Updated: May 3
I typically handle transition like a teenager learning to drive a manual transmission—lots of lurching stops and grinding gears. The truth is only Jesus Himself has taught me to shift gears smoothly in life’s transitions. In my own life and work, I’ve found a helpful model for handling change in the familiar story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, found in Luke 24.
Transition Blinds Us
Heading into Jerusalem, Jesus knew that his followers had very specific expectations of His coming Kingdom. Their starry-eyed visions of vanquishing Rome expired on a cross with his brutal torture and death. The road to Emmaus begins as Jesus helps two disciples grapple with their disappointment. “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” he asks. Their response is telling. With their “faces downcast,” they share with the stranger their bitter disappointment, “We had hoped….” In our language, Jesus might say, “What are you saying to yourself about this change in your life? What is the lens through which you are viewing these unexpected events? Can you see this change in light of my plan and my power? Psychologists call this “cognitive restructuring.”
In 2008 as the VP of Operations, I had the sad responsibility of laying off the staff of a regional jewelry chain after the economic downturn that affected so many. I told each employee what I appreciated about them, how I thought they had helped their store, and thanked them for their commitment. No one had ever given me a class on how to fire someone in a positive way, but I did my best. I wanted each of them to know they weren’t a failure… they had incredible strengths that would no doubt be used elsewhere. Then the next day—things got personal when I discovered I was laid off too. Surprise! How could I not feel like a failure?
One of my professors from Fuller, Dr. Archibald Hart, says it this way, “The problem with the church today is that we have no theology of failure.” I was challenged to see the failure of a business and the loss of a job in the overarching plan of a good God and redefine failure. Using that degree, I got a position working at a Christian university, helping young men and women become Christian leaders to change the world. As Jesus told those disciples, “O foolish ones… was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (24:25-26) Jesus took me on the road to Emmaus and asked me to discover that suffering is sometimes necessary in following Him.
Transition Isolates Us
Since that forced job transition, I’ve literally had hundreds of friends and acquaintances approach me in similar situations. A recruiter is only needed when an organization has an open position to fill, or a candidate leaves their job. I’ve become an expert in transition! One thing I’ve noticed is that change isolates. It happened to Cleopas and his friend, wandering away from their friends, alone on the dusty road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Changes like job loss, the end of a marriage, or a wayward child force us into the shame of thinking we must face our problems alone.
On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the unnamed disciple (perhaps we should give him our name?) begin to find hope in their hearts only when they pause for a meal with this curious stranger. If we want to experience transformation in transition, perhaps the answer is as easy as calling a few people we trust and sharing a meal. Tell them what happened. Ask them to pray or be supportive. Commit to check in regularly about progress made and disappointments experienced. When we break bread together and share God’s Word, Jesus reveals Himself in our midst and we can exchange anxiety for gratitude even through unexpected changes.
Jesus Walks Through Transition with Us
Of course, the surprise ending of this Emmaus episode is that the disciples’ eyes are opened and they realize that Jesus had been with them all along. How sad that I have forgotten this lesson so often in my life… though I feel alone, Christ walks with me. And I suspect that the changes you may be experiencing right now are part of your Emmaus experience. The surprise layoff at your nonprofit didn’t surprise Him, and the major donors that didn’t renew their pledges are just an opportunity for you to believe. Change is the defibrillator that God uses to jolt our slow, unbelieving hearts back to life again. We can move from downcast faces and shattered dreams to burning hearts of faith. Change is inevitable, but the growth? That’s up to us!