Saturday, March 3, 2018

fascinating and unanticipated shades of gray...

One of the inevitable consequences of leaving ministry for retirement is moving into a land of invisibility. As with most destinations, there are up and down sides as well as a host of other fascinating and unanticipated shades of gray. On the bright side, my world is now colored by an absence of expectations and social roles. As I first discovered on sabbatical in Montreal, it is liberating not to be known primarily as "pastor." I am just the old guy in the Mingus T-shirt who speaks bad French, doesn't always hear right, loves music, prayer, and taking odd pictures on his I Phone. My day has no imposed structure. My prayers have no external liturgical demands. And my focus is rarely interrupted by either emergency or surprise. This type of invisibility is a bit like the spirituality of the early Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers: purely a matter of the heart. The relative anonymity of my new reality is a blessing. There will certainly be a less satisfying flip side revealed at some point, but for now that remains a mystery. What has emerged are various shades of gray.

First, my former life was shaped by the ebb and flow of the Christian liturgical year in community. I was not as a monk in hermitage, but one who shared a common cup. My spirituality was nourished not in solitude but in relationships. For forty years I swam through the current of feasting and fasting, ashes and fire, sound and silence. Not so any more. Ethically I am constrained by strict boundaries that separate me from my former congregation. This is to ensure that their future matures beyond my influence. In a small, New England town, however, this means that there are precious few options for my personal worship in public. Living into this protocol has challenged me to cultivate a new inner life. Psalm 51, for example, feels different in private than in community:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. As I have been set free from public responsibilities I have also been rendered spiritually isolated: one shade of gray.

+ Second, letting go of my public role has heightened my awareness of my own mortality. Once upon a time, my days were so full that I could overlook my hearing loss, aching back, or periodic forgetfulness. Today, with all the time that exists available to me, it is much harder to look the other way. I need help. I must rest more after shoveling snow. I turn the sound up on the TV too loud. It is becoming clear to me that one of the reasons why so many men delay retirement is the way our personal identities have been fused with productivity: I produce therefore I am. I am strong so I matter. I am contributing to the social good so I have value. For too many decades that was true for me, too. But not so much any more; I was ready for retirement years before it was possible. Yet I am startled to see how much I let my busyness mask my mortality. The blessings Jesus shared with his disciples in Peterson's rendering of the Sermon on the Mount is speaking to me in new ways:    

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

+ And third, I am aware how little the gifts of wisdom born of age matter in our bottom-line, fast paced world.  It is clarifying to become culturally irrelevant. This experience is known well by women of a certain age - and people of color in another manner - but new for me. Two months ago, when I was in a planning meeting for a regional festival to present young artists' insights re: social justice, I had an embarrassing epiphany. Summarizing the meeting, I inadvertently confused "Google docs" with "Google hang outs." The tittering and eye rolling among the younger participants made it all too clear that "the old guy" was out of his comfort zone. "Truth be told," I observed out loud, "I've never used Google hang-outs - and probably never will. What's more, I'm not all that crazy about Google docs either. Sorry 'bout that." 

Not a big deal and things wrapped up just fine. But the point had been made: it was time for me to step away from the action. I have gifts and insights to share - especially when it comes to public accountability and organizing for action -but, as John the Baptist said about Jesus, this is a time for me to decrease so that he may increase. It is time for another generation to give it their best, to learn from their inevitable mistakes and to grow through honest evaluation. It is time to trust that God is God and I am not. Perhaps that's why I loved this episode of "Grace and Frankie" (another party I have come to a bit late!)

Each of these encounters (and others like always parking my car in the same general place at the grocery store lest I become woefully lost and break out into a giggle fit in public) have opened my eyes to the fascinating and unanticipated shades of gray all around me.

credit: Dianne De Mott

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