For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. JOHN 1:16 NASB
Around the table, coffee cups filled and emptied, chips disappeared, tears appeared, praise and back-clapping erupted, pain spilled. Since 1992, we four women have circled a table every month, and every month some new cliffhanger lands between us. We talk, support, eat, moan, roar with laughter and pray together. We are also professional mentors to one another, so sometimes we discuss work.
In all these years, the four of us have been unable to exit the cloverleaf of change. Almost every type of transition on the charts has been verbalized through our clenched teeth and then carried by one another. Kids married, children off to college, a painful divorce, serious illnesses, a college degree, new jobs, tragedies in extended families, vocational success and failure, moves, a change in life calling. Once, at a work-related retreat, Anne heaved a huge sigh and smiled. “Now. My kids are married, and their crises are their own. Now it’s our time—time for our marriage, our life together.” The next day, her daughter was rushed to the hospital with a medical trauma that nearly claimed her life. Anne’s pulse didn’t return to normal for years.
Our conclusion from these years of keeping tabs on one another: the type of change rotates, and sometimes the roller coaster flattens out, but the ride never ends. Occasionally the hills are thrilling, and others feel like a free fall from a water tower. The changes are ongoing until finally we shoot across that final river through the dark and into heaven.
The heaven part sounds good. The rest of it? Learning how not to white-knuckle our way through the ride. Learning how, and where, to find joy and grace in times of change, and how to transmit that to others. Learning how to live—really live—in the turmoil of transitions. Sound like a page from your story? Welcome to life’s perennial drama.
Wilderness. An untamed place. Uncultivated, barren, desertlike. Uninhabited, devoid of human beings. Uncharted territory. Swirling snow or blowing sand. Stinging cold or broiling heat. A land of extremes, of lostness, of endless horizons stretching God only knows where.
All are impressions we might associate with transitions. Loneliness and isolation compound the deserted feeling. Yet though our journeys are each individual, we are not alone or without role models in these desert treks. The Israelites knew the wilderness, knew life on the lam. When they moved in a time of famine to Egypt, their tiny nation enjoyed favorable treatment by the ruling Pharaoh, who had set up the Hebrew patriarch, Joseph, as second-in-command of the country. But times changed, the nation multiplied exponentially, and four hundred years later, the rulers had forgotten Joseph, forgotten their debt to the Israelites.
Threatened by the sheer numbers of Hebrews, Egypt enforced brutal slave labor, fearing an uprising. God, however, heard his people’s cries for deliverance and with mighty power delivered them from the Egyptian rulers (Exodus 1:1—15:21). After running for their lives from slavery, they logged forty years of experience with transition as they folTransitions and the Wilderness Response 15 lowed God to the Promised Land (rehearsed by Moses in Deuteronomy 1:1—3:29). Their wilderness journeys will inform our travels as we work through our options in times of change.
Looking at categories of transitions helps identify our particular territory. Consider life changes for self or loved ones in any of these areas:
• a rearrangement in family relationships (birth, adoption, death, divorce, marriage, empty nest, boomerang kids, parent care, nursing home)
• health (our own or that of a loved one)
• life stage
• social relationships (friends, coworkers, church family, community relationships and involvements)
• work (job loss or change, downsizing, promotion, demotion, change in pay or benefits or colleagues, retirement)
• relocation (new home in the same community or in a new community)
• change in church community, structure, location, pastor/staff leadership
• ideology, worldview or spirituality
Life realignments, even positive ones, exact their toll on us.
Life shifts occur, making us feel as though the plates beneath the ground have grumbled and erupted in earthquake-sized trauma. Or perhaps they don’t register on the Richter scale of human emotion; rather, a ripple here and there pushes us out of predictability and security. Change doesn’t always feel drastic, or even desertlike. Change may even be welcome—the new job you wanted, the longed-for baby, the move into the house of your dreams. We forget that good transitions cost our systems energy and weigh on our spirits just as difficult life changes do.
Jim and Char, in their seventies, live on social security and little else. A small fixed income and looming medical problems leave them in fear. Pauline is a new mother and running into her own insufficiency and the firing/retiring of hormones. There is not enough of her to cover all the bases. She wonders if she made a mistake.
For Therese, whose husband lost his job and morale a year ago, life is a grim firefight with her own dreams and needs burned up in the blaze of overwork and overcompensation. With her toddler’s diagnosis of brain cancer, Barb’s world turned upside down. Disruption in Freda’s church devastated her; now in a different church, she doesn’t understand the subtle ache and underlying depression. Susan’s empty nest after raising three children finds her disoriented, less organized and without energy to re-sort priorities.
With eleven moves in fifteen years, I considered myself an expert on change—until God called us from the local pastorate into a missionary type of position, where we lost 100 percent of salary, benefits and housing allowance and our expenses tripled. As our world of security rocked in the storm of such drastic change, God eventually took me into a deeper place of trust. But not without enormous wrestling with him, worry, sleeplessness and stress on my part, along with extreme overwork for both my husband and me as we tried to make certain we had a house to live in and food to eat. The strain deeply affected our family of five, as well as our extended family, as we tried to lash the sides of our lives together.
