VITAL SIGNS: Making sense of change

Everywhere I look, I see transitions underway as we close out 2013. Whether it be friends in the news business, local congregations, ministers in transition, my own employment situation or significant family transitions, everyone is undergoing some sort of change.

Everywhere I look, I see transitions underway as we close out 2013. Whether it be friends in the news business, local congregations, ministers in transition, my own employment situation or significant family transitions, everyone is undergoing some sort of change. For several decades, I have watched a parade of change march through my life and the lives of people I care about. Some days we handle those transitions well; other days we are convinced the end of our world is near.

Bill Wilson
In my head, I know that change and transition is a gift from God. Without change, our lives would become stale and unbearably boring. However, too much change leaves us bewildered and disillusioned. Finding a healthy balance is one of the key predictors of success for individuals, churches and organizations.

One of the most helpful books I have ever read is William Bridges’s Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Every time a major transition is called for in my life, I revisit the principles he suggests and find myself nodding in agreement. Since our lives are lived in the constant churning of change, the effect of that environment is to deaden us to what transitions do to us. When that happens, we miss a critical opportunity for learning and growth.

Bridges suggests that every beginning in our life is actually preceded by an ending, and that often we have endings without clarity about what our new beginning will be. He calls the time between endings and beginnings the transition time.

Endings, whether gradual or sudden, are those moments when our world is changed whether we like it or not. It may be a promotion, a death, an accident, a layoff, an illness, graduation or new venture. Endings drive us to our knees.

Transitions are our wilderness experiences, when we live in-between what was and what will be. This transition time, in addition to being filled with uncertainty and anxiety, is also the richest, most fertile and spiritually stimulating time of a person’s or group’s life. During transitions we pray more sincerely, seek God’s will more diligently and are willing to be more honest and open about our strengths and weaknesses. Transition time is growth time. When we lean into the uncertainty and learn what the in-between season has to teach us, we grow deeper in our faith and discipleship.

Beginnings, the time we long for, are the season in which we pull together our learnings and launch out in a new direction, better for having been through our transition time.

Throughout the Bible, God works in people’s lives during all three parts of the process. Moses ends one life in Egyptian luxury, goes through a transition period in the wilderness, and experiences a new beginning as the leader of God’s chosen people. Jesus’ baptism marks the ending of life as he knew it, his 40 days of temptation are his days of transition, and his new beginning launches him toward a life of ministry and teaching.

Everyone reading these words is in some sort of transition time in your life. Endings tend to be relatively clear: this is the last issue of this paper, this is your last Sunday as pastor, this is your last weekend before deployment. What is less clear is how long the wilderness will last, and what is the new beginning God has in store for you.

As you face your collective and individual transitions, I pray God’s spirit and presence will be more alive and real to you than at any time in your life. Mature disciples have discovered that, indeed, we see and know only in part. Only God sees the full measure of our life and of our story. Our calling is to walk in faithfulness and to trust God to lead us toward the realization of the divine dream for our time here on earth.

It was part of a congregational visioning process when we were telling each other stories about how God had worked in our midst to accomplish more than we could ever have imagined. One gentleman, who had endured a major illness and treatment over many months, stood to share his testimony.

“You all remember the day we found out I had cancer.”

Heads nodded in agreement.

“I thought that was the worst day of my life, and the worst thing that could possibly happen to me.  I was wrong. What I thought was the worst thing became one of the best things to ever happen to me. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, but I have to say that my journey through this illness has taught me more and blessed my life and opened me up to faith in a way I would have missed otherwise. I am thankful for it.”

That is the voice of wisdom for all of us going through life-changing transitions.

God, give us ears to hear.

Bill Wilson (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem.