My friend Bill is changing jobs. Another friend, Terri, who was widowed a year ago, is now trying to sort out what she really wants to do with the rest of her life. My neighbor Nancy will have an empty nest next spring. Christine is new in town.
For each of them, it is a time of transition: Something has ended, while something new has not yet begun. And while everyone’s unique circumstances may present different sets of challenges and opportunities, I know that my friends are all feeling some of the same things I’ve felt when my life has been in transition: excitement, anxiety, fear and confusion.
Framed by faith and prayer, however, my friends and I have also experienced something else in these life changes—they offer us unique opportunities to grow closer to God.
Prayer Is the Key
Meeting God in the midst of our lives is nothing new. Most of us have learned to expect to find God in our daily routines, our predictable activities and our special occasions. What we don’t always remember is that God is with us in the messy stuff, too, like career changes, household moves, shifting patterns in family life and relationships or future planning.
It takes a lot of physical, emotional and psychological work just to keep up with the demands that transitions can make on us; to be spiritually on top of it at the same time can be almost impossible.
When Nancy talks about her last child leaving home and the changes it will bring to her lifestyle, it’s obvious she’s feeling encroaching disorder.
“It’s not easy being ‘in-between,’” says Nancy. “I feel like I’m standing in front of a door, but it’s not time to walk in yet. I’m not even sure how I’ll feel when I do—I expect there will be both good and bad—and I don’t know exactly what it will be like on the other side. But I know it’s coming, and I want to be ready.”
For her, “getting ready” currently includes self-reflection, exploring possible career options and time spent in prayer. “Heavy on the prayer,” she laughs. “In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that prayer helps just about more than anything.”
Prayer can indeed be a key factor in helping us successfully navigate the various passages of our lives. When our own creativity and inspiration run low (as they often do in times of change), we can turn to the Bible for numerous examples of men and women who have sought—or unexpectedly discovered—God waiting for them in the in-between times of their lives.
In the Old Testament, Moses was biding his time, shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law, when God invited him to make a job change. Several books later, Samuel was training for temple service when he received a literal wake-up call from the Lord.
On the morning of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene was steeped in grief when she arrived at Jesus’ tomb.
And in Acts, a driven Saul was suddenly brought up short (or rather, knocked to the ground) on the threshold of his dramatic conversion into the man we know as Saint Paul.
Yet despite the differences in details, these stories have much in common—they give us the portraits of people who encountered God in the in-between times of their lives. Taken as examples of prayer, they can also give us valuable insights, as well as practical direction, for the way we pray during our own in-between times today.
The Path of Transformation
In Exodus, Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Horeb is one we should all be able to relate to: He argues with God! Who among us has not? Faced with changes we haven’t asked for or anticipated, it’s a natural and understandable response to resist and explore alternative options.
“But suppose they will not believe me, nor listen to my plea?” Moses objects to God’s plan. “If you please, Lord, send someone else!” (Exodus 4:1,13). Echoing Moses’ sentiments, we too may want to reject transitions we are called to make.
Three years ago, I found myself in Moses’ sandals, arguing with God about a relocation required by my husband’s work. I didn’t want to move. I was happy where we were.
In countless prayers, I presented my pleas for a reprieve, but God obviously was unimpressed. Like Moses making his arguments on Mount Horeb, I resisted change, until, like Moses, I was sent forth regardless of my personal preferences: We made the move.
Resolved to make the best of it, I amended my prayer from one of argument to one of faith-filled submission. Using Moses’ story as my inspiration, I also asked for transformation, trusting that just as God sustained and strengthened Moses in his new calling, God would likewise give me the grace to make a successful transition to my new home.
Today, as I reflect on the many blessings I’ve experienced as a result of that prayerful passage, I am increasingly conscious of, and grateful for, God’s powerful, and powerfully transforming, presence in the transitions of my life.
The Power of Perspective
In Acts 9:1-19, we find a compelling example of in-between prayer in the story of the conversion of Saul. Abruptly blinded by the light of revelation in his personal encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul spends three days disoriented and confused, suspended between a former life and an unknown future. He prays constantly. He sees a vision. He is dependent on the community who cares for him in his need.
Finally, at the Lord’s command and through the hands of another disciple named Ananias, Saul is healed, his eyesight is restored and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. His spiritual vision—along with his mission—has been radically altered; as a result of his intimate personal relationship with the risen Christ, he has a new understanding of himself and, eventually, even a new name. Truly transformed, he astounds those to whom he preaches the Good News, and continues to grow “all the stronger” (Acts 9:22).
My friend Terri can identify with Saint Paul. Following the sudden death of her husband, Terri was besieged by a multitude of emotions and tasks for which she was unprepared, not to mention having to handle the overwhelming grief of loss. Similarly caught between an ending to life as she had known it and a completely nebulous future, she, like Saint Paul, relied on God, family and friends to pull her through.
Now, a year later, she feels she is making significant progress reshaping her life. She has also, she believes, been irrevocably changed.
“I see things differently now,” she explains. “I find myself asking, ‘What is really important in my life?’ and I realize I don’t want to wait till it’s too late to answer that question.”
Like Saint Paul, Terri has a powerful new perspective that is guiding her growth into the person she is becoming. Encouraged by her personal reflection and strengthened by prayer, Terri has left her successful business career to return to school full-time in pursuit of an advanced degree in theology.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do with it,” she confesses, “but I trust that God will let me know.”
