When he walks out the door, I am sitting in Peet’s Coffee sipping a great cup-a-joe. He had been chatting with a friend before leaving town. The young man has just graduated from college and is moving to San Diego to get started on his post-college life. As I watch him get up to leave, he turns and approaches me. He gives me a brief and hearty hug and tells me he loves me. I watch him, almost in slow motion, turn and walk out the door. A tsunami sweeps over me. A flood of thoughts, memories, and emotions almost makes it impossible for me to stay with the conversation I’m having. I feel my eyes moisten a bit and my throat stiffen. I take another sip of Aged Sumatra, compose myself, and come back to earth.
I write today about the process of becoming a bona fide empty nester. The “he” I refer to above is my youngest child, Davis. When he walked out of that coffee shop, Lisa and I walked into a new era of our lives together. It was almost three decades ago when Lisa told me that it would no longer be just the two of us. We had conceived a child. First came Karis, an unasked-for intrusion into our happy life as husband and wife. But with this “accident” of marital union came joy unimaginable. Our lives were no longer our own. We had a daughter to raise. Then came Peter, and then Davis. And now it is just the two of us again.
If you have the privilege of fathering and raising three children, when you are in the thick of it, with toys and clutter everywhere, you think this is the permanent state of the universe. If you are at all like me, you are tempted to complain about how little time you have for yourself and how demanding the children are. You think you will always be diapering, bathing, reading to, coaching, training, driving, watching… .
But then it happens. The proverbial nest starts to empty. Unless you have only one child, twins or triplets, the nest doesn’t empty all at once. Empty nesting, like having children, is a season. First one goes off to college or elsewhere, then the next, and so on. And then it is the two of you again. The house is quiet, you buy fewer groceries, your live-in gardeners fail to clip the ivy, and you hope they call or at least text.
You also begin to ask yourself a few questions: Did I do a good job? Have I raised my children in the “fear and training of the Lord”? Did I teach my children to think biblically about everything? Did they see my love for Jesus? Did they learn from their mother and me what matters most?
A few thoughts from this father in his empty nest:
First, dear parents of SBCC, realize that you stand on holy ground as you raise your sons and daughters. God has entrusted you with something far more important than the golden lampstand in the tabernacle! Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, God has entrusted you with something far more significant than nations or even civilizations. The latter are temporary, but every child of God is eternal. And God has entrusted you with this child! Of all the things you will do in life, is there any more important than the raising of the children God gave you? And of all the things you do in life, none will be more challenging. And none is potentially more rewarding or disappointing.
Second, love each other so that when your nest is empty, you will be glad even as you are sad. Lisa and I have been married almost thirty-two years, and we still really like each other. Along with the demands and joys of raising our children, we have pursued the joy of each other. So even though our house is empty we are filled with anticipation about the future. We have started playing tennis together. We’re pretty poor players, but it’s fun to be pretty poor together. We hike together. We share ministry together in our church. So we are glad even as we are sad.
Third, trust God with your children now so that you will more easily trust him with them when they are gone. At the end of the day, our children are not our children. They are God’s children, entrusted to us for a time to prepare them—as best we can—to worship, serve, and enjoy God for eternity. The sooner we realize this, the easier it will be to let them go when the time comes for them to walk out of Peet’s Coffee.
Lisa inscribed this Bible passage in one child’s baby book as something of a life verse and prayer for each of our children.
May our sons in their youth
be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
cut for the structure of a palace…
Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord! (Psalm 144:12, 15)
Will my sons be like plants full grown? Is my daughter like a corner pillar cut for the structure of a palace? I think so. But these are promises, not guarantees. One lesson I find in the above verses is the call to trust God, and not myself, with my—I mean His—children.
Fourth, realize that your nest isn’t really empty when it’s empty. When I was eighteen, I left home for college and never really went back. I got busy with life—with going to college, attending seminary, living in Italy, and moving to Santa Barbara. But over the years I have delighted in having parents who love me and nurture me. When I was in seminary, my mom would write me letters (yes, on paper and with a pen!) encouraging me to eat my vegetables. I loved those letters even as I avoided my broccoli. To this day I love having a mom and dad who watch after me, worry that I’ll be eaten by a shark when I go surfing, and check in to see how I’m doing. In some vague, delightful way, I am still under my father’s authority, and I will be, to some extent, long after his life is over. I like to run big decisions by him not to get his permission, but simply to benefit from the wisdom of his years.
In the final analysis, our nest is not really empty when we think it is empty. God has placed us in families. We let our children go. We send them, in fact, into their own future. But in sending them, they become free to include us in their plans, in their hopes, and in their dreams. Indeed, Lisa’s and my nest isn’t empty. It is simply that the house is quiet or at least quieter. But not for long. Our daughter is due to have a baby on or near February 17. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.