EDITOR'S NOTE:  The following is an excerpt from The Land Between by Jeff Manion (Zondervan).

Welcome to the Land Between

One late November morning when I was in seventh grade, tragedy reshaped oru family and segmented time - life before the accident and life after.

During the life before the accident, my parents had served together planting churches in southeastern Idaho for fifteen years. My sister, the eldest, was thirteen. My younger brothers were nine, four, and an infant. I was twelve. My dad's father had died, and my parents were hurriedly preparing to depart for the funeral in Michigan. They would need to drive through the night to make it in time. Of the five children, four of us would be sent to stay with various friends, remaining in Idaho. Jamie, my two-month-old brother, would be traveling with my parents because Mom was nursing. They planned tobe gone for two weeks.

While sifting through a large box of family pictures last month, I discovered a handwritten note neatly penned by my mother thirty-five years ago. The information in the note provides instructions for the care of my nine-year-old brother, Jon, during my parents' trip. As I read the note, I was struck by Mom's neat penmanship and attention to detail in the enumerated list:

1. Hot lunch ticket to be paid on Monday — $2.25 a week.

2. Trash pickup is Thursday.

3. Jon's bedtime is 9:00.

4. Jon's bus comes at 8:35 in the morning and brings him home around 3:45.

5. Clean sheets are in the trunk. There are some in the family room too.

6. The timer on my dryer works opposite of what it should. If you have a large load, set it for about 10 minutes; if just a small load, set it for 50 - 60.

7. Our doctor in Poky [Pocatello, Idaho] is Dr. Brydon, but we also go to Dr. Thurson here in Blackfoot. It would probably be easier for you to take him to Dr. T. if he needs a doctor.

Thanks so much for helping out this way. We'll probably call a couple times to see how things are going. We're supposed to get home Dec. 15. That's a long time to be gone!

That night, on Interstate 80 in western Nebraska, our family van veered off the road and rolled several times as it crossed the median before coming to rest. My father and baby brother sustained minor injuries. Mom was thrown from the van and died hours later at the hospital in a nearby town.

We were not ready to lose her. I was not ready to lose her.

The terms dizzying or disorienting do not carry the weight of our experience as I try to adequately depict the emotional swirl of those days. The heart had been removed from our house.

Mom had always been at home when I ran down the streetfrom the bus stop after school and flew through the front door.

Our yellow house on Jewell Street was a split-level home where the landing opened to stairways leading both up and down.

My daily entrance ritual began with yelling an announcement from the landing that I was home. I think I did this to discern whether Mom was upstairs or down. After the accident, I found myself mindlessly reenacting this routine from years of habit. Up the driveway, through the door, "Mom! I'm home!"

And then the deafening silence slapped me with the reality that she was gone.

A few months after the accident, my father accepted a position as a teacher and administrator of a small Bible college, and our family moved to East Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It is an affluent community with old brick homes, manicured lawns, and mature trees. Dad found a great buy on a nice house not far from his work, so we landed there. Socially, I did not belong.

Junior high can be awful in any town, and I could have been awkward almost anywhere. This just happens to be the setting where my awkwardness was overexposed due to my cultural illiteracy. Blackfoot, Idaho, where I had spent my grade school years, had simply not prepared me for statusconscious East Grand Rapids.

From a fashion standpoint, the footwear of choice was a specific brand of deck shoe, which I had never even seen before entrance into East Grand Rapids Middle School, gracefully perched beside Reeds Lake. Until designer jeans became the rage, straight-leg Levis were the preference. I was the kid from Idaho, wearing Wrangler jeans that were too short, Keds sneakers, and the same shirt to school every day.

Soon after our arrival to Michigan, Dad became engaged and married a young secretary and recent graduate of the Bible college where he served. Carolyn was twenty-one when she became mother to two preschoolers, a grade-schooler, and two teenagers. Carolyn has one of the most gracious spirits I have ever encountered. She is cheerful and caring, and she was a godsend to our family. Little imagination is required, however, to guess that the transition from single secretary to wife and mother of five was a bit rough.

