Change, fear and letting go: Get Your Spirit in Shape

The Rev. Matt Miofsky, a United Methodist pastor and the author of Let Go: Move beyond fear into the life God wants for you, discusses how to get unstuck and work through life’s transitions, knowing God is with us.

When transitions happen – whether it is our choice or thrust upon us – because of a new job, relationship status, or starting a new adventure, fear can keep us stuck. We overestimate potential problems and costs before they happen. We romanticize the past, and convince ourselves to stay with what we know. We wonder if we can really handle the opportunity God has given us.

Miofsky uses the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt to teach us the three phases of change and the fears associated with them. Along the way, he reminds us that God is with us in every journey.

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This episode posted on November 22, 2019.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

One thing that is certain about life is that things are constantly changing. We choose some. We choose to enter into a new relationship or to have a baby. Other times the change is something we would not have chosen, like losing our job or the death of a loved one.

Whether we’ve chosen the change or not, those times of transition come with some level of fear. We’re moving from what we know into something we don’t know.

Recently, I got to have a conversation with the Rev. Matt Miofsky, pastor of The Gathering, a United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. He’s also the author of a new book called Let Go: Leaning into the Future without Fear. It’s all about those things that frighten us and how we can overcome the fear when we’re going through transition.

Our Conversation

Joe: Matt Miofsky, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Matt: Thanks for having me, Joe.

Joe: You have a new book out called Let Go: Leaning into the Future without Fear. What drew you to researching that topic and writing this book?

Matt: I started The Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis almost 13 years ago and literally I’ve met thousands of people who have walked through the doors of the church, and they’re from all different backgrounds, different places, different reasons for showing up to church. But I started to notice a trend, and that is that most people don’t show up to church for no reason at all. They usually show up to church for the first time or after having been gone for a long time because something has happened in their life.

Something has changed. Sometimes it’s change that they’ve caused or chosen. Sometimes it’s happened to them. It could be the loss of someone they love, a new baby being born, a divorce, a new marriage, a new job, the loss of an old job. But something usually changes. And it’s this time when people go searching. It’s a….

Change is those times of disruption that open us up to God in certain ways. And so I kind of noticed that trend. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I wrote something about accepting change. While it’s promising in so many ways, it can be a time of growth if we engage it well.

I also know that change is difficult for a variety of reasons. And it can also lead to a season of resistance. And what I notice is that people who embrace change as an opportunity for transformation end up choosing those seasons, even the really difficult ones, to actually grow closer to God and more into the person that God wants them to be.

On the flip side, people who are really resistant to change, don’t know how to deal with it, those seasons become times when they can really get stuck, or, you know, in worse case even grow bitter or cynical towards God and others. And so I thought, I would love to just write a book that helps people figure out how do I navigate this season of change that I’m in right now.

Joe: You draw on your own experience throughout the book, so this is something that you’ve lived.

Matt: Yeah. I talk about my own experience. I joke around, like, I wasn’t born a pastor. I had to like figure that out. I used to be a normal person even a pastor. So I use a little bit of my own journey choosing that as a vocation and then starting this church, which for me was this huge disruption in my life that was fraught with opportunities for resistance and fear. And I kind of use that as my own personal example as I try to talk about really the kind of real-life transitions that I think all of us have to figure out.

I just named some of them a second ago—new job, loss of an old one, relationships ending, relationships beginning, grief when we lose someone, the desire to change your life and try something kind of radically new. And these are things that in one form or another all of us deal with. But we don’t all face it the same way or kind of deal with it in the healthiest of ways.

Joe: And the map that you use for this journey throughout the book is the biblical story of the Exodus, the Israelites’ journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. And you talk about it in 3 phases. There’s the leaving phase, a wilderness phase, and then the arriving phase. And all of those can be fear-inducing, correct?

