By Jane Rubietta
Chapter One: Transitions and the Wilderness Response
For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.
JOHN 1:16 NASB
Around the table, coffee cups filled and emptied, chips disappeared,
tears appeared, praise and back-clapping erupted, pain spilled. Since
1992, we four women have circled a table every month, and every month
some new cliffhanger lands between us. We talk, support, eat, moan,
roar with laughter and pray together. We are also professional mentors
to one another, so sometimes we discuss work.
In all these years, the four of us have been unable to exit the cloverleaf
of change. Almost every type of transition on the charts has been
verbalized through our clenched teeth and then carried by one another.
Kids married, children off to college, a painful divorce, serious
illnesses, a college degree, new jobs, tragedies in extended families,
vocational success and failure, moves, a change in life calling. Once,
at a work-related retreat, Anne heaved a huge sigh and smiled. "Now.
My kids are married, and their crises are their own. Now it's our
time-time for our marriage, our life together." The next day,
her daughter was rushed to the hospital with a medical trauma that
nearly claimed her life. Anne's pulse didn't return to normal for
Our conclusion from these years of keeping tabs on one another: the
type of change rotates, and sometimes the roller coaster flattens
out, but the ride never ends. Occasionally the hills are thrilling,
and others feel like a free fall from a water tower. The changes are
ongoing until finally we shoot across that final river through the
dark and into heaven.
The heaven part sounds good. The rest of it? Learning how not to
white-knuckle our way through the ride. Learning how, and where, to
find joy and grace in times of change, and how to transmit that to
others. Learning how to live-really live-in the turmoil of transitions.
Sound like a page from your story? Welcome to life's perennial drama.
THE WILDERNESS FEELING
Wilderness. An untamed place. Uncultivated, barren, desertlike. Uninhabited,
devoid of human beings. Uncharted territory. Swirling snow or blowing
sand. Stinging cold or broiling heat. A land of extremes, of lostness,
of endless horizons stretching God only knows where.
All are impressions we might associate with transitions. Loneliness
and isolation compound the deserted feeling. Yet though our journeys
are each individual, we are not alone or without role models in these
desert treks. The Israelites knew the wilderness, knew life on the
lam. When they moved in a time of famine to Egypt, their tiny nation
enjoyed favorable treatment by the ruling Pharaoh, who had set up
the Hebrew patriarch, Joseph, as second-in-command of the country.
But times changed, the nation multiplied exponentially, and four hundred
years later, the rulers had forgotten Joseph, forgotten their debt
to the Israelites.
Threatened by the sheer numbers of Hebrews, Egypt enforced brutal
slave labor, fearing an uprising. God, however, heard his people's
cries for deliverance and with mighty power delivered them from the
Egyptian rulers (Exodus 1:1-15:21). After running for their lives
from slavery, they logged forty years of experience with transition
as they followed God to the Promised Land (rehearsed by Moses in Deuteronomy
1:1-3:29). Their wilderness journeys will inform our travels as we
work through our options in times of change.
Looking at categories of transitions helps identify our particular
Consider life changes for self or loved ones in any of these areas:
- a rearrangement in family relationships (birth, adoption, death,
divorce, marriage, empty nest, boomerang kids, parent care, nursing
- health (our own or that of a loved one)
- life stage
- social relationships (friends, coworkers, church family, community
- work (job loss or change, downsizing, promotion, demotion, change
in pay or benefits or colleagues, retirement)
- relocation (new home in the same community or in a new community)
- change in church community, structure, location, pastor/staff
- ideology, worldview or spirituality
Life realignments, even positive ones, exact their toll on us.
THE WILDERNESS OF TRANSITION
Life shifts occur, making us feel as though the plates beneath the
ground have grumbled and erupted in earthquake-sized trauma. Or perhaps
they don't register on the Richter scale of human emotion; rather,
a ripple here and there pushes us out of predictability and security.
