We're in the middle of what is, without a doubt, going to be one of strangest years in my almost-68-year lifetime.
Six months ago, I didn't think anyone would've believed everything that has transpired if you told them. A coronavirus pandemic, quarantines, shutdowns, record unemployment, stock market crashes, and extreme social unrest—all happening during a very contentious election year.
One might call it a medical, social, economic, and cultural "perfect storm."
The coronavirus pandemic is a health problem of catastrophic proportions. It (or our reactions to it) has also been the cause of a lot of the economic difficulties, and perhaps some of the social unrest. The whole thing has been exacerbated by our increasingly polarized and negative political environment.
Everyone has their own story (and opinions) about the Coronavirus. It has impacted us all in different ways. In our state (NC), things have started opening, albeit very slowly (we are still in phase 2 and phase 3 has been further delayed). Cases of the virus continue to rise, so does the possibility that the state will "rollback" to tighter restrictions. Full-time, in-class school instruction in our county schools is unlikely in the Fall, which understandably has lots of parents very concerned. A lot of school districts are considering a "hybrid" approach of in-person and remote instruction programs.
Our church is in the very early stages of getting back to normal. We've started having in-person services (with masks and social distancing), but attendance is relatively light. One pastor remarked to me how difficult it was to preach and not be able to see expressions on people's faces. I told him I had just the answer: "a smile on a stick."
I think a lot of people are still trying to figure out what to do. The online streaming option has gotten better and better, so many are staying with that for now, especially the vulnerable and those with young children (no children's ministry).
Challenging times, but…
These challenging times can tempt us toward an attitude of grumbling and complaining. We can be quick to make accusations (and sometimes insults) and promote unproven conspiracy theories. Incivility caused by "taking sides" seems to be the order of the day.
Please don't get me wrong. I believe that we all have the freedom (and the responsibility) to share our thoughts, opinions, and questions about certain things. But our aim should always be to "speak the truth in love."
We (and there is a "me" in "we") need to take care not to give in to the temptation to join in with the continually rising chorus of unhelpful complaints about public health officials and the government, protestors, election politics, the economy, etc.
But to emphasize (so as not to be misunderstood), I'm not talking about raising reasonable questions and concerns, or constructive criticism. I don't believe that Christians are obligated to sit idly by on the sidelines as the culture runs roughshod over the truth.
Here's the thing: the Bible points us in a different direction:
"Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear." (Ephesians 4:29)
"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. (1 Corinthians 10:10)
Due to my inclination to grumble and complain, and in light of these biblical principles, I'm going to try to take a different approach. I'll offer some personal reflection on what it's like to be an older person and a retiree in the middle of a pandemic (with a little "personal" information here and there). But the focus is on the things I'm grateful for.
As I contemplated this, I found that there were, surprisingly, quite a few things to be grateful for. Perhaps you're a little younger, or not yet retired, but you may find that some of these things will apply to you. Plus, you probably have some I didn't list.
First and foremost, I am grateful to be loved, forgiven, and accepted by God, our refuge and strength.
God is our refuge and strength because, as Christians, we have been adopted by him as his sons and daughters. He has promised to care for us.
It's not fun being in the "vulnerable" category. My wife and I are both over age 65, so we are considered to be in the "vulnerable" group relative to the dangers of COVID-19. That doesn't mean we're more likely to catch the virus; we're more likely to have serious complications (or die from it).
Being told that was more than just a little unnerving at the beginning. But as more data has been collected, it's clear that those who are most at-risk are over age 75, especially if they have underlying conditions. I guess I feel a little better about that (although my heart goes out to all the families who have lost elderly loved ones).
Like everyone else, we have to take reasonable precautions, but we can also put our trust in God and rest in his loving care.
I am grateful it is easier for us to social distance ourselves.
Because we're retired, we spend more time at home than those who are still out in the workplace, unless they were already working from home. (I worked from home off and on for many years before I retired.)
We typically have regular interaction with others at church services, small group meetings and classes, social gatherings, family get-togethers, shopping, etc. During the pandemic, like everyone else, we've had less in-person interaction with friends and family than we would like.
Like most people, we've been distancing and not seeing our friends and family nearly as much, which makes this season so challenging for us. But, especially earlier in the year, it was nice spending some time in the yard, getting some projects done, and enjoying the birds.
Because we are retired, we can limit our exposure to others as much as we want to. So, to some extent, for a retiree, social distancing is far more manageable. For the most part, we don't have to go anywhere. We don't have to go to work, can choose delivery instead of visiting stores, don't need to eat out, can do virtual doctor office visits, etc.
Yet, like many others, we venture out for shopping, take-out food, and now limited church services, on a reasonably regular basis. We take appropriate precautions when we do. This injects a degree of normalcy into the situation.