Matt: Yeah, that’s right. I try to use this story of Exodus, which for those people who maybe grew up in the church or are familiar with the story, it’s really just one big story, I think, of a major transition. But it’s sort of prototype, I think, for some of the transitions that all of us go through. And so I use that, and particularly the 3 phases of that story, and I say that these 3 phases are actually 3 phases all of us have to go through when we are trying to manage or navigate change.

Joe: I wanted to dig into those a little bit. You begin by talking about the leaving stage. One of the things I heard as I was reading is that Moses heard the call from the burning bush—and lots of us think, if only I had a burning bush I’d rush out and do whatever God wants me to do. But you remind us in the book that the bush didn’t make it that much easier for Moses. This was still a difficult thing for him to do.

Matt: That’s right. I think we have this misconception that change starts by imagining what could be and getting excited about it. If we can just get excited enough about what’s possible, then we will be willing to change.

I use this everyday example. If you think about your work place, oftentimes if we’re trying to make a change in the office or workplace we’ll go to people and say, Hey guys, we’re gonna change something, and I know it’s different, but let me tell you about all the reasons it’s gonna be great. It’s gonna be better. It’s gonna be faster, more efficient, take you less time. It’s gonna be easier. And we try to lay out all the benefits of change. And then at the end of our pitch we’re frustrated to find out that people just still aren’t buying it. They’re still resisting. We think if I can only convince them how great something is gonna be, they’ll be willing to change.

Well, the truth is that change doesn’t start by the excitement of the new thing. But change starts with an honest recognition about what we’re gonna have to leave behind, or what we’re going to have to lose.

In some ways the first fear that we have to deal with when it comes to change is the fear of loss. Typically it’s the loss of that which is familiar and predictable and kind of a known quantity. We as human beings like that.

So I talk about the change…where we need to start with change is just being honest that, hey, this change is gonna cost us something. And even if our current reality is less than ideal, there’s still something familiar about it. And so we’re gonna experience resistance even with the clearest burning bush in the world, like Moses.

Moses had a clear burning bush, but remember, God was asking him to give up his home, give up his job, in some ways give up the family that he had created. Moses had created a nice little life in Midian, and here God comes along and says, Hey, I have a really clear vision. But Moses is still resistant because, yeah, God, that sounds interesting, but I kind of have a life right here. I’m not sure I want to give this up to go after that thing that you put in front of me. I think to some extent that’s all of us, even when our current reality isn’t great.

I have to laugh because I know people that, they would rather stay in a job they hate because they at least know they’ll get a paycheck. And they at least know their co-workers, and they at least are comfortable with the job that they have to do. They’ll stay in a job they hate simply because it’s familiar instead of changing to the possibility of something that may be better but is unknown. Does that make sense?

Joe: Absolutely. That first step can be really hard, right? That first step away from what you know.

Matt: We see this play out in churches, right? Churches will continue to do things that make little sense or not very effective simply because that’s familiar, that’s the way they’ve “always” done it. And to leave that behind is scary.

Joe: We can do those things at home as well, where we know this isn’t good for us or this isn’t good for the family, but it’s comfortable. It’s what we know. And we stay in that rut, as we sometimes call it.

Matt: Absolutely.

Joe: You talk about where Moses at the bush begins to give God excuses. I love the line you write, “We come up with imaginary reasons why we can’t overcome imaginary problems.” Can you speak more to that?

Matt: So, let me try to use a closer-to-home example. I will talk to people who, let’s say, want to make a change in their life. Let’s use the job example again. And I’ll kind of come back to Exodus 1 that I think a lot of us as adults especially struggle with. I talk to people, they don’t like their job. They don’t want to do it. They don’t think it’s what they’re called to do. They want something different. And I’ll ask a really simple question, “Hey, why you don’t just change jobs.” And people laugh. I say, Really, why don’t you just change. And then immediately they shift to making up theoretical or potential problem that could arise if they do that, and excuses why they’re not quite ready to tackle those imaginary problem. In other words before they even try or before they even dig in to discover what change might look like, they come up with what it’s gonna cost, how hard it’s gonna be and why they can’t do it right now.

