Do you remember the first time you drove a manual transmission vehicle on the streets? I do. It was almost 12 years ago. I was newly married and was going to move us into our first apartment together. I arranged to use an automatic transmission moving truck but when we showed up the only vehicle available was stick shift 20 foot truck. Talk about a trial by fire! For the most part I did okay….for the most part. I knew the mechanics and theory behind it, I had simply never driven a stick shift on the roads before.
Most of the driving was highway driving, so that was not too difficult. The hard part came when I was driving to my father-in-law’s house in California. The highway off-ramp brings you out onto a hill at a stop light. So there I am, stopped at the light, facing uphill, knowing that I have difficulty moving from neutral into first. I literally sat there praying, “God, please don’t let me crush the car behind me!” The light turned green, and I just could not get the timing right to get it into first gear. I rolled back a couple of inches, the guy behind me was leaning on his horn and now I’m starting to panic. So I jammed the thing into second gear and hit the gas. It was a jerky ride but I got up the hill!
When we drive manual transmission vehicles, shifting improperly can result in engine damage. When we shift properly we pick up speed. Similarly, if we handle transitions in life poorly the result can be damaging. When we learn how to transition well, we pick up speed and we’re off and flying!
In Nehemiah 4 we see Israel dealing with transition as a people. Up to this point, the Israelites were exiles in Babylon. Eventually the king of Babylon allowed some of the Israelites to return to their homeland. They found the place in ruins. The wall surrounding the great city was crumbling and had gaps. Enemies could easily come and take advantage of weakened defenses. So the people sent word to Nehemiah back in Babylon about the condition of Jerusalem.
I’m sure there are at least a few of us who can admit that we’re going through transitions and it seems as though the walls are falling down around us. So the story goes:
When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became furious. He mocked the Jews 2before his colleagues and the powerful men of Samaria, and said, “What are these pathetic Jews doing? Can they restore it by themselves? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they ever finish it? Can they bring these burnt stones back to life from the mounds of rubble?” 3 Then Tobiah the Ammonite, who was beside him, said, “Indeed, even if a fox climbed up what they are building, he would break down their stone wall!”
1. In the midst of transition, we may feel or appear weak. Imagine the enemies of Israel watching the Israelites trying to rebuild the city wall. Israel’s enemies are mocking their attempts to build – that they are unable to get the job done and do it well. They appear so incapable that one man even comments that a fox climbing up would knock the wall down. Clearly, Israel’s enemies do not think very much of Israel during this time of transition.
I remember going through one of life’s transitions when our oldest daughter was born. On the first day of our baby’s life we were all in the hospital room together. My wife was exhausted – she was simply trying to rest. The baby had a wet diaper. This was my chance to step up and be a great husband and father. But, as I opened the diaper to change her wet diaper, she started to poop! In my moment of transition I felt weak. I didn’t know what to do and I started to freak out while the baby was freaking out. It was a weakness that my wife did not share and she told me, “One of you has to remain calm and, since you’re the adult, it should be you!”
Sure, it’s a silly example, but there are many ways we face transition and many ways we feel or appear weak as we move through transitions. Sometimes it is the overwhelming size of the task or the difficulty of facing the unknown as we transition that makes us seem incapable. Perhaps we feel discomfort with how we are going to change or what will be expected of us on the other side of the transition. Maybe we do not feel like we have the strength to see the transition through to the end. We should realize that appearances are not necessarily reality. What our mockers do not understand is that we may appear or even feel weak but we serve a God who is not. Israel’s efforts to transition and rebuild made them seem weak to outsiders, but they did not know the strength of the Israelite’s God – our God. And it is because the Israelites know the strength of their God that they turn to Him.
4 Listen, our God, for we are despised. Make their insults return on their own heads and let them be taken as plunder to a land of captivity. 5 Do not cover their guilt or let their sin be erased from Your sight, because they have provoked the builders.
