I was terrified when I hit fifty, believing the myth that life from now on would be downhill. During my first act, I had received accolades for several impressive career accomplishments that I figured would no longer be considered extraordinary but rather expected of someone over fifty. However, later that year I spent a delightful afternoon with a dear friend who was just a year older than me, comparing our notes on aging. Leaning forward, knees touching, we giggled and cried as we talked about the dumb things we’d done in the past, and the difficult, even tragic, events in our younger days. Our conversation became a celebration of all the ways we’d grown and how our brains seemed to work differently, leading us to become more patient, more tolerant, and more eager to learn from others. I was in my second act and it was liberating.

Just a year later, my fifty-three-year-old husband died suddenly.  I was set adrift and my new-found wisdom and reliance on past experiences seemed to vanish overnight. “How was I to continue living without the love of my life?” Grief is a painful process for anyone and I felt it all. While still processing and grieving, I began to give thought to creating a new vision for my future without him. As a child and into adulthood, I longed to be a Lutheran pastor. However, my commitment to my husband (who didn’t see himself as the spouse of a pastor) and sensitivity to my parents’ feelings (who were convinced women should not be pastors), led me to put my dream aside for more than thirty years.

My third act began when I retired from my career in social work administration and entered the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Everything in my life was different. I left my family, my support system, a leadership team I loved, my home, and everything that had provided me with security as I was dealing with life as a widow. I was fifty-eight years old, living in a third-floor walk-up in the third largest city in the United States and was learning Greek and Hebrew for the first time in my life. Nearly all of my classmates were at least thirty years younger than me and our professors had the same expectations for me as they did for my young friends. I viewed the entire experience as an adventure, filled with opportunities for learning, developing new perspectives, and gaining unique experiences amidst a diverse community.

I loved my first and second acts. I loved my husband and family. I loved my work and my colleagues. I didn’t love the struggles, the figuring out how relationships work, how to be a mom and care for a family, how to support others in their difficult times, and trying to file it all away for future use. I don’t miss the frustration of failing, falling and getting up again.

I love my third act. After living in Wisconsin for my entire life, I moved to Illinois for seminary, Minnesota for an internship, and Michigan to lead a congregation. Today, I serve a congregation in central Iowa, filled with people I love and respect and from whom I am learning. So often, when writing a sermon, teaching a class of teenagers, or visiting someone who is dying, I find myself being so grateful for every experience I’ve ever had, as they not only made me who I am but are so helpful in understanding and caring for others. Okay, I still make mistakes, but I recover so much faster than I did in my youth.

I’m not wearing a purple hat, I’m able to get up when I fall, I’m not going skinny dipping or skydiving, but as Helen Kellar is quoted as saying, “Life can be a daring adventure or nothing.” My third act is an amazing adventure.

There is something very freeing and exhilarating about facing each new day with sixty-eight years of life-long learning experience. 


  • Sally L. Wilke

    Pastor, ELCA

    Sally Wilke was born into a reading and writing family. Her mother's poems and articles appeared regularly in a Christian parenting magazine for many years. As her mother's life as a wife and mother grew busier, her writing talents were employed by area church groups, businesses, family, and friends. Sally inherited the reading and writing gene and, in her early years, worked with her mother to create skits and dramas for church groups and family gatherings and holiday celebrations. Her writing took an interesting turn when she tried (and failed) at poetry at the height of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's popularity in the late sixties. Articles and essays on civil rights and the Vietnam war became her primary means of communicating her adolescent angst. In the years before Sally and her sister, Sue Kirk wrote their spiritually motivated DIY publications on Christmas and Easter (see "Get Ready, Celebrate, Rejoice" and "Remember and Rejoice", she was primarily writing brief meditations and prayers for a wide variety of daily devotion publications, including "Our Daily Bread," "Upper Room," and "Daily Text." Her devotions were also published in the "Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America" magazine. During the course of her career in social work administration, she created and maintained publications for non-profit organizations, contributed topic-specific articles and essays to newspapers and magazines, wrote award-winning grant proposals, and monthly newsletter articles. Journaling since childhood, Sally pulled from those journals for her recent publication, "Waiting for Good News, Dealing with Chronic and Serious Illness." Keeping a record of her life with both her dad and her husband, Sally's journals also contained stories, bible verses, prayers and other encouraging readings that helped to guide her through her loved one's illnesses. Sally is currently working on a novel (first one!) about the intimacy created by a group of vastly diverse women following the 2016 presidential election and another non-fiction book on Mental Illness. NOTE: Three months before "Waiting for Good News" was published, Sally was diagnosed with a non-invasive breast cancer that required surgery, radiation and a five-year regimen of medication. She has new thoughts and words to add to "Waiting for Good News." See her blog, "Sally's been thinking" for more information.