“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar…
“I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
– Lewis Carroll “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
The author, William Bridges, tells a story about teaching a class called “Being in Transition”. The twenty-five adults who showed up for the class were in various stages of confusion and crisis. He said he was surprised by the wide variety of people who ended up coming. There were men and women who were recently divorced or separated. There were a couple of people who were newly married or remarried, one a twenty-six year-old man who had suddenly acquired a full-scale ready-made family of four kids. There was a widow and several recently retired folks. There was a woman who had just had her first baby, a man who had just had a heart-attack, and even a man who had just had a big promotion at work. There were three or four women who had just returned to college after year years of child-raising. There were two people who had just been fired. And there was a young woman who was living on her own for the first time.
Although there was a wide variety in the people and the circumstances, as they met together the first night, three similarities in their experiences emerged – each had been through an ending, followed by a period of confusion or ‘lostness’, leading to a new beginning, in the cases that had come that far.
As they talked about their various transitions, each person’s attitudes toward these different phases differed. Those who had chosen their transitions tended to minimize the importance of the endings, almost as if they felt that to acknowledge that an ending was painful would be to admit the transition was a mistake. On the other hand, those who had gone into transition unwillingly found it very hard to admit that a new beginning and a new phase of their lives might be at hand. But all of them agreed that the in-between place was strange and confusing. They hoped to get out of it as quickly as possible.
The in-between place – we’ve all been there at one time or another. It is somewhere between the Good Old Days and the Brave New World. Many people have written about it – one of my favorite reflections compares it to swinging on a trapeze. Part of that reflection reads:
“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging onto a trapeze bar swinging along or I’m hurtling across space in between bars.
Most of the time I’m hanging on for dear life to my trapeze bar of the moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while as I’m merrily swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance and I see another bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. I must release my grip on the present, well-known bar to move to the new one.
Each time it happens, I hope and pray that I won’t have to grab the new trapeze bar. But I realize that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and for some time I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss -that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway. I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It is called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs.”
I wonder what transitions you are facing right now? What are those changes and challenges you are wrestling with today? John F. Kennedy said: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” How are you doing at facing the changes you meet? Do you find yourself welcoming them or dreading them?
Certainly some changes are easier than others. Someone who understood a lot about this was probably Job in our OT reading for today. Job was a prosperous, respected, and good man whose life was devastated in one day. He lost everything he had, including his ten children. However, he refused to blame God for his troubles. In fact, the first thing he says after he learns of the loss of everything he owns and all his children is, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Later, Job was stricken with a terrible disease and he suffered excruciating pain for a long time. Then, some of his friends come to comfort him but later they criticize Job and tell him that the horrible things that have happened to him must be because of his own sin. They told him to repent – but Job was convinced that he hadn’t done anything to deserve this kind of terrible luck. However, he couldn’t understand how God could let this happen to him, either. He struggled on with the confidence that he would eventually be vindicated. Job never did lose his faith. For a long time he suffered – but at the end, God restored Job’s fortunes – the scripture says he was blessed more in the end than in his beginning – he had ten more children and lived a long life. The last sentence of the book says that ‘he died an old man and full of days’.
But before we dwell too much on that happy ending, it’s fair to spend some time on those terrible changes Job had to endure – changes that made absolutely no sense to him, changes that broke his heart and threatened to break his spirit. Changes that we can’t understand as readers of his story. Though we see that his fortune was restored at the end, I wonder if the more important lesson we learn from Job doesn’t have as much to do with his ending, as how he handled his own time of ‘lostness’?
It’s such a sad scene – shortly after Satan had smote Job with boils all over his body and he was sitting among the ashes, his wife comes out to talk to him and, she says, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!” But even though he is in mourning, and in physical agony he says, “Shall we accept good from God and not accept adversity?” Sure, in later pages he laments, sure he despairs, but at the same time he says things like, “I know my redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet I shall see God.”
Scott Peck said: “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
Job found that when all else was lost he still could find his truest answer in his God. He still found his foundation there. He still put his trust there. I wonder how well we do the same when faced with the challenges and changes that affect us most deeply? Are brave to face the in-between times, the times of feeling ‘lost’, trusting that God will bring us through them to a new beginning?
I was in my late twenties when I graduated from seminary and was sent out on my first call to a little church in New York. I’ll never forget the feeling of packing up my books and clothes and cats and heading east in my old black 1984 GMC Jimmy. While I had moved a million times before, this felt different. When I said ‘goodbye’ to my mom this time I didn’t know the next time I would see her. We had lunch together before I left and the soup we ate tasted bitter and sad as the reality hung in the air that I was really moving away. This time it wasn’t for a school year or for a internship or some mission trip – this time it was indefinitely.
I remember being stuck in traffic around Chicago, praying my truck wouldn’t stall in the late summer heat. My Siamese cat, Sam, looked up at me from her cat carrier giving me indignant meows. She could tell everything was changing, too…It was hot and loud with the car windows rolled down…no litter box, no food dish, no catnip toys readily available. Cats have their own transitions to deal with.
The next night I made it to New York and pulled up to the big old house next to the church. There was an echo throughout the house as I opened the door and walked into the empty living room. A parishioner who knew I wasn’t going to be bringing any furniture had brought a chair and a lamp over for the living room. As the darkness settled over the house and the cats explored the smells of their new surroundings, I went out on the front step and sat on the concrete steps. In the fluorescent light of the church sign I could see the tops of the tombstones in the cemetery across the street, the distant warm lights of homes of neighbors whom I imagined I would meet soon, the traffic from the cars speeding by on I-90. I imagined how many of those souls out driving tonight were starting something new in the same way I was. And I sat there quite self-pitying and wondered if any of them felt as alone as I did right then.
That house was so empty in every way when I came. It felt like a foreign land to me – coming from a city full of friends and always being busy with school and work and travel to now be planted in this little spot in the country. I felt strange in my own skin for a while to be so completely transplanted…there was nothing that was ‘usual’ anymore.
But bit by bit I saw in a way that was mystical to me, that empty house being filled over the months and years that followed. In a tangible way, of course, as I collected some old furniture from thrift stores and began to fill in the spaces. But in a less tangible way, God brought me the things I really needed – like friends – out of nowhere they appeared, people with whom I could laugh and talk. And after a while, one of those friends, Stephanie, needed a place to stay and since I had this huge parsonage filled with just me and a couple cats and I said, “come stay with me.” And she did. And suddenly it wasn’t just me in that house – but Stephanie, and all of Stephanie’s bohemian friends stopping by. And then before I knew it on a trip to Minnesota I ran into an old friend named Chad and on a July morning we had a little wedding at my church and a picnic on the yard between the house and the church.
And I remember being amazed as the years there unfolded that now I could almost see the life overflowing out of the windows and doors of that house. There was nothing empty about it anymore….but in ways I never could have imagined God filled that house so perfectly.
Anatole France writes, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
May God make us brave to face our changes…brave and faithful. God is with you in whatever changes you face today.