How to be Happily Productive in Old Age: 7 Testimonials From Retired Volunteers

“Jack, one of the first problems you need to tackle is the accounting system. It’s a mess.” My supervisor went on to orient me to other issues in my new assignment, CEO of Wycliffe Caribbean, but my mind was stuck on the first problem.

I’m the WordMan, I thought, not the NumberMan. Sending me to fix a finance accounting system would be as helpful as sending a firefighter to aim his spouting hose at a drowning man.

When I arrived in Trinidad, the bookkeeper explained that Caribbean countries use a British style of accounting, but all the Wycliffe accounting is done in a North American manner. No wonder things got confused! I wrote an email to Wycliffe International’s VP of Finance saying I was in way over my head and needed help fast.

“Okay, Jack,” he replied, “We’ll have someone there soon.” He was right. A few weeks later a retired couple arrived from Great Britain. They were experienced accountants familiar with both systems and started work immediately. In a couple of weeks they had solved the problems, revised our procedures, written a manual, and trained our staff in the updated system. Then they left for Barbados to enjoy the beach for a week before returning home – job well done.

Oh, how I appreciated those volunteers! Except for their meals, they cost us nothing since they came at their own expense. They radiated good will and oozed expertise. Like God the Creator, they turned chaos into order. Godly people.

They are not the only ones. Every year, hundreds of retired people volunteer to go overseas to practice their professions and skilled trades to build God’s Kingdom. Wycliffe Associates, Wycliffe’s lay organization, offers numerous opportunities for volunteers to get involved.

Wycliffe and many other mission organizations deeply appreciate these types of highly effective volunteers. They come with every type of expertise, from medical doctors to marketing gurus, agriculturists to architects, carpenters to computer specialists, and economists to electricians, all doing what they love to do and doing it well.

I meet many of these people at Wycliffe Associates promotional banquets where they see videos and hear stories of volunteers advancing the cause of Bible translation around the world. They catch a vision of what they could do and sign up to receive more information. In due time they are “out there” happily doing their thing.

I often talk with happy, fulfilled retired volunteers and ask them questions. What moved you to volunteer? What did you receive from the experience? What advice do you have for other retirees? Here’s what they told me:

  1. In our retirement, we wanted to focus on what is important in our lives, and in the lives of those we love. So we spent lots of quality time with our grandkids but now we also volunteer where we can use our professional skills.
  2. In retirement, I wanted to do more things that I enjoy. Since I enjoyed certain aspects of my career, I look for opportunities to volunteer my services anywhere in the world in those areas.
  3. My wife and I volunteer on the mission fields where we can use our professional skills but also work at our own pace and our own time schedule. We also plan a time of vacation away from work doing something we enjoy.
  4. People in the medical or teaching profession spend their whole career meeting the needs of society. During my career I contributed only peripherally. Now that I’m retired, I focus on volunteering where I can directly meet the needs of individuals, show love to people and build God’s Kingdom.
  5. I have always loved being a businessman. Now I love consulting on site with people who have gone overseas to start a business that meets physical, economic and spiritual needs.
  6. I hope God gives me many years of healthy retirement since I just love helping missionaries use their computers much more effectively.
  7. I’m now 85 years old. I look on the two years my wife and I spent overseas helping Bible translators become more effective as the greatest years of my life.

“The godly will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.” Psalm 92:14 (NIV).

Confessions of a Hypocrite

If hypocrites are people who tell others to do something they don’t do themselves, then I’m one.

For years I’ve been telling people to remember the “God-stories” in their lives, and tell them to their families. I even do workshops in churches teaching people how to write them up for their grandchildren. Just recently I was sitting with my wife, dredging up some reminiscences when up popped a memory of forty years ago, with details we had never told our youngest daughter, Cheryl, who was the main character of the story.