Anyone who has made a difficult change in life can attest to the fact that trust in God can be sorely tried by our in-between times. “Why am I not finding a new job?” we may prayerfully ask. “Why do I feel I’m not getting anywhere?”
Sometimes, all our good intentions seem defeated by delay or haunted with misgivings. Fueled by doubt, we have trouble finding God in the midst of our lives. It is at this point that the Old Testament story of young Samuel has something important to contribute to our prayer: Sometimes we need help to see God.
In 1 Samuel 3:1-18, a simple bedroom is the setting for a revelatory encounter with God. Having trained for many years as a minister to the Lord with Eli the priest, Samuel is asleep in his room when a voice wakes him. Assuming it is Eli calling, Samuel goes to him. “I did not call you,” Eli says. “Go back to sleep.”
Twice more Samuel hears the voice and runs to Eli, only to be dismissed and returned to his bed. Unsuspecting and inexperienced, Samuel does not recognize God’s voice until at last Eli is suddenly struck with the identity of the mysterious caller.
Directed by Eli how to respond, Samuel answers, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” when the Lord calls a fourth time. Aided and empowered by Eli’s faith-filled discernment, Samuel is finally able to enter fully into prayer, aware of, and interactive with, the presence of God.
Like Samuel, we also can fail to recognize God. Especially in times of change, we may get so busy with the task of coping, we forget that God reveals himself in quiet moments, in the middle of the night, as well as in the notable occasions of career changes and personal transformations. Yet Samuel’s story suggests another key that can help us make sense of our personal transitions: the assistance of others.
Accepting Spiritual Help
For many of us, asking for help doesn’t come easily. Conditioned by our ‘can-do’ culture, which applauds self-sufficiency and independence, we are reluctant to admit our need for the assistance of others when it comes to developing something as personal as our own spirituality. Even in the best of times, our human pride can keep us from seeking companionship in our spiritual journeys; under the duress of transitions, we may also feel pressure to “make it on our own.” As evidenced by the increasing number of people who are seeking assistance through various support systems—both formal and informal—however, the taboo against asking for help seems to be weakening.
In the last few years, spiritual direction in particular has become a growing resource for many individuals who desire to deepen their relationships with God. Using a one-on-one approach, spiritual directors can aptly play the role of Eli to our Samuels.
When Christine left the East Coast for a new career and lifestyle in the Midwest, she knew she was heading into what was for her uncharted territory. To ease the transition and help her regain her spiritual bearings in a new location, she began meeting with a spiritual director.
“I was a little uncomfortable at first, talking to a stranger about spiritual things,” she explains. “But now I love it. My director really walks with me through questions and doubts, which are pretty common when you make a move and change as big as I did. She’s someone I can trust with my spiritual impulses and when I’m having trouble understanding how my faith fits in with some of the issues in my life, she gives me another perspective. I really think she’s made it easier for me to find God.”
Do Not Be Afraid
Sometimes, our in-between times don’t require personal transformation, spiritual revelation or community involvement. Sometimes, the prayer we need most is one for courage.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary Magdalene and Mary as they look into the empty tomb on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection. Having just arrived to continue their mourning, they find themselves in the midst of an earthquake and a divine revelation that would rock the world for ages to come. They couldn’t know the far-reaching effects of the events they were witnessing; it’s doubtful they considered at that moment how it would change their lives. Instead, they respond in the same way most of us do when we are faced with something that rocks us loose from the comfortable, safe moorings of our familiar world: They are afraid.
Several years ago, my friend Bill had what he calls “a significant experience” that shook him professionally, personally and spiritually. An aggressive trial lawyer, he began questioning his career choice, his basic values and the ways he related (or failed to relate) to God.
“It was a frightening experience,” he recalls. “Suddenly I wasn’t sure of anything.”
Disoriented and confused about where his reflection might take him, Bill began praying in new ways. He started to write and learned to meditate. He took classes in spirituality and faith development. He’s met and talked with other men and women who are likewise seeking God in the key passages of their lives. Remembering the angel’s admonition to the women at the tomb, he’s prayed for courage.
“Now, I’m still searching,” he says, “but I’m no longer afraid. I know there’s something else ahead of me, though I don’t know exactly what it is at this point. But I know that God is with me and I’m sure he’s using this transition time for my good.”
In the conclusion to Matthew’s Gospel, the two Marys leave the tomb to announce the Resurrection to the other disciples. On the way, Jesus meets them and reminds them once more, “Do not be afraid” (28:10).
Affirmed in faith and strengthened by the risen Christ, they carry the Good News back to the small band of disciples who are waiting, unknowing and unsure, on the threshold of a whole new world.
Prayer for In-between Times
Transitions are inevitable in our lives. They are also natural, and frequently, much to our surprise, the best things that can happen for us. Our challenge as faith-filled Christians is to see God’s saving presence in every moment and even—perhaps especially—in the trying periods of change.
As my friends and I have all learned, prayer helps—not only to better make the passage, but to make the passage better by opening our hearts and minds to our God who meets us in the midst of transition.
Like those who have gone before us, we can ask God to work powerfully in our in-between times by gracing us with transformation, new perspectives, revelation, discerning companions and courage. In so doing, we make the most of our prayerful passages, because then they can truly become doorways to God.