Transition’s side effects are often unnoticed in the sandstorm of change, until a vague malaise, a “what’s wrong with me?” fog drapes over us. Eventually we find ourself shaking sand out of our shoes, and we realize we’re in the outback. There stress, anxiety, locked-in emotions and loss of sleep may buckle our flimsy tents. Whether transitions produce seismic shifts or sand in our teeth, they tax our emotional, spiritual and physical resources.
Then it’s time to add up the changes and look for grace, for that unmerited presence and favor of God in the midst of our desert.
A group of long-trusted friends and I graphed the decades of our lives on life charts. We plotted high points above the line, hard times below.
Looking at my clusters of peaks and swoops, my heart bumped in my chest. The points bulldozing the bottom were also the times that I felt God’s presence and power had been the most dramatic. Those were the places where, in spite of my tears and fear and anguish, God established an incredible track record of faithfulness.
Very spiritual people have said this, to my annoyance and frank disbelief. It’s a gift of retrospect, possibly, and as much as I have disliked hearing this from others, those hard and desperate plot points shaped my faith and changed me. Realizing this, I felt the confirmation of God’s vital surrounding love and grace, even while venturing through this current wasteland of transition.
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club opens with a description of a path on which hundreds of exiles trod. Remnants litter the roadside: discarded furniture, family treasures, items too big or bulky or cumbersome to carry. The road, much longer than they anticipated; the baggage, much heavier than they could haul.
Seasoned desert travelers pack lightly. They carry as little as possible in order to conserve energy while trudging through the scorching days, but they pack enough to sustain them in the cold nights. Needs are simple: water, food, protection from the elements and wildlife. If only we knew when exactly our feet touched the edges of the wilderness, if only what to pack in our duffels. As it is, too often we lift up our heads from our hike and realize, suddenly, that sand surrounds us; had we known our trip pointed us toward transition’s wilderness, we could have prepared more thoroughly for the journey.
Still, recognizing this place of life change, this leg of our nomadic expedition, we can begin shedding extraneous baggage: peripheral involvements that exhaust or dislocate our gifts and goals, nagging duties that, in the final analysis, are optional and always draining. The wilderness is no time to heft extra weight. When someone asks, “Wouldn’t you love to serve on this committee?” we can deprogram the default setting on our guilt-o-meter. The wilderness may not be the place for new responsibilities.
Inescapably, times of change eventually create longing: for protection, for security, for safe passage. We want comfort, sameness. We want our own bed! Transitions force the question: In what will we trust? Where will we find our hope when the world falls away from us, when the landscapes of our life are blurred by our tears, by sleepless eyes, and our nights haunted by doubts, misgivings and the specter of fear?
The desert also unveils a profound, piercing ache: all these longings and questions can be satisfied at their deepest level only by the presence of God. And that is the grace point of transition.
In the midst of sorting through our longings and luggage, our insecurities and fears, when we’re in danger of losing our bearings and perspective, forgetting where we’re headed and why, remember: the instability, fragility and tenuous nature of life characterize each of us, regardless of life stage or age. None of us lives in stasis, in unchange.
No one, that is, but God. In God there is no changing. Immutable is our God. Our change becomes a chance to rely on the God who doesn’t change but instead changes us. And so, even in times of great shaking, where all our familiar structures appear to be shifting, falling, crumbling, God is unchanging. The desert becomes a conversion point, a place in our life where our trust shifts from ourself to our God.
Whether our wilderness results from change in relationships, health, living situation, occupation or spiritual journey, ultimately any wilderness of external change is about a deeper change. Transitions become transformation opportunities, spiritual disciplines externally imposed, when seen in the light of God’s hopes for our life.
During this transition time, the only constant we have is this unchanging God, in whom is no shadow of turning. God guides our steps, assures us of protection and presence, and promises to cross the land with us. He is working just beyond the headlights of our life, inviting us deeper into abandoning our own shortsighted, vision-oriented, “show me then I’ll trust” approach. Because in faith, in this place of conversion, God asks us into abandonment—to let go of our need to control, to see the path before starting out. Faith is not walking by sight; it is a midnight stumble on a moonless stretch of dirt.
Transition means passage from one stage or state or location to another. Passage means that in the fullness of time we pass through and arrive at a new destination. The word promises a crossing over. Though abandonment feelings are not uncommon in barren lands, we are never left to our own devices. No, we sojourn with the God who says, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19).
In places of seeming aloneness, it is easy to forget that God provides a way in the desert. We lose our spiritual bearings in the wastelands when we close our eyes against the blowing sand. In Isaiah 43 the Israelites failed to appreciate their trailbreaking God. Even the wild animals honored him because “‘I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise. Yet you have not called upon me,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 43:20-22).