Change doesn't always feel drastic, or even desertlike. Change may
even be welcome-the new job you wanted, the longed-for baby, the move
into the house of your dreams. We forget that good transitions cost
our systems energy and weigh on our spirits just as difficult life
Jim and Char, in their seventies, live on social security and little
else. A small fixed income and looming medical problems leave them
in fear. Pauline is a new mother and running into her own insufficiency
and the firing/retiring of hormones. There is not enough of her to
cover all the bases. She wonders if she made a mistake.
For Therese, whose husband lost his job and morale a year ago, life
is a grim firefight with her own dreams and needs burned up in the
blaze of overwork and overcompensation. With her toddler's diagnosis
of brain cancer, Barb's world turned upside down. Disruption in Freda's
church devastated her; now in a different church, she doesn't understand
the subtle ache and underlying depression. Susan's empty nest after
raising three children finds her disoriented, less organized and without
energy to re-sort priorities.
With eleven moves in fifteen years, I considered myself an expert
on change-until God called us from the local pastorate into a missionary
type of position, where we lost 100 percent of salary, benefits and
housing allowance and our expenses tripled. As our world of security
rocked in the storm of such drastic change, God eventually took me
into a deeper place of trust. But not without enormous wrestling with
him, worry, sleeplessness and stress on my part, along with extreme
overwork for both my husband and me as we tried to make certain we
had a house to live in and food to eat. The strain deeply affected
our family of five, as well as our extended family, as we tried to
lash the sides of our lives together.
Transition's side effects are often unnoticed in the sandstorm of
change, until a vague malaise, a "what's wrong with me?"
fog drapes over us. Eventually we find ourselves shaking sand out
of our shoes, and we realize we're in the outback. There stress, anxiety,
locked-in emotions and loss of sleep may buckle our flimsy tents.
Whether transitions produce seismic shifts or sand in our teeth, they
tax our emotional, spiritual and physical resources. Then it's time
to add up the changes and look for grace, for that unmerited presence
and favor of God in the midst of our desert.
THE WILDERNESS CHANGE
A group of long-trusted friends and I graphed the decades of our lives
on life charts. We plotted high points above the line, hard times
below. Looking at my clusters of peaks and swoops, my heart bumped
in my chest. The points bulldozing the bottom were also the times
that I felt God's presence and power had been the most dramatic. Those
were the places where, in spite of my tears and fear and anguish,
God established an incredible track record of faithfulness.
Very spiritual people have said this, to my annoyance and frank disbelief.
It's a gift of retrospect, possibly, and as much as I have disliked
hearing this from others, those hard and desperate plot points shaped
my faith and changed me. Realizing this, I felt the confirmation of
God's vital surrounding love and grace, even while venturing through
this current wasteland of transition.
THE WILDERNESS LUGGAGE
Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club opens with a description of a path on
which hundreds of exiles trod. Remnants litter the roadside: discarded
furniture, family treasures, items too big or bulky or cumbersome
to carry. The road, much longer than they anticipated; the baggage,
much heavier than they could haul.
Seasoned desert travelers pack lightly. They carry as little as possible
in order to conserve energy while trudging through the scorching days,
but they pack enough to sustain them in the cold nights. Needs are
simple: water, food, protection from the elements and wildlife. If
only we knew when exactly our feet touched the edges of the wilderness,
if only the map were drawn a little more clearly and to scale, we
could know what to pack in our duffels. As it is, too often we lift
up our heads from our hike and realize, suddenly, that sand surrounds
us; had we known our trip pointed us toward transition's wilderness,
we could have prepared more thoroughly for the journey.
Still, recognizing this place of life change, this leg of our nomadic
expedition, we can begin shedding extraneous baggage: peripheral involvements
that exhaust or dislocate our gifts and goals, nagging duties that,
in the final analysis, are optional and always draining. The wilderness
is no time to heft extra weight. When someone asks, "Wouldn't
you love to serve on this committee?" we can deprogram the default
setting on our guilt-o-meter. The wilderness may not be the place
for new responsibilities.
THE WILDERNESS LONGING
Inescapably, times of change eventually create longing: for protection,
for security, for safe passage. We want comfort, sameness. We want
our own bed! Transitions force the question: In what will we trust?
