Chapter 11: Navigating Through Life Transitions
Life is change; growth is optional. Choose wisely. (Karen Kaiser Clark)
There’s a light-hearted (and thoroughly apocryphal!) story about a man out hunting in rugged countryside. As he pushes his way through deep undergrowth he stumbles and suddenly, to his horror, finds himself slipping over a bluff. His rifle flies in one direction, his pack in another, and he goes straight down. In desperation he manages to grab hold of a tree branch growing out of the side of the cliff. There he is, dangling precariously over a hundred-metre drop onto jagged rocks.
He looks up and realizes he can never make it back to the top. There’s nothing to grip onto and the cliff face is crumbling and unstable.
He looks down and nearly passes out with fright. He could never survive the fall.
In panic he calls out, “Help, help! Is anybody there?” It’s an instinctive reaction. He knows he’s far from any human assistance.
Not surprisingly, then, he nearly falls off the branch when a voice from above booms back, “I’m here. What do you want?”
The man can’t figure out where exactly the voice is coming from but he hasn’t got time to worry about that. Instead he yells back, “I need help. I’m about to fall and I’m stuck. Please, please help get me back up.”
The voice from above is warm and sympathetic. “Don’t panic, lad. I’ll get you to safety. But you must do one thing in order for that to happen.”
“Anything, I’ll do anything. Just get me back up. What do I need to do?”
Five short words come from the voice above. “Let go of the branch.”
There’s a stunned silence. Despite his desperation it is clear that the man on the branch is taking time to weigh up his options – and the consequences they present.
Finally he calls out again. “Is there anybody else up there?”
All of us face crises in our lives. Some crises are self-imposed because of our foolishness. Others come because of circumstances dropped on us. Still others are a natural result of our growth from one stage of maturity to another.
And, like the man in the story, in a crisis we are desperate for help. Not that we necessarily want the solutions God may offer! Yet one thing is constantly true. It’s a general rule that when we are at a point of great uncertainty we are open to God in a much more real way than we are in settled times when things are going smoothly.
Finding ourselves in a desperate situation causes us to reach out to God. Our prayer moves from being a ritual to a necessity. No wonder Jesus was able to say, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” Why blessed? The second part of the verse makes it clear. “With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” (Matthew 5:3, The Message).
We constantly forget what God is really like. We need reminders. Sometimes only by upsetting the applecart and turning our lives upside down can God make us re-evaluate what we have come to assume and accept – about ourselves, about others, about our role in God’s world. The crisis gives us the opportunity to trust God more fully, and to move in new directions.
Crisis, new awareness, and a fresh start. That, in many ways, is the story of the Bible, with its catalogue of catastrophes, journeys, and wilderness experiences. It is full of disorienting episodes in which settled people are thrown into upheaval and set on a new course.
It begins with Abraham, who is settled with his family in Iraq, running his father’s business. Suddenly he is called to uproot himself and leave it all behind. “Go to a place that I will show you,” says God.
So with little more than a promise, and great uncertainty about what that might mean, the great great grandfather of our faith pulls up his tent pegs and moves west. In doing so, Abraham shows us the kind of risk-taking and journeying that faith inevitably involves.
In Canaan, Abraham and his descendants finally begin to settle into the Promised Land that God has been leading them to all these years. That is, until another crisis arrives. Severe famine hits the whole region. Elderly Jacob and his extended family are forced to head to Egypt.
However, what was expected to be a brief period of escape from the drought soon develops into more than just a visit. Egypt proves very hospitable and welcoming. The family settles down, and they grow. Soon generations have come and gone and all talk of the Promised Land is forgotten. But the increasing number of Abraham’s descendants causes the indigenous people to become resentful. They decide to exploit the Israelites, using them as cheap labour rather than allowing them to become influential and powerful. Slavery results.
This is the context in which God calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, back to the land he had promised their forebears. A major transition is under way. However, it is a transition filled with crises, risk and hard-heartedness. More than once the Israelites are instructed to “let go of the branch”, but they resist and the result is years spent wandering in the wilderness before they eventually take possession of the land. In the face of such danger and risk they plead with God to go back to Egypt – back to the relative security of slavery. Consequently, rather than the transition being a few short weeks, it becomes forty long years.