When Cheryl was only a few months old, we noticed one of her eyes was slightly turned in. “She has a lazy eye,” the optometrist said, “she’ll need glasses in a couple of years to correct the problem.” As we left for Brazil a few months later, we committed our whole family to God’s care, praying especially for Him to take care of her eyes.

Cheryl's Trachoma

During our first session among the Canelas, however, an epidemic of trachoma swept through the village. Hundreds of Canelas suffered the highly contagious eye infection. We prayed much and brought in cases of antibiotic eye salve and bandages to treat the villagers. Soon each one in our family was also infected, first in one eye, then in the other. After we took off little Cheryl’s bandages, we saw that our toddler’s lazy eye had turned in noticeably. As soon as we returned to the city we took her to an optometrist who prescribed glasses and an eye patch to wear over the good eye to force the lazy eye to work. Each year her glasses needed a new and stronger prescription.

Early in our fourth year of service in Brazil we had an upsetting visit from our field director. “You are due for furlough in December,” he said, “but I strongly suggest you start your furlough at the end of June at the end of the school year. It will be much easier on your children if they don’t have to change schools in the middle of the year. I don’t want you to wait until next June because you are so short of financial support you are borrowing money from other missionaries to buy groceries. You need to go home six months earlier to gather more financial partners”

Jo and I were disappointed since we were making good progress in learning the Canela language and culture. But we realized our financial situation was not improving, so we left that summer. There was, however, another reason for returning to Canada early that neither our director nor we knew about. As soon as we arrived we went for full medical checkups, including, of course, an eye exam for Cheryl.

The eye specialist gave a sobering report after examining Cheryl. “It’s a good thing you brought her in to see me today,” he said, “her prescription is totally wrong and in another month or two it would have been too late. Her lazy eye would have gone completely blind.”

He prescribed new glasses, and an eye patch and spoke of surgery if that didn’t work. The new prescription, however, was effective and year by year her eyes improved so much that by the time she entered college her eyes were near normal.

Jo and I told Cheryl about this incident the next time we saw her. “You mean if we hadn’t been so poor you would have stayed till the following year and I would have gone blind in one eye? I never knew that. Why didn’t you tell me earlier!”

Yes, why didn’t we? Very simple, we just didn’t sit down and deliberately think through our lives and look for God’s working. Hypocrite that I am, I did not do for Cheryl what I am always telling others to do.

In this story, what a convoluted way God worked! Instead of simply healing Cheryl’s eye, either instantly or gradually, in response to our prayers, he took her, and us, through years of concern, eye exams and treatments. Then He used another very negative situation, our low financial support, to move us back to Canada just in time to get the right treatment and prevent total blindness in that eye.

There’s got to be a lesson in there somewhere.

Over Half-Way to My First Million–The Charles Dickens Way

Would you believe I did NOT know it was Dickens’ 200th birthday last week? Yes, the very day I blogged on books and reading, with a picture of me wearing a Dickens shirt! What a wasted opportunity to make myself look good.

I also discovered this week that I am NOT alone in my addiction to reading. Dozens of you book junkies confessed your reading habit this week. Your emails were variations of a Readers Anonymous greeting, “Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m a bookaholic.”

Many of you living in book-packed homes said your spouse shared your reading addiction. Not surprising. Readers tend to get married to each other. A young woman once told me, “Of course we talk about books on dates! How would I know who to fall in love with unless I know what he reads?”

I remember Jo and me talking about Leon Uris’ Exodus shortly after it was published. That was when I learned something about Jo’s passion for standing up for the underdog. No wonder I married her a few years later.

Some of you sent me lists of your favorites or the books you are currently reading. Thank you. I’ve already added some to my Books To Read list.

Sir Francis Bacon famously wrote, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” In other words, reading gives us a good grasp of facts, ideas and insights, discussing them with others helps us express and refine our thoughts, and writing keeps us from forgetting the details.

