Flourishing in the Third Third of Life

by Mark D. Roberts

“I love being old,” said Betty Anne Cody. Sitting in the Great Hall at Laity Lodge, still a bit groggy because it was early, I wasn’t sure I heard what I just thought I heard. It was 2009 and she said it again, just to make sure all of us sleepy-eyed folks got it:
“I love being old.”

What a surprise! Never in my life had I heard anyone say anything like that. So Betty Anne, the leader of morning devotions and wife of Bill Cody of Cody Center fame, went on to explain what she meant. She talked about the wisdom she had gained throughout her decades of life and how free she felt to be herself. She admitted there were pains associated with having an 81-year-old body. But as an “old person,” in her words, she knew God’s love as never before.

One of the great gifts I received during my tenure as the Director of Laity Lodge was knowing some amazing older people, people like Betty Anne. I think of folks like Howard and Carole Hovde, Dave and Anne Williamson, Eugene and Jan Peterson, and, of course, Howard and Barbara Dan Butt. These friends helped me rethink what it means to grow older. I saw their vitality as well as their honesty about their challenges. They also had a passion for supporting younger people, making a way for them to use their gifts and exercise their leadership.

I was only 52 when Betty Anne said she loved being old. Back then I was grateful for the relationships I had with older adults. But I never, ever imagined that one day I might be excited for my life’s work to be focused on serving folks in the “third third” of life. Now that day has come, much to my surprise.

After leaving the Foundation in 2014, I became Executive Director of Fuller Seminary’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership. In that role I was carrying one of the messages Howard Butt Jr. had faithfully taught, helping leaders in the marketplace discover “the high calling of their daily work.”

And I heard an unexpected refrain from the people we served. One man in the Bay Area put it this way: “I know I going to need to retire in a few years. I’ve been mentoring younger folks in the company, and I’ll need to get out of their way. But I’m not done making a difference with my life. I don’t know how to think about retirement. And my church is no help at all. You folks should do something about this!”

I heard this sort of thing dozens of times. Finally, in 2019, we launched our Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Stepping into this work, I was consistently reminded of the folks at Laity Lodge, people like Betty Anne Cody, who had the vision and courage to flourish in their third third.

Ironically, my work today is still very much in the mode of Howard Butt Jr., helping people live into “the high calling of their daily work.” For some, paid work is only one part of the work God has given us to do. My grandfather understood this. After he retired, he did lots of pro bono engineering work, saying to me, “I’m working just as hard as ever. I’m just not being paid.” With his necessities covered because of careful retirement planning and a healthy economy, he was happy to be paid in gratitude, fulfillment, and meaning.

More and more people are working for pay far beyond age 65, yet everyone can live fully, fruitfully, and faithfully. Those adverbs—fully, fruitfully, and faithfully—are inspired by several sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John.

Jesus said he came so his followers might “have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10, NIV). This comes without an age limit or expiration date, by the way. Jesus promises that if we remain in him, we will “bear much fruit.” The fruit we bear will vary according to our individual situations, yet God is glorified whenever we use well all that God has entrusted to us (John 15:5, 8). Living faithfully is a matter of trusting in God each day, in every situation, every trial, and every celebration, no matter our age or station.

Should you wonder whether flourishing is really possible in the third third of life, let me remind you of a promise found in Psalm 92:12-14, “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar in Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.”

Honestly, I can’t yet say with gusto “I love being old.” I’m still working on that. But I do love the fact that the fire once lit within me at Laity Lodge is now burning brighter.

Whenever the losses of getting older tempt me to doubt the promise of Psalm 92, I remember how this biblical truth was embodied in the lives of Betty Anne Cody and so many others at Laity Lodge. Their lives bear witness to the possibility of flourishing in all seasons of life if our roots grow deeply into the soil of God’s love and grace.

Learn more about Mark Roberts' daily reflection email and his work with the Third Third Initiative at the Fuller DePree Center.

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