As First Church and South Church face another autumn season with the coronavirus I’m reminded of a time someone jokingly said, “These are the good old days.” This is an important reminder both for us personally and for organizations in transition. As meditation teacher Ram Dass famously said, “Be here now.” Jesus said, “Keep awake!” (Mk. 13:35). Human beings have a tendency to cling to the past and fantasize about the future. Meanwhile, our lives are happening right here, right now.
When the Israelites were journeying through the wilderness they longed to go back to Egypt even though it meant enslavement. They complained to Moses about his leadership. Moses, in turn, complained to God. Yet, generations later when the prophets found themselves facing the decadence aarnd corruption of an established Kingdom of Israel, they wrote with longing about the simpler times when the Israelites wandered through the desert and worshipped in a tent. “Oh, how close our ancestors were to God!” So, if we find ourselves in a bit of a wilderness time, remember, these are the good old days!
How can we “be here now” in the midst of the pressures and pulls of transition? In a recent article “It takes faith to resist the attention economy,” by Rev. Katherine Willis Pershey writes about the search for groundedness in the midst of a sabbatical in the midst of a pandemic. Her answer is to return to those practices that keep her attention on Jesus, worship being one of them, even when there might be more exciting alternatives to give her attention to. In fact, in this “attention economy” in which social media companies have developed sophisticated algorithms to capture our attention and sell it, devoting our lives to the simple practices of prayer, Scripture, song, and service are courageous acts of resistance to a culture that incentivizes exploitation for profit. Worship, devotion, prayer, and meditation in their many forms can return us to the present moment. Let’s enjoy the good old days while we’re living them!
In Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Changeauthor William Bridges writes about “using the Neutral Zone creatively.” The “Neutral Zone” is also known as “wilderness time.” It’s the time between the ending of the old way of doing things and the hoped for new beginning. This is the shape of transition: ending–neutral zone–new beginning. In Biblical language there’s “crossing the Red Sea” (ending of enslavement), “wandering in the wilderness” (neutral zone), and “crossing the Jordan River” (new beginning in the Promised Land.)
The Neutral Zone is a tricky part of the transition journey. Much of the work is “below the green line”–that is, it has to do with intangibles such as “information,” “relationships,” and “identity.” It is the inner work that is necessary for something truly new to emerge. It’s sometimes said that at the Red Sea God took God’s people out of slavery. During the wilderness journey, God took slavery out of the people. On the one hand people can become impatient in the Neutral Zone because it seems like “nothing is happening.” On the other hand there’s a danger of becoming stuck in the Neutral Zone. Transitions aren’t meant to last forever.
How can we–in Bridges’ words–”use the Neutral Zone creatively?” Here are two of Bridges’ suggestions. I invite you to share yours:
Consider: “what new roles, reporting relationships, or configurations of the organizational chart do you need to develop to get through this time in the wilderness?” (p.46). One possible org chart change: consider combining committees where appropriate. It’s natural for the old way of doing things to begin to fall apart in the neutral zone. For example, in the wilderness God’s people had to adjust to spending their nights in tents instead of in houses and their days walking instead of making bricks for Pharaoh. One of the things that happens in the Neutral Zone (if things are moving forward in a natural way) is that long time, established leadership will begin to step back, which makes space for new leadership to emerge. What if that new leadership hasn’t emerged yet? My suggestion: combine First Church and South Church teams and rotate leadership or establish co-leadership. Deacons, for example, might consider this. Also the music ministries. Perhaps also the Finance Teams. Rather than try to patch something together, let it fall apart to make space for the new.
“Step back and take stock” (p. 50). This is one of Bridges’ suggestions. I would love to hear your perspective on how things are going thus far. Give me a call (860-990-1073), or send me an email email@example.com. You call also schedule a time on my calendar through our office administrator (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’m a data guy and you have data on how things are going. The data are your thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and experiences of this transition time.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, we are not alone. Though we may find ourselves in a trackless and frightening wilderness you provide the necessary resources to see us through. You raise up leadership from unexpected places. Give us the courage to lead and the willingness to follow. You show us the way to get through this. The way we get through this is together. Amen.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the third week of Lent! We’re haflway through our season of fasting and prayer that ends Easter Sunday! How’s your practice been going? Last Sunday Connecticut shifted to Daylight Savings Time, so now when I get up for my 35 minutes of meditation-prayer, it’s not only quiet but also dark in the house. The pets scamper and wag until I fill their bowls with breakfast. Then I sit on my cushion while morning light slowly fills the sunporch. It sounds lovely. And it is lovely. But while the universe simply does it’s thing without anxiety or self-centered thought, I’m faced with my racing mind. I rehearse conversations I had the night before: “I should have said this!” I write sermons. I add to my to do list. Part of the value of sitting still in silence is accepting the mess that is my own mind. This is important because accepting my own mess is the first step in taking responsibility for it.
