Until recently, the longest “downtime” trip I had ever taken was in the summer of 1998. My husband Chuck was in the PhD program at Syracuse University, and took an internship at Credit Suisse in London, England. We rented a room from a fabulous family in Kelfield Gardens. Ian and Bunty had several children who had grown up and moved out, and they didn’t like empty rooms. So they opened up their home to students from the SU internship program. That summer, we were the lucky recipients of their hospitality.
While Chuck was working hard each day, I was free to explore the city– anywhere I wanted to go, no tour guide. Just me, curiosity, and very comfortable shoes. Every evening I would come back to the Ross household give my report on the day’s activities. The youngest daughter, Liberty, would ask me, “So, now… what did we do today?” I swear half the fun of that trip was relating my adventures to the family over dinner. No matter what I had done– a trip to Madame Tussaud’s, viewing the crown jewels, checking out the construction of the Millennium Dome, catching a play at Shakespeare’s Globe– Liberty would proclaim it “Aaaaaa-maaaay-zing!” And it was!
I was thinking about our summertime England trip when Chuck moved to DC in December and I followed in January. He would be immediately launching into a more-than-full-time job, and it would likely be several months before I was employed again. I looked forward to taking long, leisurely walks exploring the nation’s wonderful capitol city.
Unanticipated challenge #1: Culture Shock. Within the span of a few days in January, I went from moving at 95 miles per hour at my job at Christ Church to *bam* zero mph. From meetings, appointments, and events that lasted right up until my last night in Fort Lauderdale to a suddenly, gapingly, wide-open calendar. From interacting with dozens of interesting people every day to being alone in my apartment. It was jarring and unsettling.
Unanticipated challenge #2: The Cold. Oh my goodness! I had forgotten how bone-chilling 20-degree weather affects my body. Somehow I had blocked the knowledge of how those dainty inner-nose hairs could freeze if I breathed quickly through my nose, and how my lungs crackled when I sucked in that icy air. And the wind? Even with my voluminous puffy coat, tendrils of cold worked their way down my neck and seeped through my insufficiently insulated shoes. There were weeks when the furthest I ventured on foot was the Whole Foods two blocks away from our apartment.
Unanticipated challenge #3: The Colds. In the first three months of my DC life, I came down with three sinus infections. (To that, all I can say is… blaaaaaahhhhh.)
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking right now, “Wait! I thought this ‘Random Thoughts’ posting was supposed to be about the benefits of downtime?”
Yep. I’m getting to that…
When I was packing up our house during my last weeks in Florida, I had a firm plan for the year 2013. But none of it went the way I expected. And, as it turns out, that is actually a good thing! I didn’t realize it until recently, but the forced downtime has been an incredible boon in my life.
Unanticipated blessing #1: Redefinition. I started asking myself: who am I if I’m not “pastor”? Who am I if I’m not responsible for guiding small groups, for preaching, for counseling, for teaching, for running a church? It’s so very, very easy for us to become defined by what we do. Most of our waking hours are spent working, so it’s totally understandable that our identities would become entwined with our professions. But what happens when what we “do” is taken away from us? When the mother who has worked so many years to raise her children drops the last one off at college and returns home to a very quiet house– who is she now? The truck driver who turns in the keys to his rig after retirement– who is he now? The lawyer who decides to leave her law practice, the teacher who loses his position due to budget cuts, the student who graduates, the retail worker whose store closes– who are they when the change comes?
It may sound ironic to read these words coming from a pastor, but here goes… I discovered that I’m a child of God. Now, yes, I knew that before. (Don’t worry!) But I needed a fresh reminder that my true, real, authentic identity doesn’t reside in what I do, but in whose I am. I belong to a God who loves me beyond any love I can imagine. I am a tiny, little creature who belongs to the Creator of the universe. My worth, my power, my identity are grounded in that reality. We may have different roles throughout our lives, but, you and I, we’re children of the King! I’ll be a pastor again someday (hopefully soon!) but I’ll go into it remembering the joy of being defined by my relationship with God, not by any temporary earthly thing.
Unanticipated blessing #2: Boredom. I don’t get bored easily. I can usually find lots to do. I’m a deeply curious person who loves to learn– there are always new books to read, new educational videos to watch, new classes to take, new ideas to learn. But there are also a lot of hours in a day, in a week, in a month when you’re in a new city and stuck in the apartment.
I think now that God arranged for my hunkered-down, going-nowhere winter months in DC in order to help me reach the end of how I could fill my hours. I don’t need to tell you that we live in a world where it’s super easy to be constantly connected. We have our desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smart phones. We get home from a busy day and flip on the TV, download a video, check our personal email, skype with a friend, post to a blog, send a text, an email, a picture message. God needed me to get to a point where I was tired of it all. I didn’t want to read another book. I didn’t want to do another online class. God wanted me to be quiet.
“Shhhhhhhhh, Hedy,” God whispered to me, “Will you just chill out and be quiet? Spend a little time with me. Not reading about me or studying about me or writing about me. Spend time just being with me.”
Oh! Okay! I was spending so much time filling my time that I was neglecting the very one who gave me the gift of time. But it took me pushing through the boredom to make that realization. You know, it’s amazing to me that God has such patience– sometimes I can be so remarkably thick.
Unanticipated blessing #3: Uncertainty. I’ve always had a very clear idea of where I was going next. Chuck and I call them our “Five Year Plans.” We’ve tried to hold loosely to those plans, knowing that God could have something different in mind, but we still made them. My plans were thrown out the window when the DC opportunity arose for Chuck. I found myself in an unfamiliar condition: essentially plan-less. I needed to start from scratch. And that “scratch” was based in completely trusting God– it had to be!
Well, now it’s finally springtime in DC, and the days are beautiful. Sunshine, not too warm. Nice breezes and flowers popping up all over. I love taking walks down to the riverfront in Old Town Alexandria. I enjoy taking the Metro into the city to walk by the White House and the Capitol Building. I get a kick out of the Smithsonian, especially the Air & Space Museum. I’m looking forward to starting my doctoral classes at Wesley in a little over a week. I’ve met wonderful people here– people who are creative and energized and excited to serve God. I have fun, fabulous ministry ideas percolating in my head that I would probably never have had in my old context. I can’t wait to see what God has in mind for me in the church here in my new home.
But I am so very, very, very glad that God gave me this forced downtime. It was painful at times, and definitely uncomfortable. And yet it has been rich beyond anything I could have arranged for myself.
God is so smart.
How do you currently define yourself? When do you have “alone time” with God? How do you deal with uncertainty in your life?