The Divine Office

In my last post, I talked about worship being the center of life. I quoted Eugene Peterson:

“In worship God gathers his people to himself as center: ‘The Lord reigns’ (Ps. 93:1). Worship is a meeting at the center so that our lives are centered in God and not lived eccentrically.”

Putting worship at the center means that worship isn’t limited to church services but pervades daily life. I talked in that post about anchoring practices that keep me focused on the center. Since my move I’ve been participating in a practice that’s new for me: praying the Divine Office. Officially known as The Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Office is a prayer book that developed out of the rule Benedict of Nursia wrote in the 6th century for the monastic order he established. He set 7 times of prayer throughout the day and one at night. All but one of these times of prayer is still in regular use, though most of those who use the Divine Office don’t follow the full compliment of daily prayers. There are prayers for each of the 7 hours, each day of the year. The prayers are complied in a set of books that are rather complicated to follow, though there are phone apps that reduce the complexity. I use the Divine Office app,

I and one other resident at Barnabas House get together to pray the morning and evening prayers—lauds and vespers. I sometimes listen to the night prayer (compline) while I’m getting ready for bed. Since my prayer partner has to be at work quite early, we meet at 4:30 a.m. for morning prayer. We pray again about 5:30 in the afternoon, often joined by one or two other members of the household. Each prayer session takes about 15 minutes. Near the beginning there’s a hymn that we sing, read, or listen to, depending on how familiar we are with the music. We then take turns reading portions of the prayer, and, in between the portions, read in unison one or two short antiphons. The prayer usually includes two psalms, a canticle (i.e. a poetic Scripture passage taken from somewhere other than the book of Psalms), and a brief prose passage.  Always the Scripture readings end with canticles from Luke 1: the prayer of Zechariah in the morning and the Magnificat in the evening. Then there are a few prayers for those in need, the Lord’s Prayer, and a brief concluding request.

I’ve only been following this routine for a few months, but already it’s become a well-formed habit. For most of my life I’ve used free-form prayers about situations I want to take to God, and I still do that. It’s quite a change for me to also now read prayers from a structured prayer book. These written prayers are usually much more eloquent than anything I could hope to generate. About half of the material is from the book of Psalms, which is often described as the prayer-book of the Bible. On my own, I tend to pray the same things again and again, so it’s helpful to be forced out of the well-trod paths that my spontaneous prayers usually take. It’s nice to be praying the liturgy aloud with someone else, so that my tongue and ears are being used, not just my brain. Thousands are praying the same prayers on the same day, so there’s a real sense of having contributed to a larger project. Sometimes I like to look at the app’s map of North America, which shows where others are using that resource at the same time I am.

There are some downsides to this way of praying. I notice that sometimes I read an entire psalm without paying attention or remembering what I’ve said. It would be easy to become satisfied with just having spoken the words without full assent of the heart.  The prayers aren’t specific to my life or to those around me who are in need. If I don’t remember to pray for those personal concerns separately, I sometimes neglect praying for matters that are important to me.

I have come to love some aspects of the Daily Office, though. Every morning, the first words of the day are:

    God, come to my assistance.
    Lord, make haste to help me.

And, if I listen to the night prayer, the last thing I hear spoken before bed is:

    May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a 
    peaceful death. Amen.

What wonderful bookends for the day. I don’t know how meaningful these petitions would have been when I was young, but, now that I’m late in life, they are just what I need.     

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Finding the Center

A Grand Rapids sunrise.

I recently blogged about having moved into a community in Milwaukee, describing the community I’m living in. This is a big life change for me, so it’s prompting reflection and necessitating adjustment. I wanted to describe a bit more what my reflections have been. 

About a month after moving in, I started getting busier with various activities, but they didn’t seem to cohere around a center. For about fifteen years, from the time my sons left home to when I retired from my full-time job, my center was work. I then moved to my home town, where my center was helping my parents. In both cases, I did plenty of other things, but the other things had to fit around the center. What is the center now? I’m active in the household where I live, with my sons and grandchildren, with working part-time, and with attending church and a men’s group. Is one of those the center? If so, which one?

Those questions were in the back of my mind when I went to the gym one Saturday to exercise. As is often the case, I listened to a podcast while working out. This time, it was episode 225 of “The Antioch Podcast” (at, an interview with Mark Charles, a Native American writer and activist. He lived most of his life away from his Navajo nation, but in middle adulthood moved back to the Navajo reservation near Gallup, NM for several years as a way of more deeply connecting with his tradition. He has since moved to Washington, D.C., a better base from which to speak and advocate regarding indigenous issues.

