Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Facing Those Life Markers

A couple of nights ago, celebrating with others, someone asked me which birthday stands out above the rest. Turning 70, I confessed that most are a blur. What I do know is that with each decade, with each marker, the questions have changed.

-when I turned 20, things were rising. I was in San Diego in the thick of college (racing from class to class to keep my 2S deferment), and wondering where my life was going

-at 30, things were still on the rise. I was in transition to Dallas to enter a doctoral program (where one moves from unconscious to conscious ignorance), adjusting to marriage (and life with Barnabas), and wondering how to fulfill my life purpose

-at 40, life was beginning to plateau. I was in SE Portland, a relatively new father, enjoying life with Heather (and Rochester–a nice replacement for Barnabas), seven years into my first Lead Pastorate, lusting after other congregations (what Peterson calls ecclesiastical pornography), wondering if I had achieved the goals I had set for myself at this age

-at 50, life was back on the climb. Heather and I and Nate and Kate (and Garth) were on our way back from seven years in Europe, shifting to life in America and life as an associate professor—and overwhelmed with lots of new challenges, new questions

-at 60, it felt like the top. I was in NW Portland, once again a pastor, as well as a professor (in what Clinton calls Convergence—your best skills line up with the best opportunity). The kids were growing up and finding their way, Heather was shifting to retirement (Garth had given way to Spencer), and I was beginning to wonder if I have time to do all the things I still dream about.

And now I am 70, and falling (like Sherlock, who has sadly replaced Spencer). I am between Portland and Ione, finding that time feels more urgent. The questions pressing with more weight—

-who am I once I lose my professional identity?

-what dreams were realized, which ones will never be fulfilled, and which ones remain unrealized?

-how do I deal with life that begins to feel like it is passing me by?

-what do my kids need from me at this point? What are Heather’s desires?

-what should I stop holding on to? Do I still need to keep those trophies, those boxes and boxes of Christmas decorations, that backpack and camp equipment, and those certain books I will likely never read again? 

It’s a strange season—for me anyways. You know you are not the future, but you are not quite ready to be the past. I still want to be in the rush of things, teach and write and travel to the next adventure. Yet, I am finding a gradual shift going on. The other day a friend of mine challenged me to join him in 2021 on a pilgrimage from southern France to the edge of Spain, el Camino de Santiago. I told him I am all in. But then I thought about 35 days of walking in merciless heat and shifting ground, and I found myself asking—“Why the heck would I do this?” I am more inclined to meet God on the Pend Oreille River these days.

Yes, I am falling, but I prefer the language found in Richard Rohr’s Falling Forward: “What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture.” Or to use the language of David Brooks, I have simply shifted mountains.

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