Dancing in the Desert: How to Survive Tough Transitions

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Red-Headed-Wildflower and I are in transition. We retired. 

It’s glorious. Sundays can actually be Sabbath. Faith is once again becoming a breath of life rather than a program I’m promoting. And the Red-Headed-Wildflower no longer ties shoes, teaches math, wipes noses, tests aptitudes, and coddles the parents of five and six year-olds. For both of us it’s felt akin to shrugging off a heavy backpack after a long climb up a fourteener. Relief. We’re available to our kids, grandkids, friends, and new opportunities. The freedom is extraordinary.

You would think we’d be elated. And we are. But—

Who Are You?

Who are we now that we are no longer pastor and teacher? That question echos into the wide open feel of our lives. To a large extent our jobs have defined us. Like many (most?) people we look to what we do to answer who we are.     

By some God-coincidence I’ve been reading about the Israelites when God miraculously delivered them out of Egypt. Not retirement but there are parallels. After 480 years of slavery and having their lives cruelly dictated by others, God freed them. They throw a well-earned dance party. Moses writes a song. Miriam leads the dance. Bodies gyrate; timbrels jangle. The entire nation of ex-slaves sings and dances. Freedom!

But the following morning, they realize they are on a far shore. Away from everything they know. The Red Sea and the past has snapped shut behind them and a horizonless desert and future is stretched out before them. They were slaves. Now who are they?

Elation slips away. Fear fills the empty space. They grumble, looking back over their shoulders, whitewashing what was. “There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” They are miraculously free. But they have no map. Their painful past now seems preferable to the vast bleak unknowing before them.

It’s overwhelming.

We All Look Back

I pastored in the Vail Valley, ministering to many people who had worked hard, sacrificed, yearned to reach retirement. In their first years of retirement they skied, travelled, hiked, played, danced, and—then—complained. Life has to be more than a pristine powder day. Many went back to work.

But it’s not only Boomers or Israelite slaves who face transitions in life with trepidation. Going back to what we’re accustomed to is common, even if it’s a painful past. Maybe you’ve done it. Returned to that unhealthy relationship rather than navigate being alone. Moved into your parent’s basement rather than risking a new identity. Or maybe the fearsome desert has been forced on you. You lost your job, flunked out of school, were served divorce papers. The only way you can go back is in your imagination. You hide out there. All of us glance behind us to blunt the fear of the future.   

My first call as a pastor was a disaster. Unknown to me when I accepted the job and we moved to Illinois, the senior pastor of the church was involved in his third or fourth affair. The church was so dysfunctional it continually ignored his sin. They responded to me and my family with hate and blame for demanding they do something about it.

I left being a carpenter for this? I’d go out to the garage and cry and cuss and gaze at my carpentry tool-belt wistfully, regretfully. One woman from the congregation reverberated my doubts: “Maybe you’re not really a pastor?”

God Fills Our Empty Places 

Camped at the bottom of Mount Sinai, with Moses having disappeared onto its dark, cloudy peak, the Israelites attempt to go back. They forge a golden calf, similar to what the Egyptians worshiped. 

Eugene H. Peterson writes about Israel (and us) at this juncture: “What they had yet to realize was that emptiness was a prerequisite to being filled.” 

Here is the nub of it. Why did Israel have to wander in the desert for forty years? It is humorous to answer: because Moses was a man and could not ask for directions. But the truth is they had been slaves for so long, they did not know how to be free. They defined themselves by what they did, what their captors said they were. Sound familiar? It took them forty years to redefine themselves according to who God said they were: Valued, beloved children of God and not despised captives.

Let God Take your Hand

Why do we find ourselves in desert places? Because slowly or quickly—but surely—we released the Father’s hand and grasped the inanimate hand of a paycheck or accomplishment or the unsure hand of another person. Our golden calves. God uses the desert to obliterate how we define ourselves by these things. Desert stars above, sand below, and horizon beyond site, we ask, “Who am I?”

We gawk, stammer, shrug. Run back to old, vacant answers. But in the words of those ridiculous YouTube videos: “Wait for it!”

As with Israel, God eliminates our past patterns, beliefs, and responses, and the emptiness gapes. It’s hard to wait for the filling. Hard to trust it, to trust God. The desert is there to teach us we do not belong to our own version of Egypt: jobs, expectations, schools, spouses, and other dubious sources.

Beloved of God

Who are you? 

Over the years and through many miles of wilderness, including this current one, I hear God assuring me: “You are not what you do but you do out of who you are!” 

“And who exactly am I?” My question echos in the desert emptiness. I wait. Wait. Worry. Snap my fingers impatiently. God is slow and patient. I am not!

Then from the very grains of sand and the distant stars and the boundless horizon God’s voice rolls, wraps comfortably around me, “You are my beloved.”

13 thoughts on “Dancing in the Desert: How to Survive Tough Transitions”

  1. Georgie Ann KETTIG

    and in that relationship, we “find ourselves!”,… nice! (-:

  2. Eugene so you’re actually retired? What was your last place of service? When I semi-retired 7 years ago I had a difficult adjustment. All our lives we’re stepping up to higher levels of challenge, then, all of a sudden we step away/down. Nothing in my life prepared me to step down. There was boredom, especially at first. Rebecca told me to tell my doctor that I was depressed, when I went in for a knee injury. When I told him he had the psychologist come in. She asked me a few questions and said “could it be that you’er grieving over the physical limitations resulting from a knee injury and the losses that come with retirement?” Wow! I hadn’t considered grief but it fit and has helped me to adjust realistically to retirement. Although I’m blessed to still serve part time counseling, preaching on occasion and heading up our greeting teams. Thanks for blogging about your retirement journey,.

    1. Doug: Yes and no. I left my last church position as Executive Pastor at Wellspring Church in Engelwood (an Anglican congregation!) last September. Dee Dee retired from teaching about the same time. We took the fall to pray and ask God about the future. I’m a little young to retire. 😉 It seems God said that I should not go back into leadership in the institutional church, but rather take this as an opportunity to write and coach and counsel outside of a church structure. I am writing a lot and Dee Dee says I’ve just started a new career. But I’m not pursuing it the same way I did my pastoral career. To use a farming analogy, I see it as moving from behind the plow to mending harnesses and teaching my “sons” the lay of the land. It’s slower and calmer and hard to describe.

      But as you said, nothing prepared me (us) for this. Depression, yes. Grief, absolutely. I’ve been in therapy since September. I wrote about that too. No secrets here, I guess. Thanks for reading and for the several times you have pastored me.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I’ve known you as a pastor and a man with a pastor’s heart no matter what you are doing. Thanks for reading.

  3. This is good stuff… I escaped into parenting. Thinking I was at least a good dad, I began to live and breath Serra. Meanwhile, I was completely stuck. I don’t think I really wanted to go back, I just lost any sense of “forward”. No dreams, no plans, no map (as you put it). And, not having a map, I couldn’t even be a good dad. I literally started over, deleted the old navigation system and downloaded a brand new App. 5 years later, my mentor said, “Mitch, do you know God loves you?” I said, “I think so.” He asked me how much theology I had taken in seminary and then said, “Can I boil all that down for you?… Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Start there, and when you believe it 110%, build the rest on that”. And that was my new App. And I’m still learning how it works. “You are my Beloved”.

    1. Mitch: Thanks for sharing your version of being “lost” in the wilderness. The horizon looks different from wherever God has led us. Karl Barth was asked to sum up his theology and he said, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” We are in good company. I think God sometimes prefers we travel without a map.

  4. I love this SO MUCH. Thank you for sharing this insight–it is helping me reframe my own wanderings.

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