It occurs to me that my journey has inadvertently paralleled his. I moved away from Grand Rapids, where I had grown up, to attend graduate school and ended up living most of my adult life elsewhere. I returned home, so to speak, in 2012, when I moved in with my parents to help them with their health problems. Whereas Charles had intentionally returned to his roots, I had done so inadvertently, in response to my parent’s urgent need. In both cases, though, there was a returning to the center, or at least a center.

What was that center like for me? For 40 years, I had visited my family just at Christmas and during my summer vacation. My parents and sister had always been very welcoming, but I was a guest. That meant parties, time spent around the swimming pool, and trips to their cottage. For the 10 years after I moved back, I was no longer a guest. It was much more evident how much my parents had sacrificed to provide the hospitality they had offered me and others. For example, when dad was in his mid-eighties, it was quite difficult to keep a swimming pool cleaned and ready for guests, but he did it. He didn’t call attention to his hard work; he was just glad that countless friends and family could come swimming. Scores of friends and family members have memories of good times spent at that pool.

When I returned, the pool had been covered for good and dad was suffering from severe mental decline. My mom gave herself fully to dad’s care. She gave her all, and after he died wished she had been able to give more. She was homebound, no longer able to drive after a stroke took half her vision. Yet she continued with her life, which consisted mostly of reading, talking with visitors or on the phone, praying for those undergoing hardship, listening to music, and watching the service at her church on DVD or livestream. She eventually lost her ability to swallow even liquids and had tube feeding. She called the Isosource she poured into the tube her ‘manna’ after the food given the Israelites in the wilderness, which I took to mean that it sustained life but was otherwise unsatisfying. Yet she was grateful. She offered words of encouragement to others and never, except during the last few months of life, complained.

So the center I returned to was a place where abundance was shared with others, those in need were helped, minds were fed more richly than bodies, gratitude was unending, and faith was deep. The center was less what I did for them than it was what I had received. Perhaps I should not be looking for a new center so much as remembering the center from which I came—and remembering as well to take that center with me.

While living on the reservation, Mark Charles began the spiritual practice of watching the sun rise every day. In D.C., he goes every day to a spot on the Potomac where he can watch the day begin and give thanks to his creator. The center that he found was not in Gallup or in Washington, just as my truest center isn’t in either Grand Rapids or Milwaukee. It was in contemplating his creator.

The day after I listened to the podcast, I visited Brew City Church in downtown Milwaukee. The worship leader read something that reminded me of this deeper, truer center. It was from Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder. Back home, I looked up the passage:

“In worship God gathers his people to himself as center: ‘The Lord reigns’ (Ps. 93:1). Worship is a meeting at the center so that our lives are centered in God and not lived eccentrically. We worship so that we live in response to and from this center, the living God. Failure to worship consigns us to a life of spasms and jerks, at the mercy of every advertisement, every seduction, every siren. Without worship we live manipulated and manipulating lives. We move in either frightened panic or deluded lethargy as we are, in turn, alarmed by spectres and soothed by placebos. If there is no center, there is no cirumference. People who do not worship are swept into a vast restlessness, epidemic in the world, with no steady direction and no sustaining purpose.”

My parents had worship at the center of their lives, and, in taking what I absorbed from them to this new place, worship has to be my center as well. Worship and other spiritual practices aren’t meant to be the whole of life, but are what holds us fast, like a stake driven in the ground to which we are chained so that we can’t wander very far away. The question, then, becomes, what are the practices that will keep this center where it belongs? For Mark Charles, the key practice was watching the sunrise. For me, the weekly practice of writing a poem was an anchoring practice during my time in Michigan, and I’m continuing that here. I have entered into another anchoring practice since moving to Barnabas House: praying the Divine Office morning and evening. I’ll write about that in a subsequent post.

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Entering Community

My dog walking through the dining room at our new home.

My last post on this site, almost two months ago, detailed all the changes that had occurred in my life during 2022. I ended by describing my plan to move to Milwaukee to be near my oldest son and his family. I’ve been in Milwaukee since January 7, and I thought I would write a little about where I’m living and what it has been like so far.

