Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Reflections on Twenty-One Years Past


I have discovered that in life there are unifying metaphors, many of which come to us unexpectedly and usually through intentional reflection. Let me flesh out what I mean.

One of the liabilities of my vocational life (ordained minister) is that we move. In my (United Methodist) tradition we move fairly regularly, on the average (these days) of every 7-10 years. (This is a greatly improved statistic from even twenty years ago when the average stay in a pastoral appointment was more like 3-5 years). With each move there is the opportunity for personal and vocational reflection, the process of saying "goodbye" and finding closure in order to move on to a new venue of ministry. These expected moves are challenging for a single person, but when one carries along a spouse and/or children with the process it is even more tendentious. And, if you are adoptive parents (as we are) with children who have previously (in their foster care experiences) moved rather frequently, it is both easy and hard.

It is "easy" because kids who spent any time in foster care know what it means to pick up and move on, often at the whim of someone else's decision. There is little power offered a foster child, and that's what can make it "hard," even when the children are now moving with their parents.

With every move there are multiple boxes that not only have to be packed to leave but consequently unpacked upon arrival. Some of those boxes are essential -- kitchen items, clothing, bedding -- and some are not -- boxes of books, magazines, photos. We have now lived in our "new" community for more than two years, and in my office I still have a number of boxes that need to be opened and sorted through. Truth be told, some of these boxes have now been sealed for nearly ten years, since they also sat in my previous office for seven years without having been opened.

Now here's where the life metaphor thing kicks in a bit. I find that there are so many things in life that each of us need to "unpack." There are unresolved conflicts or griefs, unhealed pains, unanswered questions that we have "boxed" to be opened "later," although later sometimes never arrives.

In a literal sense I am unpacking some of those old boxes, with the goal of having my office organized and in good shape within six months (I'm telling you, there really are a lot of things I need to work through here). And, I am discovering, in a metaphorical sense I still have things to unpack, sort through and with which to find resolution.

This morning one of the old theological journals I pulled out is dated Spring 1987. When I see dates on things, my natural inclination is to wander back into my memory to remember my "place" at that time. The Spring of 1987 was the first year after my college graduation, I was living in the Twin Cities, working full-time in a job I hated and working part-time in a church, which was the fulfillment of my life's call. I was the age then of my oldest son now.

And that's what makes me stop for just a moment to think. In fact, my oldest son was one year old at that time, although I had no knowledge of his existence. When you adopt older children that's one of the strange realities -- the life you were living had no intersection with the life they were living at all. Most parents who reflect back can remember not only what they were doing as an individual or a couple, but what was happening in their child's life, too. I do not have luxury.

But what I can do is to have a better developed sense of the life experience of my son. This is his first year out of college. He is working in his chosen field, and by his report doing well and enjoying the experience of teaching. Twenty-two years ago when I was his age I did not, like he, have enough life experience to fully understand my context or to really assess the meaning of it all. None of us do. But in time we grow. Our lives deepen and expand, we become broader and better connected with ourselves and others.

My life metaphor today is this water-damaged, wrinkled, stained Spring 1987 edition of Word and World: Theology for Christian Minsitry. As I open the stiff pages curled from moisture and disuse, I glance at the article titles. There is an article on feminist language in connection with God, a radical notion twenty-plus years ago. One of the journal writers was at the time an unknown pastor in Oregon writing an academic treatise on mysticisim; he has since become a well-known figure in his denominational world and has pastored one of its biggest congregations. The book reviews in the back now represent work that is considered out of date at worst, classic at best.

Twenty-two years ago I didn't have much time or inclination to read the articles in question. The fact is I have kept these journals all these years in hopes that someday I would have the emotional energy and intellectual focus to read and understand what is there. Year after year I have packed these volumes to read later, and now I finally have.

And I discover, to my surprise, that I have grown in the past quarter century. I am not the same person I was then. Because today I can read the articles, understand their salient points, ferret out the nuances, and most importantly, toss the finally read, shelf-worn volume into the trash.

I have read what is there; I have gained what I needed; I am ready to let go and move forward. Now it's time for me to tackle some of those journals -- and the residual pieces of my life -- from the late 1990s. Expect a blog about that in another ten years.

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