Moving from Illinois to California
In June, 1988 everything changed for me. I was born and raised outside of Chicago, and I went to college and graduate school in Minnesota. But in June of 1988 I crammed all my earthly belongings into a small U-Haul trailer, and I moved across the country from IL to Fresno.
I had moved some before – primarily back and forth from home to school every year. But no matter how often you’ve done it, moving is always both exciting and disorienting. It requires that you let go of what was, live in the ambiguity of what is, and hold on until what will be becomes the new normal.
Letting go wasn’t easy. I had to let go of friends who had become dear to me. A city that I had come to love. A seminary community that had become my spiritual home. And, of course, I went from being a Bear to a Bulldog. Oh, the things God asks us to do because of our faith!
And while letting go isn’t easy, it doesn’t hold a candle to the challenges of living in the ambiguity of what will eventually become the new normal. I needed a new doctor, a new dentist, a new mechanic, new places to shop, a new place to drink coffee (back in the day before there was a Starbucks on seemingly every corner), a new place to drink beer, not to mention I needed new friends.
In the span of a couple of months, I faced a new apartment, a new marriage and a new job as a hospital chaplain. People looked at me like I should know what I was doing, but I was struggling to find the rest room nearest my office! And dealing with sick and stressed out people everyday . . . yikes!!
Abraham and Sarah
Change is hard. It isn’t easy to let go of what was, and it’s really tough to manage your emotions through the ambiguity of what is. So, perhaps we can imagine what must have been going on inside of Abraham and Sarah as they left their homeland. The heartache, the anxiety, and perhaps even the hopeful expectation of what God had in store for them? It might leave us wondering how they managed through such radical and unexpected change. But I suspect at least a part of the answer to that question is found in God’s promises, “I will show you. I will go with you. I will bless you.” And throughout the story that unfolds in Genesis God’s faithful presence is revealed again and again.
Truth is we can probably all relate to Abraham and Sarah’s story at some level because Abraham and Sarah’s story is our story. A new school. A new job. A diagnosis. A divorce. A move. A new baby. An empty nest. A new pastor. We all experience change.
Some changes seem rather small, like when your favorite food store no longer carries your favorite brand of corn flakes. Other changes seem insurmountably huge, like a mountain in the middle of your life’s path – the loss of a loved one far too soon, a move to a new community and school, a diagnosis that doesn’t leave much hope. Such changes leave us wondering how we will ever move forward.
Change is inevitable. And that’s why we’ll be spending the next few weeks exploring change. Throughout this sermon series I want to equip you with tools and perspectives to help you to navigate the inevitable changes of life. By the end of it, I want to you to feel encouraged in your ability to move through the changes of life with more confidence, more peace and more growth. I also hope this series will help us as a church to navigate the inevitable changes in our future as a thriving faith community.
Today, using Abraham and Sarah’s story let me outline three core principles that will set the stage for the rest of this series, principles that will help to navigate change.
I Change vs. Transition
First, it really helps to know the difference between change and transition. Change is what happens outside of us; transition is the inner process of dealing with and navigating through change. Let me say that again – change is what happens outside of us; transition is the inner process of dealing with and navigating through change.
For Abraham and Sarah, one change was physically moving; the transition was learning to let go of what was in order to embrace what will be, learning to get comfortable with not knowing exactly where they were going, discovering who they were now that their identity wasn’t connected to the land of their ancestors.
Another part of their change, though, included a change of identity. They had been a childless, nomadic couple. Now, God was calling them to be parents and to be set apart as a community for God, a light reflecting God’s presence in the world. This change brought about many transitions in their self-perceptions, as well as in their trust in God’s plan and provision for their new life.
I suspect that’s true for most of the changes and transitions in our lives. Imagine that your change was the loss of your job. What would your transitions be? What might you have to let go of? A regular income, a group of colleagues and friends, a regular place to go every morning, a way to use your talents, a way to structure your time, a bunch of plans for the future, a way to get appreciated. You’d also lose an identity—or at least an answer to the question, “What do you do?”
What if the change were the death of a spouse or a child? What might you have to let go of? Our identity as a married person; the security of having a spouse / companion living with you and sharing household chores. The dreams associated with looking forward to retirement or children having children.
What if the change involves the calling of a new pastor? What might you have to let go of? The new pastor is not like the old one; a difference in style, manner, focus, giftedness, sense of humor, personality, etc.
