A Grateful Man

I knew it was coming some day but never imagined that it might actually happen. As of January 1, 2016, I am fully retired. For the first time since September 1960, I am no longer employed as a minister and no longer responsible for the life of an institution. I worked as a Presbyterian minister and pastor of a congregation for 52 years and Editor/Publisher of a journal of religion and culture, the Christian Century for 17 years, the first 13 of them along with my duties as pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. I retired from active ministry in 2012 and now I have retired from the Christian Century and there is a real sense of ending. Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon on Work, recounts all the ways she has earned money in her life and suggests that it is a helpful exercise for all of us. Before my ordination as a Presbyterian minister in 1963 I worked as a student pastor – without having the slightest idea what I was getting into, a laborer in a Ford Motor Company stamping plant, on a road crew for a construction company laying asphalt in 100 degree heat, rehabbing apartments and stumbling through enough basic carpentry and plumbing that revealed my ineptness with a terrible clarity, a night janitor in an office building, a laborer for the Altoona, Pennsylvania, Water and Sewer Department, a U.S. Postal Service mail deliverer, a clerk in the Men’s Work and Hunting Clothes department at J.C. Penney, a waiter, dishwasher and houseboy in a fraternity house, a paper boy, life guard, dance band player and trumpet teacher, and my very first job, a cookie bagger at a local bakery every Saturday morning, 7:00 until noon, 75 cents and all the sugar and oatmeal cookies I could eat and take home in my pockets. I earned money shoveling snow, mowing lawns and painting houses and briefly as a window washer.

Professor Joseph Sittler wrote an essay after his retirement from the faculty of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and observed how Americans, particularly, answer the conversation opening question, “And what do you do?” which really means “Tell me who you are”, with a description of our work, our job, our profession. We are what we do. More than any other people, Sittler argued, Americans establish self-identity on the basis of how we earn a living. We are – physician, attorney, homemaker, police officer, soldier, school teacher, minister. “Who am I” Sittler asked, “when I no longer do the job I have done all my life?”
After just two weeks people are asking me how it feels to be retired? I answer that after decades, I love the idea that there is no deadline, no sermon to write, no meetings or appointments. Freedom is delicious. But at the same time I have been asking myself, “What’s next? Who am I now?”

In the essay I cited above, Sittler argued that we definitively reject our culture’s way of thinking about aging and retirement as loss and diminishment and instead regard them as the goal of life, God’s gracious plan, a time for “remembering, of gathering up and sorting out, discriminating between the abiding and evanescent, a passage from knowledge to wisdom, from simple awareness to insight.” ( Gravity and Grace, P120)

As I pondered, over a second cup of coffee on this blissfully empty morning, I looked up and re-read some of the wisest words I know on the topic, by Wendell Berry, in The Way of Ignorance. Berry, who is 81, argues that “The ideal of a whole or completed life now appears to have been replaced by the ideal of a merely long life.” In our obsession with more of everything- more money, more weapons, more drugs, more entertainment, more years, we have lost an older, wiser sense of completeness. “What should be the goal of our life and work?” Berry asked. His response is wise: “The ancient norm or ideal seems to have been a life in which you perceived your calling, faithfully followed it, did your work with satisfaction, associated generously with neighbors but continuing in old age to be useful and, finally, died a good and holy death.”

I was privileged to be part of a conversation with Wendell Berry once in the offices of the Christian Century. He was talking about his own aging in warm and humorous terms – “How in the world has this happened?”- and the prospects for the time ahead. He said, and I was so taken with his words that I wrote them in my notebook, “To me, at my age, the main question is, can I be a grateful man when I die? Can I remember up to and on the last day that I have had a very good life?”

I like that. That’s helpful. Remaining grateful, for all that has been, all that is, and all that will be. “Continuing to be useful” – that too. Speaking of which there are a few difficult light bulbs to be changed and the ground is still warm enough to allow me to plant a sack of Dutch tulip bulbs before the promised snow arrives this evening.


  1. Jared Valet says:

    Welcome to the next beginning, John. You’ve earned it. Take in an extra Cubs’ game this year for me, please. All the best from Kansas City to you. And, thank you.

  2. LLANI OCONNOR says:

    John Congratulations on entering a new phase of your life! I, for one, dislike the word “retire” since it seems so negative and slow. In my “retirement” I have resolved not to rush yet I am busier than ever ranging from volunteering for a children’s charity to taking acting classes. “Retire” does not fit my life. So, whatever you do or do not do, I hope you get much joy from it! Grateful to have been a member of your flock and looking forward to hearing more from and about you, Llani

    LLANI O’CONNOR lsaunders1612@me.com 312.952.9379


  3. John, welcome to the retirement community! I am finding that one of the secrets of a good retirement is finding something meaningful, life-giving, and helpful to do that is less stressful than the last chapter. As you make the adjustment and gather up the memories of a “good life so far,” know that I am a grateful man to know you. May God’s rich blessings surround you and your family.

  4. Barbara Timberlake says:

    Hugs and blessings, You have beautifully reinforced the sense of peace I have found in being myself. Barbara

  5. Jon Findley says:

    Cubs fan. God’s man. John Buchanan.

  6. Ross Spencer says:

    John: Welcome to your “next phase of life.” Find a fulfilling volunteer “job” to pursue (mine is Rotary & raising money for the NGO Shelterbox); keep physically active (I play tennis and walk); and keep reading and write for fun. When you and I served on the Board of Pensions we found a common liking for reading history (such as the biography of John Adams.). Being a follower and not the leader makes all the difference. Enjoy!! Ross Spencer

  7. Dr. Buchanan, You and I once exchanged notes about Loren Eiseley’s story “The Star Thrower”. As you enter this new phase of your life and ministry, I hope that you will think of the starfish metaphor from time to time as you (hopefully) continue your blog for years to come. Each of your posts matters to so many of us! What an inspiring blessing they are. Thank you.

  8. lisa shorney says:

    So Grateful to have had you in our lives at Fourth!

  9. Bob Hendrix says:

    “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Congratulations to both you and Sue! Enjoy your well-earned retirement! Bob and Anna

  10. Tony Volpe says:

    Thank you John for sharing your thoughts about retirement. When I retired 17 years ago someone asked me “How long did it take to adjust to retirement?” I replied, “Oh, about five minutes!” I had noticed over my years in industry that so many people I knew had difficulty in retirement because they apparently had no other anchor in their life. Several of them died only a few months after retirement.
    I decided to be my own boss and to be guided by three principles: to focus on my body, mind and spirit. So I try to eat properly and exercise regularly; read, write and discuss ideas; and give back to the community in ways I enjoy and can be effective. So far that blueprint is working for me.

    I enjoyed being a member of South Church while you were pastor, where you always inspired me with your sermons.

  11. Perfect timing as we think about our own retirement. Thanks, JMB…..Have a grateful life. I’m grateful for you.

  12. Approaching, perhaps too slowly, our own (gradual) retirement, I found your words very encouraging and, as always with your words, good guidance. It is, indeed, hard to give up that sense of identity that comes from what we do and re-identify as who we really are. Your comments are excellent, as always.

  13. When asked what you do, you can assuredly say that you are — still — a very talented writer. Thank you — still — for your perspective as I wrestle with a transition of my own. All the best!

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