One Sunday in 1875, when he was twenty-four, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish author of such classics as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, wrote a note to a friend of his in which he said, “I have been to church and am not depressed—a great step.”
In a similar vein, I could write, for you my loyal readers who have persevered with me through some grim seasons over the past few years, “I awoke this morning, reflected on my life situation, and for the first time in many a day, I was not disheartened.”
Now I know that disposition is subject to change at any time, without warning, and it is very likely that you will, in the near future, once again read my plaintive cry from the slough of despond when I find myself once again overwhelmed by my circumstances. For the moment, however, I am in thrall to a pronounced optimism and the healthiest frame of mind I have enjoyed in years.
That’s why I put a couple other projects on the back burner this afternoon so that I could write this post before the moment passes, as I, knowing me, fear that it shall.
This improvement in my mood is altogether the product of a change in my outlook, as my circumstances have not changed one iota. I remain unemployed, as I have been for nearly five years. I have previously reported some incremental movement with regard to the possibility of a church plant in Columbus. That situation is static at present. For some reason, however, I have been almost giddy all day, the way I used to feel, when I was a college instructor, after my late-afternoon caffeine jolt. But I have forsworn caffeine almost altogether, so I know it is not that.
It may be that the Holy Spirit has finally penetrated the shell which I had allowed to form around my soul. I hesitate to frame it in those terms, since the cynicism in which I have allowed myself to steep for the past five years makes it difficult to believe that I have actually experienced a breakthrough. Still, at least for today, something is very different.
I first noticed it about 9:00 this morning. I was reading a book called Creating A Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World. The author is a church planter and missiologist by the name of JR Woodward. I have not yet finished the book, but I very much like what I have read so far. I’ll be saying much more about it in future posts.
As I was reading, however, it dawned on me that, during all these months when I have been without the daily obligation of employment responsibilities, I have had hundreds of hours to expand my knowledge horizons. Since I love to read and study, and since technology has enhanced the learning experience in so many ways recently, I have had the opportunity, and the great privilege, to see the body of knowledge to which I have been exposed increase exponentially.
I have been able to devote myself to the discipline of daily writing, something I could never had done if I had been actively involved in teaching or pastoral ministry. I am a much better writer as a result of that routine.
My independence from the rigid demands of a work schedule has given me the flexibility to be more available to my wife, daughter, and grandson. That means that I was able to accompany my wife to all the various hospital and doctor visits which her cancer treatment required. I have been able to offer assistance when last minute schedule changes increased the pressure on my daughter, a single mother trying to juggle the demands of two jobs and a five-year-old son. And there’s been more time for “Poppy” and Parker to get to know each other. What a treat.
Finally, my involuntary (and, I hope, temporary) retirement has given me a chance to organize and categorize and synthesize a lifetime of ministry experience— both the theory and the practice, both thinking about it and living it. For more than forty years, my life has been unstintingly devoted to the service of Jesus Christ, His Kingdom, and His church. For the first time in all those years, I am permitted, even encouraged, to draw conclusions, offer opinions, and make recommendations about the nature and purpose and function of the church free from the constraints too often imposed by concern about how my convictions will affect (or offend) the people who pay my salary.
Please don’t get me wrong. Unemployment is bad. It wreaks havoc on your psyche. It undermines your self-confidence. It limits your options and restricts your personal freedom. It can be debilitating—economically, emotionally, and socially. But, as I have noted above, at least in my own situation, at least for today, I am grateful for some benefits that my “mandatory freedom” has made possible.
Oh. I should probably mention one other factor contributing to this moment of epiphany. The portion of the Psalter appointed for today’s Morning Prayers. As I do every morning, before I had my first cup of decaf coffee, I forced my bleary eyes to focus on the Morning Prayer readings. Today’s Psalm was number 139. Here are some selected portions from it.
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Now that I think about it, I’m sure those verses had something to do with the change in my outlook, however temporary it may be. All I know for sure is that it has felt good to emerge from the doldrums for a time. Hope is genuinely therapeutic.