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.