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When change happens, where is God?

August 10, 2012

On my first day as a student chaplain, all of us who were in the program were invited to gather our chairs into a circle and begin talking about the significant losses in our lives.

I didn’t even have to think about it. The most significant loss in my life was the death of my father after a nine-month battle with cancer in 1988. Soon, my eyes welling with tears, I described the event that marked the final chapter in his life and opened the new reality in mine: Standing by helplessly at an estate sale as strangers picked over and carried off Dad’s most prized possessions: his tools and assorted equipment from his shop, which had been his sanctuary from the rest of the world.

Suddenly I was standing there again, just as I had on that awful day, the sun beating down on my head as the emotionless voice of the auctioneer responded over and over with increased volume to every stranger’s bid.

Just as suddenly, snapping back in time to my chair in the chaplain’s office, I realized the moderator of our group was comparing my loss to his having misplaced a cell phone. He was trying to say that we all experience some kind of loss every day of our lives. He meant well. But I don’t think I ever thought of him in quite the same way, and his seeming dismissiveness of a terrible moment in my life tarnished our relationship from that point on.

I am hoping against hope to not do the same thing here. I don’t want to compare my life being turned upside down by my upcoming move to your having experienced the death of a loved one, a spouse, a sibling, a father or mother, a friend. It’s not the same. It could never be the same.

What I have been thinking about is how I deal with change, how humanity responds to change, and where God is when life is in transition. “Why did everything always change, when all you wanted, all you had ever humbly asked of whatever God there might be, was that certain things be allowed to remain the same?” realtor Helen Givings cries in Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, where neat suburban homes mask unkempt lives.

My recent transition is not due to loss as much as it is to gain: my first church pastorate, a new community, a new life. It’s a major blessing. It is the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of prayers. It is a joyful time. Granted, there is an element of loss – leaving friends behind that we have made over 13 years. But that feeling is tempered by the fact that we are staying in the same metro area, only an hour away, close enough to visit old friends or have them visit us.

But there is change to be confronted and dealt with, and my new church will greet a new reality as well. Change can be invited or unexpected. Whether it stems from loss or gain or both, change seems to be a constant guest in our lives, and don’t we tend to struggle against it some way or another? There is, for example that famous church motto that expresses anxiety over doing anything differently: “We’ve never done it that way before.” Then there is the impact of change on personal relationships and even day-to-day survival.

When change comes to a covenanted relationship, there is the search for a new mutual reality: Will we see both these new things in the same way? Will we agree easily on new solutions to new problems – or will we fight it out? How does change inform our theology, what we thought we knew about the things we knew? Is it frightening?

Whenever someone is laid off, or accepts a new job, or moves across a border in search of a new and better life for a starving, poverty-stricken family, new personal realities must be confronted. Change comes with moving to a new town or the decision to move your parents to a nursing home.

My struggles have related in part to buying a new house when our old house hasn’t yet sold, being ready to go by moving day, and getting the kids set for a new life, new friends and new school when all they have known previously is the town in which they were born, the church in which they were raised, the friends they started with in kindergarten. There is the upside-down feeling of preparing for the new reality, after which we will face the reality itself.

I have come to think over these past few weeks that part of what is so disorienting about change is that it feels like a disconnection from God. Perhaps this is a Western cultural thing, or maybe it’s just my thing, I don’t know. But the disorder – Presbyterians like order you know – seems to suggest that God has become more distant. There is also the fear that comes with uncertainty about the unknowable. I even think one contributor to this is that, sometimes, some of us may mistakenly confuse our comfort level to our relationship with God. We often describe our faith in terms of everything going well in our lives. In reality, that is not faith, but gratitude.

Scripture, however, assures us that God is with us in the midst of life’s transitions, and in fact, going boldly forward into the unknown at the call of the divine is the scriptural picture of faith. In the Hebrew Bible, God tells Abraham to leave his country and his father’s house for another land and promises to make of him a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3). God’s concern and care for the sojourner are key principles throughout the Old Testament. And Jesus invited those who would be followers to take up their cross and step into uncertainty (Luke 9:23).

Over the past weeks, besides being reminded of God’s faithfulness through scripture, my eyes have also been opened to the Word of God as it has come in the form of words from my flock-to-be. Members of my congregation have offered every imaginable kind of help. One family even offered us a room in their house until we could get settled. All of us. Another offered to buy us gas. Many have graciously shared with us signs and symbols of love, warming our hearts again and again.

It is God who beckons into the uncertainty of life’s transitions. God will be with us to the end. And that is fuel for the journey.

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