Here in Madison we’re making it through the hottest week of the summer. As I sat on our back deck the other evening when the sun was lower in the sky, it was still 80 degrees out, but the leaves from the neighbor’s tree kept dropping on and around me. I know that’s partly because we could use some rain. But that tree always starts to drop its leaves right now. It’s one of many early signs that the season is starting to change.
We’re leaning into it now ourselves right now, aren’t we? Just like that tree. It might be 80 or 90 degrees outside, but the season is changing.
These are the weeks of prep for back to school—whatever that looks like. And if you have no children at home, you are getting in as many outdoor visits with children, grandchildren, parents or friends as you can because you know it’s only a matter of weeks before it will be too cold for those outdoor visits to take place. Some of us are moving our kids to college, hoping there is a chance that campus life, although totally different, will work out. Others of us are prepping for small changes at work. Maybe if our COVID-19 numbers can keep creeping down, we can open up a little more at our workplace or a few small groups could start meeting at our church. We’re writing or reading new protocols and practices for what might come next.
We are sure of some things and unsure of many others. Whatever lies ahead in the weeks to come, it all means that change is, once again, in the air.
Of course, all these things happen while other changes are afoot. It’s wildfire season in the west, and hurricane season in the south. It’s harvest time here in the Midwest. There’s a presidential election that’s 70+ days away. There are vaccine trials moving to the next phase. We’re in transition everywhere again, people. Just when we’d figured out the realities of summer in a pandemic, fall is coming to mix things up again.
Traditionally, we have a chronological mindset about change. Whenever a change is upon us in life, it starts with a beginning, followed by a middle time, and then things come to an end with a conclusion. So most of us look to the school season or fall as a beginning.
I invite you to consider a different way to think about change. Different than this chronological order.
I read an interesting book years ago, that helped me think differently about any time of change in our lives. The book was called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” (author, William Bridges). This book changed the order of how I think about any type of change, and it’s been a helpful tool at many points in my life.
What if there is different order to change instead of a beginning, middle and end? What if change starts with an end, then there’s an awkward middle time—say like a time in the wilderness—and then there is a new beginning? This order of transition, of change, has some remarkable touch stones in the Bible. It’s a view of transition that might be a helpful tool as we all enter this next season with more changes all around us.
So think of the story of the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt as our example. You know how the story goes. First, something came to an end. What ended was the slavery and oppression of God’s people. While they had been enslaved, God’s people had a lot of time to long for something different, to hope for things to change. When their situation did change, the end came in a hurry. When Pharaoh finally decided to set God’s people free, the Israelites had to pack up their belongings, leave the place where they had lived, and set out in a whole new direction—as fast as they could. Remember, there wasn’t even time to let bread rise before they had to leave Egypt.
Not all endings happen in a hurry. Yet, the story of God’s people, starts with this ending. God himself directed God’s people to pack their belongings quickly and lightly. They were to celebrate that the current time had finally come to an end. And they were to trust that, just as God had always been with them in the past, so now would God would help them put a close to this chapter of their lives.
A Good Ending?
What if our time right now is about ending well? Look back at this summer.
Have you made it through with your health intact?
If you’ve had health setbacks, are you healing?
Have you managed to maintain provisions for shelter and food?
Have you adapted to phone calls or writing notes or making porch visits with loved ones?
What were this summer’s highlights?
Has your faith been stretched?
Have you acknowledged that God has seen you somehow safe so far?
What now do you need to intentionally say ‘goodbye’ to as the season changes? Is there baggage to be left behind as you pack lightly for this next season?
Psalm 27, our Old Testament reading for tonight, is a great psalm to read over and over again in this time of transition. It has words for all three phases of a time of change.
It is about leaving behind things and moving forward. Especially as one chapter of life draws to a close, the psalmist remembers God’s faithfulness. God’s faithfulness gives us confidence to be able to end this chapter of life and take the next step forward. Listen again to the psalmist’s words (Psalm 27:1-3, 5):
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” The psalmist remembers that as some things draw to a close and the uncertainty of what’s next threatens, God will always be our protection. He writes: “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident…for he (God) will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.”
