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The most expansive and somewhat expensive car repair I’ve ever risked taking was replacing the noisy, failing transmission in our family’s 10-year-old ‘53 Chevrolet. I did the work lying on my back, thinking and uttering things that a high-school son could. The “tranny” had only four gears, three forward and a reverse, all controlled by a lever on the steering column. Today our SUV has ten gears, nine forward and one reverse, engaged electronically by pushing a button. Car transmissions and life transitions have changed, or have they?  

Author and storyteller Bruce Feiler, in his book Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, advocates that our lives are not lived in a linear fashion, but instead are nonlinear. The nonlinear means it’s a matter of our facing or experiencing dozens of disrupters, of which one or two would be called life-quakes, major changes leading to making a big transition, a shift into a different “gear.”

Such transitions are not even necessarily smooth. There may be a noisy “grinding of gears” moving from one period to another. Sometimes we are rather reluctant to shift, remaining as we do so in an unsettled state of affairs, with little linear or forward movement.

As Regional Pastors, we find that a great deal of our heavy lifting is done by helping pastors navigate such pivotal scenarios. How well Feiler spells out any strategies “to reimagine and rebuild” used in doing so is yours to determine if you were to read Feiler’s book. 

Reading it was easier and more enlightening than sweating underneath Dad’s Chevy. He begins by our examining, through stories, our own lives, trusting we’ll also conclude they’re not as linear as we thought. Done with that diagnosis, he follows with suggestions on how to reshape one’s life, again with illustrative stories.

Reading them, I was reminded of a week I spent recently with several chaplains. Their refrain or mantra: “It’s always about our story!” Similarly, a few Feiler quotes.  “…stories give our lives meaning—from the tribal gatherings of the ancient world to the chaotic family dinners of today.” (p.2) Then, already on the next page, the question comes that pastors are asking, whether just starting or at mid-life, “What happens when our fairy tales go awry?” 

The lesson for a Regional Pastor is clear: “Get your pastors to share their story.” Feiler underlines it, saying:  “…reimagining and reconstructing our personal stories is vital to living a fulfilling life.” He emphasizes what we’ve learned by the time we become Regional Pastors, “the world no longer adheres to predictable, linear mandates. Instead, life is filled with chaos and complexity, order and disorder….”

I drew erratic lines all over this paragraph on page 15. I believe any of us could have written what he wrote later, “…we experience life as a complex swirl of celebrations, setbacks, triumphs, and rebirths across the full span of our years.”

As cars have become more complex with driving “assists,” reflecting the help and complexity we desire, so too a pastor’s life may desire more assists negotiating the pastorate. And yet, is there anything new under the sun? 

Feiler then moves to define more of life, including an acknowledgement of its expanding from “me” to “we” and then to “thee.” We move from enlightening self-revelations occasioned by chaos at times to a better refined self-identity. A chapter on “Learning to Dance in the Rain,” encourages handling what comes our way as not being a matter of waiting until it’s stopped raining, but handling life as and when it comes. Maybe, just maybe, a new, even re-built transmission is warranted in order to move ahead. Negotiate the transition.  

Again, my chaplain friends’ words come to life, “It’s in the story! Make sure you listen carefully!” It could be time to celebrate the triumphs and jettison the false beliefs or expectations! Begin by being creative and listening to your own story.

Feiler helps his reader do so, spelling out ways of telling “The Story of Your Life.” He provides several pages of suggestions that are most helpful. Asking and answering about our own life’s “High Point,” “Low Point,” or “Turning Point’ may occasion helpful insights or remembrances as to why we do what pastors do.

Answering the questions outlined in “Secrets of Successful Transitions” first might make reading the book almost superfluous. Answering the “The Shape of Your Life” and its two questions with a fellow Regional Pastor could certainly lead to an evening of helpful insights and discussion. 

The book is not geared particularly to pastors, and if you’re looking for easy solutions to difficult transitions, they’re not there to be found. The book calls for knowing our story and the implications of various events. What bumps, setbacks, disruptions or noises occasioned the transitions?

Listen to the stories, your own—and those of others. Doing so may be easier than changing a broken transmission and longer lasting. Tell your story, on paper or to a friend. It’ll make you conscious of who you are, a unique child of God, and why you can master the transition. (Or, change the transmission?)

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