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The empty nest: Where past and future collide

Are you stuck in the empty nest transition? Do you long for the days when the kids were home and dread a lonely future? Good news: you don’t have to stay stuck! This week we are continuing the exploration of why the transition is difficult, and today we are going to talk about regret and fear. But first, I bet you can relate to this full-nest memory . . .

My kids are grown and flown, but I still remember when my littles would interrupt an adult conversation I was having with a friend. So distracting, especially if I was talking on the phone! I distinctly remember the feeling of being in the middle of a tug-of-war game where both sides were pulling my attention in opposite directions. I would immediately get frustrated because I could not focus on either conversation, and often I became impatient with one or both parties! I felt stuck in the middle.

At midlife, many of us find ourselves stuck in the middle again: We are fixed between the future and the past and both are speaking fear into our minds. The past reminds us of failures, the future reminds us that we have little time left to fix them. The past points out wasted time and poor decisions, and the future tells us it could have been different if only . . . How do we work past these voices and move into the future God has for us?

Researchers have identified midlife as a psychological collision point between the past and the future. Pastor and author Paul Tripp in his excellent book on midlife, Lost in the Middle, suggests that midlife exposes what we have been living for in the past. We might experience a nagging fear that our priorities have been disordered, that we didn’t spend enough time on the important things, or that we focused far too much on the frivolous. I think this explains why older people stop harried young mothers in grocery stores and muse nostalgically on the joys of corralling cranky toddlers. Seeing the flustered mom sparks regrets for the time the older person wasted being frustrated in the relentless tasks of parenting; but there is no going back.

So when the past and the future speak together to me, sometimes this is what I hear: "The state of my family/ community/health/marriage/relationship with God is a direct outcome of past failures, and the future will be little better because I cannot rectify the mistakes of the past in the time I have left."

But let me be clear here: This is a lie of the enemy. God is more powerful than our stories, our failures, and our human frailty. At this pivotal point of midlife where past and future collide, God offers to rewrite our stories and redeem our deficiencies, if we let Him!

That if is a big one. It is so tempting to hold on to the past, if for no other reason than for all the good memories! But God is calling us at midlife to surrender the past and the future to His all-loving hands and His all-knowing wisdom, to let go of regret and grief and to follow Him into the next stage, trusting that He is using all that we have experienced to bring Him glory in all we will become in the future.

In this transition period, I'm finding I need to surrender past and future every day just to keep my heart pointed in the right direction. The words of Paul in Romans 12 are especially encouraging to me:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--His good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2, NIV)

So as the nest empties, take time to celebrate, take time to grieve, and, if you need to ask forgiveness of God and others, do so. But then, surrender the past and the future to a God who loves you and who makes all things new, and move into the future transformed and confident in the will and love of God.


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