Back when I first was thinking about moving, my daughter-in-law sent me a link to the website for a Christian community in the area. It was a household associated with a church she and my son had been members of years earlier. The household is intended for Christian singles. The idea is to provide a place where Christians can “live out the teachings of Christ through the daily practices of prayer, work, and relationships.” 

I visited the house a few times starting in September. I had envisioned something like a monastic community, and some features are similar. The residents don’t make any sort of vows, though, and they all work full-time jobs, so they aren’t together throughout the day. I had lived communally for a year when I was in graduate school, and it had been a positive experience. So why not communal living now?

I knew that one of the difficult things about moving to a new city would be making new friends. After my mom’s death, I was too isolated, despite having several good friends and a few relatives nearby. If I moved into a house or condo in Milwaukee by myself, the isolation would be even greater. Having ready-made relationships sounded good! It also appealed to me that the community prayed together. I had been praying mostly by myself for years, and found it challenging to keep my prayers from being stale and repetitious. Communal prayer seemed something that could benefit my faith journey.

On the other hand, moving into a house with several other people sounded daunting. Would I have enough privacy? I would only have one room; what would I do with all of my stuff? Communal living is not the sort of thing that someone in his seventies does! How would I fit with a bunch of people younger than me?

An alternative might have been an independent living facility for older adults, but those places are too homogeneous for my taste and the focus isn’t on continued engagement in the larger community, which I prefer. A mixed-age house with a focus on intentional spiritual practices might be just what I needed. If not, I wouldn’t lose anything by giving it a try. Despite my misgivings, I decided that such a move made sense. I agreed to a six month trial period.

There are six of us here, all guys. I’m the only one who has been married. One of the founders is about 10 years younger than me, and everyone else in the house is at least 30 years younger than I am. Surprisingly, I don’t feel particularly out of place. I am the only one working from the house, so I’m here by myself from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. We have three meals together during the week, meaning that we are on our own for most meals. There is a regular prayer time at 5:30 every day, but it’s not required and usually there are only two or three of us praying together. I have a pretty good balance between time with others (either those in the household or in my son’s family) and time alone. I’ve gotten to know the person closest to me in age pretty well, and I’m gradually getting to know the others. There’s a bit of conflict between the two original members of the community, mainly over differing views of how the community should function. Otherwise, everyone gets along well. The household is big on hospitality; about twice a week, there are guests at mealtime. Overall, it’s a fairly healthy, fairly functional community.

So, will I stay past the six months? I don’t know, but at present I’m inclined to. I wonder why more single, divorced, or widowed people of retirement age don’t live in an arrangement like this: there are lots of positives. I hope to write at least a couple more times in the next few months as a way of processing the benefits and disadvantages of being here. If anyone who is reading this has tried something similar, I’d love to hear what your experience was like.

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Life Changes

Life changes. However, I didn’t experience much change for about 10 years. As I’ve written in previous posts, I came to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2012 to help my parents. That was a year of many changes, but then things settled down. I took a part-time job that I stayed with my entire time here. My dad died, but my mom needed a little assistance, so I remained with her in her house. I settled into habits. I went to the same grocery store, gas station, and restaurants month after month, year after year.

Then everything changed. My mom’s health deteriorated quickly, and she needed more help. There were some hospitalizations, a stay in rehab, then caregivers coming into the house. Finally, in June, she died at home. She was honored with a wonderful funeral and interred at Ft. Custer National Cemetery alongside my dad.

Changes have continued for the last six months. My sister and I spent quite a bit of time going through photographs, letters, books, and slides. As I wrote earlier (at, my focus switched from daily ups and downs to an appreciation of her life as a whole. I could better see both her and my dad as more than just parents and grandparents, the roles I had seen them in the most. In the albums I went through, there were pictures of each of my parents as children (in each case, they are the youngest child):

There were pictures of mom with her two sisters:

There were photos of her and dad as high school sweethearts:

Life must have looked really good to them then! There were also lots of slides of their trips abroad—to Spain, England, Germany, and Switzerland. I saw those countries through their eyes. Pouring over all that memorabilia freed me to see their lives as a whole and to appreciate them as complex, multifaceted people. Going through their lives this way contributed as well to my sense of change. First they were young and vibrant, then middle aged and settled, then old and infirm, then gone, seemingly in just a few moments. Time flies, and now I recognize its speed is supersonic.

