Lisa Nichols Hickman: Do not panic

Middle adulthood is a life stage not only for individuals, but also for institutions.

The Germans have a name for a mid-life crisis: “torschlusspanik.” It literally means “shut gate panic.” It speaks to that feeling of being stuck and to the existential worry over whether one’s life will add up to something worthwhile. The word has a sense of life’s walls closing in, like that famous scene from Star Wars when Hans Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and Luke Skywalker are trapped in a trash compactor.

And yet, middle adulthood is a life stage not only for individuals, but also for institutions.

“Shut gate panic” takes the form of stress in the financial, relational, vocational and spiritual dimensions of an individual’s life. For an institution, mid-life crisis is similar but at exponential levels: budgets, mission statements, business plans, image creation and meaningful engagement beyond the walls.

This summer, turning forty, I experienced that “shut gate panic” in my personal and professional life. While I prayed for generativity, all seemed stagnant. My daughter Caitlyn, who has Down Syndrome and takes on life with gusto, thought that turning forty was fabulous. Every morning, she would wake me up with the mantra, “You’re turning forty mom!” And then she would slow down and sound it out, “Four-dee, mom, Four-dee!”

Four decades. Four walls. Where are the skills and wit of R2D2 and C3PO when you need them to put a halt to the walls closing in?

One morning, months later, Caitlyn woke me up, again, with the forty mantra and suddenly I heard her words in a new way. “Forty” was not just a number; “Four-dee” was an opportunity for new dimensionality in my life. I thought of those four walls closing in and then I remembered Ephesians 3:18 that tugs at those four walls: “May we have the power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

Suddenly, the walls were transformed by the simple words: longer, deeper, broader, higher. These four words tug at the architecture of heart, mind and soul -- for individuals as well as for institutions -- to be expansive and generative in prayer and purpose.

The four words offer structure and direction: “Longer” is a call to take the long view in stewardship. “Deeper” is an invitation to go deeper in scripture for purpose and direction. “Broader” is a reminder to continually extend outreach in service. “Higher” asks us to use our personal strengths to their highest calling. Working within this architecture -- stewardship, scripture, service and strengths -- halts stagnancy and generates energy, intelligence, imagination and love.

In our 2,100 person town of New Wilmington, Penn., the walls sometimes feel like they are closing in. Individuals and institutions alike struggle with generativity. But even in our small microcosm of the world, I see the benefits of these four dimensions.

Our school superintendent held up that “longer” beam when she let our community know that even though fracking is a profitable option for our school system, she would not trade profit for the health of our children in the long run.

Our church Session has lived with a singular scripture, Luke 10 (the sending of the seventy), for six months, going “deeper” into its meaning. Inspired by Luke 10, a young woman in our church has offered a challenge to gather seventy women in early May to go out “two-by-two” this summer, going “broader” to serve our local community.

Our local college, Westminster, kicked off a capital campaign this year called “Ever Higher.” Implicit to that campaign is the positive stewardship of personal gifts. When spring break trips organized through the chaplain’s office headed out to serve, the college president went along with a group of students to serve at Habitat for Humanity in Raleigh, N.C., for a week. He personally demonstrated that “higher” call to the dedication of personal strengths.

A sense of mid-life stagnancy or “shut gate panic” comes from shallow involvement in the world. But generativity is that higher calling to create and nurture what will outlast us as we tug and pull at the structures of our lives and institutions to make room for God’s fullness.

Those new dimensions show how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. Who needs R2D2 when we have these words from Ephesians?

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Penn.