Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint 4 – When the Paint Dissolves

Is there anything under the paint?

The producers of a Broadway musical hired a soft shoe dancer — not a big name, but someone who had the kind of competence that world class theater relies on. During the rehearsals and early tryouts,  it became clear that his soft shoe “signature” dance — the one that always got ovations from the crowd — would have to be cut, but, to the dancer’s surprise, the director and producers did not cut him from their play.

 When the musical opened, he felt awkward and out-of-place on stage. What would he do if he couldn’t dance? Then he delivered his lines and got a roar of laughter out of the crowd. 

He discovered something in himself that he didn’t know he had. Underneath the paint of “dancer” he found a comedian.

The surprise of discovery

My mother, who loved refinishing chairs, used to marvel at what she found underneath the paint She said it was always a surprise – a surprise that clearly delighted her.

The chair in the photo used to be covered in red tractor paint. You can see what it looks like now. To find the character of that more-than-a-100 year old chair, we had to brush a harsh liquid onto the paint, let it work and then wipe the softened paint off with rags. 

I’ve been using that chair as a metaphor for finding our true selves in the second half of life — the grain of our lives —  after we have spent a lifetime getting painted with the roles we have played in our families, our jobs and our communities.

We can remember who we were before we were painted. We can trace the grain under the paint. Or we can see, as in the case of this chair, what we look like when the paint that has constituted our identity for so long is dissolved.

The actor thought he was a dancer, but when the dancer-paint was dissolved, he discovered a comedian underneath.

The pain of paint removal

If you remember who you were before you were painted or you can trace the grain of your life under the paint, removing the paint may be liberating.  But if you think of yourself as a red chair, then watching the red paint dissolve  may feel like a devastating loss.

I was a pretty successful pastor for most of my ministry. I always left congregations with more people (and more money) than they had when I arrived — until the last five years of my career.

The world changed around 2010.The things I knew how to do didn’t work anymore. I used to joke that I felt like a highly trained typewriter repairman trying to fix a PC.  The things that seemed to be working for other pastors were not only things I didn’t know how to do but, to be honest, I didn’t want to learn how to do. For the first time in my life, I began to experience the congregational decline that the vast majority of my colleagues had been experiencing for a generation.

I was well aware of the dangers of pastor-paint. As a young man, I had run across the French epitaph: “Born a man – died a grocer”, and I had seen too many of my colleagues snap a clerical collar around their necks and never take it off again.

For that reason I worked to maintain a distance between my self and the very seductive role of clergy. I resisted titles like “Reverend” and “Pastor”. If I called you by your first name, you should be able to call me by my first name.

What I didn’t realize is that, while I refused to identify with the role of pastor, I had embraced the identity of “success”.  When the successful pastor-paint dissolved around me, I was disoriented – and disheartened. I survived the last half-decade of church leadership by discovering strengths that I did not know I had – resilience being one of them.

Finding true character

I have been using the grain in the wood of that refinished chair as a metaphor for character – and to some extent I have equated character with “passion” or “calling”.  But sometimes, when the paint dissolves, we find something even more important than our vocation. We discover that we, in fact, have character.

My maternal grandfather was a kind of small-town Donald Trump. He invested in real estate and, to hear him tell it, he was a huge success although, for some reason, he never had much to show for his efforts. He was also pretty self-centered. Toward the end of his life, he battled with several different forms of cancer, and during the last two years of his life, he lived in a lot of pain from bone cancer. Oddly, that experience brought out of him unsuspected (by his family and friends) reserves of courage, compassion and self-awareness. He became an admirable person while lying in bed suffering and watching his very life dissolve.

I never had an in-depth conversation with my mother about what it was like for her to help  her mother care for my grandfather as he was dying. I wonder if, as his true character emerged from a lifetime of bluster, she felt the same surprise and wonder and delight that she said she always felt when she dissolved the paint on a chair.

Finding the Grain beneath the Paint 3: Feeling for the Grain


As I said in the first blog in this series, finding out who we really are is a lot like the process of finding the natural grain of this chair that was hidden underneath red tractor paint. And in the second post, I suggested that you remember who you were and what your dreams were before you were painted over.

There is a second way.

Get a feel for the grain under the paint.

A couple of years ago, we attended the Key West Literary Seminar. For some reason, the organizers are able to attract big name writers to Key West in January to speak to other people, many of them writers themselves, who also are willing to pay well to come to Key West in January. I just don’t know how they do it.

