My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Not at home and out of sorts

“The family is dispersed. There are empty bedrooms in the house and the parents no longer have to retreat to their own bedroom for privacy. The two-seat car has replaced the station wagon. The children are independent and have their own relationships and life goals. They are gone.”
 - from “The Season of the Empty Nest” in Seasons of a Marriage by H. Norman Wright, pg. 87

Ed left from "the 40" camp-out
Suddenly we are “empty-nesters.” During the last five weeks our household of six has been reduced to three as Christine, Ed and Emma have all resumed or begun school. In mid-August, Ed returned to Superior where he is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin extension school there. Ten days later, we moved Emma, our “baby” girl, into her dorm room in Nelson Hall on the campus of Bethel University in St. Paul. And just last week we dropped Christine off at the YWAM-Madison facility near Columbus where for the next four months she will be participating in a Discipleship Training School before heading overseas somewhere for another two months. Their rapid departure has left Linda and I feeling a little – or a lot – out of sorts and not at home.

Saying good-bye to Emma

Christine in her dorm room
When we learned that we were going to be parents for the first time back in 1987, I was 25 and Linda, 22. We were living in a small basement apartment in one of Chicago's northern suburbs. Linda was the bread-winner of the family while I worked part-time nights and attended school full-time. We had been married but 14 months. Now I am 51 and she's 48. We live in our refurbished 100-year-old-plus house that has been our home since 1993. We reside in a small community in northern Wisconsin where I have served a local Christian fellowship as pastor for the past 22 years. This past April, after devoting herself to the raising of our children, Linda went back to full-time employment for the first time since before babies working now as a teller at a local bank. And this past summer we celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary. A lot of living has gone on in the past three decades.

Where the kids would normally pose
Solomon said it first, right? “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven...” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, NIV). Now we are in an entirely new season for us – the season of the empty nest. And just like we were told it would be, the silence is so loud at times it is disorienting. I felt it poignantly on the first day of school. All over Chetek parents were taking pictures of their children in their new set of clothes and shoes as they headed out the door to begin a new school year. But at 825 Fifth Street there were no “first day” pictures to be taken. What's more, there was no one to read to. Since the fall of 1994 when Christine began kindergarten, we have begun each day as a family by reading from the Bible or, as the children grew older, from other books – The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and so many other titles. But on September 3 there was no one to read to – even Linda had to be to work early on that day. (It's true that Charlie is with us but he has the temperament of a middle-aged cat, content to keep to himself and only show up at meal times.) While Ed and Emma were excitedly heading off to their first day of classes at UW-Superior and Bethel University and Christine was emotionally caught up in her upcoming new adventure, for me it was a day of feeling loss.
No one to read to

Homecoming sure was different this year
“Children affect a marriage not only when they arrive, but also when they leave.” - H. Norman Wright, Seasons of a Marriage

For Linda and I we are home but not at home at the same time. I remember the first Friday night home football game a few weeks ago. During the years our kids were in high school as a family we would walk over to the football field to watch the game as well as our kids who played in the band. But that Friday night neither Linda nor Charlie felt like going so I sat out on the porch listening to the crowd cheer and clap and the distant voice of Mr. K calling the play-by-play on the loud speaker. I think the 'Dogs won that night but for me I only felt a tinge of sadness as I reflected upon memories of going to Friday night games as a family, cheering the boys on and then walking home again afterward, sometimes racing each other as we took different ways, seeing who could get there first.

Now it's just us again, like it used to be before kids, but it's like we have to figure out how to hang out together all over again. It's not that we haven't had a date in 25 years – we've had plenty. But when we returned from whatever we had done – whether we had gone out for dinner or spent a weekend away – it was always to resume our parental responsibilities and obligations. No longer. Now it's just me and her, a middle-aged couple with no grandchildren to spoil and suddenly lots of extra time on our hands. In fact, for the first time since 1994, we will have no C-WHS athletic contests, school concerts or other functions to attend this next school year. Frankly, I won't miss the parent-teacher conferences but I will miss everything else because I loved it all.

A race for the ages
Linda and I treasure the memory of Ed's last run as a Bulldog. It was the 3200m race at the Bloomer Regional in May of 2011. What transpired over those 8 laps was pretty epic. Only the Top 3 finishers would qualify for the Sectional meet and he was running step for step with a kid from Stanley-Boyd. Since the first two runners had already crossed the tape, who ever won this race within the race would be moving on. In the end, that kid had him by a step and a half. When the meet was over and Linda and I got in the car to drive home we wept yes, in part because Ed had failed to qualify, but mostly because it was over. After running in CMS or C-WHS events since he was 11, never again would he wear the purple, orange, white and black. We wept again this past spring during Emma's last concert. Because we had loved it all – even the years when we were attending concerts at all three buildings. (Christine asked me why I didn't cry at her last concert and I tried without success to explain to her that at the time I knew I had many more concerts ahead of me but with Emma it was the last.)
Emma's last concert
“…the experience of the empty nest is always something of a crisis. It can leave a devastating sense of emptiness and purposelessness. Loneliness can set in. The silent house is full of memories. There was once so much to do, and now there is so little. The crowded, busy years seemed arduous at the time. But now, looking back, it is clear that this was far outweighed by the deep, solid satisfaction of being needed.” (Seasons of a Marriage, p. 89)

Lots of empty bedrooms now
On the weekend we drove to Madison, Linda had to work Saturday morning and Ed was racing in River Falls a little over an hour and a half away. On the spur of the moment, Christine, Charlie and I decided to make the trip to see Ed run. St. Paul was but a half hour further and if Emma had a vehicle it would have been fun if she could have joined us. So while we were waiting for Ed’s race to start I called her on her cell. I asked how she was doing and how classes were going and then there was this awkward silence at which point she politely asked, “Well, was there anything else you needed, Dad?” “No,” I replied. “I just thought I’d give you a call and tell you I wished you could be here.” Yeah. I had interrupted the flow of her day and she had other things to give her attention to. Cue Harry Chapin’s ballad Cats In the Cradle here.
On the up-side, it's clean...
 I’m aware that our children will be coming and going for awhile, that Christine will probably come home in March as she figures out her next move and that Ed and Emma will most likely be home again next summer to work. But the growing-up elementary-thru-high school years are over for us and we are feeling the loss of place and purpose. We are looking for a new normal not just in terms of the ebb and flow of our week but for the rhythm of our life. It may take awhile. For the time being I feel somewhat like Bilbo, who while curled up on a rock someplace out in the wild dreamed of his own house and wandered in his sleep into all his different rooms looking for something that he could not find nor remember what it looked like” (from “Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire” in The Hobbit).