The reason I say we come with kind of imaginary answers to imaginary problems is it’s all in our head, right? I mean, here’s Moses saying, But if I go back to Egypt, then they’re gonna say, Who are you to tell us what to do. And then I’m not gonna have an answer. Well, not only is Moses guessing about something that might happen if he changes, then he’s coming up with an excuse why he can’t do that.

We do that all the time. What if it takes me a year and half to find a new job? Then I won’t be able to do it because I can’t last a year and a half. We’re coming up with imaginary reasons why we can’t do something, and giving excuses. And so I think we have to be really careful to boil it down to kind of a Tweet-able phrase, I think at the beginning we consistently over estimate the cost of changing and under estimate the cost of staying where we are.

Joe: I like that: Over-estimate the cost of changing and under-estimate the benefit when we make the change.

Matt:  When someone finally presses us to change we immediately come up with a laundry list of reasons why it would be really hard or near impossible to do so. We’re more comfortable complaining about our current reality than actually doing something about it.

Joe: And then once you make the decision to do something about it, we enter what you call the ‘wilderness phase.’

Matt: Right. I talk about that leaving home phase just to end that part. So the first real obstacle for us is being willing to leave behind what’s familiar, what’s known, and step toward something new. If we do that we will immediately bump up against a second challenge.

That second challenge is what I call ‘the in between space’ or in the Bible they call it ‘the wilderness time.’ That is the time in between leaving one thing and discovering the next. Or, living into the change. Again, let’s go back to that job example.

I know that this would be true for me. It’s true for a lot of people. If I want to switch jobs this is how I would love for that change to look. I would love to work in my current job, search for a new one while I’m working there. Before I leave my current job I would like to get the new job. I would like to know how much I’m gonna make. I would like to know who I’m gonna be working with, where the office is going to be. I want to know exactly what it’s gonna look like so that when I quit one thing I can step immediately into the next thing. That’s great if change works out that way.

But I’ve found is that oftentimes change doesn’t work out that way, especially God-led change. Instead, we often lose one thing without yet knowing what we’re moving towards. And that means that we have to live in this in between time, what I call ‘the wilderness time.’ It’s time when we have left behind the familiar, either because we are forced to or we chose to. We have not yet arrived to the new thing. And here a whole different kind of fear kind of takes over.

Here the fear is sort of this fear of the unknown. I don’t know how long this will last. I don’t really even know where I’m going. I don’t know what the new thing is gonna look like. I don’t know if I have what it takes to make it through this. And immediately we begin to question the move.  And so the famous story in the Bible that I talk about is when the Israelites get to this place in the wilderness. They’re a few months out into the wilderness and all of a sudden they begin to say to themselves, Now where are we headed and how long is it gonna take to get there? And do we have enough food to make the journey? And some of your readers, er, your listeners who are familiar with the Bible will know what they did. They went back to Moses and they said, Hey, Moses, maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe we ought to go back to Egypt. Maybe we just ought to go back home. Maybe all of a sudden that prior reality doesn’t look so bad.

So I use an example, in the book, of relationships. A lot of people in our church are dating, trying to find the right person. I know people who are in a relationship that’s not working; it’s just not a good relationship. And it takes a lot of courage to finally end a relationship that’s not working so that you can, you know, search for one that maybe is right. And almost every time you do that it requires, of course, an in between time. And so I see this all the time. They will break up with somebody who is not a good fit for them. They know it’s not a good fit. Let’s say they break up with them on a Monday or a Tuesday. Things are fine, you know, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. All of a sudden Friday…

Joe: Friday night.

Matt: Yeah, Friday night. People who are single will know what I’m talking about. Friday night hits and what happens on Friday night? Well, suddenly they know their friends all have dates. Their friends are Instagram-ing their picture and where they are with somebody. And this person is sitting home alone on a Friday night because every previous Friday night they used to go out with their boyfriend or girlfriend.

