May 18, 2011 Volume 4 Issue 9
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
(Editor’s note: This is the final column of the 2010-2011 academic year.)
By R. Judson Carlberg
I still remember meeting my wife in the dining hall of college almost fifty years ago. I remember the day we got married and I remember when we went on to graduate school to earn our degrees. Our children came along and grew with us in each phase of our lives together, as each moment turned into the next. They became wonderful and important transitions for us.
You could say our lives are a continuum of transitions, of one actual event moving into another until they become memories to cherish. In some ways, transitions define our living. Our institutions, our families, our careers all go through change on a regular basis, and sometimes such transitions can be emotional. We meet people we love, and miss them when they—or we—move on to other opportunities.
For all their sentimentality, though, we all know that sometimes transitions are difficult. Sometimes they are even threatening and frightening. Our healthy lifestyles become compromised with the news of a diagnosis we weren’t anticipating. The announcement of cancer or some other disease comes with unexpected transitions, ones we were never prepared for and never fully understand. They force us to reflect differently on the transitions we’d planned in our lives and lead us to let go of those plans entirely, acknowledging in the process we were never really in control in the first place.
Difficult transitions such as these also lead to difficult questions. Do we have the right doctors or leaders? Is there a second opinion? What else can we do? What other strategies might we consider? Those are often the immediate more rational questions, but others come, too, as the truth begins to settle in: Why is this happening? Why now? What does the future hold? How long?
Where is God in this?
I have asked these questions myself, as I’ve transitioned out of a place I’ve called home for 35 years and into a new phase of service and leadership that suddenly came with the news of a health scare. Yet, in the midst of both, I have also come to realize that no matter the outcome, or the heartache, God is not silent. In fact, the psalmist reminds us that though we seek and thirst for Him in a dry and parched land, His love is better than life.
A friend of mine once wrote that old questions during transitions often take on critical importance again. The question of why becomes uppermost in the minds of those who have faced disturbing transitions. The answers are not easy and they cannot be answered glibly.
But God is not silent.
In fact, the uncertainties we face often reveal our need, needs that consequently lead us to choices and decisions we make in order to get through the difficulties. We have the freedom to choose which direction to take or what attitude to reflect as we confront these new challenges. Yet, such freedom doesn’t always lead to good choices—a government, an administration or a leader can make choices that leads to suffering or chaos.
So rather than ask the question of why is this transition or hardship happening—which usually feels unanswerable in the moment—perhaps the better question is who. Who is with us in times of suffering?
I’ve come to believe God is with us. And how do I know? Through many ways: Music—classical, jazz, Gospel, you name it—refreshes my soul and reminds me of the many gifts God’s given to others. Scripture becomes fresh and more meaningful in its relational narrative. The voices of friends, family members and especially my grandchildren become more supportive and significant than ever.
Through all of these conduits, I am touched in new ways; they bring a quiet calm to me. Love and wisdom becomes clearer, deeper, truer. And because I know that others, too, are suffering or facing changes, the going becomes a little easier. I am reminded through handwritten notes, small gestures and kind deeds that I am part of a bigger story. That we don’t enter these transitions alone.
Yes, I’m more convinced than ever that we do not walk into these new changes on our own. When we pass through the waters, the prophet Isaiah wrote, God will be with us. When we walk through the fires, we will not be burned.
We are not promised a life void of suffering or struggles, no matter how comfortable our American culture might want us to be. A life on Easy Street is not the life most of us know, and the presence of continual transitions confirms it. Yet put in the right perspective, transitions deepen our faith and teach us what matters most. Good can come from suffering, and so I see that we must not resent the trials as intruders. Rather if we welcome them as friends, they produce in us the quality of endurance.
That endurance is what gets us through even the most grueling transition, one made possible as we rest in the shadow of the One who has never changed.
Dr. R. Judson Carlberg has been the president of Gordon College in Wenham, MA, since 1992. Before that, he served as academic dean since 1976. He is retiring June 30, 2011. He and his wife Jan live in Wenham, MA.