August 21, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
(scene from “Forrest Gump” getting on bus for first day of school)
You remember your first day of school? Was it intimidating? Scary? Happy?
One morning this week I saw the school bus this week pick up the boy who lives next door to us. I remembered just a few years ago when it was his first day of school. I was leaving for work and saw his dad waiting with him in the driveway. I could tell his dad was patting him on the shoulder speaking of words of encouragement to him, and then the bus pulled up. Instantly the boy took off and ran into the house. The dad went chasing after him pleading for him to come back, then trying a more forceful, “Get out here right now,” as the bus waited. I remembered the feeling of empathy I had as I heard this kid shout, “No! I don’t want to go. I want to stay here. Why do I have to go!!”
You ever felt that way? I don’t want to go through this change. I don’t want to change schools. I don’t want to leave home and go to college. I am not ready for my child to go to college. I don’t want to have to change jobs. I don’t want to divorce. I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to retire, or grow old, or leave my house, or give up my freedoms.
Life is a series of change and transitions. But the two are not the same.
In his best-selling book, Managing Transitions, William Bridges, makes the distinction between change and transition. Change he writes is situational. It is the changes that happen to us. Transition, though, is psychological. It is the process by which we seek to manage a change in our lives. Transition is how we face change.
In this series we are going to look at the different types of transitions we face in life and what our faith offers to help us, and we begin today with what is perhaps the hardest of all changes to make: forced changes; changes we don’t choose but must confront. What does it mean to make a forced transition?
(Picture of Israelites by Red Sea) Let’s consider a well known moment in the Old Testament that might help. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. They wanted a change…until they got it.
God sent Moses to deliver the Israelites. He demanded that Pharaoh set his people free which had about as much impact as a United Nations resolution against Russia. So God sent 10 plagues against Egypt which crippled the country. Pharaoh finally gave in. He allowed the Israelites to go into the desert to worship God, which everyone knew meant they were going to leave.
Now imagine for a moment that Egypt at this time was a democracy and it happened to be an election year. Pharaoh had just allowed roughly a million slaves to leave. Their economy is going to tumble. Never mind that the plagues God nearly bankrupt the country, Pharaoh is thinking politically now, and when you think politically you tend not to think spiritually. So Pharaoh sent all his army after the Israelites, and they found them camped along the Red Sea. They were trapped with nowhere to go!
Now it’s the Israelites’ turn to think politically. They realized they were hemmed in, so what do they do? They complain against Moses. “Why didn’t you do a better job leading us?” they ask. It was election season for them too and they were saying, “Vote him out of office!”
No one in this whole scenario is remembering what God has done or thinking about what God can do.
And yet, we can see in this scene of the Israelites penned against the sea with nowhere to go, the first lesson in dealing with a forced transition: Accept That You Have Come to an End. Without focusing on what the future holds or even if there is a possibility of a future, the first step of transition is to own that something important in life has come to an end.
This, says William Bridges, is the critical starting point of transitions. He writes: “Before you can begin something new, you have to end what used to be. Before you can learn a new way of doing things, you have to unlearn the old way.” (p23) There has to be time to grieve over what has been. You might find ways to honor and celebrate what you are letting go. But being honest and clear about what is ending is key.
Unlearning the old will be an ongoing challenge for the Israelites. Without accepting the end of what was, they will crave to go back to Egypt each time they hit an obstacle. They will want to return, because they haven’t let it go. They are holding onto Egypt as if it is a place they can go back to, because they haven’t accepted that they can’t. Listen to their complaint against Moses: “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone so that we can serve the Egyptians’?”
You would think by this point the Israelites are ready. After the arrival of Moses and witnessing the plagues, you would think they had high confidence in Moses and God. But when we can’t see how our present place is going to lead to a better place, we will want to return to where we were even though it wasn’t a good place.
I know my home wasn’t a great place, but Lord, it’s better than where I am now, just let me go back.” “I know my marriage wasn’t great, but Lord, it’s better than being alone.” “I know that job wasn’t great, but even a sorry job was better than no job.”
You see sometimes we won’t get to a better place if its up to us. We won’t live the life we can unless something is forced on us, unless we get put in a place where we have no choice, where we can’t go back, and we have to look ahead.
