Last weekend my family drove four hours north to Casper, Wyoming to celebrate my father’s retirement from 41 years of ordained ministry as a Lutheran pastor. My sister-in-law and I drove with our boys through several hours of open land, pronghorn antelope and buffalo occasionally dotting the landscape. I was entering my own liminal space of transition, battling a cold and dealing with my own response to what was yet another of life’s great thresholds.
For my whole life I’ve witnessed my father in action at work: sharing his wisdom on Sunday mornings via his sermons, running out the door to get to the hospital late at night to be with a sick person, presiding over funerals, baptisms and weddings, and generally attending to the needs of those in his community. He set a great example of integrity and service. He gave it more than his all. And somehow, he has managed to be an amazing father while balancing his many responsibilities and his calling to serve.
It was one of those days of celebration and honoring where I was holding a lifetime perspective, feeling the long stretch of time that my dad’s 41 years or ordained ministry is – and how that length of time mirrors my own lifespan. With my mother and brother by my side, I feel where I have come from and our long journey together as a family unit, with my father’s work with the Lutheran Church always there as a constant. While the church communities and locations changed, the rhythms often remained the same. Growing up Lutheran entailed many a church potluck with casseroles and jello (and dad’s retirement party was just the same!), and a long succession of kind and generous people offering their love and welcome to my brother and I as the proverbial ‘pastor’s kids.’
For his final sermon, my father spoke about ‘leaving home.’ While he was speaking about his own journey with the transition into retirement, the theme of threshold and change resonated. In fact, the occasion reminded me of my own journey of ‘leaving home’ to become a mother and cultivate my own newer nuclear family. It reminded me of my own ‘leaving home’ from my family of origin, charting my own path and how suddenly I find myself age 40 – basking in midlife with three of my own children in tow. As I struggled to listen amidst the clamor of my three boys’ shuffling and persistent requests for food, water, crayons or stickers, I felt my own sense of being ‘betwixt and between,’ as my father describes it. Pulled between two worlds I stand: one wanting to pay homage to my father and honor my (and his) past, the other grabbing for my attention via whines and taps as my boys adjust to a 90 minute church service in wooden pews.
The transition to motherhood indeed was also a leaving of home, a leaving of the familiar. In past years I could listen attentively during important occasions, offering up my full presence and attention in an undivided way. Now, I do the dance of bifurcation – split in four directions at all moments during a day. My brother is a father now too and we connect during the event about how different it is now. Time has surely passed and entered us both into the middle ground of our lifetimes, where the territory is new and the familiar ballasts of the past fade.
The moment of dad’s retirement is a marker of one such ballast fading. Of course the transition brings newness and hopefully new adventures for my father in his 70s and beyond. But it also marks an end, and reminds me of the wilderness of what is to come when my parents pass into the next world. As dad said during his last sermon:
“Life is always taking us to the wilderness. The wilderness is an “in-between” place. It is a place of awareness, a threshold. We are betwixt and between. We are neither here nor there. We have left behind what was and what will be is not yet clear. In the wilderness we come face to face with the reality of our lives; things done and left undone, our uncertainties, our hopes and dreams, our sorrows and losses, as well as the unknown.”
Leaving “home” can be difficult. As dad reminded me last Sunday, it invites us to change and opens us to new discoveries about ourselves. “It challenges our understandings of where we find significance, meaning, and security.” Yet perhaps most importantly, “leaving home” is about our continued spiritual journey and growth.
That night as I lay in bed with my boys, we talked about the day and about all the photos my mother had prepared for the event. We talked about my father’s lifetime of work and adventures. And Rowan said, “Mama, I heard one thing in Grandpa Bob’s sermon today. It was about how hard it can be to leave home.” He wanted to hear more. Why was it hard? Did everyone have to leave home? How do you find your way back? This led me into telling them their nightly story as they fell asleep. I heard myself speaking about how every person leaves home in different ways, and that there are times when we are in periods of the great unknown. The story took us into a forest, and into a great wilderness, but there we found a river where we could begin again and be transformed. And then, somehow, we find our way to a new home – over and over again finding our way home to what is ultimately our own beating heart. We can change and we can grow. We can journey thousands of miles. Things inevitably change, and around each corner there is a new self greeting new life circumstances.
And still, we can seek out the comfort of home, wherever or whatever that might be – coming back to ourselves with a spirit of rememberance of something in us that is unshakable, like a steady thread flowing through lifetimes regardless of time, external conditions, life transitions and even space. As I drift to sleep with my boys, I realize that this is my journey into motherhood and mid-life: old reference points fading, new challenges emerging daily, new responsibilities, new juggling, constant invitations to grow and learn. Some days I pine for the familiar or yearn for what was. Today, seeing my dad set sail into new horizons, I choose to let go of grasping for the lines that mark the past. I’m indeed in a great, new wilderness, charting my course and witnessing life’s great passage of time.