In a couple of months, I will retire as Bishop of Toronto. I have already retired as Metropolitan of Ontario and Bishop of Moosonee. Many ask what I have planned and if I am worried about what I will do on Jan. 1.
At Easter, several parishioners kindly said they were sorry it was my last Easter. I replied that while I planned to retire, I hoped there would be many more Easters for me yet! I was not intending this to be my last Easter. (Now as for my last Synod…, hmm, that might be a bit more attractive!)
Almost 42 years of ordained ministry has taught me a few things about change and how I approach it. Change is inevitable. You can’t stop it. At most you can delay it, but that often makes it more complicated and difficult. At some point, you have to forgo the deceit that you are in total charge; you have to learn to trust. How I wish parishes, as well as people, could learn that lesson! I long ago realized that I am a lot less in control of things than I pretend to myself to be – and guess what? – they still work out just fine. It’s God’s Church and it’s God’s world. I am invited and encouraged to engage in it fully and to the very best of my ability – but it remains under God’s gracious providence. I have seen that so clearly in my life and ministry.
Change also involves grief. There is the loss (or at least the lessening) of something that has been very important and life-giving. There is the acknowledgement that some things have not and will never work out as you might have hoped. There are some things that you will not be able to accomplish or fix or get a chance to complete (or even get around to start). There is the grief for the undone as well as for the poorly done. That grief needs to be recognized and worked out but cannot be allowed to overwhelm. Grief involves at least pieces of denial, anger, depression and bargaining (to reference the famous patterns identified by Kubler-Ross).
How we learn to approach the small losses, including how we approach the change of retirement, rehearses us for the ultimate giving over of ourselves to God in death. As Christians, we can grieve, but not without hope; we can grieve, but do not have to fear. Loss or diminishment or even death itself are never the last word because God in Jesus has overcome death and given us the hope of resurrection.
So change is a spiritual and emotional process as well as a physical one. The ongoing presence of a community of faith and the assurance of a compassionate and abiding God have been essential to me in my past experience of loss and coping well with it in the long run. I continue to be blessed with a rich and vibrant community of faith and faithfulness.
I have always found that I am more interested in what opportunity God is offering me next than hankering for the “good old days.” As a lover of history and tradition, I have always looked to the past as a foundation for future construction. Much of the most exciting and enriching aspects of my life have not been based on carefully crafted five- or ten-year plans but have come from unexpected meetings, unanticipated opportunities – the “chances” that have been presented that are actually divine invitations to try something new. God has been faithful. God is faithful. God will continue to be faithful. Even if we aren’t.
That is the story of our faith. We are a pilgrim people, called to move (mostly) forward in response to the Holy Spirit’s leadership. Sir Jonathan Sacks writes that the people Moses led needed to learn how to be free and not yearn for the familiar experience of slavery. But they had to take time to let go of some parts of the past before they could enter into the true freedom that was their destiny.
Ministry has been such an enormous source of joy, identity, purpose and satisfaction for me that there will be grief and sadness about not being so fully immersed in it. It has not been slavery at all, although it has been very demanding. But replacing that with more busyness or trying to recreate the old routines is not helpful. I will take some time to wander and wonder before I take up a few new activities.
Yes, I will read and sleep, travel and write. I may try my hand at a few committees and mentoring roles. I will attend church in the pews and pray. I hope to exercise more (and hope that my hope is not a vain hope! I do know my capacity to procrastinate!)
Am I worried? No! I am excited by what’s in store.
And yes, Ellen and I will take ballroom dancing lessons, even if the Chancellor does not think Ellen has enough insurance.