We sold mom’s house. Since I had been staying there with her, I had to find another place to live. I own a house in St. Louis, but no longer have family there, so moving there is not an option. I decided I needed time to think through what to do. Since September, I’ve been in a studio apartment in Heritage Hill, a neighborhood of large Victorian houses near downtown Grand Rapids. It’s been enjoyable to live among these old houses, built by the elite back in the late 19th century. These streets, too, remind me of change. All the original owners of these houses are gone, as are many of the thousands who have moved in and out of them through the years, like sand flowing through a sieve. Behind some houses are buildings that once housed horses and carriages. Now the streets are filled with cars. As the people and animals that once were here have vanished, so too will I be gone, probably not too many years from now. I’m reminded of verses from Psalm 103:

As for mortals, their days are like grass; 
they flourish like a flower of the field; 
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, 
and its place knows it no more.  

I will not be living where I am for long. Mindful of now being in my 70’s, I’ve decided it would be wise to relocate somewhere near either of my children. I have two sons; one seems likely to stay put where he is at, but the other is in transition himself. I’ll be moving to Milwaukee, near the more settled son, after the first of the year. Life will be changing again. In some ways I’m looking forward to what awaits me. Change has been my tutor this year, and I have attended to its lessons. I’m hoping that it will give me some time off school before long, though!

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Ps 103:15–16). (1989). Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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Deciding on How to Spend a Decade

Me, 11 years ago, when I made a big decision.

Ten years. That’s how long I stayed with my parents to help them as they aged and became more infirm. It was something I never imagined doing. I was the child who had moved out of state when I was in my early twenties and had visited just two weeks a year for forty years. I expected that my brother or sister would take care of my parents should they need help.

Then I visited one summer and saw my dad’s dementia was getting worse. Mom worked to provide a structure in which he could operate, and they were coping for the time being, but the strain was showing. Shortly before I drove back to my home in North Carolina, my dad asked the question I had not wanted to consider: Would I move back to Michigan and help them?

Of course not, I thought. I had a life of my own, after all. I taught psychology, worked as a therapist, volunteered in the community, was involved in a church, and had plenty of friends. Why would I leave all that?

On the other hand, it was something I could in fact make myself available for. I divorced fifteen years earlier and my two sons were both married and lived out of state. I could retire from teaching and make ends meet by working part-time as a therapist while living with my parents in Michigan.

Once I thought about it that way, I couldn’t wiggle out no matter how hard I tried. A few years before I had run across a passage by Simone Weil in which she said we should do only what we know to be our necessity. It became clear to me that helping my parents was my necessity. It also was consonant with my faith. Christians believe that God gave the Ten Commandments as rules of life for his chosen people, and that these still guide us today. Among the ten is the instruction to honor your father and mother. What does that mean? Douglas K. Stewart, in his commentary on the book of Exodus, explains it as follows:

“Although this word/commandment requires children to honor their parents in all sorts of ways large and small, there can be little doubt that its most basic insistence from the point of view of establishing a responsibility that might otherwise be shirked is to demand that children take care of their parents in their parents’ old age, when they are no longer able to work for themselves, as well as to honor whatever their parents have prescribed by way of inheritance for their children.”[1]

Even I, with my well-developed capacity to rationalize doing what I want to do rather than what I should do, couldn’t evade my dad’s request. I was being called, and I responded. I taught one last year, putting in my resignation midway through. The following summer, I moved in with my parents.

My dad died two years later. At that point, my mom probably could have lived a couple years on her own, but even then it seemed best that someone live with her. I had left my full-time job already, so it made sense to stay longer. Mom died a month ago. Ten years after resettling, it would be impossible to reconstruct the remnants of my former life. I won’t be going back to that, and I’m done with my commitment to my parents. I’m trying to figure out what’s next. Whatever happens, I am glad that I came at my dad’s behest. I’ve had others tell me that not many people would have done what I did. That makes what I did sound more noble that it was. When I had reflected on my options, I realized I could live with one possible choice, but not with the other one. It wasn’t a hard decision. This next choice, that will probably be the difficult one.

[1] Stuart, D. K. (2006). Exodus (Vol. 2, p. 461). Broadman & Holman Publishers.

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Entering Into Grief

I’m writing this the day after my mom’s memorial service. There had been visitation that morning and the night before, and we the family were consoled and encouraged by scores of those who came in from the concentric circles of relationship formed around her or us.The service was faithful to the path she had laid out years before—the hymns she wanted sung, the scripture she wanted read, the pastor she wanted to deliver the meditation, and the thunderous climax of an organ rendition of Handel’s hallelujah Chorus at the end. There was a light lunch afterwards, then a gathering of mom’s children and grandchilden plus spouses to disperse the contents of the house that had meaning to whomever took them. It was a busy, day, a day of celebration and remembering more than sorrow.