All of a sudden they begin to think, how long am I going to be lonely? What if I don’t meet somebody? And maybe that person is as good as it’s gonna get for me, and you know, actually that relationship wasn’t so bad. And all of a sudden, by 10 o’clock at night they’re texting their old boyfriend or girlfriend saying, why don’t we try that again. And that happens all the time, right? Because it’s suddenly we’re thrust into a new space. And we don’t know how to navigate it and it’s lonely and it’s hard. We don’t know how long it will last. It’s in that moment that our greatest temptation is to just turn around and say, maybe that thing wasn’t so bad.

I see people who in an instant who will go back to a prior reality even though they complained about that prior reality for a year, two years, ten years. Now all of a sudden when they’re in the wilderness it looks a lot more attractive. So I talk in the book about ‘it is okay to be in the wilderness.’ Keeping our eyes focused on where we’re headed and not turning around is the way that God tries to keep us from that fear of the unknown. It requires, of course, trust, right?

Joe: And one of the things that you talk about that really resonated with me is that when we want to go back, often we’re mis-remembering and, you just said this in the dating example, we’re not remembering accurately what it was really like back then. The Israelites seem to have forgotten that they were slaves. They want to go back and talk about the food. They’re not talking about the fact that they were slaves at the time. Same thing with the bad relationships. We’re remembering the good stuff and forgetting a lot of the bad.

Matt: That’s exactly right. We get nostalgic. I joke around and you know nostalgia is sort of the art of mis-remembering the past oftentimes. We can see it in churches. We see it sometimes in our national discourse, that somehow if we could just get back. Of course, whatever we left we left for a reason. The job wasn’t great. The relationship wasn’t great. The church wasn’t without problems 10 or 20 years ago. But when we’re in that unknown space that’s exactly right. We kind of look back and again we sort of underestimate the problems of the past and overestimate how good it was. And what that is, I think, is just a tug to get back to something that at least was pretty familiar. A space that we at least know how to operate in even if it’s not ideal.

Joe: It’s closely related to the first reason…the fear of not leaving.

Matt:  Right. I talk in the book…. You know, the antidote to this fear is recognizing that there is something really important that God needs to do for us in the wilderness, that we are not in the wilderness by accident. God did not bring us this far to let us die there in the wilderness. Yet oftentimes before we can do something new, we have to become somebody new.

Even the example of Jesus, the wilderness in the Bible is often associated with sort of struggling with either temptations, kind of facing down some of your demons, literally of course in the Bible and figuratively, I think, oftentimes for us. The wilderness is a time when we have to come to terms maybe with some things that we haven’t wanted to come to terms with. The wilderness can often be …. And to go back to that relationship example, being single for a time forces us sometimes to take a hard look at ourselves. And you know, what kind of partner am I? And what are my own shortcomings? And who am I really looking for? There’s work that we have to do there that prepares us for the new reality.

So wilderness can often feel like wasted time. But it’s not. Because in that wilderness time God is doing things in us that are preparing us for the future. And so I tell people, when you want to race back to home base, sort to speak, or run back to Egypt, or shortchange wilderness, what we’re actually doing is, I think, oftentimes not allowing God to kick up some things in our life that God really needs to kick up in order to prepare us for where we’re going.

Joe: Wow. We’re talking about life transitions and overcoming the fear they produce in us at times with Matt Miofsky, the pastor of The Gathering, a multi-site United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

I want to get back to the book. You talked about the leaving and we talked a bit about the wilderness. We’re skipping big things in there. So people need to read the book. But then the final piece is the arriving. You talk about the arriving as also fear-inducing. My first thought was, isn’t that the time when we’re supposed to feel good and be relaxed and be ready to enter into the new thing?

Matt: Absolutely. It’s one of the weirdest phenomena, but we see it all the time, I think. We think, okay I left behind one thing, I’ve entered into this season of discernment or searching or trying to figure out the new thing, (and that’s the wilderness time.) And now I’ve finally have an opportunity in front of me and I’m scared to take it. And you think about that. And you’d think, well that seems weird. Why you be scared to take it? But let me give a different example I know people that…. Have you ever heard that phrase, ‘Be careful what you pray for?’

