Posted in reflections

Repurposed

I’m not sure when I started liking instant coffee.

Maybe it’s the simplicity. There’s no need to fuss with fancy machines that clutter up limited kitchen counter space.

This morning I spooned the last of my hazelnut Tejas Café into my Starbucks mug. Reaching under the sink, I nearly tossed the empty container into the trash, then hesitated. It was a well-made plastic jar, with a sturdy top and thick clear plastic sides. Fashioned in a factory, then filled with coffee, it shipped to the HEB grocery warehouse. A driver then delivered it to my neighborhood store. There it had waited on the shelf…for me. Oh, the good times we had! Every morning, I received its aromatic offering. Now, a few weeks later, the jar had nothing left to offer. It was empty. We looked at each other. Was this the end?

Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life asks: “What on earth am I here for?” For a while, my alma mater used the slogan, “Discover Your Purpose.” Like that empty jar of coffee, what do you do when you come to the end of your purpose? Is there a purpose after the purpose? Can we be repurposed?

This can be a challenge for retirees. After an active work life spanning forty plus years, some at the traditional retirement age of 65 are like a Honda Accord with 200,000 miles on the odometer, well-worn for sure but with another 100,000 miles in the engine. My father had served as Corporate Comptroller of a large supermarket chain in the Northeast. He later found purpose in a duet of blue collar jobs, first as a delivery driver for a parts manufacturer, then as a cashier at the local grocery store. Only at age 87 did he turn in his name tag. Other retirees have found new purpose through volunteer work at church or in the community.

Yet it’s more than retirees who face this question. At any age, career change is repurposing. An educational missionary for 23 years, I’d taught pastors from the certificate to the doctoral level. Though fulfilling, the face-to-face and online classrooms with their supplementary administrative and supervisory duties consumed me. My purpose had morphed into my taskmaster. It was time to repurpose, but what next?

As a pastor in Missouri, prior to missionary service, I always looked forward to visiting at the hospital when church members fell sick. I’d also held a weekly Bible study for residents of a nursing home and remembered how they’d brightened up when we prayed and sang hymns together. Teaching at a university in Kenya, an offer arrived to move to Austin, Texas. I’d receive a stipend for one year as a hospital chaplain resident, a combination of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and 1,000 hours clinical work in a network of hospitals. Amy and I said our farewell to African brothers and sisters and jetted West.

Residency was a grueling year. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I’d hurriedly get dressed following an urgent middle-of-the-night page for a Code Blue or to comfort a grieving family in the ICU. In my weaker moments, I wondered if I’d made the right decision to leave a status academic position. But my doubts always evaporated when tearful families said: “Chaplain, we’re so glad that you came.”

Now I’m a hospice chaplain. The listening and comforting skills I honed in hospitals serve me well. Alzheimer’s patients in skilled nursing facilities can be calmed by a prayer, a hymn, or even a silent vigil at their bedside. Exhausted caregivers in private homes – usually a husband, wife, or daughter – need someone to witness their tears and to listen. After a heart-to-heart yesterday, a caregiver smiled and concluded: “I feel peaceful. Thank you, Chaplain.”

The prophet Isaiah writes: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19, NIV). My coffee jar is no longer empty. It now sits on a shelf, filling up with coins for the annual missionary offering at church. In the same way, God has repurposed my ministerial vocation. What new purpose will follow your purpose? New directions can unfold slowly, but be at peace. Whatever your age, God still has meaningful work for you to do.

Author:

I'm a health care chaplain.

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