One way to make small talk between sessions is to ask the person next to you, “Are you a writer?”

Someone asked me that the first day and I said, “no”.

The second day, I said, “Well, I write a lot for my work, but I’m not a ‘Writer’”.

The third day, I said, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

The first day, I was just looking at the paint – in my case, clergy paint. I wasn’t a writer, I was a Protestant minister.

The second day, I noticed a pattern underneath the paint. I DID do a lot of writing in my job: fifty-plus sermons a year are equal to a 250-page book and that wasn’t all the writing that I was doing.

The third day, I realized that I was willing to put up with parts of my job that I never exactly loved (going to meetings, for example), in order to get paid to write every week. I also used writing to raise money, do pastoral care, organize programs – things more extroverted  pastors would do through personal contacts. I realized that, underneath the identity of “minister” was my deeper identity as a writer.

What persists through life’s changes?


Moses, you may remember, had been herding sheep and/or goats for about 40 years before the LORD called him to free the Hebrew slaves. It doesn’t take a degree in Biblical Studies to see that Moses went from herding sheep to herding people. As someone who herded cows before I herded congregations, I can tell you that the tasks are very similar. You have to get the leaders going in the right direction and you also have to be sure that no one is left behind. You have to be prepared to deal with those who head the wrong way — or just stop. You also have to know where your destination is and how to get there while constantly removing the obstacles that are in the way right now. Herding cud chewers or people requires patience, perseverance and perspicacity.   *

To be honest, I didn’t  like herding cows and herding people was only bearable because I got to use writing in order to do it. Come to think of it, most of the time when I was herding cows, I was thinking of things I’d like to say or write someday.

But maybe Moses DID like herding sheep and people. He certainly spent a lot of time doing it. Maybe, in the end, he felt that he was born to do it – that it was the hidden grain of his life. He certainly believed that he had been chosen to do it.


The same is true in our work.

For example, all pastors write sermons, visit the sick and shut-ins, go to meetings,counsel people who are troubled, and plan events – like Christmas Eve services. Like me, they may find all of this work meaningful and become competent at it. But over and over again, I see clergy coming to the end of their working days and choosing, as one pastor said, “to only do the things I like doing.”

Some hire themselves out to big churches to do pastoral care or they volunteer for a hospice. A retired rabbi friend teaches a course at his local Jewish Community Center. I know one retired pastor who raises money – for fun, I guess. Or at least because he believes teaching people generosity is meaningful and satisfying.

I knew dairy farmers who were good at animal husbandry, carpentry, or fixing tractors and equipment who continued to pursue some of those passions even after they sold their farms and retired to town.

Sometimes we are not aware that we have  passions that come out of our fundamental character – the grain of our lives – because they are integrated into our life and work. A couple of friends – women – commented on my previous posts that they had spent much of their lives taking care of others – both in traditional roles as daughters, mothers, and wives and in professions often dominated by women, like nursing. Now, when retirement, an empty nest — even widowhood — have relieved them of the necessity  of taking care of people, they volunteer to help others because it is meaningful. Well, why shouldn’t it be?

The trick is finding that thing that makes your heart sing underneath and within your current work and life. Then you can sand away at the paint that covers it – and do more of what you love.

What in your life and work makes your heart sing?

Where is the grain of your life hidden in your everyday routine?

Next post: What do you find when the paint dissolves?

* Had to choose between alliteration or clarity here. I chose alliteration because I can’t help myself.



Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint 2- Before Your True Character was Painted Over

Remember the chair in my last post that had been covered with red tractor paint? Here it is again:


Just as it took a lot of work to remove the paint to discover the beautiful grain underneath, so it often takes us a lot of work to get down to our true characters that have been covered over with the paint of social conventions, family expectations, and professional roles.

This, however, is the work many people undertake in the second half of life.

But how do you do that? This is the first of four blogs on this subject, because there are at least three ways to find the grain – the character of a chair that has been painted over. Here is one of the most obvious:

Remember who you were before you were painted.

When he was a kid, my father always wanted to be a physician, but he could see no path to medical school. He took over his father’s dairy farm and later worked for the local electric utility.  Away from the farm and living in town, he joined the volunteer fire department. He took their Emergency Medical Technician training and eventually became an instructor. It was a long ambulance ride from my rural hometown to the nearest hospital. For many years, my Dad rode those ambulances and kept people from bleeding to death or dying from heart attacks. He even delivered babies! He loved it. He was good at it. It was what he felt he was meant to do.  He found the grain of his life by regaining his dream.

