HELP! WE’RE IN TRANSITION!
Jim Cory, General Presbyter
If we were to pick one word to describe our lives as well as this Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), what would it be? Of all the words that we might pick, the word transition would be the one word that describes everyone. No matter who we are, our lives are all filled with endings and new beginnings. The time in between those endings and new beginnings is called our transition time. It is the time it takes to let go of the past and move on to something new.
How long a transition takes is dependent on our level of emotional involvement with the ending that has taken place. The more emotionally involved we are, the longer the transition. The time it takes me to emotionally let go of the ending of one meal and move on to a new one isn’t very long at all. However, saying good-bye to a close friend or loved one is a whole different story.
In order to truly understand the significance of our scripture reading, we must first step back and see it in the context of the larger picture. When we do, we will realize the disciples are in the second phase of a three-step transition process.
The first step of the three-step transition process is the ending phase in which good-byes are said. The second step is the neutral phase that is the in-between time or transition time. Good-byes have been said, but the new life has not fully begun. During the second step the grief process is worked through. Then finally comes the third step that is the new-beginning phase in which a new life style is finally embraced and begun with all our energy.
Applying this three-step process to scripture, we can easily see that Palm Sunday was the kick-off of the first step or the ending phase. Jesus started to say his good-byes with Palm Sunday. He set up a farewell parade to communicate who He really was even though the people misunderstood it. Then on Maundy Thursday at the Passover feast, Jesus said farewell to His disciples while at the same time giving them special instructions on how to celebrate His memory. And of course from the cross came the final good-byes.
Then from Good Friday through Pentecost we can easily see that this period of time was the neutral phase of the transition process. The disciples seem to be floundering during this time. They were not quite sure what to do now that Jesus was gone. They were filled with grief, and they did a lot of reflecting together during the forty-day period. Pentecost marked the New Beginning phase. All of a sudden new life came to the disciples and they went forth with boldness and the church came into being. The good-byes were over and a new day had begun.
This whole idea of a three step transition process came to me as a result of seeing the excellent film series, Begin With Goodbye, which describes the major life changes that nearly everyone must face. Changes like moving, job loss, new careers, retirement, childbirth, children leaving home, divorce, health loss, and death.
In all these major life style changes there has to be a “goodbye” to yesterday before there can be a “hello” to a new life. In fact, when we really think about it, life is filled with a series of endings and beginnings. In all of them there has to be a death of an old way of life before a new life can begin. What we tend to forget, in this day and age, is that a transition time is needed between our “good-byes” and our “helloes.”
Primitive societies understood the need for a transition time between the death of an old way of life before the new one began. They even set up rituals to help their children experience the transition from childhood into adulthood. Usually at a certain age they would give their children instructions followed by a special ceremony in which they pierced their ears, painted their faces or did something else to symbolize the transition into adulthood. Then the young people were sent out into the wilderness where they were to stay for a period of time. All ties with the past were then severed, and when the youth returned, they were not allowed to live at home anymore. They had new names and were treated as adults.
Our modern society has its rituals such as weddings, funerals, and various parties to mark transitions. However we tend to neglect the wilderness experience. The wilderness experience the youth went through would easily describe what people go through during transition times. It is a time of disorientation. Everything seems different and strange. We would like the comfort of our old way of life, but know we can’t return home. When we look to the future we don’t know where it leads and we are not sure which path to take to start a new life.Transition times are hard times spiritually for God often seems to have disappeared from our lives. For some reason we don’t feel as close to God as we once did. It is in these times that we have to function on faith instead of feelings and know that God is there supporting us even if we don’t sense God’s presence.
When we look at scripture we can see that transitions or wilderness experiences were common. The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness before they were ready to enter the promised-land. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness before be began his ministry. In today’s scripture reading, the disciples were at the beginning of their own forty-day wilderness experience which would lead to Pentecost. Already there seemed to be some disorientation for only seven disciples were present. Where were the other four? Had they dispersed?
Jesus had already appeared to the disciples and they knew that He was alive and risen from the dead. Yet they didn’t really understand what they were to do now. Peter suggested that they go fishing like they use to do. You might say that Peter and the other six disciples were returning to their old life style, for they had been professional fishermen before Jesus called them.
It is not uncommon for people in transition to go back to their old way of doing things. I remember following this same pattern when I experienced burn out after five years of specializing in youth ministry. I came to a crossroads and called my Dad up to see if he still would like for me to take over the family men’s clothing store? He said he would be delighted and for me to come home and we would talk about it. I returned home for a visit, but soon realized that things weren’t the same as when I left for college. You really can’t go home again. You have to find a new direction for your life.
The disciples must have realized the same thing as they came up empty handed after fishing all night long. It was only after they received Jesus guidance that they caught fish. So they came ashore and there Jesus once again challenged them to fish for people rather than fish.As I reflect on what is happening in this Presbytery and within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I feel that we are going through a major transition period. We are definitely in the neutral or wilderness phase where we can’t go back to our old ways of doing things and yet we are not sure what the future will be.
Fortunately, the good news is that God doesn’t leave us alone. God is there to comfort and guide us even when we don’t recognize God’s presence. God will help us walk through the valley of the shadow of death as we say our good-byes and move on to a new life. Thanks be to God for showing us the way to a new life through Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.