The “third-third” of life

Written by on July 2, 2012

Why does it seem like such a rare find when we discover someone who keeps on growing and learning all the way to the finish line? Cultivating prayerful reflective thinking is such a critical element of a maturing person’s life. This is no less the case as a person enters into the later chapters of his or her life. Terry Nyhuis describes the “third-third” of life as a time when significant life contribution is still likely, but can only come when one is “fully present” in that particular stage of life. Rather than hoping to get by with what we already know, a person must be open to God’s unfolding lessons in these new chapters.Nyhuis shares a story about encountering one such person in her “third-third” of life.

Twelve years before writing this dissertation, I was pastoring a church in Holland, Michigan.  One of my favorite mornings was when I led a Tuesday morning Bible study for women who were well into their Third-Third.  There I encountered many of the sages, mystics, and seers embedded in that congregation. One Tuesday morning I described to these women something I had recently learned and said, “I wish I wasn’t so slow to learn.  If only I’d learned this lesson ten years ago, it would have helped me and the church so much.” One of the women slowly and laboriously pulled herself up by her walker and shuffled over to me.  She patted me on the head affectionately and said, “Oh, Pastor, you couldn’t possibly learn a fifty-year-old lesson when you are only forty years old.  You have to be fifty to learn a fifty-year-old lesson.  Someday when you are sixty you will learn sixty-year-old lessons.  Just wait until you are ninety like me. Pastor, you are hardly half way through your lessons.  The best lessons are still to come for you.”[1]

Finishing life well in life brings with it a whole set of questions and tensions and discoveries, which cannot be fully understood until we get there. Thankfully there are saints among us who continue to “go the distance,” who model a wise and growing way of life.  The best lessons are still to come…I am reminded of Dr. James Houston’s words from a few years ago when he said that we have maps and mapmakers ad nausea in the church in North America when what we really want is a few mountain guides who traveled the journey ahead of us. The church desperately needs men and women who hear the invitation that Dr. Houston offers here. Unfortunately many of us become too preoccupied with developing and memorizing maps for the spiritual life and fail to grow up into the sorts of folks who can actually offer in the “third-third” of their life the trail experience and wisdom we need. May God’s Spirit stir in us a desire and patience to become mountain guides on the journey.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9)

  Question to ponder: Who has been a person you would consider has moved toward finishing well?  As you think about them, what stands out to you?  If possible, make contact with them, inviting them for a meal or a cup of coffee and express how much your life has been impacted by theirs.  

[1] Terry Nyhuis, “A Developmental Approach to the Third-Third of Life,” Unpublished Doctor of Ministry paper, (George Fox University, 2010), 16.

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