Wilderness experts know it is unwise to travel alone. And although the wilderness feels alone and lonely, we are never without God’s guiding hand. The peril lies in believing that because we cannot see that hand, we must drag ourself through the tough times and land on the other side by our own clever and carefully honed wilderness survival skills.
The gift of the wilderness is that it is best navigated with help from God. He wants us to call on him.
Think of the Israelites traversing the desert in sandals. Wasn’t that broiling sand hot on bare toes? But hot or not, turning back was not a choice. Though they whined about the desert (“If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt!” Exodus 16:3), to go backward meant certain death. They had to go forward and figure out what to do with their anxiety and fear on the journey; they could not wince, grimace and hotfoot it back to Egypt, with their hearts stiffened by anger, pain and resentment.
Turning back is not really a choice for us, either. Most transitions are not reversible. Even so, too often we take the return-to-Egypt approach with our spirits. We ouch and grouch and idolize the great life we had before transition set upon us like a whirling tornado. We have wimpy feet and hardened hearts from our wilderness forays. We need instead tough soles and tender souls. A desert danger is that we encase our heart in stone, steeling ourselves against the pain of change, and then lose the opportunities of meeting and being sustained by God along the way, of being changed by the journey.
The heart is a sensitive instrument. Sometimes our feelings hurt so that we prefer death: prefer not to feel, to move into anesthetized living, to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and just getting through. Survival is our only goal. But transition’s wilderness is not really about the dilemma at hand: how bad the job or the teenager is, how much you want a baby or a husband, or don’t want the one you have.
We think we are on a journey through life, physically. Life is about getting through the next minute, hour, day, week, year. And sometimes that is a valid, short-term technique in crisis. But long-term, we will lose our heart with that approach. Throughout our life, God is at work, reconfiguring, transforming, remaking us. God is all about our heart, about healing broken places. The heat of the desert shapes us in the Heartsmith’s fire.
But this goes against our self-protective habits of guarding our heart. We think guarding our heart means “Don’t let anyone hurt us,” so we shut down, immobilize, lock and key our heart, like a guard at the Art Institute who denies anyone access to a prized display. Truly, though, guarding our heart means making certain we allow ourself to feel all we are supposed to feel. We refuse to allow others to shame us or frighten us into shutting down. We guard our heart, then, by giving it room to grow, to explore—and yes, be hurt, just as mothers must allow their children freedom to grow and to be hurt. The lockdown approach destroys heartful living, and in our expedition through the wilds our heart may be the bounty we seek. Bring it back alive! The desert becomes a search and rescue attempt from God. Perhaps we are on this safari not for big game but to find our own heart. And God’s.
Given the inevitability of change, we often feel powerless, without any choices. But we do have options in transition, decisions we can make that will transform the wilderness from barrenness to bounty. Throughout our travel together, we can discover those grace points in the wilderness. We can choose to feel our desert feelings, to focus and follow God, to find the meaning and learn to flourish in spite of the pH balance of the soil of our life. Like the Israelites, we can choose to feast, to fellowship, even to find fun in the wilderness. And wrapped in all our choices is the heart response; to remember our journeys, that God’s righteousness might be revealed; to not forget where he has taken us, as difficult as that path may be; and to choose to live in freedom in the desert.
As a skinny kid growing up in southern Indiana, I found those first barefoot summer days grueling. Shoes were excessive, like a tail on a frog, to be shed as soon as possible. But our feet had grown soft from school shoes and socks, and we cringed and limped, arms flailing for balance, over gravel driveways and blazing, tar-coated streets. Within days, though, we ran across the rocks and teetered on our haunches over the sun-baked tar to pop the bubbles. Barefoot pain prepared me for the joys of childhood play. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
I am nearing that place where I can say, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” about those down-spikes in my life, those places where pain was huge but God even larger. We might not choose change, especially difficult change—probably wouldn’t. And yet, God so wants our heart to be whole, this wilderness trip may be just the ticket.
One friend wrote me, in the midst of a season of anguish and sorting, “As much as it feels bad at times, I would fight you for it rather than let you take it away from me. Because I have a sense that there is something good on the other side—something God wants me to have, know, learn, rest in about himself, something I dearly want.”
Martin Luther said,
This life therefore is not righteousness
but growth in righteousness
not health but healing
not being but becoming. . . .
We are not yet what we shall be
but we are growing toward it.
The process is not yet finished
but it is going on.
This is not the end
but it is the road.
All does not yet gleam in glory
but all is being purified.
I love Deuteronomy 1:31, describing Israel’s relationship with God in the desert, “where you experienced him carrying you along like a man carries his son. This he did everywhere you went until you came to this very place” (NET). If God can do this with 600,000 men and their wives and children, then God can be there for us, as well.
In these times of change, may God carry us as a parent carries a child. And as we remember our journey, may God grant us joy in the looking back, that we might say, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”