What were your dreams when you were young?

Some people are lucky enough to follow them. A very accomplished church organist said that when he was a young boy, his aunt took him to an organ concert. She was afraid that he would be bored, but instead, he said, “I was transfixed.” He found his dream and followed it.

Others, like my Dad, never had the opportunity, or missed the opportunity because of the need to raise a family, satisfy someone else’s expectations, or they just chose the “sensible” path.

Can you go back to who you were when you were 24 or 14 or even 4 and remember your dreams back then? Who did you want to be when you grew up?

It’s a scary question – especially late in life. We may have buried the answer like a stillborn child that we have tried to forget because we can’t stand the heartache. It may involve unlearning what we think we are and are meant to be.

As a young man, Moses killed an overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave. Perhaps even then he was dreaming of becoming a liberator. Instead he became a fugitive and a shepherd. According to tradition, he was 80 when he talked to a burning bush, and became a very different kind of liberator.

Moses’ dialogue with that Burning Bush in Exodus 3 can be a model for reclaiming an old dream.

  • It appears that Moses had to take time out from his routine – to “turn aside” – in order for God to speak to him (Exodus 3:3-4).  Can you interrupt your routine long enough to listen to what God may be saying through your dream?
  • The first thing God does after introducing Himself to Moses is  show Moses what his people need. (Exodus 3:7-9).
  • The next thing God does is give Moses a vision for what he can do to solve this problem (Exodus 3:10).
  • Moses responds by doubting that he is suited to this task. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11).  He will have to unlearn what he thinks of himself and his limitations (Exodus 4:1-17)
  • Note that every time that Moses brings up an objection, God doesn’t magically make it go away, but rather finds a way around it.

Do you have any tales you can tell about finding a path back to your original dreams – your character – the grain of your life that got painted over by necessity or fear?

  • What or who did you want to be when you grew up?
  • How have you had to unlearn what you thought of yourself and your possibilities
  • How have you gotten around obstacles?

The next post will be about finding the grain beneath the paint.

Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint – The Search for our True Character Part 1

I was lying in a hospital bed awaiting surgery one day when a hospital chaplain came in to visit my roommate who was also awaiting surgery.

The chaplain introduced himself and as they chatted, the chaplain said, “are you retired?”

My roommate said he was, but that he was a sculptor.

The chaplain, as if he hadn’t heard, said, “What did you do before you retired?”

My roommate said, “I was an accountant, but now I’m a sculptor.”

I don’t think the chaplain heard the exasperation in my roommate’s voice because he went on to inquire about where my roommate had been an accountant and what sort of accounting he did.

My roommate politely answered those questions but his voice was flat and uninterested.

After the chaplain was out of the room, I told my roommate that I couldn’t help overhearing and asked about his sculpting.

My roommate enthusiastically told me how he welded metal objects together to create abstract forms.

At that time in my life, I had never met a sculptor – much less one who used a tool that my Dad used to fix broken wagon hitches.

This happened 30 years ago, but I never forgot it. I remember because:

  • I learned about art.
  • I learned even more about how not to make a hospital call.
  • And now I remember it because I missed an opportunity. I wish I had asked my roommate, “How did you know that, underneath that accountant, there was a sculptor wielding a welding torch?”


I didn’t ask that question because I was still in the first half of life. Like the chaplain, who probably was my age at the time, I was more comfortable with categories than with character.

In his book, The Soul’s Code, James Hillman says that the soul’s code is our unique character.

The word “character” is derived from the Greek word for the stamping tool used to engrave a figure on a coin.  Your character, your soul’s code, is as deep and as hard to change as Lincoln’s head on a penny or the grain of the wood in this chair.



Jacquie’s mother gave this chair to us when we set up our first household, but it was covered with red tractor paint.  The paint may have helped preserve it through the six generations before us that sat on it and slid it back and forth so many thousands of times that the legs have been worn too short to fit under our table.

The paint may have made the chairs look more alike and brightened Jacquie’s grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen, but when Jacquie stripped the paint away, she found the grain of the wood out of which the chair was made. Then she refinished it in a way that brought out its character.

Most of us have covered our characters with red tractor paint. We did it when we learned to  imitate the people who taught us how to walk, talk, write, add and subtract, make pies, change tires, paint houses or portraits, balance a checkbook, and all the complex things we have done to earn a living, raise a family, and take part in human society.

