In March of 2013, on my 56th birthday, I spent some time beside the French Broad River. In my journal, I wrote:
I want to know more about the power of gentleness, the courage of vulnerability, the expansiveness of honored limits, the serious work humor can do, the faith which doubt inspires, and the true self which self-denial liberates. I want to know how we “descend to meet” (Emerson’s phrase) and rise to dance. I want to hear the Laughter which lies deeper than the deepest silence and the Music which sounds and sings its way into Now from Beyond.
Ten months later, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. Dealing with cancer and its treatment is, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated on that March day, a means by which I have learned so many of the things I knew that I needed and wanted to learn.
A year ago this week, the stem cell transplant process at Duke began. The weeks I spent there and the hard experiences I had made me more vulnerable than I have been in my adult life and made more non-negotiable the limits on my energy, strength, and time. These were, and are, painful but healing lessons.
This summer, rather than living in the surreal wilderness world of a clinic, I am in the stark and beautiful desert of transition. While the desert can be a place of isolation and loneliness, it can also be a place of encounter and communion; a place of challenge and difficulty, but also of refuge and rest; and a place of peril, but also of preparation.
In the desert of transition, it’s necessary to relinquish much of what has been in order to receive what will be and to empty-out our minds and hearts of whatever doesn’t belong there so that there is room in us for the visions, dreams, and passions which will animate the next season of our lives.
So, in the desert of transition, I have had to surrender roles I had played for so long that they felt crucial to my identity, and I have had the opportunity to take up roles which are, in many ways, new and cause me to think and feel about myself in different ways (different is not bad, just different).
In a few weeks, I’ll begin my work as a professor in the philosophy and religion department at Mars Hill University, and I’ll also teach a course in the M.Div. program at Gardner Webb University Divinity School. “Teacher” is now central to my vocation, whereas “Pastor” once was. My work is now governed by an “academic” calendar more than by a “liturgical” calendar (though I will still make my spiritual journey in response to the seasons of the church year). I’ll “lecture” more than “preach,” and I’ll have “classes” rather than a “congregation.” There will be faculty meetings, but not deacons’ meetings. I don’t baptize or preside at the Lord’s Supper or dedicate parents and their children anymore; those are acts which a church authorizes its “priests” to do.
As I leave the desert of transition and begin a new journey, what remains the same are the longings and hopes I wrote about at the river in March of 2013, and about which I have learned so much in the wilderness of illness. I also have a renewed and renewing commitment to live in, and work for, the flow of divine love and delight which energizes the flourishing of life for everyone and for all creation.
I am grateful for the river, the desert, and the road ahead.