Have you ever gone where you do not want to go? Early retirement through ill health brought me to this place in 2016, almost exactly four years ago as I write. I neither saw nor wanted to go “there”. I did not know where “there” was at the time, even now a description tests my ability to write.
When Jesus said to Peter, John 21:18, “When you are old, you will go where you don’t want to go,” the statement came on the back of his restoration with Jesus, after Peter’s denials. The incident also took place after the resurrection of Jesus, in the context of new revelation. The encouragement of Peter’s restoration was tempered by the strangeness of Jesus statement.
Jesus words to Peter were first and foremost personal, spoken in the hearing of the other disciples. It was a private revelation given in the presence of others. It is at this point that the Bible falls silent on the matter, nothing further is said. As is often the case, when the Bible falls silent tradition takes up the thread and makes much of the manner of Peter’s eventual death in Rome, some thirty-five years later. And it is here that the story usually comes to a final rest.
Utterly exhausted by ministry, and never having fully recovered from a mental breakdown some six years earlier, retirement thrust me into a landscape that neither had shape nor form. I sought a road map but found none. I looked for familiar landmarks but found none, and I looked for pathways that others have taken but found none.
I might not have had a road map, but I did have a compass, one that kept me pointing to God, and in time, I ripened for revelation. But before that time came and because the familiar danglements of evangelical vocabulary had worn thin, I re-assessed much of my thirty something-years of following Christ.
At no time did God retreat from my experience, though he did stand back and let me wrestle with my emptiness. But it was not so with my relationship with the church or my first language, evangelicalism. I drifted from the church and felt alienated by my native evangelical language, both of which were in full retreat and distant. I was stripped bare of my appetite for church and lost my desire to use an evangelical vocabulary. I was trapped in the vacuum between the old and the new. We do not usually sign up for nakedness of this kind. Nevertheless, that is where I was, and I knew I had to work with what I had at that moment.
At first, I discovered that as I travelled my road, I neither understood the pain of reconstruction nor, could I see the new. There were no easy answers; nothing was ready-made. I wrestled for everything.
Once I realised that God was holding onto me, and not me holding onto God, I was able to see that God reframed my understanding of who he is, and I would not change a thing despite the personal trials I endured during this time.
Perhaps these thoughts have an application during the Coronavirus lockdown; after all, we find ourselves moving where we do not want to go. In these ‘unprecedented times,’ we should not be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.