Now everyone except my youngest son is gone. He’ll fly back to Washington state in the morning. It’s quiet, even quieter than the days after mom’s death, when the sounds of her voice and the medical equipment that ministered to her were suddenly stilled. I had to remind myself I no longer had to check on her, give her medication, feed her, or make sure she was comfortable. I could leave the house even if no one else was there to care for her. I was free. Yet freedom felt like emptiness. I wasn’t tearful or openly grieving. I was glad that she got her wish to be done with the constraints of her decrepit body. I missed her, though.

There is a passage in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which earth has been destroyed.  Arthur Dent, who has been wisked away by aliens, feels nothing when he learns the fate of his planet. He can only get a sense of what earth’s elimination means by focusing on smaller losses: not England, but Nelson’s Column, not America, but Bogart films. He finally feels the full weight of what’s happened when he realizes that McDonald’s hamburgs are no more. In the same way, my feelings of loss haven’t been evoked so much by the general thought that mom is gone as by the specific things that won’t be the same again, ever. A mortar and pistle sit on the kitchen counter. Until about two months ago, mom was crushing her pills there to take through her feeding tube. She’ll never do that again. She’ll never sit at this desk and read her daily devotions; will never pick up that lip gloss to use, will never look at herself in this mirror. She’ll never squeeze my hand again.

Quite a few of mom’s possessions have been taken by her two sons and daughter during the two weeks since her death, and even more were taken by grandchildren yesterday. A set of dishes. Antique pewter plates. Prints and paintings. Toys that great-grandchilden played with. The mantle clock.

This last absence had the most to say to me today. For ten years, I wound it every week, looked to it for the time, and listened to its chime. I took my picture with it. I still look towards it when I walk into the room, but its not there. I put one of the remaining pewter plates and a candlestick where it had been, so there would be something there, but the absence still looms. My son brought up the oddness of not hearing the clock mark the passing of each quarter-hour. He pointed out that the other sound endemic to that room was that of the wind chimes that still hung outside the door to the patio. Yes, I thought, he’s right. And I often am oblivious to their sound. I need to appreciate them while I can. I went outside to look at them. I wanted to soak in the sound of them, to remember them forever. Maybe I didn’t appreciate the clock enough. I would appreciate these.

The place the clock had been.

Thus it goes; we try to hold on to what we will inevitably lose. We want to freeze the river of time. But it meanders on underneath the ice our psyches generate. We know better, yet we are determined to do the impossible. There are so many paradoxes in grief. Mom will always be with me; she also will recede from my awareness. I’ll remember lots about her, but I’ll forget plenty as well. I’m glad her journey ended, but wish it hadn’t. It has been a long time since she died and it just happened. I see her life as a whole more clearly now that she is gone than I did when she was here.

I haven’t written in this blog for some time. I didn’t think I had much to say. Mom’s death is stirring something up that suggests otherwise. You didn’t intend that stirring, mom, but thanks for it anyway. Maybe it’s your last gift to me.


Posted in Death, Relationships | 6 Comments

Regaining Restaurants.

As an older adult, I was quite careful about going to restaurants for quite a while, concerned about getting ill. I got vaccinated for covid back in February, but I and my friends had gotten out of the habit of meeting for coffee or a meal. It’s taken most of a year to re-establish old patterns. Still, some friends are not yet comfortable meeting in a place where, in order to eat, everyone takes off masks eventually.

Fathom magazine had “Friendship” as a theme for their November issue, so I submitted a poem I had written almost two years ago, shortly before covid hit the US, about meeting for breakfast with a friend. That friend still doesn’t want to meet in restaurants. We talk occasionally at church, but there just isn’t the connection that we had once had. So I’m hoping that we’ll eventually be able to share a meal together and also thinking fondly of when we used to meet.

Here’s a link to the poem on the Fathom site:

Photo by Elina Sazonova on
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I made My Uber Driver Cry

I took the Amtrak train to St. Louis last week. I arranged for an Uber ride to pick me up and take me to the station early the morning of my trip. I had had a very troubled week, so I was depleted and not looking forward to an exhausting day of travel. The Uber driver arrived a little after 5 a.m. I climbed in the back seat with my suitcase and bag, then asked the driver, who I’ll call Eddie, how his day was going. He answered “not so good.” He started driving at midnight, after work. He tries to make at least $50 a shift between tips fares and tips; that hadn’t happened so far that night. He had been stiffed by a customer who asked him to make several stops, promised him a 20 dollar tip, but gave him nothing. “I trusted the wrong person,” he lamented, as if blaming himself.

