Rev. Bruce G. Epperly, PhD
During the Lenten season, the Rev. Bruce Epperly shares about pruning and letting go of those things that can weigh us down or encumber us, so we may discern the difference between the optional and essential in our spiritual journeys.
When we began to pack to move from our commodious home on Cape Cod to a townhouse in the Washington D.C. suburbs in the summer of 2021, we embarked on a process of spiritual and physical decluttering. Like many pastors, I had to downsize two domiciles: my home study and my study at church, whose built-in generously apportioned bookcases encouraged the purchase of a few hundred books during my eight-year tenure. While our townhouse in Potomac, Maryland, would more than meet our needs for living space for ourselves, guests, and regular times with our grandchildren, there was no room for the four thousand books I had acquired in the fifty years from college to seminary teaching and administration, university chaplaincy, and congregational ministry. I realized that I needed to reduce my book collection in half not only to save moving expenses but to adapt to my surroundings.
The process of reducing my book collection wasn’t easy. Books are the tools of our trade as pastors and teachers. We love to study and enjoy fiction as well as theological and biblical studies. As I began the process of reducing my book collection, I remembered the Quaker notion of “cumber,” that which weighs you down and encumbers you, preventing you from following your vocation for a particular season of life. As I prepared for a great book giveaway in our congregation’s neighborhood, I also recalled Jesus’ words to his followers:
I needed to do some pruning of books, clothing, and furniture. For me, the challenge was books. For my wife, it was plants and pottery. Yet, we knew that we had to prune, we had to let go, to move forward to be abundant fruit in the years ahead.
Retirement is a time of pruning and letting go, spiritually, physically, and materially. Whether or not we move physically, we must move spiritually as our vocation, place in the community, daily schedule, title, relationships, and, perhaps, physical condition changes. Letting go involves grief over leaving the familiar, and we aren’t always sure what awaits us. Yet, as Jesus asserts, in letting go, we may open to new energy and possibility. We may bear new and different fruit. We may, as a result of jettisoning our cumber, become more agile spiritually, relationally, and physically.
There is a freedom in letting go of once prized possessions and identities, especially as we ponder the open future ahead of us. If we have sufficient financial resources through our pensions and part-time employment, if we choose it, we can turn our attention to roads not traveled as a result of our previous professional commitments. We may discover the “artist’s way,” discovering the inspiration of poetry, music, and writing, the joy of travel, volunteer possibilities, and new ways to live out our vocation, unencumbered by church boards and congregants’ expectations. We may discover the meaning of Sabbath for the first time in our lives as we sleep late on a Sunday morning or spend a summer afternoon, in the spirit of Mary Oliver, delighting in the intricacy of a grasshopper on the grass or clouds scudding by.
In Lent, we spiritually live out this process of letting go in order to embrace a closer relationship with God and God’s vision for our lives. We recognize our mortality and discern the difference between the optional and essential in our spiritual journeys. With less clutter in our lives and fewer expectations from others, we may, as William Blake asserts, cleanse the “doors of perception,” and see life for what it is – Infinite. We may in recognizing the Infinite in the midst of daily life, seize the moment, follow our dreams, and treasure and rejoice in each day. Traveling lighter, we may discover new spiritual, relational, and vocational energies, and find our vocation, however humble it may be, is to do something beautiful for God in whatever situation we find ourselves. With less cumber, we may live out Isaiah’s promise:
But those who wait on the LORD
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)