I spent eighth grade trying to regain my balance. By the end of ninth grade, I was beginning to figure things out a bit. I changed shirts with greater regularity, I no longer wore Wranglers, and I had a few friends. I was hopeful that things might work out after all. Then, at the end of ninth grade, Dad informed us that we would be moving to Sacramento, California. I was livid. I couldn't believe I had to start the whole process all over again.

The sequence of transitions was jarring. I had begun seventh grade securely nestled in a small western town where I had spent all my grade school years. Three years, one funeral, one wedding, and two cross-country moves later, I was beginning my sophomore year in Sacramento.

I have often reflected on this season of profound disorientation and chaos. I have also reflected on God's movement and mercy during this difficult time of upheaval and transition. I suspect that this season we endured as a family enlarged my heart for others passing through similar periods of difficult transition. I was in the Land Between.

The Land Between

Tom sits in the silence of his unlit living room. It is after midnight and the kids are asleep. Today was the scheduled closing on a house, and today the closing was canceled. Not postponed, canceled. The deal fell apart. He sits in the darkness repeating the number that robs him of sleep. Three houses, he thinks to himself. I've sold three houses this year. Two years ago I closed on twenty-seven homes, a house every two weeks. How much longer can I do this? How much longer can we continue to drain our retirement account to pay monthly bills? Should I find a second job until things turn around? What if things don't turn around for years? I feel like I'm bleeding cash, pillaging our future to survive the present. And if I get out of real estate sales, what else am I good at? What else could I possibly choose as a new career?

"Three houses," he whispers aloud. This is the Land Between — where life is not as it once was, where the future is in question.

....

Karen fumbles for the phone in a sleepy haze. The red numerals on the alarm clock read 3:17. In the moment before "Hello," she takes a quick mental inventory: Are all the kids home? She is conscious enough to reason that either someone has dialed a wrong number or the family is about to receive some awful news. "Hello," she mumbles. The room spins as she hears the voice of her sister on the other end: "Karen, there's been an accident."

Tonight Karen will be hurled from her normal routine of work, church, and tennis into the land of all-night hospital vigils, an intensive care unit, and lengthy rehabilitation.

This is the Land Between — where everything normal is interrupted.

....

For many of us, the journey into the Land Between comes suddenly, like Karen's experience or my own, with a conversation that drops into our lives like an exploding bomb.

"Your position has been eliminated."
"I don't love you anymore."
"The tumor is malignant."
"The church elders are meeting to take a vote of confidence."
"Mom, Dad, I'm pregnant."
"I'm having second thoughts about the wedding."
"Dad, uh . . . I'm at the police station."
"Your mother and I are getting a divorce."
"We're moving."
"We think Mom's had a stroke. How soon can you get to the hospital?"

In a sentence we are ripped from normality and find ourselves in a new world, as if thrown from a moving train. We tumble into the world of the unemployed. We are hurled into the land of the suddenly single, the valley of the grieving, the new vocabulary of chemotherapy, or the weekly routine of nursing home visits. In our more confident, faith-filled moments, we know that we will regain our footing and find some kind of balance in a new normal, but for now we are simply and suddenly "between" and at a loss as to how to navigate the terrain.

While some enter the land shockingly, others experience a gradual, almost imperceptible entry, like Tom the real estate agent. A marriage suffers slow but constant erosion over the years before somebody walks out. The heart of a teenager drifts slowly away from her parents and from God. Key employees are released and assets are sold off as sales figures dip steadily quarter after quarter until the company is only a shadow of what it had been eight years earlier. A parent experiences gradual memory loss, and with it her independence fades little by little. Many of us entered the Land Between not with a sudden cataclysmic conversation but with the slow march of time. And yet regardless of how we enter this space, whether jarringly or gradually, the landscape is much the same.

