Book Review

Finish Strong

James H. Gilmore
John Piper
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012
Jan/Feb 2012

Recently spotted on a teenager: a Nike T-shirt sporting the slogan, "There is no finish line." The phrase comes from the headline off a poster seen in the background of one of Nike's earliest "Just Do It" commercials, circa 1991. The poster itself was very popular at the time, functioning as a marketing manifesto celebrating the "mystical experience" of running. Two decades later, the message now displayed on the chest of this young man expresses a view of life embraced by countless others: There is no finish line. It's a lie, of course, the denial of life's race’the good race.

A race assumes a final stretch. But to acknowledge that final stretch, the concluding context in which all running (or any doing) takes place, is something humans desperately wish to avoid. We do not like to admit that all our living is done in the context of dying. We want no finish line.

John Piper's small booklet (it runs less than 5,000 total words), Rethinking Retirement: Finishing Life for the Glory of Christ, addresses the denial of this race. Piper implores Christians to resist "the typical American dream of retirement" and the "bad ideas" that "this world offers us for our retirement years." He maintains that retirement should "not mainly be the fight to do, but the fight to delight." Rather than striving to find things to do, it's a call to be found in Christ. The message is one to be taken most seriously, lest being part of the Great Commission becomes the great omission of a Christian's final years. And it's an issue that our churches should take up and formally address, particularly those congregations that include members numbered among the nearly 80 million Boomers who, as a youth-fixated generation, are prone to deny being in the final stretch of anything. Indeed, without gospel-driven instruction about a biblical view of perseverance, many are likely to take their retirement cues from the wisdom of the world. Piper's missive here serves as a warning cry to the church as Boomers come into traditional retirement age. (As Piper points out, every day over 10,000 Boomers turn sixty years of age.)

Piper puts his finger on the motivating force in the world's approach to retirement: without belief in the city of pure gold (Rev. 20:18), the golden years become "the world's substitute for heaven"; without knowing God as our very great reward (Gen. 15:1), people think "we must reward ourselves now in this life." Not seen as part of a race (with an approaching finish), retirement instead becomes one big wishful-thinking party (with an unending supply of wine and other carnal spirits). It's a mind-set so powerfully prevalent in our culture that it's embraced even by those (Boomers) who claim to have no interest in retirement per se. For such individuals, no "retirement" is going to put a drag on the pursuit of earthly pleasures in their well-earned life after life. Yet this active lifestyle is no less a denial of the final mile; it's merely a substitute banner for the world's substitute for heaven.

Of course, this substitute heaven is really a substitute hell’a reality that becomes richly apparent when pairing Piper's booklet with a reading of Andrew D. Blechman's Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children. Blechman took to studying a place called The Villages when one of his New England neighbors decided to retire to this Florida resort. The book reads like a novel as Blechman details the lives of those occupying the world's largest gated retirement community. Located some forty miles northwest of Orlando, the "gated geritopia" covers over 20,000 acres of land (about the same area as Walt Disney World) and is home to nearly 100,000 residents and almost 100 miles of golf cart paths. A plethora of pathetic characters colorfully animates the book's pages, most notably "Mr. Midnight," who earns his name from his exploits at Katie Belle's, a nearby singles bar, and the resulting trysts back in his bachelor pad at the resort.

As Blechman recounts the details of various other sordid lives, one begins to realize that The Villages is not your grandfather's old moldy senior center. It's a new quest for an eternal Spring Break with overage drinking in a fountain of youth. It's a place to pull out childish things and try on different selves regrettably absent in one's younger (better behaved) years. As one female resident told Blechman, "You can be anyone you want to be here"’a mantra for seniors playing Make Believe.

Most striking in Blechman's telling of his adventures in this retirement utopia (or "paradise of pleasure" as Mr. Midnight likes to call the place) are the points of comparison between this faux heaven and true heaven. Both places house many mansions within their gates, but the similarities end there. As a fifty-five years and older community, there are no children in The Villages. How unlike the City of Truth depicted in Zechariah, where "men and women of ripe old age" find themselves in streets "filled with boys and girls playing there" (Zech. 8:4-5 NIV). In The Villages, the only things found in the streets are golf carts, untold numbers of golf carts. For in The Villages there is the offer of "Free Golf."

And there's bingo! One night Blechman ventures into the bowels of the resort's recreation center, where the largest room plays host to bingo games. The action "attracts a tough crowd" amid which Blechman finds "nobody shows the slightest interest in helping me find a seat," and "countless bingo games later, I'm bored and exhausted, and my nerves are frayed." The room is so "absolutely silent" that Blechman can actually hear the tumble of the ping-pong balls from the very back of the room. The silence is broken only by the periodic yell of "Bingo!" from some sole winner and the groaning that follows from all the disappointed competitors. How far removed is this scene from "how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own."

In reading Blechman's tales, one cannot help but view the residents of The Villages as trapped, enslaved by their retirement years. And yet, as one resident relays to Blechman, "A lot of these folks feel a need to keep 'doing.'" It's a picture of works righteousness caught in the snare of the American dream of retirement: Do this and you shall live!

Leisureville thus provides an invaluable companion to Piper's call to rethink retirement. While Piper straightforwardly presents his own exemplary cast of characters’missionary Raymond Lull, martyr Polycarp, pastor Charles Simeon, and author J. Oswald Sanders’to illustrate how to live one's final days for the glory of Christ, it is Blechman's detailed reporting of the empty, lonesome, and essentially useless lives wasting away in Leisureville that makes the most compelling case to accept Piper's reproof to "live dangerously for the one who loved you and died for you in his thirties."

Don't think Christians can fall prey to the enticements of this waste-away retirement? Wonder if Piper is blowing a futile horn? Read Leisureville and you may find yourself compelled to provide everyone you know approaching midlife with a copy of Piper's pocket-sized book. You might even be inclined to hop online to order a customized T-shirt bearing these words: "There is a finish line."

Do read these two books. And may God grant us all the strength to finish strong.

Tuesday, January 3rd 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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