Where will we find our hope when the world falls away from us, when
the landscapes of our life are blurred by our tears, by sleepless
eyes, and our nights haunted by doubts, misgivings and the specter
The desert also unveils a profound, piercing ache: all these longings
and questions can be satisfied at their deepest level only by the
presence of God.
And that is the grace point of transition.
THE WILDERNESS GIFT
In the midst of sorting through our longings and luggage, our insecurities
and fears, when we're in danger of losing our bearings and perspective,
forgetting where we're headed and why, remember: the instability,
fragility and tenuous nature of life characterize each of us, regardless
of life stage or age. None of us lives in stasis, in unchange.
No one, that is, but God. In God there is no changing. Immutable
is our God. Our change becomes a chance to rely on the God who doesn't
change but instead changes us. And so, even in times of great shaking,
where all our familiar structures appear to be shifting, falling,
crumbling, God is unchanging. The desert becomes a conversion point,
a place in our life where our trust shifts from ourself to our God.
Whether our wilderness results from change in relationships, health,
living situation, occupation or spiritual journey, ultimately any
wilderness of external change is about a deeper change. Transitions
become transformation opportunities, spiritual disciplines externally
imposed, when seen in the light of God's hopes for our life.
During this transition time, the only constant we have is this unchanging
God, in whom is no shadow of turning. God guides our steps, assures
us of protection and presence, and promises to cross the land with
us. He is working just beyond the headlights of our life, inviting
us deeper into abandoning our own shortsighted, vision-oriented, "show
me then I'll trust" approach. Because in faith, in this place
of conversion, God asks us into abandonment-to let go of our need
to control, to see the path before starting out. Faith is not walking
by sight; it is a midnight stumble on a moonless stretch of dirt.
Transition means passage from one stage or state or location to another.
Passage means that in the fullness of time we pass through and arrive
at a new destination. The word promises a crossing over. Though abandonment
feelings are not uncommon in barren lands, we are never left to our
own devices. No, we sojourn with the God who says, "See, I am
doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am
making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland" (Isaiah
In places of seeming aloneness, it is easy to forget that God provides
a way in the desert. We lose our spiritual bearings in the wastelands
when we close our eyes against the blowing sand. In Isaiah 43 the
Israelites failed to appreciate their trailbreaking God. Even the
wild animals honored him because "'I provide water in the desert
and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise. Yet
you have not called upon me,' says the Lord" (Isaiah 43:20-22).
Wilderness experts know it is unwise to travel alone. And although
the wilderness feels alone and lonely, we are never without God's
guiding hand. The peril lies in believing that because we cannot see
that hand, we must drag ourselves through the tough times and land
on the other side by our own clever and carefully honed wilderness
The gift of the wilderness is that it is best navigated with help
from God. He wants us to call on him.
Think of the Israelites traversing the desert in sandals. Wasn't that
broiling sand hot on bare toes? But hot or not, turning back was not
a choice. Though they whined about the desert ("If only we had
died by the LORD's hand in Egypt!" Exodus 16:3), to go backward
meant certain death. They had to go forward and figure out what to
do with their anxiety and fear on the journey; they could not wince,
grimace and hotfoot it back to Egypt, with their hearts stiffened
by anger, pain and resentment.
Turning back is not really a choice for us, either. Most transitions
are not reversible. Even so, too often we take the return-to-Egypt
approach with our spirits. We ouch and grouch and idolize the great
life we had before transition set upon us like a whirling tornado.
We have wimpy feet and hardened hearts from our wilderness forays.
We need instead tough soles and tender souls. A desert danger is that
we encase our heart in stone, steeling ourselves against the pain
of change, and then lose the opportunities of meeting and being sustained
by God along the way, of being changed by the journey.
The heart is a sensitive instrument. Sometimes our feelings hurt
so that we prefer death: prefer not to feel, to move into anesthetized
living, to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and
just getting through. Survival is our only goal. But transition's
wilderness is not really about the dilemma at hand: how bad the job
or the teenager is, how much you want a baby or a husband, or don't
want the one you have.