I said something mildly sympathetic, like “that’s too bad,” and that was enough for him to tell me more.  He started driving for Uber to support his daughter. He previously worked as a freelance handyman, but lost his business with the covid shutdown. Now he is just trying to get by. He used to have a big family, but his mom died when he was still in his his teens and now it’s just him and his brother left. His brother is disabled and has been trying for years to get disability; Eddie helps him as much as he can, but it’s a real struggle.

In between telling me his hardships, Eddie was apologizing: “I’m sorry for getting into all of this.” I answered, “No, it’s fine.” And I really meant it; in fact, I meant more than that. I meant that I felt privileged that he was willing to share his suffering with me. We all suffer; we all need to get out what’s troubling us. I happened to be present when Eddie’s heart of pain overflowed; it was a holy moment.

 Eight or nine minutes into the ride, about three minutes from the station, it came to me that Eddie needed prayer, so I said, “Let me pray for you.” He agreed and pulled over so he could just listen. I prayed for him, his brother, and his daughter, that God would help them and bless them, that they would know they aren’t alone but that they are loved and cared for. When I stopped, he thanked me, saying how much it meant to him. He was crying by the time he dropped me off, and was apologizing for that. I reassured him that was fine and said again that God was there for him. He said, “I know, that’s why I keep going.” I’ve been using Uber for years, but this is the first time I made my driver cry!

I tried to give him a $20 tip on the Uber app to make up what he had lost earlier in the evening. That didn’t seem to work, so I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and gave it to him. Later I saw that the app eventually worked, so his tip amounted to $40. Between that and his share of the fare, our ride got him within a couple dollars of his $50 goal. Percentage-wise, I think it’s the largest tip I’ve ever given.  

About fifteen minutes into the train ride, as I thought about the ride with Eddie, I started crying, too. After the week I had, I really needed to let my tears flow; who knew that an Uber ride would make it happen? I realized the prayer I offered was in part an answer to itself; by the very act of praying for and with Eddie he received at least part of the blessing he needed. It was humbling to be a part of that. Sometimes, when I help someone else, my actions are rooted in my ego. It’s all about what I’m doing and how wonderful it is that I’m doing it. That’s not truly entering into someone’s suffering. Entering in is this: recognizing we are alike since I suffer as well, knowing there’s nothing I can do to alleviate the immensity of a person’s pain, but doing whatever I feel impelled to do only to find, amazingly, that it’s exactly what was needed. And, beyond all expectation, receiving in return a gift of joy.

So thank you, God, for using me. Thanks for the privilege of being positioned so as to hear and love Eddie, letting him know that he is not alone. Thank you.

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Living out of Necessity

I wrote recently about my vocation in older adulthood. I relayed some points made in Gordon Smith’s book Called to be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. Smith says that each of us has a God-given vocation, that our senior years are to be characterized by vocation just as much as our younger years were, though late-life vocation is less likely to require the social roles that were formerly important. For me, the primary social role in which my vocation was embedded was that of psychologist. As a psychologist, I’ve spent most of my career doing psychotherapy. Teaching was also important, while other functions, such as supervisor and administrator, were secondary. I concluded the last post with the following:

“The challenge I face is to define my vocation outside of the role by which it has been expressed for most of my adult life.”

I’ve already given up the role of teacher, which is not to say that I never teach anyone anything but I have relinquished the position of Professor of Psychology that I had held for over a decade. I’m still in the role of therapist; I have about fifteen clients with whom I work. That role is taking much less of my time than it used to; I’m not contemplating giving it up, but I expect that it will gradually be a less important part of my identity and my vocation.

So what vocation remains once the roles I’ve occupied lose their importance? Smith suggests that we can understand our vocation in the context of three areas of knowledge: knowing the purposes of God in the world, knowing ourselves, and knowing our circumstances. I’ve been particularly influenced by something he says about self-knowledge: “to know oneself is to be attentive to one’s deep passion or joy.” What is it that evokes passion in me; what do I most want to do; what do I care about most deeply? What is my necessity (a term Smith takes from Henri Nouwen and Annie Dillard)?