We were even able to take a vacation for a few days to Florida. We stayed in a rented house in north-central Florida on the St. Johns River, rented a boat, and did some four-wheeling in the nearby Ocala National Forest. It was a different kind of Florida vacation.
I am grateful for our public health and government officials, even if I don't always agree with some of them.
I would like to think that our public health and government personnel have the public's best interest. I'm sure that is true at least part of the time.
No one likes shut-downs or masks. But I dislike getting really, really sick even more. Perhaps we'll know better in hindsight (it's 20/20, right?), but it seems like this could have been much worse if some actions were not taken to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus.
The whole mask thing is interesting. It's become a political issue, with people taking sides and using social media to (firmly) express their views. Who thought that the phrase "mask shaming" would ever find its way into our daily vernacular?
I think mixed messages have contributed to the problem. But regardless, in our state (NC), mask-wearing is currently "mandatory" (although not enforceable as law), which is what seems to be stirring up so much intense emotion.
One thing is for sure: No one I know likes wearing them. Masks are hot, uncomfortable, and don't make any of us look any better (well, maybe some of us — LOL).
But most of us do, begrudgingly or not. We can only hope we won't need to indefinitely.
I am grateful I can't "lose my job."
We can't get laid-off from being retired. (Although it is possible to be forced by necessity to go back to work.) Since neither my wife nor I am employed or working for pay, we don't have to worry about looking for a job during a severe economic downturn.
We both do a lot of work for our church. Sure, they could lay us off and pay someone to take our place, but I'm not sure why (unless we really mess up).
That said, we're not unaffected by these economic realities. My son was furloughed from his job and then laid-off. We know others who have been affected. Our hearts go out to all of them. (After so many years in corporate America, I know what it's like to be employed during a recession with the looming threat of a layoff.)
I am grateful for the tools technology has given us.
I worked from home off and on for many years before I retired. So, I was accustomed to using various kinds of remote work technologies (conference calls, document and screen sharing, email and chat, etc.). But I rarely used any sort of video conferencing (unless I was in a specially-equipped room at my employer's office.)
After the lock-downs, my wife and I started using Zoom for church meetings of various kinds, so we had to learn it along with everyone else. But we didn't have to master an entirely new set of technologies to do a job (since we don't have one). It's incredible how much a part of our daily lives they have become.
I'm grateful for these video conferencing tools, but they certainly aren't a replacement for face-to-face contact. We have started going back to church services, and it is great to be able to talk with others face to face again (or only "eye-to-eye" if the masks happen to be on).
I am grateful we don't have to be (directly) concerned about having children at home and their schooling.
Like most retirees, we don't have children in our home. So, we don't have to deal with what so many families are—young children at home who are suddenly out of school amid the pandemic and thus in need of constant attention while their parents are also trying to work from home.
But do have grandchildren who live close-by, and the pandemic has affected how often (and the ways) we can spend time with them. Although relatively few (about 2%) of confirmed COVID-19 cases are children, the experts are still undecided about the extent to which they can transmit the virus. Therefore, families have been advised to keep their younger children away from more vulnerable family members.
While we have limited our contact, we have had a couple of family get-togethers. We try to keep them outside and avoid direct physical contact with the children. (It's hard—what grandparent doesn't want to give their grandkids a big hug!) When we are inside, we try to be extra careful as well.
I am grateful for the wisdom God gives us in his Word about handling money, and from others wiser than me about investing in retirement.
The Bible doesn't talk a lot about investing, per se', but it offers a lot of solid principles for anyone's financial situation. I think the Bible teaches prudence in these matters, which is very applicable to those in retirement.
It's not news to anyone that an economic recession has accompanied the pandemic. But like most retirees, I've become more conservative with our investments in the years leading up to, and after, leaving the workforce. As a result, we've been relatively less impacted by extreme market volatility during the current global pandemic.
Retirees typically have less in the stock markets and more in bonds and cash. Although bonds have (surprisingly) been affected more than usual, it has been less bumpy for a retiree with 40 percent in equities versus a 35-year-old with 90 percent.
But this isn't to say that we haven't been impacted at all. Back in March, when the markets were down almost 40%, our savings had fallen by about 25%. (Things are looking a little better now, but it's unlikely that we have seen the last of extreme volatility.)
The fact is that retirees have the same challenges as everyone else during times of uncertainty and market volatility: sticking to a long-term plan that aligns with our risk tolerance (willingness to take the risk) and risk capacity (ability to take it).
I am grateful we are spending less during the pandemic.
With social distancing forcing us to stay home more than we used to, overall spending has decreased. We are spending less on things like entertainment, clothing, eating out, and travel. Most of our spending is on essentials such as groceries, electricity, gas, healthcare, and insurance.
Lower expenses mean we are withdrawing a little less from our retirement savings each month. Since stock dividends and bond interest are decreasing, that is a good thing.
I am grateful the Social Security checks keep coming.
