Rev. Bruce G. Epperly, PhD
Without a vision, we become directionless. With a too structured agenda, we succumb to worry and busyness. Read Bruce Epperly’s answer to poet Mary Oliver’s question, ““What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Although it is a cold winter morning here in the Washington DC suburbs, I woke up thinking about Cape Cod poet Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” Oliver concludes her poem with the provocative question, “What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Oliver’s question becomes more piercing when we begin to look at our lives in terms of years rather than decades and recognize the preciousness of each day.
If we’ve planned right and have had a bit of good fortune, retirement for clergy persons should be a time of spaciousness, not busyness. Unless we choose, we no longer have to live from Sunday to Sunday, attend board meetings, or respond to the immediacy of pastoral or administrative issues. We can see our days and weeks as an open canvas upon which to write the story of our lives.
Still, a good life – and joyful life – involves intentionality and structure as well as spaciousness. Going with the flow is important, but so is knowing the direction of the river. When Abram and Sarai venture forth as senior adults to a promised land, they build altars at every stopping point. Healthy retirement involves the interplay of regularity – the altars of spirit and vocation – and open-endedness.
During my years as a pastor and seminary professor and administrator, I often told my congregants and those with whom I worked that “I have a vision and not an agenda.” A vision is an array of possibilities, a horizon toward which we are traveling, a purpose that gets you up in the morning. An agenda is a check-off list of requirements that need to be completed for us to feel as if we’ve accomplished something. A vision leaves room for spontaneity and changes in course. “Going home by another way,” as did the magi, is an adventure and not an inconvenience. An agenda often leaves us impatient or unhappy when we don’t achieve what we set out to do on a given day or in a given situation.
There are days when our lists must be attended to. I make a list each day of personal projects and business or home activities. Right now, the daily list involves gathering tax papers, working on writing projects and classes, and planning for upcoming holiday trip. One by one various tax forms are gathered and readied to send to a CPA who has an expertise in clergy finances. Reservations are made and journeys plotted. But these agendas are part of a larger vision which leaves room for putting off activities and projects till tomorrow or next week if new possibilities arise. There is something sad about seeing a colleague burdening themselves with must-do activities and experiencing the same stresses in retirement that characterized their working lives. Believe it or not, spaciousness and calm in retirement require a degree of open-spirited planning and intentionality.
“What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” We have choices, and in the limits are the possibilities. Many of us are fortunate: we are healthy, have projects, comfortable homes, and are financially secure due to the work of the Pension Boards and other retirement instruments. Our biggest challenge is to live our days intentionally and spaciously.
I have sought to create daily and long-term “altars of intentionality.” I regularly take time to look at my long term vision, and our family’s life (in my case, I consider my son and his family, most especially our pre-teen grandchildren whom we see – and often transport – most days.) I chart out possibilities for travel, recreation, and the necessary things like taxes and home improvements. This helps me see the contours of the horizon and make the big choices. I do a similar practice each week, considering my intentions for the week ahead in terms of projects, service, and family life. Finally, every night I set a brief intention and review this the following morning along with my daily but flexible list. I consider these acts of prayer, charting flexibly the time of my life and subject to change if events change or I receive guidance from God.
Here is a simple practice for visioning:
Without a vision, we become directionless. With a too-structured agenda, we succumb to worry and busyness. The right balance of structure and spontaneity, order and novelty, plans and possibilities, adds zest and meaning in our wild and precious retirement life.