The Fruitful Vacancy

We live a lifetime of transitions. “Things end, there is a time of fertile emptiness, and then things begin anew.” I love the pairing of these two: “fertile” & “empty” – a productive, fruitful season of being vacant. We must learn how to navigate these transitional waters in our marriage journey.

We often describe this launching pad to change as a trial or a wilderness season. In our humanness, we just want it to end so we can feel good again and have tranquility in our lives. God sees the deeper purpose, working the faith muscle to build strength. A friend of mine once said, “God doesn’t pull me out of what He can perfect me through.” I have discovered over and over again that what God prizes is the interaction with my heart. One sign of maturity is when we prize intimacy, our encounters with God, higher than the end of the test.

Transitions are predictable, planned, and welcomed. They are also unpredictable, not planned, and traumatic; which is what I experienced in year twelve of our marriage. We had been on pastoral staff of a church for ten years and felt fruitful, comfortable, and content. (Does the word “pruning” come to mind?) Our three children, ages 8, 10, and 11, were integrated into the church family, had good friends, and we lived in a very nice, upscale parsonage. None of us desired to move. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to be initiated into a new adventure.

We were chosen to take the reins of a small church in a nearby city, whose pastor was retiring. It was challenging, as the church had suffered a failed building program, leaving them saddled with debt. One night after a board meeting at the new church they took us to see our proposed new living quarters. We went from “upscale” to “no scale!” It was pretty bad. The house had an oil burning furnace; we could see black soot on the furniture. The carpet was old and soiled and the odor was less than fragrant.

We decided to rent an apartment for a year while the church had the house remodeled. It was a major downgrade from our last house but it was livable; kind of cute actually, like a little cottage. My boys had a bedroom with a slanted roof, which had been an add-on to the back of the house. As they grew taller, we had to move their beds to the “short side” of the room. My daughter’s bedroom was the former exterior shed that was adjacent to the house. It was small, but enough for the essentials – bed, dresser, and guinea pig cage.

I know other guys in ministry whose wives would not have settled for such a scenario. But my beloved helped me to embrace the ending, endure the in-between time, and start afresh. Our new pastorate had its ebbs and flows like all churches do. The chapter ended after ten years when we turned over the reins of the church and went back to working regular full time jobs for the next four years. We were facing another ending.

Anne and I grieved the loss as our identities underwent change. People didn’t call me “Pastor Mike” anymore; we were not leading worship every week, which we both loved to do. Waves of vacancy beat upon our shoreline and it felt many times like our purpose was gone. On the sweet side, we spent the next four years just being “normal” people; husband and wife at the dinner table, no ministry talk. The circumstances became a new frame for our marriage portrait; we rediscovered the painting, the treasure of our friendship.

Further transition ensued a few years later with the death of my Dad, the last living parent between us. New beginnings must come, and with them – endings. So I’ve resolved to face the fertile emptiness when it comes. This I know – the waves will recede but the fruit remains.