Amid the uncertainties of the stages of life, we can find seeds for growth and a deepening understanding of God’s provision.
June 12, 2017
1 – father, sinner, saint
by Andy Meyer
On November 2—in the middle of game 7 of the Cubs World Series victory—my wife and I welcomed our first child, Sophia Lenore, into the world. The miracle of birth and the joy of new life is itself overwhelming, but I think the Cubs victory added a bit of excitement. The coincidence of her birth and baseball are forever connected in my mind and memory.
Just as Sophia was born at the end of the baseball season, she was also born at the end of the liturgical year—one day after All Saints Day and shortly before the start of a new church year with Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany falling within her first weeks of life. Stronger than any association with post-season baseball, her birth and these seasons of the church are now linked in my mind and memory.
In the last few weeks and months one of my most consistent thoughts has been this: being a parent is really hard! Lack of sleep, extra loads of laundry, and anxiety surrounding caring for a tiny human have all combined to make this season uniquely difficult. The challenge has added new meaning to the biblical hope conveyed in one line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Like few other times in my life, this season forces me to rely on God’s providence for strength and courage daily. As God’s people had to gather manna in the wilderness each day, I too must gather strength and courage each new morning. It would be nice to be able to stockpile extra kindness, grace, and courage—not to mention sleep, free time, and clean laundry—but I am gaining new awareness of my reliance on God and the insufficiency of my own strength and will.
The text from the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” brings solace as well: “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” I have experienced dependence on God and God’s people at other times during my life—new job, school, difficult seasons—but becoming a parent has removed all notions of self-sufficiency or autonomy by underscoring how much I depend on God and the people of God.
I wish I could say this transition to fatherhood has made me more saintlike (I’m still hopeful that it will!), but right now I am learning to accept more fully the heights and depths of my humanity. Martin Luther talks about the concept of simul justus et peccator—the idea that humanity encompasses both sinner and saint—and I’ve surprised myself on both fronts. I’ve lovingly cleaned up dirty diapers, patiently rocked a crying child, and wisely chosen things that lead toward flourishing and joy. But I’ve also been surprised by my sinfulness and vices—flashes of anger over spit-up, gluttonously rolling over for another few minutes of sleep instead of tending to my stirring child, jealousy toward others who seem to have an easier time of it.
I’m becoming more comfortable both wielding my saintly power (“I can hold her while she cries, you sleep”) and accepting my human limitations (“I’m having a tough moment, could you hold her for a while?”).
Last, this transition has blessed me with a fresh awareness and appreciation for the communion of saints. I know that I have now joined the community of parents, but the communion of saints stretches far beyond that to include doctors and nurses who extend care; family and friends who come bearing gifts of clothes, blankets, and food; and those who offered quiet words of encouragement or silent prayers.
As I hold my own child I think about the people who held me when I was an infant, and my mind wanders to those who taught me in and out of school. I’m newly aware of people who have offered me love and encouragement, guidance and hope, books and stories that have guided me on my way. More clearly and with ever growing gratitude I see the communion of saints that has surrounded me since before my birth and continues to bless me with love.
And—embracing my saintliness!—I think about the ways I have been part of that communion of saints with others—as a camp counselor, Sunday-school teacher, librarian, and hopefully in my daily living. I think about the communion of saints as a great interconnected web that stretches through time and space to bind us together in our common humanity and in relation to our Triune God.
This communion of saints streams not through “gates of pearl” as the hymn suggests, but into the smallness of our home just as the wise men came to visit the baby Jesus. Like the wise men, the saints come bearing gifts for the newborn child—not of gold, frankincense, or myrrh, but of food, clothes, books, love, and encouragement. Like Mary, I sit by “treasuring these things in my heart,” newly aware of the rich blessings I’ve received and recommitted to serve the greater community—and to raise my daughter to know that the richest part of life is found in serving others.
In all of this, I feel a tremendous and nearly overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am grateful for God’s promise of daily bread and that the fullness of my humanity—both as sinner and saint—is accepted by God and the people of God. And I am grateful for the great and diverse communion of saints that stretches throughout time and space.
