It has rightly been observed that the only thing that doesn’t change in the life of a mission worker is the presence of change! Our lives are constantly changing as we transition between different countries, cultures, roles, relationships, agencies, cities, ages, homes, family settings and churches. Yet for all the frequency of change, most of us do not deal with it well.
Change destabilises us emotionally. It removes the certainties that we rely on to maintain emotional equilibrium. We don’t know where to shop. We don’t understand the language. We’re not sure if people are staring at us simply because we look different, or because we’ve done something terribly wrong. Sometimes we recognise and prepare for the big things that change, but often it’s the little ones that trip us up. We can cope with eating different food three times a day but really miss our favourite brand of coffee.
Transition could be likened to crossing a wide river from firm land on one side to firm land on the other. We might cross in a rickety raft or on a rope bridge, but we seldom cruise across on a concrete motorway bridge. The journey feels scary and we become aware of our vulnerability as the safety of the familiar is swept away.
There are several things we can do to make this transition easier. First, we need to recognise it for what it is – a big change that may well be uncomfortable even though it’s worth making. We can express our feelings to our close supporters – partly so that we can acknowledge our feelings, partly so we can find prayer and support. We can name our fears so that they have less hold on us. We can discuss where we are in this process with other people making the transition with us, so that they know where we are on this journey, and why we can’t necessarily share their enthusiasm or sadness.
Second, we need to say goodbye. Not only to friends, colleagues and community, but also places we won’t visit again: the bedroom where your first son was born; the church you founded; your favourite holiday destination. And also say goodbye to the roles we once had, because we may be going from a place where we had significance and honour to somewhere we are just another stupid foreigner. We need to leave well, not running away from unfinished business or leaving behind broken relationships.
Third, we need to be thankful for what God has done. It may not have worked out quite how we expected, and there may well have been pain and disappointment on our journey. But despite the challenging situations, we have also experienced God’s provision and blessings. We have learned things and we have borne fruit. We have started or maintained projects, or maybe closed things down, but each time we may have been part of God’s plan, even if it was only the part which makes us look a little bit more like him.
Fourth, we need some sort of ritual to embody the transition. Research has suggested that people make transition more effectively when it is supported by rites of passage of some sort. Some traditional societies make great importance of using ritual in transitions such as coming of age and marriage, coming and going, but we have lost much of this in western culture. Having rituals of leaving and joining, such as commissioning services, goodbye meals, welcome ceremonies can be an important part of making as successful transition, so don’t avoid them out of embarrassment or false humility. They also give old friends a chance to say their goodbyes, and new friends a chance to be welcoming.
And finally, let us remember that in all the changes of this life let us remember the One who does not change at all – our God! No matter where we have been, he has been with us even if his presence has been hard to see at times, and wherever we go, he is already there. Psalm 139 reminds us of this:
Where could I go to escape from your Spirit or from your sight?
If I were to climb up to the highest heavens, you would be there.
If I were to dig down to the world of the dead, you would also be there.
Suppose I had wings like the dawning day and flew across the ocean,
Even then your powerful arm would guide and protect me.
Or suppose I said, “I’ll hide in the dark until night comes to cover me over” –
But you see in the dark because daylight and dark are all the same to you.