Rev. Bruce G. Epperly, PhD
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 12:2)
This brief passage, describing the adventures of the magi, is one of my favorites in scripture. The words, “they left for their own country by another road” or “they went home by another way” capture the nature of life and most especially retirement. They had a plan, but God revealed another path forward. They had an epiphany, an encounter with God, which awakened them to new horizons. We imagine a particular professional or personal pathway, anticipate a particular residence, look forward to certain activities, and then...life changes and we have an epiphany and catch a glimpse of God’s providence on our path.
In January 2020, having just celebrated by sixty-seventh birthday, I shared with the Moderator of the church where I served as Senior Pastor that I hoped to remain at the pulpit for another five to seven years. I loved the congregation and its members, the church was growing, and I felt that I was at the top of my game as a pastor and teacher, and still had plenty of fire in the belly. After retirement, I anticipated spending the rest of my life on Cape Cod with my biggest question mark being, which church I would attend. Until, just a year later, our son, who had moved with his family to be near us, surprised me by saying that he needed to return to Washington DC to run his international consulting business.
We were faced with a choice. Would we stay on the Cape or return to the DC area? We had spent parts of virtually every day for seven years with our grandchildren, then ten and eight, and felt that it was important that we return to the DC area to be with them. While moving and retirement were the right choice, our life was turned upside down and we had to let go of the future we had planned. Given housing prices in the DC area, we moved from a spacious home with a large yard to a townhouse with a patio. And, of course, we had to alter the time and place of our retirement. We went home by another way.
Celtic spiritual seekers and saints had a practice of embarking on the high seas in coracles, little boats, without a rudder. Unable to steer their craft, they trusted the winds of God to carry them to their “place of resurrection,” the “thin place,” where the Infinite and Finite met in the fulfillment of their vocation.
Today, we would use our GPS and assume that we’re in control of where we’re going. We may even believe the GPS prognostication about how long it will take to reach our destinations. Yet, perhaps, there was wisdom in the Celtic practice of Going home by “another way” can upset our plans. It can also take us on a holy adventure with God as our companion. As J.R.R. Tolkien says, “Not all who wander are lost.” What looks like a side trip, or a changed plan may be God’s Spirit moving through our lives, luring us to new and more expansive possibilities.
There are days I yearn for the beaches of Cape Cod and the slower lifestyle of the beach. I miss my early morning beach walk, although I am grateful for our arboreal neighborhood. But I know that the One who called us to move to the DC area is still our loving companion. God remains our fellow pilgrim guiding us to new and amazing adventures, new routes, professional possibilities, and friendships.
May your new year be blessed with new routes. May you have forks in the road and see new vistas and discover new gifts and parts of yourself. As we grow older, as the Apostle Paul says, we may feel diminishment and we may also experience the blessings of a lifetime of growing in wisdom and stature and openness to God’s surprises, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Let me conclude with the words of Howard Thurman, describing the Spirit of Christmas, which can inspire us to live joyfully and adventurously regardless of where our adventures take us.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.