If we had not previously read the story we might imagine that here at last was a fairytale ending. And perhaps there was for a time. Through the period of the judges and the early kings, Israel becomes increasingly rich, powerful and settled. But rather than the beginning of a Golden Age full of God’s blessing, it all turns sour. Money, sex and power become the prize – instead of God. Israel loses the plot. In an attempt to remind them of their calling, God sends his prophets.
Then begins a series of bewildering and upsetting episodes where God allows some awful things to happen to his people so that they may once again learn to trust him. It ends with the Israelites being dragged off into captivity in a foreign land. Talk about disorienting! They can’t even recognize God in this new setting. All the old cues are gone. No wonder they write, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion...” Utter desolation.
Even when the Jews finally return home, crisis and transition continue. The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the re-establishment of Jewish life takes time and brings many challenges.
Centuries later, we see the arrival of Jesus on the scene. God’s people are in familiar circumstances – living under the domination of Rome and yearning for God’s military messiah to come and push the legions of the foreign oppressor back into the sea.
However, God doesn’t act that way. Instead he does the unpredictable, and brings a very different new life out of a seemingly hopeless situation. The crisis that is the cross brings a transition to a new order, evidenced by the resurrection.
The same experiences of crisis and change shape the rest of the New Testament. The new believers face the challenge of trusting God in the midst of persecution. The young church faces the challenge of carrying the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. The Jewish converts must come to terms with a “new age” in which God will move beyond their nation. Through it all we are reminded that nothing is static. Seasons and transitions, crises and change; they are woven into both life and faith.
The biblical story helps us to see that in the midst of transitions we can wake up to insights about God and ourselves, insights that we easily miss in the routine of life. In fact, pain and uncertainty are probably the best teachers we have. If we can learn to welcome them and reach out to God in the midst of them, we will discover that God is embracing us in ways he never could in comfortable times.
It’s on the journey, in the desert, through the catastrophe and grief, that we become open to God reorienting us. In no way is this process easy. But as long as we don’t shrink away from the struggle, we can find God in it.
In the Chinese script, the character for “crisis” is a combination of the two characters that mean “disaster” and “opportunity”. These are the two sides of a crisis. What seems to be a disaster, or at least has the potential for catastrophe, is at the same time an opportunity.
American writer Leonard Sweet notes that the idea behind the Hebrew word “crisis” is a birth stool. The experience of childbirth encapsulates so much of what a crisis is. There is great pain – so much so that the expectant mother may even for a time wish she was dead. But then comes the joy of bringing a new life into the world.
Crises threaten disaster, but also offer opportunity. Birth pangs produce new things. This seems to be a deliberate emphasis of the Bible about transitions. The pain and uncertainty, anxiety and anguish inherent in the crisis are used by God to birth something new in our lives.
We can be sure that during those times God knows what we are going through. He does care. He does hear our cries for help. And he will come to rescue us. When we are at the end of our tether God proves his ability to guide. The disorientation that comes during crises and transitions is the very tool he uses to re-orient us.
What are some crises you have faced? What has helped to support and guide you through them? (Or did they throw you?! If so, looking back on them, how could you have coped better?)
Are there any biblical passages that have offered you reassurance in the midst of crisis? What are they?
Are there any biblical characters whose example has offered you help and reassurance?
Underline any parts of this chapter that have particular relevance for you. Why are they significant?
Give members of the group opportunity to share their discoveries from the personal reflection questions above.
Do the personal stories prompt ideas of how the group might be supportive of its members in future times of crisis or change?
Taking into account what you have read in this and the previous chapter (and what know from your wider reading and life experience), what crises and changes may lie ahead for members of your group? What knowledge and preparation could help you as you enter these transitions?
Are there any crises you as a group have faced? Did they produce any new development? (If this question is not relevant to your group, it may be appropriate to ask it about a church or organization you may all belong to.)
Consider the situation your group (or church or organization) is in at present. Knowing what you do about the group, its past and the situation it is currently in, what changes may lie ahead? Do you see new directions which God might want you to investigate? What stresses would any such change cause, and how could you best deal with them?
Time to dream. Imagine that you personally, or your group, have just arrived in your neighbourhood. You have no commitments to any plan or programme. You have no responsibilities to any group or organization. If you were beginning with a completely clean slate – knowing what you do about your neighbourhood, in what ways and with what aims might you set out on this new phase of your life?