Endings are a time of closure. They can be a time of grief. We are all saying goodbye to summer and the ways we have coped in this pandemic for these last many weeks. We say goodbye to what we’ve enjoyed—and what we might be sad about. Be intentional in marking the ‘lasts.’ The last boat ride. The last dip in the pool. The last day of binge–watching your favorite show before classes begin. But start packing lightly. Get turning toward what’s next. Get ready, for as some things come to an end, God’s faithfulness never ends.
The Middle Place, The Wilderness
So, this is where we move into the middle of a transition. When the Israelites left Egypt, they didn’t simply take a few days of travel to arrive at their new beginning in the promised land. When one chapter ended, they moved into the wilderness.
Now let’s hope our wilderness of COVID-19, for example, doesn’t last 40 years like our Biblical friends’ wilderness wandering. But when a change happens, none of us jumps right away from an end into the new beginning. If we do, things may not go so well because the change happened so fast. The wilderness is the hard, middle, in-between time that separates an end from a new beginning. It’s a difficult time, but an important time. So, let me explain.
We all know that these last five months have been unnerving. The ground shifted beneath us with a variety of challenges in our lives, in our nation, and in our world. And friends, the ground is about to shift again. We don’t know what the next months look like. COVID-19 still rages. Then you add the whole presidential process into play. And you consider racial justice issues that need to be addressed. What else can you name that’s shifting around us? Around you? It might get more difficult before conclusions are reached.
In the wilderness, the Israelites whined. It was the hardest part of their transition. There were times that the wilderness was so difficult, God’s people wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt. They were so unsure and afraid.
But do you remember what God did in the wilderness? God guided. God provided. And God’s people where shaped together to trust even more deeply in God.
God guided his people with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God was present with God’s people—always giving direction. God provided manna, bread from heaven, every day enough for all to eat. And quail to sustain, and water to drink. Always just enough. And it came from God’s hand. And throughout this scary, in–between wilderness time, God’s people grew to trust God more deeply. They learned to keep moving forward knowing God would provide a way onward.
Our Guide in the Wilderness
Psalm 27 reminds us that when we find ourselves in wilderness times, we can always call out to the Lord. This cry from the Psalmist (Psalm 27: 7-11), is our cry:
“Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation! If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up. Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path”.
That’s a cry asking for God to remain our guide. This is our cry right now, isn’t it?
In our other scripture reading tonight from Romans (Romans 12:1-5), St. Paul writes to encourage us in wilderness times also. He reminds us that as Christians, God is our stronghold, who promises to shape us into a new people.
Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Paul says that this in-between time is our time of transformation, to look to God as we press forward, and to let our lives be re-shaped and changed.
The Chrysalis Stage
It’s been a bumper year for monarch butterflies in our community this summer. My young adult daughter has been raising the caterpillars she’s found. The second batch she has right now are in the middle of their transition—they are in the chrysalis stage. They are no longer caterpillars, yet not quite butterflies. What’s changing in those creatures right now is a mystery of God’s transformation that will result in a totally new beginning.
And that’s the conclusion, my friends. Always in God, we’re headed for a whole new beginning. We have only the promises of God to know what that will look like. We only see in part. But the new beginning is promised to us, as clearly as we all know a caterpillar will turn into a butterfly.
God’s people, the Israelites, made it to a promised land. And we know over and over again through Biblical stories that God makes all things new. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, promising us an eternal beginning someday. And we just don’t sit back and wait for that day.
A new day is already breaking in here and now.
Our new beginnings are coming. Through God’s Word, the Bible, we trust in that promise of newness that is repeated over and over again.
Many genuine beginnings start within ourselves. So, pray repeatedly and offer yourself to the Lord. Hand over your worries and burdens. Look to the places in your own heart that call for an end and step out into the wilderness by faith. And trust, above all else, that our God makes all things new.
As our Psalmist reminds us tonight (Psalm 27:13-14): “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.”
Those are words for us to live by.