This may sound a bit odd, that I, as writer, would ask you, as reader to participate in this essay beyond just reading. But, I’m going to take a chance. Will you stop for a moment and call to mind a moment of transformation in your life? Think of a time when you where changed. It may be a sudden, catastrophic moment or it may be a long, gradual process that led to a moment of insight or recognition. It may be something positive or it may be an event that at the time seemed so negative that you weren’t sure you would make it through.
Got it? Think it through as if you were telling it to someone as a story. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Now, think of another one. Yep. One more. Same prompt. A time when you were changed. Sudden or long process. Positive or negative. One more time, think it through as if you were telling it to someone as a story. You might even want to take a moment with a pen and paper or your word processing program on your tablet. I’ll wait.
Could I talk you into doing it one more time? Sure. I’ll wait. I’ve got all the time in the world. And this could be important.
What I just asked you to do was one of the early exercises from a recent retreat for our church council and staff. I wish you could have been a fly on the wall watching what happened. Folks were astonishingly engaged in telling their stories and in listening to others. The positive energy that flowed from this exercise went way beyond my expectations.
Even beyond that, what I learned in the telling of these stories surprised me. I expected to hear accounts of being impacted by a parent or a favorite teacher. Maybe it would be a vocational decision made in the midst of all the growth of the college years.
Of the 30 or so stories that got told in that room in that 60 minutes, almost all told of some crisis: the death of a spouse; the death of a parent; the financial collapse of 2007 and the sudden realization of job vulnerability; the break-up of a marriage. Almost everyone spoke of moments of pain, of loss, and earth-shattering crisis.
Now, admittedly, this is not hard research. This is a very small sample and anecdotal at best. At least in this group, what they remembered as truly transformative, life-shaping experiences were at the time moments of crisis, of deep pain or struggle, the kinds of things that they would never have chosen to go through. Yet in the rearview mirror of passing time, these moments took on the character of moments of great growth that in retrospect could be seen as gifts, as times of great blessing. I’m not sure those who told of these moments even recognized them as such, except in the telling. The blessing, the growth, came in how they responded to the moments of crisis.
Something else that became crystal clear as the group stepped back and processed what they had just heard: these moments of crisis that became not only formative, but transformative were not things that anyone could plan for. Now maybe that’s obvious. Or maybe not. We put such a value on planning our lives, as if we had complete — or even mostly — control over what happens. But in the meantime, life happens. Things happen, both positive and negative, that we could never have imagined, nor would we have ever chosen. Yet these are the moments that we label transformative. I think there’s a lesson there.
I also happen to think that’s a pretty good pretty good parable for the church. Historically, we have spent so much time and effort on planning based on the premise that we kind of know what’s going to happen. We’ve done planning and visioning and strategizing, world without end, Amen. But the future usually doesn’t work like that. Not to mention that our plans for the future are often simply what we’ve done in the past gussied up a bit.
We are living in a moment of rapid, paradigm-busting change. And in times of rapid change the strategic planning model just doesn’t work very well. What we can do is get into the habit of looking around us, even in the crisis du jour, to see what God might be opening up for us. And these opportunities — our should we call them crises — just might turn out to be moments of transformation.