by Joe Lombardi
Ever since our honeymoon (37 years ago June 23, 2016), my bride, Win, and I have loved road-trips—our honeymoon being the first of many over a span of nearly four decades. I planned that initial one down to its minutest detail—including where the newlywed's "getaway car" would secretly be parked after the reception, and then how far our final destination would be that first night and how long it would take us to get there.
I have mapped out a few dozen more "road-trips" since then. We just happen to enjoy traveling by car (including rental cars). However . . . I hate detours. I hate them because I carefully and meticulously plan every trip right down to the miles traveled and the minutes (hours and days) transpired. For that reason, I do get a bit frustrated and even agitated when I approach an intersection that is blocked off with a detour sign pointing in a different and usually unfamiliar direction.
Recently I came across a fascinating piece that was posted on the ChurchLeaders.com website. It was authored by a freelance writer named Vaneetha Rendall. The title of the article is "When the Detour Becomes Your New Road." For this author, the weakness and pain she experiences because of polio is the detour that became her "new road." As I read the piece, I could not help but think I may be traveling down a detour that is becoming my "new road," too.
But, first, I should probably briefly tell you about the "old road." I guess I turned down that street some forty-five years ago. That was when I wrote my first personal "mission statement" - before it actually became a "fad" in our culture to have a mission statement. Interestingly, my personal mission statement has really not changed at all since then. I expressed it something like this:
My mission is to search every nook and cranny of my being in order to discover, develop and deploy all that God has entrusted to me with respect to natural talents and spiritual gifts, so that I might live in such a way as to glorify Him.
As I mused upon my life mission during those early years of teaching at Southfield Christian School (MI) and Aurora Christian School (IL), in 1980 I arrived at the conclusion that I was being called to serve the Lord in full-time church ministry. That decision came as a surprise to my best friend and wife (as of June 23, 1979), who eventually realized that as my partner she was about to continue her journey down a "new road" (as a Pastor's wife) as well. I was ordained to the Gospel ministry in June, 1981, and began my first pastorate in Villa Park, IL on January 1, 1983.
During the next three decades Win and I experienced both "the best of times" as well as the "worst of times" in church ministry. I don't think I will take the time to try to catalog both the highs as well as the lows of the pastorate. Like most, if not all, of my colleagues, I experienced plenty of both during the thirty-one years from January 1, 1983 - December 31, 2014.
However, I need to confess that I felt as though the slats were kicked out from beneath me and everything came crashing down around me during the last two months of 2014. Win and I found ourselves, along with our nearly 10-year-old black lab, Sadie Dakota - and most of our earthly possessions - crammed into a tiny third-floor, two-bedroom apartment on the south side of Lincoln, Nebraska. What we could not fit into the apartment (such as nearly 3000 books) was stacked and stuffed into a local climate-controlled storage unit. I must hasten to say that I don't know how we ever would have survived had it not been for some very dear, wonderful and loving godly people, who were under our ministry during the previous two years in a little town about 30 miles north of our new pad in Lincoln.
During the next ten months I had four opportunities to do pulpit supply in some area churches. I also mailed a cover letter and my resume to Pastoral Search Committees at several other churches around the country, but almost all of them did not even have the courtesy to reply. The few that did respond made it clear that I did not fit their pastoral profile, inasmuch as I was headed for 65 and they did not want anyone older than 45. That was when I came to the realization that what I had thought and hoped was only a detour that year, was, in reality, the beginning of a new road for me. I must also say that, unfortunately, it has not been a very scenic route. The one bright spot, was a Bible Church in Jansen, NE - some fifty-seven miles from our home in Lincoln. That church was filled with the most loving and caring people, under the teaching ministry of a fabulous Free Grace pastor with a welcoming, hospitable wife and family (Paul and Carol Carpenter). Although the drive was one hour each way, Win and I both concur that we loved to travel that road, because it always became a bright spot in our week.
However, besides the financial and even social stress that plagued us, 2015 was also an emotionally and physically painful year for me. For example, I had to deal with the agonizing pain of kidney stones almost once every two months for most of 2014 and 2015. (One time I actually had two stones pass about 24 hours apart. I referred to them as "fraternal" twins and even named them, "Rocky" and "Rosetta," before I gave them to my personal physician to send to a lab). I suppose that I could best describe this road we are still on in 2016 as being full of potholes and having dangerous shoulders - along with very poor lighting, if any at all.
Just a few months before the end of 2015, I asked my bride of nearly 37 years (sort of with tongue-in-cheek), "So, Sweetheart, where would you like to spend my last days?" (She is almost 10 years younger than I). We talked about several possibilities, and then she finally answered, "I would like to go back to Oregon!" Within one week she was offered a job as a Legal Secretary at a large law firm in the Portland area (about a 45-minute drive north from where we used to live for eight years in Salem, OR). Two weeks later she flew from Omaha to Portland to do some apartment hunting over an early November weekend. When I dropped her off at Eppley Air Field in Omaha, I said, "Sweetheart, if you find what YOU want, go ahead and complete an application and pay the deposit." She did. And exactly two weeks later we began our cross-country trip from Nebraska to Oregon. We had to leave lots of stuff behind, including all of our hand tools, power tools, yard tools, shelving - along with a beautiful outdoor patio table and chairs. We had no room for them in the truck . . . and, certainly no room for them at our new apartment. But we had fun giving them away - along with a washer, dryer, chest freezer - and lots of other things. (You know, of course, that it is just "stuff" . . . and there IS coming a day when we will leave it ALL behind, anyway).
We had a quiet Christmas day, 2015—just the two of us and our dog. Now, well into 2016 I still don't have a clue what the Lord wants me to do—other than as much shopping, cleaning, grilling, and dog-feeding and walking as I can to help my bride. I admit that I am having trouble accepting the fact that what I initially thought to be a detour, may indeed have already actually become a road. In fact, I guess it is possible that, for me, it may even be "the road LAST travelled." Obviously, one never knows .
But here is something I do know. From the day I began preaching, back in 1983, I never wanted to retire. As the saying goes, I guess I always thought I would "die with my boots on." (And, by the way, I came very close to that on a couple of occasions). But, here I am, essentially forced into retirement, Social Security, Medicare, and lots of questions that it appears no one else can answer—and I cannot answer, either. Sometimes, I wonder not so much if this road is a detour, or if it is simply my dead end.
Which brings me back to the article I referred to when I began this piece. Just before the final paragraph, Vaneetha Rendall wrote, "If I keep looking back on the old way longingly, focusing on what I've lost rather than on what I have, I will miss the rewards of the new path. I need to open my eyes. Notice what's around me. Remember that God goes before me. I need not fear for He knows what is up ahead." (As an aside - obviously, I need to open my eyes, too).
Then she finishes her article with a most apropos passage from Isaiah. I intend to share it at the close of this piece. I cannot begin to explain how much it lifted my spirit and reminded me that "there IS joy IN the journey" —no matter what kind of road He has called you and me to travel. And, yes, there will be joy at the END of the journey as well. You see, I believe with all my heart that when I cross the finish line of my race, whether by death or by rapture, and then sprint down a gold-paved road through the pearly gates, I will fall into the loving embrace of my Savior, and it will have been worth it all.
Until then, the LORD God assures me as I continue to run my race down a road filled at various times and in certain places with the potholes of inability, uncertainty, insecurity and instability
I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them" (Isaiah 42:16).