Years ago, I worked with my academic mentor, Jim Fowler, the founder of the Center for Faith Development at Emory, to construct a retreat format for people who were trying to make sense of their lives midstream. Fowler had worked with his own mentor, Carlyle Marney, at a retreat center in the mountains of North Carolina known as Lake Junaluska. Marney, a world-class theologian from the Baptists South of God, had begun a rescue mission of sorts. He periodically gathered a menagerie of ministers to sit with him, telling their stories, trying to make sense out of where they had been, where they were, and where in the world they were going. He called this sacred space of meeting, Interpreter’s House, in homage the John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress. Carlyle Marney had also served as my boyhood mentor, so the apostolic line of connection was strong as Fowler and I teamed up for this new work of extending Marney’s soulprint.
Could we give people a map to help them in the living of life? Could we offer a picture of the lay of the land of being human that might give some guidance? While we had developed and researched a six-stage cognitive framework that we were presenting in the academic world as a normative model for how people develop in their faith, we knew that our intricate stage theory would be hard to translate into everyday language for quick and easy consumption.
Instead, we opted for a model that was a bit more simple and accessible. It came from the ground-breaking work of William Bridges who presented a three-part way of seeing human life. The three stages saw first light of day in his book, Transitions. Bridges looked at the human experience of change, using sophisticated anthropological studies of how people in various cultures negotiated the process of change. He named these three phases: Endings, Neutral Zone, and New Beginnings. We thought this would offer a descriptive, non-judgmental way of helping people reflect on their lives in process.
We constructed a retreat format, which we tested among generational cohort groups, funded by the Lilly Foundation, to see if our design could actually help people make sense of where they were in life. The good new was that, in fact, it did, to the point that it would wind up being used in United Methodist circles as the Pilgrimage Project. I was excited to see the work we had done be so helpful to people in continuing in their journey of life, knowing that Marney would approve.
With this three-fold process in mind, I wound up continuing my work by thinking even more deeply about this pattern. Clearly these three phases in transition match up and correspond to an older story found in Hebrew history, the Exodus. This story of liberation and deliverance is memorialized in the annual festival in the Hebrew faith known as Passover.
The story begins with the ending of the Hebrews’ time as slaves in Egypt. Moses demanded freedom for his people, and after some unusual strong-arm tactics of the Almighty, in terms of plagues, famines, and notably, the death of the first-born in the household of the Egyptians, Pharaoh let the Hebrew people go, liberating them to leave their bondage. This represents an Ending, a death of sorts, of the way things were. The Hebrew people left what was known, headed for the New, the unknown..
But before they could get to the New, whatever that was to be, they had to go through a time of wandering in the wilderness. It corresponds to Bridges’ Neutral Zone, a time of “inbetween” in which disorientation tended to predominate. In the Hebrew narrative, it was said to have lasted 40 years, which I used to joke that “40 years” was a Hebrew idiom, a symbol, for “a long damn time.” It has been said that the forty years was about the time it took for the slave identity, or mindset, to die off before they were ready to enter into the New.
Those of you who remember the story recall that Moses was able to see the Promised Land but knew that he would not live to see the completion of the journey. As an Atlanta boy, Martin King’s use of this imagery on that fateful night in Memphis resonates loudly when I remind myself and others of this part of the story.
Finally, the Hebrew people cross the mythic boundary into the Promised Land, a new way of being, full of promise and freedom. They entered into a covenant with God. They would be God’s people in this new landscape of being. This was the destination point for this particular people who had left slavery, suffered through the wilderness, to then crossed over to claim the New.
This is the three-fold pattern that we employed to prompt people of faith to think about their particular life journeys. What slavery has bound you in the past, and what did it take for you to get free? What wilderness have you gone through in your life? What did the existential desert feel like? Where did you find sustenance for your time in the wilderness? What did your new beginning turn out to be? What principles have you found on your mountain of experience? What covenants and vows have you made to God and to neighbor?
I found that this form made sense to many people in naming the components of their journey in life. They could readily place themselves in the story, or should I say, the story helped them to name where they were in their current journey. We found that this Exodus narrative freed them to talk about the contours of their life, namely the present challenges. Surprisingly perhaps, once they felt “located” in a bigger story, it granted them a sense of hope for their own story’s continuation.
Further, this biblical journey was called the pesach, or the Passover, as the Hebrew people have ritually celebrated their passage from slavery to freedom. Christians employed this ancient form to apply to the drama in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus who comes to be viewed as the Christ. Again with a three-fold pattern, Jesus dies, spends the mysterious “inbetween” time of three days, and then rises from the dead as the Resurrected Christ. In my liturgical studies, this cosmic drama was called the Paschal Mystery, coming from the word “pesach” or passage.
In my own life, and in listening to the stories of others, this pattern seems to be repeated, over and over. Death, literal or symbolic, occur. It is followed by a time in the wilderness, a time of transition. And this is followed by the birth of something new.
Death- Inbetween-New Birth. Has this happened for you? Or am I just trying to manufacture a pattern that makes me feel better in the chaos and change in my life? Is this a three-fold pattern that helps you make sense out of your life?
I would love to hear from you as to what you have experienced. Drop me a note here or email me in a more private means at email@example.com .
I will be expanding on this in future posts but wanted you to get a taste. Many Christians are beginning a period known as Lent that is meant to prepare for Easter, Following this Paschal model, the death, or change, occurs sacramentally, or symbolically at Ash Wednesday, as our literal mortality is affirmed. In fact, our noses are rubbed in it. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return!” In other words, Don’t forget it! You are mortal, formed of cells that will die some day, at which point you will return to the dirt. Ash Wednesday highlights our mortal nature, a truth that we are in the process of dying.
Having gotten the message of mortality, you are invited to enter the land of “inbetween”, Lent, in which you embrace your brokenness, your ever-present mortality, as you approach the Easter mystery. Traditionally, you “give something up” for Lent, something you probably should do anyway. But a deeper participation in the Lenten time is to use it as a way to examine your current situation in life. What might you need to change? What needs amending? What directional adjustment might be needed? What might you “take on” in your life, rather than give up? This is the powerful way the Church provides for pilgrims to journey again from the slavery of “stuckness” into the new land of being awakened.
This three-fold pattern. Death- Inbetween- New Birth. I have called it the Paschal Paradigm. It is a way of conceptualizing faith and hope. The Paschal Paradigm grants hope to those that have experienced the death of their loved one, a death in relationships, or the death of certain institutions. Change is the only constant. How can we move more faithfully into those changes that come, some that we choose, some that just come unbidden? How can we faithfully lean into change? Death represents the ultimate change we face as humans.
The Paschal Paradigm offers hope to folks who are fresh in their experience of endings that threaten the meaning of the present, as they await silently, in hope for a new beginning.
Personally, the naturalist, the nascent Druid-in-me self, is thankful that the Easter drama and the Hebrew Passover takes place on the stage of Spring. It is no accident that these powerful stories find themselves cast in the wake of a gray, testing Winter as Spring answers with the resound Yes of new life and growth. That vexing gray is invaded by green. The old dies and awaits the birth of the new. Such is the pattern that we live within and have our being.
Perhaps this Paschal Paradigm has more to offer than a Hallmark card flimsy aphorism of Happy Easter. Perhaps there is more joy in this awakening than that of the taste of a Cadbury egg, as rare and delicious as they are. The Paschal Paradigm offers a way through, and that is worth celebrating.