2 – halfway there
by Nilwona Nowlin
I’m apparently in the middle of a midlife crisis. The good news is that, at forty-two years old, I’m right on schedule! The better news? Instead of “crisis,” mental health experts are now suggesting that a more accurate term for this period is “transition.”
So. I’m apparently in the middle of a midlife transition. Regardless of what you call it, we often tend to blame such seasons on circumstances or people. Me? I’m going to “go big or go home” and blame mine on God.
A year ago I had a job I enjoyed that paid well and offered great benefits. I could cover rent, utilities, student loan payments, other bills, give tithes—and still have at least a little bit of money left at the end of the month. In fact, there were times when I’d forget that payday had come and gone. That’s a great place to be in life!
But then God stepped in. Told me that my season in that role had ended. Nudged me to step out on faith to pursue opportunities to live more fully into my calling.
It is often said that your calling is revealed in stages. While in seminary, I gravitated toward courses that resulted in a certificate in justice ministries. It was a natural fit, but it wasn’t until I heard about the ECC’s focus on Love Mercy Do Justice that I realized that that could actually be a vocational ministry focus. My hope was that this leap of faith would allow me to land in this area of service.
So when I sensed God’s invitation, believe it or not, I immediately responded in obedience. I resigned from my position. My hope was that by the time I officially worked my last day, I would have something new lined up.
It didn’t work out that way. My last day was December 31, and I entered 2017 with a great deal of uncertainty.
It has been a faith walk of epic proportions. I’m writing this in March, and the last two and a half months have been an exhausting emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride. I spent most of January and February grieving a major setback, and I went from not having to pay attention to the payroll schedule to getting this close to having to withdraw funds from my retirement account.
It was during those hard weeks that I seriously began to question everything about my life. I was angry at God. I had been obedient and had literally sacrificed everything. Yet the only thing I really had to show for it was lots of balled-up tissues from random outbursts and crying myself to sleep.
But as I reflect back on the past two and a half months, I am realizing something. I still don’t have a full-time job, but somehow I have been able to continue to pay my bills. I feel a little like Elijah in the desert.
“The word of the Lord came to [Elijah], saying, ‘Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.’ So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi” (1 Kings 17:2–6).
Perhaps God is sending me my own ravens. Money comes in fits and starts, but my bills are being paid on time.
But there’s more. I realized that although it wasn’t in the capacity of a full-time job, I have spent this time engaging in activities that line up directly with my calling. I have poured into emerging leaders as a cohort co-facilitator, I have led conversations on intercultural development and racial justice, I have worked one-on-one with college students navigating how to engage in working for racial justice. I even submitted a “viability assessment” of a novel-in-progress and was selected to be a speaker at North Park’s first ever TEDx event.
During this time, people have verbally affirmed my gifts and calling, and I have been financially compensated for many of these things. It is a great joy to be able to be paid to do the things that you were born to do. While it hasn’t played out the way I was hoping it would, I’ve spent these past few months doing exactly what God called and equipped me to do.
Yesterday the ravens came again and delivered two more checks. In that moment God reminded me that my calling is still my calling, regardless whether it lines up with a specific job/vocation.
This epic faith walk is not yet over—nor is my midlife transition. Yet I find myself grateful for the experience. I have been drawn closer to God and am understanding God in new ways. I am also learning more about myself and am literally being transformed.
Maybe I should go out and get a tattoo of a butterfly—or a raven.
3 – empty nest blues
by Lisa Sundell Olsen
When we sent our kids from Connecticut all the way to Chicago to attend North Park University, I somehow managed. I counted the days until our next reunion because even though they were in a different time zone, their home address was still my home address.
After college my son got a job only fifteen minutes away from us, and we welcomed him with enthusiasm back to his old bedroom. He thrived in his work and developed good relationships with his colleagues. Soon he was rewarded with a promotion and a transfer to a different office within the company. But it was ninety minutes away—which meant he had to move.
