“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.
“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”
(Proverbs 19:20-21, ESV)
There is one inevitability in the life of a parent — your kids grow up. Then they move off to college or whatever career choice suits them, hopefully in the general direction on the path they have been called to. The day you have mused over with an emotional blend of nervous anticipation, excitement, and existential dread for years is now upon you. This leaves parents, especially Mom, to say, “Well, what’s next?”
The time to think about what you will do in this new season of life is long before you open the book on this new chapter in life. For years, I noted the plans of other parents during my kids’ high school years. The responses of other moms varied from “my life is meaningless” to “thank the heavens they are gone” and everywhere in between. I write to you as a homeschool mom who taught at the table and through co-ops for twenty-seven years. The change from “all school” to “no school” can be a bit jarring. Big life transitions are tough and disorienting! Recognizing this, I began praying for Godly direction years before the youngest one graduated.
After homeschooling our three kids and beginning to settle them into college life, I imagined ways to move my days from what I knew as meaningful to meaningful in an all-new way. That takes a bit of planning. By nature, I am chronically spontaneous and a big fan of chasing ‘shiny objects’ — fun distractions with the potential for necessary adventuring. For instance, I will go out with every intention to buy groceries, but if the day is brilliantly sunny and the seagulls are calling, I just might have to pop by the beach to get my jean cuffs wet. Or if I’m at a conference, I’ll remember the charming corner book shop close by that is filled to the ceiling with poetry and prose and well, I DO have a spare hour, so let’s go! (Yes, I prepare for that spare hour, because even ‘tho I’m a little bit chaos, I’m chaos that builds in time for the unexpected.) On the other hand, give me a vacation destination. I will research the location exhaustively. No stone unturned, not one morsel of native-to-the-area food will be passed up. Chocolate factory on a remote island on the coast of Maine accessible only by mail boat once a day? I’m there. Laura Ingalls Wilder cabin in the woods during a tornado watch? Why not?
Long-term life stuff is influenced by so many outside forces and I’ve learned to live life with an open hand. Once long ago, my friend and I were in the midst of planning out the homeschool school year for our kids. As I plotted curricula, co-ops, and schedules with a different colored pencil representing each child, my plans soon looked like a game of pick-up sticks. Move one piece and everything else shifts. She laughed and said, “You know, in the grand scope of eternity, does this little stuff really matter?” Well kind of, but honestly, through all of the machinations on my part, I know that ultimately all will be well, schooling will be accomplished, “but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” (Proverbs 19:21 ESV). So, Semper Gumby — always flexible. Have a plan, but be flexible.
As our youngest kids were entering high school, they began to work independently and I had a bit more time to assess the upcoming years. It was time to start evaluating my next chapter of life and narrowing down the possibilities. Dream goal (which was rather unattainable, but I start with big ideas) was to attend Oxford, maybe for a semester. Just getting to Oxford was also a dream, so that trip went on the list as well. I wanted to go back to school, but finances were tight. C.S. Lewis was my favorite author and I just wanted to read stacks of his work and get words on paper, to be challenged to write, think, and soak in beautiful words. This was such an unusual list of hopes that I really didn’t know where to begin to look for answers. But I distinctly remember sitting in the midst of piles of my books, picking up one by Lewis, then another by Aquinas, then Chaucer, and saying, “Okay God, now what? What do you want me to do because I haven’t a clue what direction to take.”
What an abstract call this would have to be, but the Lord specializes in providing custom-designed, abstract answers.
Someone soon mentioned the C.S. Lewis Institute’s Fellows program and it was a perfect fit: a great deal of reading challenging texts written by classical authors and theologians, writing a variety of essays, and a new community of cohorts. I applied and was accepted into the program, completing Year 1 Fellows with shelves filled the best literature jammed in horizontally and vertically, with small piles here and there on the floor. I was the bookseller’s best friend.
I fell in love with the Fellows program, so felt led to apply for Year 2 as well. I took a hard look at my schedule demands of teaching and homeschooling, balanced against the more demanding reading and writing. That would carry me one more year in whatever plan seemed to be materializing. As the end of Year 2 approached, part of the final requirement for Fellows certification involved a written plan that outlined my goals in using my Fellows education in some way to impact the culture with what I had learned. I had nary a clue.
I went back to the couch and surrounded myself with my books, just as I had two years prior, and had a little chat with God. (Well, I tried to keep my chattering to a minimum so I could listen for what He would say.) Looking up at the ceiling, I said, “God, what do you want to do with me? All of these books and writing and notebooks stuffed full of insights and ideas. NOW what? I’m all yours.” Then I became a bit nervous because I wondered what I had wrought. I didn’t want to do mission work in Siberia. Perhaps I should have been a bit more specific.
