Change can be a messy, complicated, difficult business. It’s been said, in fact, that the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. Change is hard because it requires that we step out of what’s familiar, comfortable and safe into the unknown and that’s scary business.
But equipped with some good resources, change can also lead to transformation and new life. That’s what this series on Change and Transitions is all about. We began to learn two very important things last week. First, knowing the difference between changes and transitions is the key to beginning to thrive in the midst of it all. Changes are external; a move to a new town, starting a different job, the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a new health care plan. Even buying a new car is a change. Transition, on the other hand, is the interior stuff that goes on in our hearts and minds. Transition take place on the inside, it’s the emotional process of dealing with physical changes. Secondly, there are three movements to making healthy transitions: there’s an ending— which we’re dealing with today; there’s a neutral zone, and there’s a new beginning. We’re looking at ‘Endings’ today.
We face endings in our lives every day. And in order for new life to eventually emerge, we’ve got to deal with endings—the ending of the things that are holding us back so that we can put them into perspective and move into God’s new beginnings. We love to hang on and not let go, but the purpose of the “Ending Stage” involves dealing with the pain, the loss, the grief that accompany the change. Depending on the individual situation, this can be extremely painful and gut-wrenching. But there is always hope.
One of the most epic stories of an ending comes from the ancient tale of the Flood found in Genesis 6-9. In that ancient story we look into the heart of God who sees that humankind has turned in on itself and will, unless God intervenes with grace, mercy and new life, grind to a halt and die. It was the end of the ‘Beginning’ as they knew it, and no one felt fine. It was the end of the beautiful, life-giving ‘Beginning’ that God dreamed of for all of creation and humankind. So God calls on Noah, a good man, a faithful man who walks with God and through him provides a way for humankind to take one last long look at the ending of what was before turning toward the new beginning of what will be.
In what usually gets described as a story of an angry, vengeful, mean, and murderous God doing angry, vengeful, mean and murderous things to humans, we actually see a compassionate, redemptive, merciful and loving God creating new life out of death. God creates a way where there is no way for life to begin again. So God creates a covenant, a promise of life with Noah and all his descendants. But first, they must say farewell to the end of what was. It must have been terrifying to walk into the darkness of that ark and not know what was coming. All they had was the promise that God would be with them.
Letting go of the past not knowing what the future holds can be terrifying. Leaving Fresno in 1989 to take first call in San Bruno, I can remember attending the last worship service at our church (where Karen and I had gotten married and which had been our spiritual home for three years). They had a prayer time for us and a sending off into ministry. I remember hugging each of the pastors and just shaking inside, crying silently as I anticipated leaving this community behind.
I don’t believe this is something unique to me; it happens to all of us because all of us have faced endings: a move to this area from a different city, ending one job and starting a new one, ending one job and not starting a new one, the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a breakup, a divorce, a change in health and like a mentioned a moment ago, even buying a new car means letting go of an old one.
But coming to grips with the ending of something is the first step toward new life. Whether it’s shutting the door of the ark, or shutting the door on a relationship, an old job, an old identity, the old way of doing things, it’s still the first step. There’s no time line and even though we all get to do it, we all get to do it in our own way. But until we do that, we’ll not get anywhere.
Considering that we all have to deal with endings throughout our whole lives, most of us handle endings poorly. This is in part because we misunderstand endings and take them either too seriously or not seriously enough. We take endings too seriously by confusing them with finality—that’s it, all over, no more, finished! We see endings as something without sequel, forgetting that they are the first phase of the transition process and a precondition of self-renewal. At the same time, we fail to take endings seriously enough. Because they scare us, we try to avoid them.
It can even be dicey for churches to navigate endings. The church at which I am currently the interim pastor is no different. There have been a lot of changes in this congregation in the past several months, and there are two ways of looking at those changes. For some, it’s about loss. In many ways it feels like a death — like the death of a loved one. Change is tough because it brings with it a lot of fear. For some, the seven safest words of the church are “We’ve never done it that way before.”
But for others those are the seven last words of the church. For others, change is invigorating, exciting, freeing. Letting go of the past, not knowing what the future holds can be riveting. Leaving things the way they were done at one time and heading off in a new direction feels like rebirth; a breath of fresh air. For others, an ending is like oxygen—it breathes new life into them. But let me be clear about this; all of those things are changes — that is, they’re the physical changes. The new life that God has for us is found in how we transition through those changes; how we deal with the changes.
So I’d like to suggest a way of moving through the ending stage; a way of taking just a few steps with whatever change you’re dealing and getting traction for the way ahead. We’re going to call this process the “A-B-Cs” of dealing with endings. First, the A: Acknowledge the Ending. Secondly, the B: Begin Open; and finally C: Commit to the Change.
Let’s explore what this looks like.
To begin with, “Acknowledge the Ending.” You can do one of two things here: first, you could sing the title phrase of the 1987 hit by R.E.M. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Or, if that’s just a little too silly, then at least begin by saying to yourself: “That was then, and this is now.” Either way, acknowledging that you’re facing an ending is the first step toward a new beginning.
I remember coming the point several months after we moved to San Bruno of truly realizing that we’d moved, that we were in San Bruno to stay, and that we weren’t going back to Fresno except to visit at the holidays. I quit looking backward and focused on where I was. That was an acknowledgment that a significant chapter of our life had come to an end and it was time to move on. We weren’t disregarding it, or denying the importance of it. We made room for the grief of leaving Fresno, and we gave ourselves permission / space to engage with the people of our new church. Acknowledge the ending.
Secondly, Be Open — be open to explore the possibility that something new will come out of the ending. Allowing ourselves to see the ending from a perspective of hope, we acknowledge that this isn’t the way it’s always going to be. The story from Genesis 6 through 9 reminds us that creation wasn’t “Once and Done.” We’re reminded that creation is always happening. When we open ourselves up to the good news that with God we can, indeed begin again, brings us from death to life, from falsehood to truth from despair to hope, from hate to love and from war to peace. Be open.
Thirdly, Commit yourself to trusting God. God is always with us in the midst of change, and guiding us through transition. The biblical truth is that God is always on the move. Whether it’s with Noah and his family and the recreation of the world, or Abraham and Sarah, bringing them from Ur to the Promised Land down the Egypt and back again, or Moses, Miriam, and Aaron trekking from Egypt back to the Promised Land, or the disciples hanging out with Jesus as they walked throughout Galilee, the Decapolis, and Judea, God is always on the move.
With every end there is a new beginning. The wilderness that is in between has always been the place where God shapes his people for whatever is coming next. And that’s still true today.
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 Abram, just as God was present with the Israelites, just as God was present with Jesus, God is present with us. 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.