Ambivalence took over my heart and wouldn’t let go. My head said, “What a great opportunity! I’m so proud of you.” But internally I was filled with grief and despair. And I wasn’t ready for it.
My daughter and son-in-law, together with their four dogs, had lived with us for a full seventy-nine weeks a couple years earlier. When they found a place of their own three towns away, we celebrated their new chapter with them and sent them off with genuine joy.
Now that my son was moving out, why was I reacting so strongly?
I attended a seminar called “How to Parent Adult Children,” the gist of which was, “Speak less, pray more.” When I told my son about that he said, “That’s excellent advice—you should follow it, Mom.”
When my babies were born, motherhood offered me the future. I developed an expanded identity. My goal was to raise two extraordinary human beings. We tried to set their feet on solid paths and give them the tools they needed to make their way. And now that stage is done. What next? I was almost overwhelmed with options. What is the future to which God is calling me now?
I talked to other parents in various stages of empty-nest grief/relief. One woman said that grandchildren are great, but they don’t fill the void left by her own kids. She told me, “I was once their number-one priority and they were mine. They are still my top priority, but I’m relegated to about number five.” She then said, “I need to be someone’s number one.”
Another mom said, “I have a tendency to live in the past, but time has taught me to enjoy my memories of the kids and to try to appreciate the new relationship I have with my adult children. Balance has become my mantra.”
When I asked my dad, a pastor and therapist, how he coped when we left home, he told me he stood in the doorway of my bedroom with a lump in his throat. “You can’t anticipate the emotional impact of it,” he said. “You have never done this before, and even though you know it’s coming, it tears you to pieces.”
One of my favorite legacies that my mother left us was that she always used to say, “Oh, this has to be my favorite age and stage with you kids.” No matter how old my brother and I were, that was “the best” stage. She knew how to live in the moment and appreciate the here and now.
She died when I was twenty-nine, and I have tried to apply her wisdom with my own children in these past two decades. As I have tried to enjoy every stage, I have also learned that each season is temporary, and I miss each one when it ends—even the hard ones. But in the wake of my son’s departure, I was struggling to embrace this mind-set.
At first I tried coping through retail therapy, but that couldn’t continue. I took a class with Bob Stromberg called “Mastering the Craft of Creativity” and had a conversation with him in which he said something to this effect: “Remember when you were pregnant and so happy and excited? But then at about thirty-six weeks you begin to think, ‘If I don’t let this person go, we are both going to die.’ That stage could not continue.”
At that point I began to cry. It suddenly made perfect sense. The first day my child left for kindergarten I thought my heart would break. He was so little and so innocent. And his curly blond head would be away from me for hours—hours! Now at twenty-three he has a full-time job and is enrolled in graduate school. (There is
no washer and dryer in his apartment, which secures a visit home every two weeks until he discovers a laundromat close by.)
I keep reminding myself to let go. I know my struggle with identity, my wondering what I will I do “when I grow up” are my issues that I need to work through. I keep remembering that Jesus came to bring abundant life and that my wallowing in the past isn’t productive. I will focus on God, family, church, my jobs, friends, hobbies, and pray that my “empty nest” will become “empty, but blessed.” With God’s help, I believe it will.
4 – roadmap for retirement
by Sandy Johnson
I had a job I enjoyed. My life at work was fulfilling and challenging, and
after twenty-plus years on the job, I was deemed the go-to person, the “guru.” When I anticipated life in retirement all I could see was a world of oblivion and a vast sea of meaningless time. Where would I find purpose or value?
My work involved processing payroll for a large health organization with more than 14,000 employees. Because of the complexity of the position—and my ambivalence about leaving—I gave my supervisors a two-year notice before my retirement. They agreed to let me inch into this new season by going part-time after six months. That way I could train others and hand off duties gradually. It was an advantage for them, but it worked for me too. I feared the empty spaces on my calendar and it was hard to let go. I did not look forward to being replaced.