In a movie called Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing expert, which means he is the guy who goes into a company to tell people they no longer have a job. People react with anger and fear, but in one scene in which Bingham tells a man who has been with a company many years that he is out of work to consider what it can me. Take a look (video)
Sometimes we don’t get to our dreams without having changes forced upon us. We don’t become the people we can be unless the things that have defined us come to an end. Regardless of what has changed in our lives, and how great or not so great our past was, God can take any ending and turn it into a new beginning.
Once you have appropriately grieved an ending, and that is not to be rushed, but at some point there comes a time to look ahead. Is there something in your life today for which it is time to stop looking back? Is it time to quit holding on to the way things used to be? Is it time to stop blaming everything on the pandemic for why things are worse in life? Is it time to look to God and believe God can take where we are and create a path we have yet to see possible?
The next time you face an unwanted change in your life and you are trying to turn it into a transition read Psalm 77. Whoever wrote this Psalm is someone you can relate to. Look at how it begins:
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.
This is obviously someone going through a forced transition. This person is asking God, “Why?” And for a few verses it doesn’t get better.
“I consider the days of old and remember the years of long ago.”
Oh God, if only you’d take me back to the way things used to be!
“Will the Lord spurn forever…has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up his compassion? Selah
To put it bluntly, and rather crassly, it’s like this person is asking, “Why God are you giving me the middle finger?” Haven’t we all had times where we felt that way?
But then look at that word Selah. Remember when we talked about that last month looking at Psalms? Selah is like a rest symbol in music. It means to pause. The psalmist is pausing. And then turns attention to what is called salvation history. The writer remembers what he or she knows to be true about God; things that make you say, “I know that I know that I know this is true.” Things that God has done before. The psalmist goes back through the history of what God has done. And at the end of the Psalm the writer remembers this story about Moses and the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Look at the end of Psalm 77: “Your way was through the sea, your path through the mighty waters, yet your footprints were unseen.” The psalmist remembered this is what God can do. God can take what feels like a dead end and turn it into a path to a better place, even though you can’t see God doing it.
It takes an Ending to start a Beginning. Though the ending is unwanted, the change was not what we planned, in God’s power it becomes a door, a path that opens to a new and better place. The only thing we can do until that door opens is Stand firm and See.
That was Moses’ advice to the Israelites. He has spoken a word of hope. Their dead end will lead to deliverance. The path to being rid of the scourge of Egypt forever will come by way of something only God can create. It is beyond their power. So there’s just one thing for them to do. “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today…The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
How do we get to a better place? Clearly we have to “Be still,” as Moses said, but his direction was more active than passive. He didn’t say, “Do nothing.” The critical words are, “Stand firm and See.” Stand firm believing you are God’s beloved. There is no place where your life can end up that is beyond God’s power to work. Therefore, “See.” Look. Pay attention. Be on watch for what God shows you or what God wants to tell you.
A man in our church came to see me in my office recently. He’s 75 and found out he’s got a form of cancer. This has definitely been a period of forced transition in his life as he faces the reality of what this will and could mean, but he would say that most of his focus was on how he would handle it, and what it would mean for him, but all that flipped he said sitting in the waiting room one day at the oncology center.
When he was in the lobby he met another patient and learned that he was from Texas and that he was 32 years old and was with his parents. Later, sitting in the waiting room he heard this man say, “I’m glad I had that stroke.” This was startling to hear, not just because he suffered a serious event at such an age, but because he was expressing thanks for it. He couldn’t help but ask the man why he said that. The man told him, “If I hadn’t suffered a stroke I would have never found out I have brain cancer.”
“Suddenly,” he told me, “everything flipped. I thought, ‘I’ve got 43 years on this man. I’ve had a wonderful life already, and what if this isn’t the end? What if this is something that I can be grateful for, because of how God will use it.” He said those words to me again, “Something flipped in me that day.”
When we lean into our faith, we hold onto a power that can take any transition, any obstacle and turn it into a way forward. Jesus, who died and was buried in a grave, faced a transition no one wanted, a permanent change with no future. But then God brought him back from the grave. Not even death could contain him. Through Christ we have this hope in every change and challenge, even when we face death, because we know that what is ahead is the greatest transition ever, when as Dr. David Wilkinson said last Sunday night, we enter the world that is even more beautiful and wonderful than anything we’ve known in this life.
So when we face forced transitions, remember this story from Exodus and,
Accept the Endings we Face
Believe That God Can Turn Any Ending into a Beginning
Stand Firm and See