Like the paint on the chair, this imitation is useful and protective – even decorative – it helps us fit into our family of origin, high school cliques, adult social circles and organizational cultures. Many of us put a lot of energy into painting over our uniqueness in the first half of life.

But our real beauty lies in our characters – underneath the paint of imitation. As we age, we can strip off the paint, and bring out the grain of our lives.

How do we do that?

Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to publish three short blogs about how we can find our characters underneath the categories – the red tractor paint of imitation, social convention and professional identity that cover up our real selves.

In the meantime, how is your personal search for who you are underneath the red tractor paint going? What have you found? What are you afraid to find? Has the search — or what you found — changed anything in your life?

Unlearning instead of Learning: Old School and New School

First half of life = learning

Second half of life = unlearning.

Funniest comment about that last week: “We don’t have to unlearn anything in the second half of life. We just forget”.

If only it were that easy.

Recently, Jacquie and I took a tour of the school we attended from Kindergarten through high school graduation. We were there for our 50th high school class reunion. The building had been remodeled and added onto many times since we left in our caps and gowns.

  • Hallways, that we once could have walked with our eyes closed, now have walls and branches that they did not have before.
  • The old study hall is the new technology lab.
  • The old big gym is now the little gym and the old little gym has been remodeled so that its upper reaches are new classrooms and its floor, the floor I stood on as my mother registered me for my first day of school, is now a storage room used only by custodians.

As we walked around bewildered by the new layout, we agreed that we would have a harder time learning to find our way around this building than someone who had never been in it before because we would have to unlearn the building that we remembered in order to learn the building that now is.

This feels like a metaphor for my life these days. I went to the old school to learn. My teachers poured knowledge into my empty head.

And that is precisely what I gained, knowledge. I not only learned that 2+2 makes 4, but I also learned how to find the square root of 224. I not only learned that George Washington was our first President, but how to use an encyclopedia and a library to learn more facts like these. I not only learned that I need both a subject and a predicate before I have a complete sentence, I also learned how to use a dictionary in order to find the nouns and verbs that I could use in that sentence.

In the New School of the Second Half of Life, unlearning is teaching me wisdom.

In the Old School, if the numbers didn’t add up, I checked my work to find the error. In the New School, I have to unlearn that in order to gain the wisdom I need when things don’t add up – and never will.

In the Old School, I learned facts and repeated them on the test. In the New School, I have to unlearn my “facts” in order to see  through different lenses.

By coincidence, after the 50 year reunion, we attended the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, less than 80 miles as the crow flies, from our hometown. I stopped in front of a historical marker honoring Butler’s Rangers, an irregular Loyalist militia that raided frontier communities in Western New York and Pennsylvania during the War of 1812.

“Wait a minute”, I thought, “these guys were terrorists”.

That was what the Old School had taught me. They had burned settlements and tortured and killed American patriots in order to stop American heroes like General Sullivan, who was marching through the same area burning settlements (including Niagara-on-the-Lake) and torturing and killing people loyal to George III.

Perhaps, I will approach the word “terrorist” and the word “patriot” with more wisdom from now on.

What are you unlearning these days?


The World Turned Upside Down

I preached my last sermon two months ago Two days later I walked across a stage, shook my bishop’s hand, and received a certificate stating that, after 45 years, I had entered the “retired relationship” as an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church.

Since then, these words of C. G. Jung keep running through my mind:

“Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life. . . . we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.

If the Law of Gravity suddenly changed and “up” became “down” and “down” was “up”, I could not be more confused about how to proceed with life. 

Here are some things that used to be important and what is important now: 

  •  It used to be important for me to be productive and now it is important to be present.   

  • It used to be important for me to improve and now it’s important for me to accept.

  • It used to be important to go fast and now it’s important to slow down.

  • It used to be important for me to learn and now it’s important to unlearn.

  • It used to be important to acquire and now it is important to let go.

  • It used to be important to work toward success and now it is important to come to terms with failure.  

  •  It used to be important to focus on quantity and now it is important to focus on quality.

  • It used to be important to keep up with news from the outside world and now it is important to listen to my soul.

  • It used to be important to acquire expertise and now it is important to bring a beginner’s mind to everything I do.  

I intend to write about these reversals – and more – in this blog.

I’m wondering what you experience? What is different now? What is upside down from the way things used to be?  Let me know, so we can share the wisdom that comes in the Second Half.