I don’t know if it’s a good idea to write this post when I’m going through transition myself… Or maybe it’s the perfect time to remind myself of these things… Anyway, here goes…
When Duncan Olumbe led an excellent session for us at the September ministry training course on transition, there was one thing that he mentioned but didn’t have time to go into detail on: building a RAFT.
The idea of building a RAFT comes from the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds but it’s applicable to anyone moving on, whether adults or children, mzungus or East Africans. The basic plan is Reconciliation-Affirmation-Farewells-ThinkDestination. It’s not only practical and proven but it also fits well with the pattern and teaching of the apostle Paul, someone who certainly knew what it was to go through a lot of transitions.
Deal with conflict before you leave. Forgive and ask for forgiveness. We can easily sweep conflict under the carpet. Particularly when we are leaving it’s very tempting not to bother dealing with unresolved issues. But 2 Corinthians is a letter that testifies to the great desire of the apostle Paul for reconciliation.
Over the years things had become increasingly tense between Paul and the Corinthians. There were misunderstandings and hurts (2 Cor. 1:17), there were painful visits and painful letters (2 Cor. 2:1; 7:8). He could easily have given up on them and walked away but Paul’s whole letter (which we call Second Corinthians) is a heartfelt attempt to bring about reconciliation in advance of his third visit so that it will not be another painful one (2 Cor. 7:2; 13:10). He finishes in 2 Cor. 13:11 with a bunch of quick fire exhortations: a) rejoice (joy and bitterness cannot co-exist); b) aim at restoration (literally to ‘mend what is broken’); c) agree with one another (share the mind of Christ); d) make peace (take the initiative to concede, cease fire and instead cultivate, live and speak peace), finishing off his sentence with the great empowering promise that ‘the God of love and peace will be with you.’
Above all this, the most important thing that Paul does in seeking reconciliation is to affirm his love for the Corinthians…
Throughout 2 Corinthians Paul affirms his love for the Corinthians in the strongest possible language. “I do not love you? God knows I do!” (2 Cor. 11:11). He explains that the reason he wrote the hard letters that he did was out of “the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Cor. 2:4). He says that if you could look at his heart you’d find the Corinthians engraved on it (2 Cor. 3:2). He is desperately concerned for their spiritual life – if they are going well he is overjoyed, if they are drifting away he is gutted. He has the concern of a betrother (2 Cor. 11:2) and the love of a father (2 Cor. 12:14-15). The whole letter is dripping with love.
We talked the other day in a second year class at iServe Africa about this passage and the different ways in which we can affirm love for one another. And we saw that there are a lot of cultural aspects to this. Paul commends a ‘holy kiss’ (2 Cor. 13:12) whereas we might have other non-verbal means of affirmation more appropriate in our cultures – e.g. giving and receiving of gifts or preparation and eating of food (we affirm love for our mother by eating a big plate of her food) or visiting and receiving a visit. Then there are indirect verbal ways of affirming one another – e.g. taking greetings from someone to someone else or publicly praising someone to someone else or associating ourselves with someone in affirmation of their ministry (you see Paul doing all these often at the end of his letters e.g. Romans 16).
But on top of all these is the (counter-cultural) example of the Apostle Paul to actually directly verbally affirm love for one another. Someone in our discussion at iServe pointed out that it is usually the congregation who affirm their love for their pastor not the other way around. But here the Apostle is saying directly and repeatedly (in writing) to the Corinthians that he loves them. [Note to self: remember to write emails, cards, messages.]
Paul’s letters always end well – with a grace-filled prayer of gospel blessing – e.g. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Cor. 13:14)
Closure is important. When you write an email it is good to sign off in appropriate way. If there is no greeting and sign off then we wonder whether you’ve hit ‘send’ by mistake and there was more to come or it simply comes across a bit cold. A relationship without a farewell is a bit like that.
As Duncan told us, leave time for goodbyes. Don’t be packing and heading to the airport thinking of those you didn’t make time to meet up with. List those you need to say goodbye to and plan how you’ll do it. You won’t do it perfectly. You will miss some people. You will find there is sometimes a mismatch between how important someone is to you and how important you are to them. Some goodbyes will be awkward. Sometimes they’ll be painful. But they’re worth doing well. The classic goodbye in Scripture is Paul’s to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20). He reminds them of his pattern of gospel ministry, he charges them and warns them, he commits them to God and the word of his grace, there are floods of tears, physical contact, all very un-British! Not all goodbyes need to be that dramatic but there does need to be closure and a right sort of sadness.
I remember a meeting many years ago where someone asked the great New Testament scholar Earl Ellis why there was so much crying at Paul’s farewell in Acts 20 (“that they would not see his face again”) when surely all of them believed in eternal life and the resurrection and were confident of meeting again. Earl paused and then told us about his meeting with an old Christian friend some months before and they were both very aware that this friend would soon die and that they would not see each other again in this life and there was a right grieving of that loss.
The final log of the raft is turning your thoughts towards where you a transitioning to. This might include getting information (internet, reading, talking to people), a pre-travel orientation, moderating expectations (not too low or too high), and making practical arrangements (not just for travelling there but for the first few days – picking form the airport, accommodation, making calls, getting cash).
Paul was certainly very clear where he was headed (or at least clear of his intentions). He set his face to go (like Jesus) to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22). On another occasion he planned to go to Rome and then on to Spain with clear intentions of gospel work in both places. He didn’t live in the past but in the present and future (Phil. 3:12-14). He may not have know the details of what was going to happen to him in the cities he visited (Acts 20:22-23) but he had certainly moderated his expectations – great opportunities to ‘finish the task’ along with ‘prison and hardships’ (Acts 20:23-24).
One other practical take away from Paul’s example – as he thinks destination he writes ahead to prepare people for his coming. That is what the letter of 2 Corinthians and Romans and Philemon are for – emotionally and theologically and practically preparing people to receive him.
Of course God is sovereign in all this. Paul’s story shows us that sometimes (often) his transitions went hugely differently to how he expected or intended. He was torn away from people without a proper goodbye (1 Thessalonians). He was prevented from entering some places. He finally turned up at Rome as a prisoner. At one point everyone deserted him. But at least, by God’s grace, he did the reconciliation-affirmation-farewell-think thing as well as he could. And in all things he had that great confidence that can be ours too: that God goes with us, that his grace is sufficient in our weakness (felt more strongly in transition), that he rules over shipwrecks and visas, that he will get us where he wants us and eventually bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom.