The years of midlife. Transitions. Endings. Wanderings. Grieving.
But also new beginnings. Surprises. Unexpected redirection. Unsuspected rewrites to your accepted narrative for the “you” that you’ve grown comfortable with.
What do you think about yourself?
Let’s ask a few questions, perhaps open a few doors. What are the stereotypes you have of yourself? What’s the narrative you’ve accepted as you, probably the you that will live out the rest of your days? The you that probably won’t ever be much different. Maybe a little tweak, a bit of unexpected happiness to fill a day here or there, but not enough to redirect you entirely into…
…into the reason you were born…
…into the purpose everything has had to this point…
…into what everything you’ve lived and suffered has prepared you for…
So on the day I’m writing this blog post, my personal stereotypical adjectives would be: old, tired, hidden, last. I’m in the midst of yet another transition, so you can pardon the tired colors that make up the mosaic of me on January 24.
Take a moment and jot down some adjectives that describe you deep down. Your humanness. Your vulnerability. The poverty of where you are in life, in career, in relationships. Are they words that weigh heavily on the soul or are they signposts to a new spring where life is worn lightly and the horizons seem bright?
A simple exercise. It is like taking your temperature. It’s good to know what’s going on inside…
When angels appear to us
The Gospel of Luke opens with an invitation into the lives of a couple who were blameless in the sight of God. They were childless, and they were very old.
When Zechariah was chosen by lot to serve as a priest before God in the temple of the Lord, he most likely felt himself to be old, perhaps tired, almost finished. Gratefully he took advantage of this opportunity to serve as a priest in the temple, a privilege that was determined by lot. Most likely, he didn’t expect his life to be steered in a new direction toward becoming the father of John the Baptizer, the one who would make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
The adjectives he may have used that morning for his wife Elizabeth and himself may have been contented, sad, settled, grey. “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” When he emerged from the temple of the Lord, after having seen the angel who announced to him this good news, he may have felt bewildered, uncertain. He an old man with no children was now to be the father of the greatest of prophets who would prepare the way for the Messiah.
Becoming a father at twenty or thirty is life-changing enough. But as an old man to discover at last your purpose in life as a father, this prospect marked a monumental shift in identity.
It doesn’t matter how old we are, whether we are in our 40s or 70s or even 90s. The angel of the Lord will appear also to us in order to rearrange our lives, to restart our lives, to cause our self-narratives built up on our own terms to slip away at the dawning of a fresh beginnings on God’s terms. These become our “middle” years. Middle years mark a threshold from a life lived in some fashion “apart from God” to a live lived “in God.”
the throes of a dying ego…
that longs to surrender, yet needs to build itself up again…
LORD, free me from myself.
In this place where I control my life, where I build my future, where I construct monuments to myself, I live deeply devoid of charity. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of love. While Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous before the Lord and kept his law blamelessly, I have to admit that there is so much of “me, myself, and I” wrapped up even in my best moments and my most giving actions.
“Rollo May notes that without love, willpower is often little more than a twisted, self-centered demonstration of one’s own character. It points toward itself. It does not serve the higher purposes of connecting us to others and to life. And that which does not lead to life leads to death. There is no middle ground.” (Desiring God’s Will, David Brenner, page 47)
The secret of surrender
Angels come into our life in many disguises. They may come as events, invitations, announcements, unexpected surprises, changes in one’s health, financial or career status, or opportunities. Only when we are willing to recognize that we do not control life can we truly offer our consent to the inflow of Grace in the changes announced to us. Only in surrender do they truly become “good news.”
Instead of surrender, however, Zechariah tried to retain control by requesting the angel to tell him how he could be sure that what he was being told was really going to happen. “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
The angel Gabriel shifted Zechariah, in a sense, into a liminal period of silence, a transition period from what-was to what-would-be, a threshold space between old and new, between resignation to lost dreams of a fatherhood that had not been his to obedience to a fatherhood that fit with perfect precision into the unfolding of salvation history, as his wife conceived the prophet of the Most High, the rising sun, the dawn from on high.
The “angels” God sends to us to make us not just a little different, but to restart us on new paths, can be quite jarring, as this angelic appearance was for Zechariah.
There is an open secret to the spiritual life, and it’s called surrender.
We can try our best to get assurances about ourselves, our future, our position with regard to God. We can hope forever that our troubling thoughts and feelings will subside so we’ll finally be at peace.
But until we surrender, the fulfillment of our life’s vocation that we so long for will elude us.
What do we need to surrender?
- Personal needs and desires
- Attachment to the narrative we’ve spun about ourselves and our life’s meaning
- Attachment to things being familiar and known
- The need to know
- The need to understand
- The need to control
Surrender everything that makes up your personal identity, and where are you? Who are you? When we surrender, we find ourself in a liminal space.
We’re empty, willing, and totally receptive to accept the gift of God. Here we find:
- Not emptiness but Being
- Not darkness but light
- Not nothing but All
- Not silence but the beating of divine Heart
Zechariah and Elizabeth simply needed to let themselves be taken down the river of God’s plan for them, of how he would work through them for the sake of all.
Your middle-year shift is toward this restart of a vocation, the ultimate yes to God’s design for your life.
So what are the opposites of the stereotypes about yourself and your life that you identified a few moments ago? My opposite adjectives are: new, refreshed, beginning again, success, belonging.
And yours? Imagining, cherishing the opposite of the burdens of the past, is one secret for recognizing the transition of the middle years not as loss and ending, but as blessing and gift.
I am hidden, yes: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3)
I am last, yes: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Mt 20:16)
I am old, yes: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Tm 4:7-8)
I am finished, yes: “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk 23:46)
It was Zechariah’s sorrow over having no children that was the place of God’s activity that directed Zechariah’s life anew. Don’t run away. Don’t change things on your own. Go deeper in your middle years and find precisely in your loss, the place of good news.
To be continued.