While I sit as still as possible I bring my attention to the breath. (Remember: “breath” and “spirit” are the same word in the Bible’s original languages!) My mind inevitably scampers away like a puppy that isn’t yet housebroken, but that’s OK. Puppies scamper. Minds wander. That’s just the nature of puppies and minds. Nevertheless, eventually attention returns to the breath. The longer I remain still, the longer attention remains on the breath. Mind stills. The puppy settles down. I notice a clear, calm space near my heart center. Not everything’s a mess after all. A pure, unchanging oasis exists. I can access it. And so can you.
When my youngest daughter, Olivia, was old enough, Nicole and I invited her to take responsibility for tidying up her own bedroom. Mostly this meant putting her toys in the toybox and books on the bookshelf. Nicole and I did this not because we were trying to be mean, horrible parents, but because we believed (and still believe) that learning to take responsibility for your own mess is a key piece of becoming a mature adult. Nevertheless, Olivia spent hours sitting in the middle of her mess screaming and crying and yelling, “I can’t do it, daddy.” Hoping that Nicole or I would relent and clean up her mess for her. It was tempting. Who wants to listen to a child scream for hours on end?
Instead, I would sit with her in her mess, point to a toy, and say, “Pick up that toy and put it in the box.” When she was truly and finally convinced that I would not clean up her mess for her, Olivia might venture to put a toy in the toybox. Then I’d point to another and repeat the process. It was excruciating and time consuming. No doubt it would have been quicker for me to clean her room for her. But I loved her, and I wanted her to grow into an adult that could take care of herself, so I persisted.
Our Scripture for this coming Sunday comes from Exodus 17. It is one of many “complaint” stories from the Israelites’ wilderness journey. Compared to the reliably brutal structure of Egyptian slavery, freedom in the wilderness was messy and anxiety provoking. The Israelites complained against Moses saying they would rather go back to Egypt than continue through the wilderness to the Promised Land. God’s response to the people’s complaints varied from providing for them to punishing them for their lack of faith.
A key to successful transition is handling anxiety and the resulting complaints. Some complaints express legitimate needs of the community. Even though Olivia was old enough to clean her room, she was not old enough to make her own supper. The need for supper was a legitimate need, so Nicole and I fed her supper, of course. Sometimes, however, complaints arise from emotional or spiritual immaturity. In this case, it is incredibly important for leadership NOT to give in to complaints. Rather, compassionate leadership will equip individuals with the tools to tend to their own mess. Just like each of us has a role to play in maintaining a safe space in church by taking responsibility for washing our own hands and managing our own health, each of us has a role to play in maintaining a safe emotional space by finding effective ways to manage our own anxiety.
March brings us to the church season of Lent. Lent is 40 days of spiritual preparation for Easter. The 40 days of Lent correspond to the 40 days of spiritual preparation Jesus did before launching his public ministry. Scripture tells us that Jesus’ spiritual preparation involved 40 days of prayer, fasting, and temptation in the “wilderness.” Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness echo the 40 days and 40 nights of the great flood that was God’s great “do-over” with humanity. It also echoes the Israelites’ 40 years sojourn through the wilderness, which was less about getting to a geographical location called Canaan, and more about shifting spiritual orientation away from a culture of enslavement and toward a culture of freedom.
“Wilderness” is the metaphor author William Bridges uses to describe the time between the ending of an old identity and way of doing things and the beginning of a new identity and way of doing things. In the three phases of transition–ending, neutral zone, new beginning–wilderness is the “neutral zone,” the “in between time.”
We as a congregation are rapidly moving into the neutral zone wilderness. So the timing of Lent is particularly fortuitous this year. It will give us an opportunity to study more closely the dynamics of the neutral zone and develop strategies for gracefully moving through it.
Many people make spiritual preparation for Easter by taking on a spiritual discipline for Lent. Some give up caffeine or chocolate or alcohol in imitation of Jesus’ fast. I think that’s great. Do what makes sense to you. You might also consider simply making a commitment to worship every Sunday. If you already do that, consider inviting a friend. Wilderness journeys involve risk and discomfort. What do you think it was like for Jesus alone in the desert for 40 days? If inviting a friend feels risky and uncomfortable for you, Lent might be the perfect time to take that adventure. If you’d like some personal coaching around that, see me! I’m happy to help.