Someone has said, “We all experience change, and the vast majority of us don’t like it.” For most of my life I was clearly among the “vast majority,” yet by the age of four I had already been nicknamed “Lee Go-Go” by my father. Neither of us knew how prophetically descriptive these words would be. The outward journey from my seemingly unchanging roots of rural Maryland began during high school when I traveled to Brazil to live as a foreign exchange student. Since then, I have traveled to six continents and many more countries.
The inward journey of growth, however, has been less apparent… almost imperceptible at times until 1997, which ushered in five years of more change than I could have imagined: my husband, Clyde McDowell’s, call to the presidency of Denver Seminary, the relinquishment of my church ministry position, children’s high school and college graduations, the diagnosis of Clyde’s brain tumor, his subsequent death, a new career for me, the sudden death of a sister, my son’s wedding, empty nesting and the death of my mother. Change has become a constant companion.
As I struggled to adapt to these changes, the words of Dr. Archibald Hart became especially poignant: “There are really only two types of people—those who accept the need to change and those who don’t. The former grow; the latter stay trapped in a prison of stagnation.” Personal growth has long been a motivating force for me, whether by developing a new athletic skill—I recently climbed my first fourteener—or by expanding my thinking through further education. And my own calling is to facilitate the personal and spiritual growth of others. Yet part of me resisted the cascade of change. I longed to have my old life back.
Some transitions are easier to adapt to than others. Those that we initiate and those that are predictable, such as the normal developmental changes we go through over the course of our lifetime, usually require less of our emotional resources for adjustment. We can prepare for them. We can find a mentor to guide us through the change process. It’s the transitions that come unexpectedly, like receiving a dreaded diagnosis, a divorce in the family, an unplanned pregnancy, the death of a loved one, a sudden change of career or ministry, that may send us into emotional turmoil.
Help to handle change
Even mature followers of Christ experience emotional upheaval during times of major change. In 30 Days to Confident Leadership, Bobb Biehl writes, “A change can make sense logically, but still lead to anxiety in the psychological dimension.” The nation of Israel had longed for deliverance from Egypt. But in the desert, the Jews missed and grieved the familiar lifestyle of their captivity.
How paradoxical that the changeless God calls us to live in a world where personal and global changes constantly challenge our equilibrium. Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change,” clearly proclaims that God is immutable. And yet we can’t ignore the language of Scripture terms like “becoming new,” “transformed,” and “throwing off the old” that confirm for us that change is inherent in the process of becoming more like Christ. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey writes, “People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them.” For Christians, that changeless core is Christ who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). What, then, can prepare us to manage well the stress of change?
Having a growing understanding of the nature of God helped me find solid ground when everything around felt like quicksand. Following my mother’s sudden death, I was encouraged by the words of the British preacher Graham Cook, speaking about the paradox of God:
He is consistent but he is also unpredictable. He is consistent in his nature. You always know where you are with God; you seldom know what he is going to do next. You cannot find security in what God is doing. There is only security in who God is.
In the Old Testament, the children of Israel were told to remember how God had revealed His nature at transition points in the past so that their faith would be strengthened during times of change in the future.
Knowing the “anatomy of transition” also helps in managing the stress of change. Like seasons of the year, transition has a characteristic pattern. Something is ending. As we let go of a love, leave a child at college, retire, or say goodbye to a congregation, there is a sense of loss, sadness, and uncertainty about the future. What is also lost in life’s major changes is a sense of our own identity. While nothing can shake our foundational identity in Christ, the way we experience ourselves is altered when the roles and relationships of our lives are disrupted. The process of adapting from what was to what will be is often a confusing period of conflicting emotions such as sadness, anxiety, excitement, and relief. The pattern of transition concludes with a new beginning. I now welcome change, appreciating how it clears the ground for growth and is an impetus for continued learning. What new growth is germinating in this season of your life?
Living in the Present
Wherever you may be in the pattern of transition, it helps to accept the unalterable fact that no matter how uncomfortable your circumstances are, they are the only ones you have in which to glorify God today. Dr. David Osborn, Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Denver Seminary, has written, “Too often we try to use God to change our circumstances while he is using our circumstances to change us.” While you may wish your life were like your DVD player that can rewind or fast forward with the touch of a button, it isn’t. Real life happens in the present. Don’t miss what God is doing in the present because of a focus on what happened in the past or what you want Him to do in the future.
The late scholar and author Henri Nouwen wrote, “The real enemies of our life are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’ They pull us back to the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and now. God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful.”
When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush and Moses asked his name, God responded by saying, “I AM WHO I AM.” He did not answer, “I WAS” or “I WILL BE.” So although life’s major changes and our experiences in them may only make sense as we look back over the course of our lives and while God is sovereignly in control of the future, He is our companion in the present who “will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you” (Isaiah 26:3, NIV). Embracing change has resulted in a journey of growth, taking me to a place I did not want to go only to find there the person I wanted to be.