This year, I am undertaking a year of ministry with a congregation in transition, serving as an Intentional Interim Minister. Transition Theory is an integral part of the training for Intentional Interim Ministers; it is one plank in the foundation that undergirds my work in the IIM process that is happening this year. The particular form of transition theory that I have in view was developed by William Bridges, in a book he wrote, entitled Managing Transitions (2009).
Bridges talks about the capacity that we each have—and that we need to nurture and develop—the capacity to live within the discomfort of ambiguity which arises during the experience of loss.
If we are able to sit within the discomfort of ambiguity, then we can experience change and transition as a constructive and life-giving experience. If we are not able to sit within that zone of ambiguity, and are always wanting to move out of that zone, then we will experience change and transition as threatening, disruptive, and even destructive.
This week, I am applying this insight to the story told in the Parable which forms our Gospel reading for the week. In the parable of the prodigal son–or should that be the parable of the two prodigal sons–or perhaps even the parable of the gracious father–there are a number of key, pivotal moments, that can well be described as having the discomfort of ambiguity for one or more of the characters involved.
The younger son, unhappy at home, launches out on his own—proud, confident, self-assured; yet perhaps with some anxiety, some ambiguity, about what lies ahead for him. Some slight discomfort, perhaps.
The father, seeing his younger son departing, undoubtedly considers whether, or not, he will provide him with his share of the property; a moment of ambiguity, a little more discomfort, which he apparently readily resolves in the affirmative.
The younger son, once again, some time later on, having run through all that he had been given, now considers: “am I doomed to this life of poverty, or do I put my tail between my legs, and return home in humility?” This is the place of deep discomfort in ambiguity. The son seeks to remove this discomfort, and resolve the ambiguity, by turning to head home.
The elder son is happy to stay at home, enjoying all the benefits … and yet, perhaps he is wondering, what if I asked for my share of the property, like my brother did? Could I make it good out there in the big wide world? More ambiguity, some measure of discomfort, for him.
But that bursts into full-on, large-scale ambiguity, and intense discomfort, at the moment he sees his brother returning. What will I do? Should I be glad to see him? Will he be welcomed back? Will I be happy that he comes back into his privileges as a son, even though he has spent his inheritance? Or will he be put with the servants, welcomes back, but out into his place? Will I be happy to have him back here, again? Will he be a son, or a servant?
And the father, now consumed by the swirling, seething rush of hope, experiences his own moment of the discomfort of ambiguity: should I ignore him? should I rush to welcome him? Will he expect to return as a son? Could I simply offer him a role, here, as a servant? What should I do? The discomfort of ambiguity.
And as the father runs, joyously, to greet his son—no longer discomforted, all ambiguity resolved and set aside—the moment intensifies for the older son. Now that my brother is back, I cannot abide this. Stand firm. Stay put. Do not greet him, do not celebrate with him, let them have their fatted calf without me! But surely there is ambiguity, discomforting ambiguity, in this moment, for him?
A story of being lost, and being found. The discomfort of multiple moments of decision. The ambiguity of belonging, detaching, reconnecting; farewelling, welcoming, reconnecting; deciding.
We all face moments that are filled with the discomfort of ambiguity. William Bridges, as I have noted, writes about the capacity that we each have—and that we need to nurture and develop—the capacity to live within the discomfort of ambiguity.
If we stay within the zone of ambiguity, then we can experience change and transition as a constructive and life-giving experience. If we are not able to sit within that zone of ambiguity, and are always wanting to move out of that zone, then we will experience change and transition as threatening, disruptive, and even destructive.
The parable, when seen through this lens, offers us this choice, in our own lives, in our own situation.