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.
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.”