2. In transition, God’s people first respond in prayer. The first thing Israel does when their enemies find weakness in the time of transition – they hit their knees. They asked God to bring justice, to stand up for them against their enemies who would hurt them as they tried to rebuild. In our own lives, as we transition and build, we find that we are insulted, despised, and attacked. Attacks come from different sources. Sometimes outsiders will insult and attack us. This is what happened to the Israelites. Sometimes the insults and attacks will come from insiders. My wife and I have found that any time God starts to do something in a group or ministry the first thing to be attacked is the group’s unity. Insiders start picking at each other, and the transition that God is trying to bring about is sidetracked. We face attacks from outsiders and insiders in our personal transitions too.
Nearly seven years ago I started taking care of what I ate and started exercising regularly. I was going through a personal life transition to get healthy and I ended up dropping quite a bit of weight. Walking into Bible Study one night, one of the ladies commented that my eating healthy and exercising were starting to show results and a good Christian man, a friend of mine, said, “Ah, it’ll come back.” He was not trying to insult or attack me, but it was as though he said, “A fox climbing up there would knock the whole thing down.”
How we respond in moments like that will determine if we succeed or fail in transition. As you go through your own transitions, you will face these kinds of comments, insults, and attacks. As this church goes through an incredible period of transition, it will see attacks. Some will come from outsiders. Some might come from insiders. The question is, “How will you respond when under attack?” Let us follow the example of Israel and have our primary response be on our knees in prayer. “God, this is the transition you are leading me through, so I ask that you will be my covering and my protector.” But then look what happens after they take their struggles in transition to the Lord:
11 And our enemies said, “They won’t know or see anything until we’re among them and can kill them and stop the work.” 12 When the Jews who lived nearby arrived, they said to us time and again, “Everywhere you turn, they attack us.” 13 So I stationed people behind the lowest sections of the wall, at the vulnerable areas. I stationed them by families with their swords, spears, and bows…. 15 When our enemies realized that we knew their scheme and that God had frustrated it, every one of us returned to his own work on the wall. 16 From that day on, half of my men did the work while the other half held spears, shields, bows, and armor. The officers supported all the people of Judah, 17 who were rebuilding the wall. The laborers who carried the loads worked with one hand and held a weapon with the other.
3. In transition is that there is no sitting on the sidelines. They’ve taken it to the Lord in prayer to address the attacks and criticisms, then they all get busy doing the work that God has called them to do! There is an interesting phenomenon happening here because there is no such thing as a bystander here in Israel. Nehemiah stationed the people by families along the gaps in the wall, and then they all get to work. They build up with one hand and hold their weapon in the other. There is a very practical reason for this: there is work to be done and no one can afford to sit out.
When I played high school football, my team was not a large team. Because we were smaller in number, every player had to have an offensive and defensive position – playing both sides of the ball when necessary. It wasn’t that some guys were glory hogs and wanted all of the action. If we wanted to man all of the positions to the best of our abilities we all had to stand in the gaps and plug the holes. This is what Israel is doing. Everyone has a role in actively building up and fighting because passive neglect allows the wall to crumb and be open to attack. It is no less different in our lives today. As we face transitions, whether small or monumental, and we realize that we feel or appear weak, and we take our struggles before the Lord, we are to then stand up and start working through the transition! Israel did not complain in prayer, but let God know of the problem and then got to work.
We will never get away from transitions – they happen throughout life. Sometimes they have minimal impact on us. A caterpillar gives way to a butterfly. Diapers give way to pull-ups. Teenagers graduate from high school. Sometimes the transition in monumental. The bank forecloses on the house. We lose our job. Death takes a loved one. The church searches for a new pastor. A time of transition may make you appear weak or disoriented, but appearances are not reality. Transitioning well can lead to rebuilding, greater strength, and increased unity!
How about you? Are you willing to get to work to make it through the transitions in your life? The transitions in your family? The transitions in your church? Do not settle for sitting on the sidelines, but get involved in the building up and defending of the transition God is bringing you through! God is calling you to build and defend, to come back to the city with the crumbling wall and make it a stronghold for the Lord once again.
If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines time to get in the game – to build up with one hand and defend with the other. You will survive this time of transition.