Mark Rutland: Funeral Drums, Life and Transition

It's a good thing our future is in the hands of an unchangeable God.
It's a good thing our future is in the hands of an unchangeable God. (Lightstock )

It is the middle of the night as I write this. Jet lag is in full sway, and I find myself wide awake. At least it is cooler now, the blazing African sun having begrudgingly given up its grip on the day. I am at our mission compound, the headquarters for Trinity Foundation, Ghana (as Global Servants is called here). From a village nearby I can hear funeral drums. I do not know who has died or even where the village is, but I know one of life's transitions has occurred in a family not all that different from my own.

I am reminded of my father's recent death and what a transition it was for us. The old patriarch is gone. He was a tough guy, as one doctor put it, too tough to die easy. He was 93, a veteran of two wars and a fine Christian gentleman. No matter where I was in the world, I called him on every Veterans Day. Since I was born in 1947, I always joked with him how glad I was he lived through World War II. He obliged me with a laugh at the same silly joke every year. I will miss that little tradition and him very much.

Our son, Travis, and I preached the memorial service, and my mother, who, at 91, still works in the office part time, was comforted and said she was at peace. It was a bit strange that only two days after that service, our seventh grandchild was born. I think what rattled me the most was when a friend in Texas said, "Now you're the Rutland patriarch." Is that it? Am I? I suppose so. And after me, it will be Travis and after him, his son, Mark.

My wife said it reminded her of the words of a song by Blood, Sweat & Tears: "When I die, and when I'm gone/There'll be one child born/In our world to carry on, to carry on."

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When I was younger, I kept trying to "get everything fixed." I thought a moment would come when everything and everyone would finally be in the right place. Then just as I seemed about to get it just as I wanted it, some seismic shift would dislodge it all. I'm not just talking life and death. Not all changes are bad. Far from it. A baby is wonderful. So were three babies, one right after another. But they changed everything. Grandchildren are fantastic, but they mean change. Promotions are terrific. So are new houses, new cities and new jobs. But they all mean change, and in real life, changes—even good ones—are stressful and challenging. My wife's email address includes the phrase "23moves." Hmm. Think that has history behind it? The trick, I am convinced, is to quit trying to get it all right. The next phone call could change your life.

Here is the truth. You never get it all fixed. Never. Just when you have things one through five in perfect order, thing seven breaks. Fix that and item number four needs to be replaced. Life is transition.

So is leadership, because leadership happens in real life. Leaders who fight change are spitting into the wind. Poor leaders get angry at valuable employees who leave for better jobs, at church members who move away and at God for letting all that happen or even causing it. Employees sometimes leave. They get better jobs. They get pregnant. They just quit and move away. God calls them to new ministries. That is real life. And anyway, who does God think He is?

As a former university president, I remember wincing whenever chapel speakers would tell the students: "This is the best time of your lives." That kind of talk turns bold dreamers into cowering "professional students." The worst thing about saying that to students is that it reinforces a fear they already struggle with.  Many students actually fear—really fear—graduating. They spend years getting through college then absolutely freak out at the thought of graduating. Why? They fear leaving the warm, safe womb of the campus and plunging into the adventure. That is scary. I admit that. It is also the doorway into the rest and best of their lives.

We must remember that above and beyond all of the transitions of life, God is the unchanging, unchangeable Ultimate Reality. Governments change. Whole nations and cultures shift. Certainly generations change. God does not. He is not just the God of Abraham, but of Isaac and Israel as well. We ourselves, our own lives, are in transition. To paraphrase poet John Donne, I do not know for whom the funeral drums sound in that nearby village. Not for me. Not quite yet. But they will someday. What I do know is that transition has come to that household.

Don't put your tent pegs in too deep. We are leaving in the morning.   

Dr. Mark Rutland is president of both Global Servants and the National Institute of Christian Leadership. A renowned communicator and New York Times best-selling author, he has over 30 years of experience in organizational leadership, having served as a senior pastor and a university president.

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