To help me answer that question, I’ve been thinking about what has been most satisfying about being a therapist. I wrote the following to a friend earlier this year:

“I think that when I was growing up, through high school and college, learning was what interested me the most. When I went to grad school, I probably was more interested in learning about a field that I found fascinating than I was in becoming a helper. When I started doing therapy, I liked applying my learning. I also liked something else, namely taking the information I gathered from people and putting it together into a coherent picture. It’s like everyone is in their own way a puzzle or enigma to be understood. Learning can be somewhat passive, but coming to an understanding like this is a more active process, involving both left-brain analytical and right-brain holistic thinking.

“But there’s a third element that’s important to me, and that’s to use knowledge and understanding to help others. Translating my understanding of someone into something that they can understand as well is challenging. To do it well takes patience, caring, creativity, and communication skills, while simultaneously continuing to listen and trying to better understand aspects I’ve missed. I really value having ongoing relationships with clients. I like seeing their growth and recognizing how our conversations contributed to that growth.”

Learning, understanding, helping. I think that combining those is my passion, my necessity. I see it not only in therapy, but also in friendships and family relationships. And those things also characterize my relationship with myself, for knowing myself, knowing how God made me, is foundational both for my identity and for my efforts to know others. So, to put it in a statement, the necessity that I expect will be my vocation whether I’m working or not is the following:

To learn about, understand, and affirm people, helping them know themselves and live out of their true nature. To know myself.

That feels right; it’s something I can see myself living out of for the rest of my life.

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My Vocation is not my Job

I recently wrote about one thing that has changed for me since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic; I’ve been less interested in writing blog posts. I’ve been thinking about other changes that have taken place. One of these has been a change in my work and what it means to me.

I’m retired from full-time employment, but work two days a week as a clinical psychologist. Unlike the millions of people who lost their jobs as covid19 spread, I continued to work even through the initial days of physical distancing. The difference was that I stopped driving to the practice where I’m employed and started doing teletherapy on my computer. Most clients were willing and able to make the switch to online, so my caseload and hours worked haven’t changed much. What has changed is my sense that I am a member of the workforce. Instead of being at an office surrounded by other professionals and support staff, I sit in my bedroom in front of my laptop and interact with the video images of my clients. It is still work, but it doesn’t feel like work anymore.

That change took some getting used to. I didn’t really feel like a retiree when I left full-time work in 2012, but now I’m having more of a sense that that’s what I really am. I’ve wondered more what it will be like when I leave the workplace completely. What will life be like then? How will I spend my time? Who will I be then? Unlike some people who head for retirement with a plan to travel or hike or golf or fish or pursue some other interest, I’ve never had anything that I thought could adequately fill the hours I formerly devoted to work.

I’ve been helped thinking through this change by the chapter on vocational holiness in Gordon T. Smith’s book Called to be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. Smith begins with this definition:

“This is vocational holiness—that on any given day or week or year or chapter of our lives, we are able to say, ‘I glorified God and completed the work that he gave me to do.’” (p. 90)

Smith’s assumptions here are that God always has work for us to do, and it is our task to discern what that work is and do it. That work is not tied to having an employer or earning an income. Instead, it’s a sense of what one is meant to do; an inner perception of necessity. We feel passionate about doing that work, and, when we do it well, we feel joy.

As Smith implies, the vocation that we’ve been given isn’t just for our years of paid employment but encompasses later adulthood as well. He makes that explicit later in the chapter:

“Deep within our cultural and religious psyches is the assumption that the older we get the less we are oriented toward vocation. We are, thankfully, beginning to recover a sense that our senior years are for vocation as much as any other chapter of our lives.” (p. 118)

So as long as I perceive there is some work, some productive activity for me to do and have the capacity and desire to do it, I have a vocation. It’s just that my vocation will not always be a socially recognized role. Smith makes this point as well:

“We take up a role as a means by which our vocation is expressed. But we do not own the role; we are not ultimately defined by the role. We take it up and we let it go in due time.” (p. 119)

I expect to let go of the role of psychologist “in due time.” I’ve written previously about giving up roles as part of a loss in status. At this point, I’m much less concerned about status than I am about the nature of my calling. The challenge I face is to define my vocation outside of the role by which it has been expressed for most of my adult life. I’ve started to think about how to conceptualize that vocation. I hope to clarify my ideas about that well enough to put them in a subsequent post.

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