Why is knowing the difference between change and transition important? If change is a mountain the pathway of your life, transition is the pathway over, around, under or through it. The key to navigating the inevitable changes in life is learning how to manage the transitions. We’ll talk much more of that in coming weeks.
II Change’s Common Pattern
Here’s the second core principle: almost all change follows a common pattern. We move from what’s familiar, through something called the neutral zone, to a new reality. The neutral zone is that place in which we struggle with all the transitions that accompany change: what we need to let go of, what we need to embrace, how we get our needs met, who we are now. Life is the neutral zone is often fuzzy and chaotic and painful and sometimes more than a little scary, but it is also the place of tremendous personal growth.
Imagine that your change is the death of a parent. In order to move from what was familiar to what will become the new normal you have to pass through the neutral zone. In the neutral zone you’ll grieve. You may wrestle with guilt and anger. Perhaps you feel like you should have done more for your parent. Or, perhaps you spent a large percentage of your time helping, and you resented it, but you couldn’t say that while they were alive. Or, perhaps, you’re relieved to be done with the responsibility of caring for them, but you also feel a loss of purpose since you’re no longer the caregiver.
You will need to let go of some things and embrace a new identity. Who are you now without that parent? This neutral zone can be exhausting, frightening, confusing and lonely. It is also the crucible in which you will grow in ways you could never imagine.
In Abraham and Sarah’s story what was familiar was the land of their ancestors where they had lived all their life. The new reality would eventually be the Promised Land. But between those two was the neutral zone, the time of transition for Abraham and Sarah. Often in the biblical story neutral zone is symbolized by the wilderness. Think about it. Between his old home and his new Abraham and Sarah wandered through the wilderness. Along the way, they tried to help God out, to further God’s promise of a child to them (Gen 16). They laughed at God’s promise, not really believing it would happen. (Gen 18).
Between their slavery in Egypt and their freedom in the Promised Land the Israelites traveled through the wilderness.. This was a time of both great faith and great faithlessness. They grumbled against Moses and God during this wilderness season. They learned to trust God to provide food – manna and quail – for them to eat every day. They learned obedience, to move when God said and to stay where God said. And they demonstrated disobedience when they took matters into their own hands and fashioned for themselves a carved image of a golden calf (Ex 32).
Between Jesus’ baptism and his public ministry he spent time in the wilderness. There, he was tempted by the devil to distrust God’s plan for his life as a suffering messiah who would die for us.
And that’s still true today. My wilderness wanderings now, first, while serving as interim at Easton, and now this spring, at Trinity. This has been a time to finish my DMin, and to attend to family matters. The Interim season now for Trinity – a time to reflect on the ministry God is calling us to do and to discern the gifts and skills needed in a next pastor.
But this isn’t wasted time. Neither is it a season to be hurried through – for me personally, or for us as a congregation – in order to get to the next chapter; what Paul Harvey might call “the rest of the story.” The wilderness is a metaphor for transition, that place where we wrestle with all that we must let go of in order to embrace all that will be.
III God With Us
And that leads us to the final principle we need to know – God is always with us in the midst of change, guiding us through transition.
God’s word to Israel in Psalm 27. Keep your eyes on God. God is our light and our salvation; our source of strength for each day and our stability in the midst of change.
Also, when Jesus invited Peter to leave the safety of the boat and walk to him on the water, do you remember what happened? Peter did fine while he was looking at Jesus. But when he took his eyes off of Jesus and noticed the waves and the storm, then he began to sink. (Mt 14.29-31)
Jesus’ promise to his friends the night before his death. I will not leave you orphaned; I will give you the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit who will ground you in my teachings and refresh your connection to me. Through the Holy Spirit, I will bring you peace, a peace the world cannot give. (Jn 14.18ff; 14.26ff)
Even through the most difficult changes God is present and guiding us through the transitions, calming our fears, healing our brokenness, shaping our vision and making us new. Just as God was present with Abraham and Sarah, just as God was present with the Israelites, just as God was present with Jesus, God is present with us now. That doesn’t mean that change and transition will be easy, but it does mean that we will never be alone and that we can trust that God is at work in ways we cannot always see in the moment.
Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” But I would add change to that list. Just ask Abraham and Sarah. And by faith I would add this too, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” no matter what the change.