Perhaps I could describe this point in life similar to curling my toes over the edge of a cliff at the rim of a gaping abyss. And I’m dizzy. And my eyes are closed. And I’m doing a ‘trust fall’ while praying for the next step. This weird, awkward time is similar to our own fledglings are standing on the edge of the nest; we want them to jump, then soar! Our own purpose doesn’t end at that point. All of the years of preparing our progeny also prepares us for our own jump-and-soar adventure, but taking stock of the future is honestly a challenge. We prepare our children as best we can, but while we are considering their universities and job paths, it is a good thing to pray about our journey as well. There is a plan set before us; we just need to live this next chapter of life with open hands and humble, expectant hearts.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.” (Jeremiah 29: 11-12)
So, what to do? First, I measured what fit my gifts well, feeling certain that my love of classic literature, art, and theology was too oddly specific to be a dead end. Even after becoming a Fellow, I maintained my reading schedule and continued to ask for God’s direction. One day, a long-time friend of the family contacted me because he heard about the Lewis program that I completed, and asked if I had considered getting a masters degree in the field of apologetics. The program would take three years, which would mean that I would be going back to school while our two youngest kids were finishing high school. There was much to consider: time and financial commitment, how it would impact our homeschool schedule, and if I could remain as a teacher at our co-op.
I began to evaluate the idea, especially because of the timing. The coursework focused on readings from the great classics to theology, books that I loved, and the program was online. I would complete the degree in the same year that our daughter would begin college and our son would soon graduate high school. Thinking ahead, I would be in a place to begin pursuing writing projects when our kids would be leaving home. Anticipating a transition from nearly three decades of homeschooling to reading and studying great books, preparing to follow the road that the Lord was laying before me, was exciting! I continued to pray that God would swing the opportunity door wide open or slam it shut with a resounding bang.
The door was swung wide and the red carpet rolled out. Barriers fell away, books were ordered, and for the final confirmation, one of my professors lived and taught in Oxford and was an expert in the field of Inklings studies. It was the next best thing to being there. The program was 100% online, so I could schedule the work into my daily routine. This is not to say that those three years were easy. Let’s just say that decades had passed since I had written a paper. The last one was typed on an electric typewriter. The learning curve was jagged and savage; however, I knew that this was the direction God chose for me as all of our children finished high school and entered adulthood. And I will readily admit, I cried a lot, read more books than I thought possible, and made lifelong friendships. My favorite part of the night was running up the steps to my study and setting up my tea, digestive biscuits, and books, and a few minutes later, my daughter would spread her homework by me on the floor. She would work until she fell asleep with a blanket draped over her. I stayed up past midnight working on papers until I fell asleep at the keyboard. The day that I graduated from the program felt rather like a graduation day for all of us!
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24)
From the week of my first class, I had a handwritten note penned on a folded card and propped up in front of me. The note said, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10) This was my daily reminder that what I was doing was for the Lord, not for man, and not for me. I prayed for God’s words and for His insights. I prayed from the first word of my papers to the moment I hit the ‘upload’ button. And I prayed when I got stuck and exclaimed, “HELP! God, I don’t get this!” I graduated with a masters degree in theology and cultural apologetics, as well as an honorary PhD (I’d call it that) in praying.
What am I trying to say by way of this personal recollection about my introduction into the empty nest book of life? First, start praying for God’s guidance as far as you can project before a major life event. That event doesn’t have to be limited to your grown children leaving home. Are you moving? Retiring? Hitting a milestone birthday? Pray earnestly for the work that God has planned and will set before you. Next, follow God’s lead because His purpose for you is grander, and perhaps scarier, than you may think. C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer that “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” It’s okay to be a bit unsettled. Scripture is generously seasoned with words to encourage us in our God-ordained endeavors. What He brought you to, He’ll see you through.
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)
The featured image, “White Garden,” is courtesy of Jordan Durbin and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Annie Nardone is a flannel-clad, cowboy boot-shod adventurer who seldom travels with a map! Her passion is the reintegration of the arts and humanities with theology and Christian imagination. Annie holds a Masters Degree in Cultural Apologetics from HBU, is a founding member of The Society for Women of Letters, and is Managing Editor of The Cultivating Reader for Cultivating magazine. She also writes for Literary Life, and An Unexpected Journal. Annie resides in Florida with her Middle Earth-Narnia-Hogwarts-loving family, & her wild assemblage of cats.
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