethos for seniors …’
And who are these ‘seniors’? Elderlies, according to Packer, are the ‘younger olds (65-75), medium olds (75-85), and oldest olds (85 plus).’ I am still in the first, youngest grouping, but I also know many among the other categories.
And what is this ‘winding-down’? Packer is not extreme, as if expecting all the elderly to be on the Christian front lines. He recognises the limitations of the disabled, those with dementia, and so on. But his arrows are aimed at those Christian retirees, who adopt the secular Western world’s view, namely (p. 27), ‘Relax. Slow down. Take it easy. Amuse yourself. Do only what you enjoy.’ This is all countercultural and pretty hard-hitting stuff for those of us who are now without the ties of children, mortgages, employment and financial concerns. In other words, we ‘younger olds’ are the first generation of baby-boomers who are both time-rich and money-rich. Packer pulls no punches about this errant reasoning propagated by both our secular and ecclesiastical cultures (p. 29), ‘I think it is one of the huge follies of our time, about which some frank speaking is in order and indeed overdue.’ And, ‘I see this agenda … as wrongheaded in the extreme … it prescribes idleness, self-indulgence, and irresponsibility as the goals of one’s declining years … that one’s life is no longer significant, but has become, quite simply, useless.’
Soul and body
Having diagnosed the problem, Packer sets about prescribing the cure. He shifts into doctrinal mode and initially spells out who and what we are. We are bipartite, ‘embodied souls that are also ensouled bodies’ (p. 35). Eschewing the Greek concept of the denigration of the body as a prison, Christianity remains a corporeal religion with a focus on the incarnation of the Son of God and His resurrection. Furthermore, Christians look forward to ‘the eternal re-embodiment of their souls …’ (p. 37). Yet, our life on earth is ‘probationary and temporary’ and will in due course be subject to ‘transformation and transition for a richer life elsewhere’ (p. 40). And though, as we age, our bodies become restrictive and restricted, they are not to be marginalised. They are God-given for stewardship of our world and for our enrichment and, as Packer explains (p. 42), for our experience, expression and enjoyment.
Nevertheless, as Packer affirms (p. 43), ‘But our bodies wear out.’ ‘Until we are about sixty-five … our bodies and our souls … are keeping up with each other pretty well.’ ‘Now, however, in our sixties, we find ourselves facing new limitations. Energy level shrinks; memory is not what it was; aches, pains, and shortness of breath become permanent facts of life.’ These processes can be slowed by modern medicine, but not reversed. And Packer insists (p. 45) that these ‘new limitations’ beget one of the two temptations that are peculiar to old age – namely to go with the flow of bodily decline … and to allow our discipleship to Christ and our zeal for seeking, displaying and advancing the kingdom of God also to slow down …’ This book suddenly becomes uncomfortable reading.
The probing continues. In chapter 3, Packer traces out the profile of his ideal reader – converted as a youth, now sixty-five plus. You have lived, loved and laboured for Him for the last thirty to forty years. Now you are a ‘veteran of the war’. And for the next seven pages Packer expertly expounds the doctrinal and experiential features of true Christianity. Then (p. 57), the author introduces ‘… the distinctive temptation that we find raising its head against us all in our old age.’ A biblical temptation is a test. They come from either the Devil, to bring us down, or from God, as a training exercise to strengthen us.
Packer returns to his main thesis. Retirement is a watershed, yet the word ‘retire’ is not in the Bible. The temptation is to wind down and change from ‘… labourers in Christ’s kingdom to sympathetic spectators, and as such passengers whom the congregation carries …’ (p. 63). Yet, spiritual gifts do not wither with age, ‘they atrophy with disuse’ (p. 64).
Packer’s remedy (p. 64) is twofold - learning and leading. First (p. 65), Packer calls for a return to catechesis, learning communities within the church. Second (p. 66), he stresses that ‘everyone is leader to someone’, that is, we all exert an influence, both formally and unconsciously, on others. And the elderly are not exempt from these twin tasks (p. 68).
What these seniors need, according to Packer, is ‘… to cultivate the maximum zeal for the closing phase of our earthly lives’ (p. 72). And what is ‘zeal’? Packer defines it (p. 74) as ‘… priority, passion, and effort in pursuing God’s cause.’ Quoting J C Ryle, he states, ‘The zealous man … lives for one thing; and that one thing is to please God.’ And to ensure that zeal is not flagging, it ‘… must be fed by hope.’
We look forward
The final chapter, entitled ‘We Look Forward’, explains (p. 79) how ‘Hope motivates, energizes, and drives us.’ It is not the short-term hope of the world, but the long-term hope of the Christian that keeps us going. And how are we to recover and reappropriate this hope? Packer exegetes 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10. He draws out and applies four revealed truths. First, a new body awaits us. Second, it will be a better, enriched body. Third, we will be at home with the Lord Jesus Christ. Fourth, there will be unending enjoyment of His love and goodness.
While all Christians have benefits, elderly Christian have additional benefits. Packer summarizes (pp. 92-96) these as he rehearses the theme of his book in four ways. First, elderly Christians nowadays typically have a lengthy opportunity to serve. Second, Christian seniors have a maturity, a ripeness to serve. Third, veteran Christians should be characterised by a profound humility, a repentance of pride. Fourth, they have an intensity, a focus and a zeal to serve. Packer’s call is for ‘sympathetic-senior ministry’. His final sentence is, ‘I hope you do too, and will show it by what you do now.’
This is a most uncommon book. It seeks to buttonhole us elderly Christians and wrap us over the knuckles for slowing down in retirement. Yet the book is not harsh - it is pastorally gentle, but pressingly firm. It has caused me to stop, think and re-evaluate my plans and to aspire to something a little better in serving the cause of Christ. Thank you Dr James Innell Packer!
P.S. John Piper has some sassy comments to make about being 70 years old: www.desiringgod.org/articles/hillary-bernie-donald-and-me