A little over 12 years ago, after a few years of sailing the Caribbean in retirement, the brother of one of my church members sailed into a small inlet along the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.
Like many sailors before him, he was looking for some shelter during a storm. But something happened on that brief visit that changed his life.
Bill Benson had retired from a career with the Boy Scouts of America and was enjoying a well-deserved retirement on his sailboat. His plan was to keep sailing the Caribbean and to finally spend some time with his wife after years of seven-day work weeks with the Scouts.
(This is the place in the story to tell the old joke about how to make God laugh. You tell him your plans.)
What happened was that Bill fell in love with the people of the Dominican Republic and – importantly – he saw their need. The Dominican Republic isn’t as poor as Haiti, which shares the same island, but it’s plenty poor and its educational system is among the worst in the western hemisphere, worse even than Haiti’s.
Bill spent the better part of the next two years riding around the island on a motorcycle, trying to figure out how best to be of help to these people. Finally – and it’s a good story, but really it’s his to tell – God let him know that two years of research was enough and that it was time for him to get started.
So, Bill founded the Village Mountain Mission. He bought a beautiful piece of land in the Dominican Republic. He acquired some vehicles. And he started inviting mission teams from the U.S. to join him in building houses, and starting schools, and providing medical care.
I’ve gone on mission trips just about every year for the last 20 years, usually to places in this country and usually with high school students, but I’ve also gone with church members of all ages to places like Haiti and Peru and the Philippines and (last November) to South Africa.
This one, I have to say, was the toughest yet. I returned last Tuesday night and have never been so glad to get home.
The work was hard, there was no escape from the heat, and the living conditions were … let’s just say they were primitive.
I don’t like camping. Never have. And this was tougher than any camping trip I’ve ever taken. But Bill wants mission teams who visit the Village Mountain Mission to eat and live the way the people of that island eat and live.
And mostly we did.
But … and every person who has ever gone on a mission trip will tell you this, I returned tired and happy. I learned something – about myself, about the Dominican Republic, and about what God is doing in the world.
I had the privilege of riding in the front seat with Bill Benson several times during the week we were there, and so I had an opportunity to see up close what a 70-something man looks and sounds like when he gives up retirement to follow God’s call in his life.
To be honest with you, I have never pictured my own retirement like that, like Bill’s.
And then I came home and read the scripture reading I had chosen to preach about tomorrow, Jesus’ parable about the “rich fool.” Jesus of course doesn’t tell us that the rich fool was retired – in fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything in all of scripture about retirement – but I couldn’t help reading this little parable as a story – and maybe a warning – about retirement.
Jesus’ parable is a story about someone who has accumulated a great deal over the course of his life, someone who has been very responsible with his property, and someone who should probably feel good about all that he has. And nowhere, it’s important to note, does Jesus criticize the man for having worked hard and done well.
And yet, Jesus is not at all flattering. As Jesus tells the story, God is displeased with the man – not for his hard work, and not for his wealth, but for his attitude, his unwillingness to notice anyone around him. He’s all caught up in himself. And God uses the word “fool” to describe him, a word that in biblical terms is, well, rather harsh.
I serve a church with plenty of retired people – and with plenty of people who are at least contemplating retirement. I don’t usually go out of my way to step on toes, but I’m thinking that tomorrow I’ll talk about Bill and I’ll ask a few questions about retirement.
Like, what is it exactly that God asks of us?
(Photo credit: This photo was taken by a member of our mission team. Thanks, Anna. Remarkably, if you face one direction, you see sugary sand, palm trees, and that wonderful blue Caribbean water. If you look the other way, you see abject poverty and thatched-roofed huts. All week long, as we built a house for a family in the village of Cambiaso, the contrast was jarring.)