Joe: Yeah.

Matt: It’s one thing to pray for something. God, I wish you would open up an opportunity for me. I wish you would show me the path you want me to walk. I wish it were clear to me. I just really wish you would hand me a passion, something to do. And then all of a sudden if God actually calls your question and say, Okay, here it is; I want you to quit this, leave that. I want you to move over here. I want you to do this. All of a sudden we look at it and say, like, well I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean that, God.

It’s one thing to pray for something. It’s another thing to actually have to do it.

This is where I share my own example. It was one thing to talk about starting a new church, say, I think I can start a new church, and it’d be great. I want to think about it and discern and pray about this. And that was kind of the wilderness period. And then all of a sudden there was an opportunity, and I was faced with kind of, Okay, here’s your opportunity; are you gonna do it? And what I find is a lot of us will get right up to the edge. We peer over or peer across and decide, maybe not yet, or not quite, or maybe next year, or maybe after 9 more months of thinking about it.

Of course, the story in the Scripture is the Israelites, they march across the wilderness and they get to the Jordan River and on the other side of the Jordan River is the Promised Land. People may not be that familiar with the story. But what happens when they get there? When they get there they say, Well, we don’t know what that’s gonna be like over there. So why don’t we send some spies in. And the spies go in and they come back. And the spies say 2 things. They say, well, first of all it’s great over there. It’s everything that God promised. It’s gonna be awesome. It’s flowing with milk and honey and everything else. But, there are giants in the land, you know. Literally the Scripture says there’s really big people in the land. And how are we gonna beat ‘em? And you know their cities have really tall walls. And I don’t know if we can take ‘em. And in other words, it’s gonna be really hard to actually go in there. And the Israelites were faced with this choice: do we do it or do we kind of stall?

Of course, we know what the Israelites chose. They were scared. So they said, Maybe we’ll take one more loop around the desert; maybe then we’ll be ready. And they took another loop around the desert and you know what happened. I often joke with people: it did not take 40 years to walk from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Joe: Exactly.

Matt: In fact, at a leisurely pace it was maybe an 8-month walk. It was less than a year. They could have gotten to the new thing in about a year’s time. The other 39 years of wandering in the wilderness was because they were scared to finally live in to the new thing. They were scared they didn’t have what it took. They were scared they couldn’t overcome the challenges. They were scared they weren’t ready. They were scared that they didn’t have the skills necessary. And so, they literally, in the story, died waiting, discerning, preparing, but never doing.

I see similar trends, you know, Joe, when it comes to our lives. You can leave behind an old thing; you can enter into the wilderness, a time of discernment. But an odd thing happens. We can actually get comfortable, even in the wilderness, and to actually press the button or make some moves or cross the river with every step in the water—whatever metaphor you use. To actually do that takes a new kind of courage. I often describe it as that point of no return. Like, once I start this new business I’m in it. Or, you know, once we get married we’re doing it. Or, once we have that kid or once I take this new job. And it’s easy for us to say, Well, I’m not quite ready yet. Or the conditions aren’t quite right. Or maybe in 9 months I’ll be a little bit more ready. And we can forever circle the wilderness being scared to actually do it. And so I think that’s the fear and the challenge that we hit when new opportunities actually present themselves to us.

Joe: You mentioned a minute ago about launching The Gathering. As you were doing that, what were some of the places where you, as you write, overestimated the obstacles and underestimated yourself and what God was trying to do?

Matt: Well, I say in the book that the mistake the Israelites made and it’s a mistake that I think we often make, is we look at the future and the challenges of the future. And we look at ourselves and we say, I don’t think I can do that. What we forget is, it’s not just us who’s doing it.

There is a God who has promised to be with us, to lead us, to strengthen us, to encourage us, that we’re not alone, that we have people around us and we have a God who has led us this far. There’s that famous Scripture in Joshua.