Many people are feeling financial pain amid the pandemic, especially if they have been laid off or furloughed temporarily. But retirees have not seen their income stream from Social Security impacted. Households like ours who are spending less will see their benefits go further.
And economic recessions and market volatility don't affect Social Security payments. Tax revenues may be impacted, which could affect long-term solvency. Annual inflation-related cost-of-living adjustments are also uncertain amid a pandemic.
I am grateful for Medicare (and the supplemental plans) we have to take care of healthcare insurance needs.
Most retirees have Medicare (or Medicaid) health benefits. Medicare will continue to provide coverage regardless. But when those still in the workplace lose their jobs, they usually lose their employer-sponsored healthcare coverage.
Unemployed workers can sign up for COBRA coverage, which effectively continues their insurance coverage, but the premiums are usually much higher. Other options are the public health insurance option (ACA) and medical cost-sharing.
I am grateful we received a government stimulus check.
Frankly, I was surprised to get a federal stimulus check. We are already getting regular monthly income in the form of Social Security, so I didn't expect the government to send a check to retirees like me.
Although millions have lost jobs or are receiving less income due to the pandemic, most retirees are less likely to have experienced these things due to the pandemic. Therefore, the stimulus checks were a "bonus" that we could use as we chose. Most will use it to pay bills, add to their savings, or for generosity at a time when many are suffering.
I am grateful we can stay involved in some productive "work."
With the stay at-home-orders came the shut-down of church meetings and related actives. Since my wife and I are involved in our church in several different ways (we both serve as deacons), our activity level immediately dropped. It was a nice respite for a few days, but then it became downright boring.
Because we were identified as being in the "vulnerable" group for COVID-19, and the virus seemed to be so dangerous, we were reluctant to venture out much, if at all. That made us feel very uncomfortable. Were we walking in fear rather than faith, or were we just being wise?
I've been a little less "busy," but I've been able to stay engaged in "virtual" church activities (church services, community groups, and deacon meetings). I'm a Sunday school teacher for a group of 7 year-olds (most are now 8), and I recently put together my first "virtual online lesson." We've been teaching through the "ABCs of God," This short lesson, which I created as an animated online video, is on "K for King."
I've also been working with a publisher to finalize my second book, working on the final draft of another, and continuing to write on this blog (which is fun for me and I hope something that serves others).
By the way, my next book, which will hopefully be published this Fall, is titled, The Minister's Retirement. I wrote it to serve those who serve the people of God. (More to come on this!)
I am grateful we have a level of physical health that permits us to stay somewhat active.
My wife and I both have an exercise regime. She has been using a personal trainer to build strength following a severe shoulder injury and reverse shoulder replacement surgery a few years ago. But her trainer's "gym" had to close under the state's mandatory shut-down rules.
I walk for exercise—5 to 6 miles, 3 to 4 times a week. The weather was very lovely in the Spring, so going out for walks was very pleasurable. Now that summer's heat and humidity are here, it is more taxing, but I am keeping at it. Here's a snapshot of the weather when I finished a walk the other day (good thing I was raised in Florida!).
I also have a weight machine in the house that I use from time to time for strength training, but I seem to have a knack for hurting myself when I use it. It also seems like it takes years to heal when I do.
I am grateful for our doctor.
In late February to early March, I had a bad case of the flu—just as things started to get worse with the Coronavirus. When our state locked down, I had already been "self-quarantined" for about two weeks!
I occasionally wondered if I had COVID-19 and not the flu, but there was no way to get tested. When I got better, I had a residual cough that just wouldn't go away. So, like an idiot, I set up a doctor's appt., ostensibly because I needed my annual physical for prescription refills.
Going to the doctor during a pandemic is a strange experience. When I got to the doctor's office, I (wait for it…) mentioned the chronic cough. They immediately ushered me out of the back door and told me that I needed to get a COVID test before doing anything more for me.
I immediately drove to the testing site. At one point, I was the only "patient" at the testing location. The whole thing took less than 30 minutes, and I tested negative. I then called my doctor back and set up a "telemedicine" visit. My doctor was very helpful, but it was clear that they were just getting a handle on how to do that. A few days of antibiotics and I was much better.
I am grateful for our pastors.
I think pastors have had an especially challenging job during this time. Many churches had to "scramble" to start streaming church services online. Now, many are trying to figure out how to reopen slowly and safely or will be in the future.
And on top of all these logistical challenges, they continue to minister the truth of God's Word, encourage the downhearted, comfort the sick, mobilize the church to serve the local community and maintain the unity of the believers (which can also be a little challenging right now).
As a deacon, I work alongside our pastors in different ways, and I witness their labors first-hand. It fills my heart with thankfulness and gratitude.
It's not that hard
It's not that hard to come up with a list of things to be grateful for, no matter what the circumstances. In spite of all that is going on, what can you find to be grateful for?
Give it a shot—it may put your head and heart in a better place!