THE WILDERNESS DIRECTION
We think we are on a journey through life, physically. Life is about
getting through the next minute, hour, day, week, year. And sometimes
that is a valid, short-term technique in crisis. But long-term, we
will lose our heart with that approach. Throughout our life, God is
at work, reconfiguring, transforming, remaking us. God is all about
our heart, about healing broken places. The heat of the desert shapes
us in the Heartsmith's fire.
But this goes against our self-protective habits of guarding our
heart. We think guarding our heart means "Don't let anyone hurt
us," so we shut down, immobilize, lock and key our heart, like
a guard at the Art Institute who denies anyone access to a prized
Truly, though, guarding our heart means making certain we allow ourselves
to feel all we are supposed to feel. We refuse to allow others to
shame us or frighten us into shutting down. We guard our heart, then,
by giving it room to grow, to explore-and yes, be hurt, just as mothers
must allow their children freedom to grow and to be hurt. The lockdown
approach destroys heartful living, and in our expedition through the
wilds our heart may be the bounty we seek. Bring it back alive! The
desert becomes a search and rescue attempt from God. Perhaps we are
on this safari not for big game but to find our own heart. And God's.
RESPONDING TO THE WILDERNESS
Given the inevitability of change, we often feel powerless, without
any choices. But we do have options in transition, decisions we can
make that will transform the wilderness from barrenness to bounty.
Throughout our travel together, we can discover those grace points
in the wilderness. We can choose to feel our desert feelings, to focus
and follow God, to find the meaning and learn to flourish in spite
of the pH balance of the soil of our life. Like the Israelites, we
can choose to feast, to fellowship, even to find fun in the wilderness.
And wrapped in all our choices is the heart response; to remember
our journeys, that God's righteousness might be revealed; to not forget
where he has taken us, as difficult as that path may be; and to choose
to live in freedom in the desert.
As a skinny kid growing up in southern Indiana, I found those first
barefoot summer days grueling. Shoes were excessive, like a tail on
a frog, to be shed as soon as possible. But our feet had grown soft
from school shoes and socks, and we cringed and limped, arms flailing
for balance, over gravel driveways and blazing, tar-coated streets.
Within days, though, we ran across the rocks and teetered on our haunches
over the sun-baked tar to pop the bubbles. Barefoot pain prepared
me for the joys of childhood play. I wouldn't have missed it for the
I am nearing that place where I can say, "I wouldn't have missed
it for the world," about those down-spikes in my life, those
places where pain was huge but God even larger. We might not choose
change, especially difficult change-probably wouldn't. And yet, God
so wants our heart to be whole, this wilderness trip may be just the
One friend wrote me, in the midst of a season of anguish and sorting,
"As much as it feels bad at times, I would fight you for it rather
than let you take it away from me. Because I have a sense that there
is something good on the other side-something God wants me to have,
know, learn, rest in about himself, something I dearly want."
Martin Luther said,
This life therefore is not righteousness
but growth in righteousness
not health but healing
not being but becoming. . . .
We are not yet what we shall be
but we are growing toward it.
The process is not yet finished
but it is going on.
This is not the end
but it is the road.
All does not yet gleam in glory
but all is being purified.
I love Deuteronomy 1:31, describing Israel's relationship with God
in the desert, "where you experienced him carrying you along
like a man carries his son. This he did everywhere you went until
you came to this very place" (NET). If God can do this with 600,000
men and their wives and children, then God can be there for us, as
well. In these times of change, may God carry us as a parent carries
a child. And as we remember our journey, may God grant us joy in the
looking back, that we might say, "I wouldn't have missed it for
Taken from Grace
Points by Jane Rubietta. 2004 by Jane Rubietta. Used by permission
of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.
Jane Rubietta is a popular speaker at events around the continent.
Among other books, she wrote Quiet Places (Bethany House) and
How to Keep the Pastor You Love (IVP). She and her husband,
Rich, founded Abounding Ministries, a non-profit organization whose
mission is to offer people a life-changing experience of God's love
in Jesus Christ through music, writing, speaking and retreats in communities,
schools, and churches. Visit her ministry's Web site at www.abounding.org.