Joshua chapter 1 is…finally, after the Israelites die it’s their kids who are standing back on the banks of the Jordan. And God says to them and Joshua conveys to them, you know, be strong and courageous, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

I think we underestimate that or we don’t believe it. I know I did that. When it finally came time to starting the church, I thought, Okay, we’re gonna start. We’re picking a start date for the first Sunday or worship. And all of a sudden it occurred to me, I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’ve never led a church by myself before. I’ve never preached every week. I don’t really know how to lead a staff. And all of a sudden I started seeing all my deficiencies and none of my strengths. All of a sudden I started seeing all the things that I wasn’t instead of what I maybe could be. And most of all I started picturing a future in which God was absent instead of a future in which God was present, equipping me and strengthening me and surrounding me with others. And so I think that… I did that a lot.

I continue sometimes to do that. I rely on my own strength. And when I do that, when I only look at what I’m capable of, my vision for the future gets really small. But if I look at my life and say, Here’s what I can do, but I have this God who I know can work in and through me, I have this God that I know will surround me with other people, I have this God that I know will give me strengths that is not my own, and with that God I actually think I can.

That’s what I really want people to take out of that last part of the book, is you can do far greater things than you often imagine you can do. And there’s a reason for that. We have a God who’s working through us. So I tell people all the time, most of the people that I see, they don’t regret going for it and failing. Instead they regret not going for it, being scare that they wouldn’t accomplish it. And so I tell them, Don’t be afraid when you finally get to the banks of the river because God didn’t bring you this far to kind of leave you there.

Joe: What a great thing to end on. Before I let you go, the final question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is how do you keep your spirit in shape?

Matt: That’s such a good question. So I’m gonna offer an answer that is not novel and it seems really simple, but I live by it, been convicted by it. I just got done with a series on rest and Sabbath in the Scripture.

I’ve become really convinced that we…. When we look at the Sabbath it’s…depending upon how you read the story, like at the first commandment that God gives us…. God weaves the idea of Sabbath into the creation story itself.

The first thing God set apart as holy is time. Then God did a really simple thing. God asked us to do what God does, and that is to observe a rhythm—six days of doing and one day of being. And this is one instance where I don’t think God was being figurative or symbolic or metaphorical.

We see that through the years people have taken that really literally. When God said six days of doing and one day of being, he meant it. God meant it. And I think what I find that I so easily do (and pastors are good at doing this) is we work, work, work, work, work. We don’t think we can take a Sabbath. We start to get creative with what Sabbath means. Sabbath is 5 days here or taking a vacation or trying to find a few hours if and when I can.

I have found that more than anything else what has given me the ability to do ministry for the long haul…. So I’m not talking not 1, 2, 3 even 5 years. But what’s allowed me to be in one place for 5 years, 10 years, now 13 years, is regularly and literally observing that Sabbath pattern. I think when I do that well, I feel connected not only to God, but to the work that God’s called me to do. When I don’t do that well or when I make excuses or begin to get creative with it, I find that my spirit feels less connected to God and less passionate about the work that God calls me to do.

So Sabbath for me has become probably my most important discipline and I’ll just throw this really quickly, if any pastors are out there listening. The greatest habit that I ever put into my work life that allowed me to take a Sabbath is getting my sermon done by Thursday before I leave the office. No Saturday night specials. So….

Joe: That’s good for all of us, I think. Right? Well, Matt, I really appreciate your time and the work that you’ve done in this book and the ministry that you have in St. Louis. Thank you so much.

Matt: And thank you so much for having me, Joe. I really appreciate the conversation.

Epilogue

Joe: That was Matt Miofsky, the pastor of The Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missiouri and the author of Let Go: Leaning into the Future without Fear. To learn more about Matt, to order his book—go to UMC.org/podcasts, and look for this episode. We’ve put some links on the page to help you easily order Let Go, to learn more about The Gathering and a little bit more about Matt.

Also on that page, are places where you can subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape. All of the new conversations that we have can be automatically downloaded to your device when you subscribe.

Thanks so much for listening. We’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.