Quite a few of you self confessed reading addicts also admitted to the urge to write. For starters, you all wrote me an email. Some told about keeping a record of books you read and how you felt about them. Others recommended books giving me a mini-review. And some of you, like me, are bloggers and authors. Avid readers often turn to writing. We write prayers and diaries to discover ourselves. We write blogs to enter into discussion with others. And we write memoirs so we won’t forget details. Remember the post about  writing God-Stories?

The Joy of Writing

I’ve written a weekly blog since 1995, many years before the term “blog” was invented. I sent them out as emails to a list of friends. When I publicly committed myself to write weekly I had no idea of the benefits I would reap. I learned some self-discipline. I enjoyed turning the steady flow of ideas into columns that provoked positive responses from readers. And I wrote well over half a million words, a third of which are now enjoyed by a much wider readership through my three books of collected columns.

I’m one of those writers who blogged his way into print, like Charles Dickens, the patron saint of committed bloggers. Dickens’ weekly output was prodigious! He wrote sections of five novels as serials for weekly magazines and ten novels in monthly magazines. He often worked on two monthly serial novels at once. Pickwick Papers overlapped Oliver Twist, which overlapped Nicholas Nickleby which overlapped the weekly serial The Old Curiosity Shop! In his spare time, he also wrote five short novels and fifty plays, poems and short stories.

Few of us reader/writers can match that kind of production! I certainly can’t. But when we commit to writing much more both we and our readers benefit.

Here’s how I start myself thinking about things worth writing about. I ask myself, “Jack, you are sitting at your computer knowing you have only 15 minutes left to live. What important things in your life do you feel deeply about? Write about these for your family and friends to read.”

Try it. You’ll be amazed at how the ideas and words flow when you begin to write. Then commit to write again next week, and the next.

If Francis Bacon were here today, I would expect to read this on his blog, “Read books, periodicals, and blogs to feed your mind. Blog your thoughts and ideas and discuss them with your readers to refine your thinking. Write your memoirs to preserve the details.”

The Shocking Truth About Jack Popjes: How to Read 52 Books a Year

I admit it. I’m a book junkie. Without a reading fix each day, I exhibit withdrawal symptoms.

Read Books Not T-Shirts

Our two-bedroom apartment bears witness to my addiction with 25 metres (80 feet) of packed bookshelves. (The rest of the books are stacked on the floor.) Marcus Cicero said it for people like me, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

When people discover my book habit they have questions that I try to answer as succinctly and helpfully as I can.

Q: How much do you read?

A: An average of about one book and periodical a week. A little less when I travel on speaking tours.

Q: How do you find time to read?

A: I don’t just read when I find time. I make time. I deliberately sit down to do nothing but read. I read with my first cup of coffee in the morning. I read humorous material to Jo in bed every night. Sometimes I read to her while she is making supper. I always have three or more books on the go at any one time and I keep at least one within reach just in case I find some time. Jo and I like to watch some TV together but we are mindful of Groucho Marx’s opinion, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

Q: What do you read?

A: A variety of books and periodicals. A balanced literary diet. That’s the succinct part. Here is the more detailed and helpful part:

Spiritual Development: I have read through the Bible annually for many years. I read it early in the morning, with my first cup of coffee. My wife and I also read through the Psalms together once a month. I also keep a small book of short, daily meditations handy to dip into during the day. And I usually have books on spiritual development, Christian issues, or theology going throughout the year.

Personal Development: Books that help me be a better father, husband, grandpa. Some that help me get organized, do financial planning, and in general those that help me focus on how to live.

Professional Development: Books on cross-cultural missions, writing, speaking, publishing, marketing, blogging, language, leadership, organization, technology.

Biography: Reading memoirs and life stories sometimes inspires me, sometimes it fills me with longing, but I always learn something—either great examples to follow or horrible ones to avoid.

Information: Material on history, current issues, science philosophy, and psychology.