Ada Bible Church

For more than twenty-five years, I have had the privilege of pastoring the people of Ada Bible Church in suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan. My core gifting and joy is that of digging deeply into the story of the Bible and then presenting this story, the journey of God and his people, in a way that I hope encourages life transformation. As I stand and open the Scriptures each weekend, I am often conscious of the array of chaos represented in the room. Weekly, I have the unspeakable privilege of bringing the story of God to the recently unemployed and to the terminally ill, to parents whose sons are in prison and to those who long to be parents but remain childless.

Unbelievably, my calling is to speak God's mercy into the lives of those whose engagements have just fallen through or whose homes refuse to sell, to offer hope to those who may have just lowered the casket of a husband, wife, brother, sister, or child into the soil.

I firmly believe that the Land Between — that space where we feel lost or lonely or deeply hurt — is fertile ground for our spiritual transformation and for God's grace to be revealed in magnificent ways. But in addition to being the bearer of mercy, I also have the privilege of challenging God's people to holiness, and while the Land Between is prime real estate for faith transformation, it is also the space where we can grow resentful, bitter, and caustic if our responses are unguarded.

The wilderness where faith can thrive is the very desert where it can dry up and die if we are not watchful.

The narrative in the Bible where we most clearly see this dynamic played out is in the desert wanderings of the Israelites.

The season in the wilderness occurs after the sons and daughters of Jacob have been released from slavery in Egypt and before they reach the Promised Land. The story is near the beginning of the Bible and chronicles some of the first fumbling steps of the Israelites as a people.

As we drop in to observe their distressing reaction to their desert conditions, we will glean insight into the unique challenges, temptations, and opportunities of the Land Between. As we move through the desert story together, I will pull in additional portions of Scripture that can provide added guidance as we make our way through these undesired transitions.

The drama that unfolds before us includes a leader at the point of emotional collapse, a rancorous people spewing disheartened complaint, God's gracious provision for the one, and his swift, harsh discipline — which is also his mercy — for the other. As we dive into the story, we will find ourselves encouraged and warned, comforted at some points and rebuked at others. It is my sincere hope that we emerge from the narrative desiring to be, as God intends, people of deeper faith. A faith worth having.

This book is not intended to be a how-to manual on locating a swift exit ramp from the Land Between. I will not give counsel on career selection, job hunting, or debt management. I offer no advice on changing the heart of your rebellious teenager or the behavior patterns of your husband or wife. Instead, consider me your tour guide who will describe the terrain of the Land Between so we can travel through it with greater skill and grace, arriving on the other side with a deeper, richer faith.

My desire is to portray the challenges and opportunities that are unique to life in the desert. For instance, we will have to wrestle with some critical questions along the way: Is it possible to possess a vital faith that prompts you to be at your best when things are at their worst? Is it possible for the best version of you — whom God created — to emerge while you are passing through a season of profound disappointment, unnerving chaos, or debilitating pain?

The Land Between can be profoundly disorienting. It also provides the space for God to do some of his deepest work in our lives. Many seasoned spiritual advisers propose that this is the only space in which radical, transformational growth occurs. God intends for us to emerge from this land radically reshaped. But the process of transformational growth will not occur automatically. Our response to God while in the Land Between is what will determine whether our journey through this desert will result in deep, positive growth or spiritual decline.

People often quote a common proverb in time of pain and tragedy: "Time heals all wounds." I do not find this statement to be necessarily true. Some people heal over time, while others become deeply embittered and acidic. The Land Between usually forces us to choose one way or the other. The conditions can prove so harsh that there seems little room for neutrality.

While offering us a greenhouse for growth, the Land Between can also be a desert where our faith goes to die — if we let it. The habits of the heart that we foster in this space — our responses and reactions — will determine whether the Land Between results in spiritual life or spiritual death. We choose.

 
Copyright © 2010 by Jeff Manion
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