For many people their goals in retirement are to travel and spend more time with family. But then what? The budget allows for only so many trips and the sons-in-laws may get a little anxious about yet another visit. People talk about a “bucket list.” What if there is a hole in the bucket?
My life verse is John 10:10 where Jesus says, “I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” I began to wonder if that abundant life would wane in retirement. Would roles as grandma and gardener be enough? Would I get lost in insignificance? Would my worth diminish as my body declined?
During the transition period I did find freedom in handing over responsibilities incrementally because I knew my replacement understood each step of the
process. As my co-worker became more proficient, I was able to reduce my schedule even more. I found that every time I had a day off I wanted another one. The whole process took about eighteen months instead of two years, and by the end I was working just one day per week.
On my days off I started completing long overdue home projects. Two of my daughters work outside the home and the third was working on her master’s degree, so they quickly began vying with one another for my babysitting time. One of them said we needed a “Grandma app” for booking my time!
One day as I read my Bible some verses popped out at me. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:3-4). In those words I began to see my purpose.
With nine grandkids from ages three to thirteen, I have a full calendar with their sports and other activities. Now I am able to attend events that I used to miss because of work. My babysitting opportunities become time to invest in those relationships, and I’m involved in their lives on a deeper level than occasional family get-togethers previously allowed. When asked why he loved going to Grandma’s house, one of my grandsons said, “Because Grandma J sure loves me!” And when I make my homemade mac and cheese they tell me I am the best cook ever!
In Ephesians 2:10 we read, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” There is no end date given for those good works. Throughout Scripture we find examples of believers who served the Lord until the end of their lives. Now that I have entered retirement, I am praying that the next ten years of my life will be my most productive yet. Six values guide my activities and propel me toward that goal.
1) Bible study and prayer. More than just my daily devotions, I want to spend time in Scripture with concordances and dictionaries, maps and guides, handbooks and helps. I want to learn for my own growth and maybe to share with others. May I never stop learning! I have also started writing down my prayers for my grandkids. I have an individual notebook for each of them where I record what I pray on their behalf. When I am gone, they will have a record of what I prayed for them. Years from now they can praise God for how he answers those prayers.
2) Health. In order to keep serving the Lord I need to keep my body healthy and functioning. The first few days of my new part-time schedule, I found one excuse after another to avoid exercise. I thought I would get enough activity in my flowerbeds or doing yard work. Or I thought I could put it off until another day. Yet procrastination can become prevalent in retirement. So I am determining to make exercise and healthy eating a priority. I want to hinder the deterioration process of this old body.
3) Family. I want to be able to influence the next generation for Jesus. Just as many teachable moments presented themselves during the ordinary activities of life with my daughters, so I want to take advantage of those teachable moments with my grandkids. That means I am involved in the ordinary events of their lives like going to games, transporting them to activities, listening to endless chatter, and yes, babysitting. I consider my time with them to be an investment in the future and a sacred opportunity.
4) Writing. I believe the Lord puts messages on my heart and gives me a passion to share them with others. My heart’s desire is to help Christians to connect faith
to life and to continue on the journey. Whatever the Lord gives me I want to be willing to share.
5) Reading. I want to get back into reading. After a long day at work I used to find myself falling asleep when I tried to read. There are so many good books to encourage, teach, inspire and to learn the mastery of words and expression. As exercise improves my physical function, so reading exercises my brain function and enriches my soul.
6) Recreate. Since my work was never done, I seldom gave myself permission to play when I was employed. I know that some retirees focus on checking items off their bucket list and resist any infringement on their newfound liberty. My goal is to keep these two extremes in balance. God gives us good gifts to enjoy, so I plan to embrace opportunities to take trips, dine out, or engage in leisure activities. I am praying that a little recreation will renew and re-energize me and that I will be even more inspired to serve the Lord.
I am learning that there is nothing to fear about retiring. I have not lost my purpose, identity, or worth. It is not a time of futility. It’s a time to withdraw from the demands of a job but not from the work we do for the kingdom. Now when people ask me how I like retirement, I say, “I highly recommend it!”