Existential Questions – Retirement

Fifteen days from today I officially retire.

The new pastor has been appointed to the office that has provided definition, boundaries, routines, anchors, and the vocational sense of purpose and meaning that come from a job and being part of a team.

I’m saying to myself what poor Alice said to herself in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“‘But it’s no use now,‘ thought poor Alice, `to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!…for it might end, you know,‘ said Alice to herself, `in my going out altogether, like a candle.‘”

Whenever retirement happens, it raises big questions – scary questions. About whether and how we will manage to live on reduced income, for instance, but, more profoundly, about what one’s life will be without the roles that have partially defined us. Who are we without the roles? What gives life meaning? Why are we here? For what do we exist? Existential questions.

There are moments when the pending retirement – the next chapter to which I’m looking forward – feels like jumping off a cliff into an abyss. I n those moments, the question becomes whether there is life over the cliff. Is what feels like a leap into oblivion a leap into nothingness, or is it a leap onto a trampoline we didn’t know was there before we leaped? Don’t know. Haven’t done it. As my dear retired friend in the memory care center said last Friday about my pending retirement, “You’re going to love it and you’re going to hate it. But eventually,” she assured me, “You’re going to love it!”

Worries about finances and can quickly turn me into Alice, plunging down the rabbit hole. Anxiety. Fear. But money isn’t really what’s unsettling.

Walking Barclay along the lovely wooded paths of the Jonathan Association yesterday, I remembered seeing a mole several years ago while walking our dogsMaggie and Sebastian (since deceased). The blind little mole seemed to be waddling aimlessly along the side of a dark tunnel. It was alone and kind of putzing along, oblivious to our presence, going who-knows-where for who-know-what reason. Fear feels like that. I sometimes feel like that. But the real fear underneath it all is death. For death is the obliteration of the self as we have come to know ourselves (the masks, the roles, the social networks, the reasons for living that come from outside ourselves).

Retirement is not death. It’s a precursor to death, but it is not the end of life. It’s a new chapter, a chance to finally BE and do what we want to be: the one and only person we have always been.

Aging doesn’t stop. It keeps going. Health is not forever. It declines. So, in part, the questions for me are what we want to do, what we “should” do (i.e., service to others and making a difference in this world), and what we can do to age gracefully, meaningfully, and joyfully.

In the year ahead my vocation will take the form of writing. Addressing the deeper questions. The existential questions. The faith questions. What Chaim Potok once called “the 4:00 in the morning questions”. But even more, I pray, retirement will bring a greater appreciation and enjoyment of the wonder of it all. As William Sloan Coffin put it at the end of his book Credo,  I want to live “less intentionally and more attentionally.”

So, in 15 days I turn the keys over to Dean, a wonderfully gifted colleague in ministry, confident that Shepherd of the Hill won’t skip a beat, and that Shepherd of the Hill, Dean, Kay and I are each and all in the good Hands of the unseen Trampoline just over the cliff.

12 thoughts on “Existential Questions – Retirement

  1. As one who took the leap at the end of June, I can tell you there are great adventures ahead. It’s “the third age,” and once again, as of old, the theme is Vocation. God is still calling you–to new things! God bless.

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    • Blair, Great to hear from you. I am looking forward to it. Transition time – in-between still wearing the robe and shedding it – is a curious mixture of letting go and reaching forward to the next step of the vocation. Writing will be a major part of my life. The rest is starting to come into view. Let’s stay in touch!

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      • You’re on, Gordon. It’s a very interesting process. I’m now teaching at Austin Seminary, which keeps me focused and busy. Still living in Dallas, and challenged to be a good precursor to my successor, including staying out of the way! Do keep in touch. It’s pretty amazing that we’re at this place in life already!

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      • Blair, the soon-to-be successor to I are working together for a smooth transition. Too many time the retiring pastor can’t keep his/her fingers out of the church’s business, to the detriment of the congregation’s bonding with the new pastor. The congregation and the new pastor know that my decision to complete separation during the separation ethics period, except for being available to Dean, the new pastor. I love it that you’re teaching at Austin, which is Kay’s seminary.

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  2. Gordon, the Hand of the unseen Trampoline is what your retirement hangs upon. (I know grammar) I.stepped over the cliff only to bounce back up to answer what I deemed to be a call to yet more service. It has been 15 years and I still feel the call. I wish for you and Kay, and Barclay a most relaxing and enjoyable retirement. May the cliff be at the end of.a wide mesa of happiness.

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  3. I wish I had known you thru all these years. You are such a thoughtful and insightful person. Retirement from one’s full time job is an adjustment and will take some getting used to….HOWEVER!!!!!!! Just relax and enjoy it…..New opportunities WILL present themselves. I think your congregation is going to have a harder time adjusting to your retirement, than you are!

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    • Thank you, Karen, for your kind words. Flattery will get you everywhere -:). I am looking forward to the day I retire. This in-between time before my last day feels very strange, neither fish nor fowl.

      Peace,
      Gordon

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