Entertainment: Novels of all sorts, science fiction, mystery, classics, and for bedtime reading some humor. Reading poetry tends to give me unique insight into common situations. By the way, a book is often informative and entertaining at the same time.

Q: What do you plan to read?

A: More! I plan to read more, way more! To help me do this, I’m buying an ebook reader and plan to read a dozen books at once, all there in the same pocket. I occasionally pick a book to read that  I know I won’t agree with, just to keep my mind sharp and thinking on all sides of the issue.

One question no one has ever asked me but which I’ll answer anyway is:

Q: What books do you not read?

A: Anything that would arouse my desires in humanity’s basic problem areas: Money, Sex, and Power. I don’t read material that inflames my desire to get rich. I don’t read pornographic stories, and I don’t read about gaining power over other people, and I especially avoid reading about practicing the occult that promises demonic powers.

This column is biographic, hopefully you will find it an example to follow, not a horrible one to avoid. I’m not only a book addict, I’m a book pusher. My goal is to get you addicted too.

The shirt I’m wearing in the photo has a picture of Charles Dickens and the words, “Read as if your mind depended on it.”

Can We Really Trust God? Two Facts to Consider

“Can you believe that house?” I said to Jo, pointing at a bungalow a few hundred meters from the country road. “Look at the way it is placed. Why would anyone do a crazy thing like that?”

At first glance there was nothing unusual about the house. It sat on top of a hill that offered a magnificent view of the Rocky Mountains to the west, and an immense landscape of plains and pastures, fields and farms to the east.

The simple bungalow, designed to sit cheek by jowl between other houses in a city block, had windows at the front and back but blank walls on the sides. What stunned us was that the windowless walls faced east and west, blind to the hundreds of miles of fabulous scenery, while the large picture window looked north onto a dusty gravel road lined with weed filled ditches.

It may seem strange to us, but it makes perfectly good sense to them. My wife and I repeated this mantra, drilled into us decades before during cultural anthropology training. Practicing what we had learned during our life among Brazil’s indigenous peoples, we tried to think of some logical reason why the builder would place the house 90 degrees off the ideal. Try as we might, we just couldn’t come up with anything that made sense to us.

It bothered me that I was perplexed and perturbed, not by some strange custom in a faraway land, but by a common house just a few miles from our home. A house built by people of our own culture and our own background! What baffled us must have made perfect sense to the builders. They must have known things I didn’t know.

Canela Dance

It reminded us of numerous times we were perplexed in Brazil. One time, the village elders assured us that the main spring festival would start at dawn in three days. But when the third day came, nothing happened. We scratched our heads, waiting and wondering. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon on the fifth day, there it was: excitement, singing, dancing, and cooking fires! What had happened? A party of hunters, bringing the meat so vital to the ceremonies, had just arrived. Yeah, now it made sense, even to us.

I keep relearning this lesson: The greater the social or cultural distance between me and the person I am observing, the more likely I will end up scratching my head and wondering.

So what about the distance between us, human creatures, and our Creator? That distance is immense in every way. God Himself tells us, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:9)

How can you and I trust someone we just cannot understand? We can’t. Not easily. Not even when that Someone is God.

So here are two things I consider:

  1. If I can’t understand other human beings who are so like me, is it any wonder that I can’t understand God whose thoughts and behaviour are so far beyond me?
  1. If I learned to trust the indigenous people to know what they were doing, and I trust the builders had a logical reason for placing that house they way they did, why can’t I trust God too?

God will often do things we don’t understand. But they make perfectly good sense to Him. We won’t completely understand God until we see Him face to face in eternity. But we can trust what His prophets have said about Him.

Moses said, “God’s works are perfect, and all His ways are just.” (Deut. 32:4)

King David added to this description, “You, O God, are strong. You, O God, are loving.” (Ps. 62:11)

God is strong, loving, just, and perfect. He often does things that make us scratch our heads, but we can trust Him. So can the rest of the 6.9 billion people of the world.

If only they all knew Him.