Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 5, 2017
Every once in a while, change is a good thing. It’s good to mix it up, to get a little variety. I myself will freqently become seized with the impulse to move all the furniture around in my apartment. Sometimes at entirely inappropriate hours of the night.
We have entire industries and economies based on the virtues of change. Long gone are the days where you sold someone a product that was meant to last a lifetime. Now, you barely get used to your new product before you’re being offered Product 2.0. These days, they don’t even wait to offer you Product 2.0—the little red badge on your phone tells you that product 220.127.116.11 is waiting for you to update to.
But in spite of the ubiquity of offers of and opportunities for change, the reality is that we are not always comfortable with change. We can consider changing the color of our drapes or even the position of our furniture without too much stress. (Although to be fair, one of my alums would frequently express dismay every time we moved the furniture around in the Methodist cove downstairs.)
But when it comes to larger changes, new school, new job, new career, new home, new family arrangement, new country, and so on, we become less enthusiastic about diving right in. We become more cautious. We become more anxious.
All the more so for changes that we didn’t initiate. It’s one thing to choose to look for another job; it’s quite another to be told you have to. It’s one thing to consider moving to a new town; it’s another to discover that your company is going out of business and you’ll have to move to find comparable employment elsewhere.
Whenever we feel out of control, or subject to the whims of fate and circumstance, we are far more likely to experience anxiety. Changing circumstances, changing economies, changing political landscapes, changing life situations all can create a deep anxiety that can shake us to the core.
II. THE DEEP ANXIETY
Of course, all of this anxiety reflects a deep-seated anxiety that we all have that we try to bury. At some point in our lives it occurs to us, maybe not even consciously, that we are going to die. It’s not so much that fact that unnerves us as the fact that we don’t know when or how that’s going to happen. The comedian Steven Wright used to joke that he knew when he was going to die because his birth certificate had an expiration date on it. The rest of us, unfortunately, live with this uncertainty looming over us.
And that uncertainty drives us to seek to be in control of as many things as we can: our environment, our surroundings, our relationships, our work path, our circumstances. Everything. It’s one of the coping strategies that we’ve come up with for this gnawing terror deep down in our psyche: we can’t control that ultimate reality, but we’ll try like heck to control everything else.
III. THE WILDERNESS OF UNKNOWING
And so when we find ourselves in circumstances where we are not in control, then our overal coping strategy is less effective and we find our anxieties returning. Because at the heart of all of our anxiety is the terror of unknowing.
See, it’s never the new job, or the new boss, or the new administration, or the new town, or the new partner, or the new relationship itself that’s the problem—it’s not knowing what it’ll be like that’s the hardest. The same existential anxiety that is the result of not knowing how and when we’ll die, surfaces in any of those times of unknowing. The anticipation of the next thing is worse than the thing itself because we don’t know what it is we’re waiting for. Tom Petty was right after all: the waiting is the hardest part.
As rough as losing a job is, wondering if you’re going to lose the job can be even worse. As painful as a relationship ending can be, wondering whether the relationship will end can be even more painful and anxiety inducing. When we’re facing coming change, it’s the uncertainty that causes us the most trouble, the not knowing what we’ll face. In times like that we find that we are not where we were, but we’re not yet where we’re going to be—we’re in an uncomfortable and anxiety creating in-between.
These are the wildnerness experiences of our lives—when we are neither here nor there, but somewhere in the middle. When we are unsure of what is about to happen and we anxiously await some kind of resolution. So strong is our need to resolve this ambiguity, this anxious uncertainty, that we are inclined to latch on to things we believe will give us certainty. Our “need for closure” even drives us to seek truths and certainties, even if they’re wrong. Arthur Conan Doyle said, “Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.” And psychologists have noted that we have a tendency to claim hold of “any answer as opposed to confusion and ambiguity.”
We don’t like the uncertainty that change brings. We don’t like not knowing what’s going to happen. We don’t like these wilderness experiences of anxiety in times of change.
But here’s the thing about wildernesses—they are the places of the miraculous.
In a week’s time, our Jewish community will be observing the commemoration of the Passover, the journey from captivity in Egypt to new life and new hope in the Holy Land. Our Christian communities will be celebrating their own Passover journey from bondage to freedom through their Holy Week commemorations culminating in Easter, having come through the 40-day wilderness of Lent.
But as the story of Exodus reminds us, it is precisely in the wilderness that we encounter the divine. Yes, the Israelites saw God battle against Pharaoh in Egypt and part the sea before them as they fled. Yes, God parted the waters of the River Jordan as they entered into Canaan, but it was neither in Egypt nor in the Land where they encountered and entered into relationship with God: that was in the Wilderness.
It was in the Wilderness that Moses first heard the call of God, summoning him to return to Egypt and speak out for the liberation of his people. It was in the Wilderness that Moses received the Law. It was in the Wilderness that the Israelites entered into Covenant with God and committed to justice and righteousness. It was in the Wilderness that the Israelites ate manna and quails. It was in the Wilderness that the Prophets of Israel called the people to “prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It was in the Wilderness that the prophets proclaimed that springs of water would burst forth in a sign of God’s victory over brokenness.
It was in the Wilderness that John the Baptist proclaimed a message of repentance and return. It was in the Wilderness Jesus spent his 40-days of fasting in preparation for his ministry. It was in the Wilderness that Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch on the Gaza road and proclaimed the Gospel to him. It was in the Wilderness that the Woman Crowned with the Sun in the Book of Revelation ran to seek shelter from her persuer. It was in the Wilderness that the saints of the ancient Church went to live lives of holy contemplation. It was in the Wilderness that the Prophet Muhammad first received the Qur’an and it was throughout the Wilderness of Arabia that that message would spread.
It is in the Wilderness where we encounter the Divine.
We are so anxious to get out of these in-between spaces, so desirous of resolving our anxiety and finding new certainties, of obtaining “closure,” that we can miss the very real power of the in-between spaces. For it’s precisely in those times of uncertainty when we’re able to encounter the deepest mysteries of all. It is in those in-betweens that we are the most open to experience the divine. It’s precisely in that creative tension between the already and the not-yet, between what was and what will be that we can encounter something truly meaningful. We, in our anxiety seek to rush past it, to hurry on to the end.
It has been noted that it is in these places of unknowing that some of the most creative work that we do gets done. There is something about these tensions that brings out the inspirational in us. These experiences become God-moments if we let them.
The Israelites left the life they knew in Egypt for the unknown life they were promised in the Land. There were times when they grumbled that the certainty of bondage in Egypt was preferable to the uncertainty of freedom and their desert journey. And in the end, it was in that anxious and uncertain in-between that they encountered God. But the relative geography is not the only important part of that story. Just as important is the fact that they encountered God together—as a community.
We have heard a number of reflections read earlier, passages from scripture and sacred tradition assuring us of divine comfort and assurance in times of strife. One of the most powerful comforts that we have is the knowledge that as we go through these times of uncertainty and unknowing, we do not go through them alone. We have each other.
Every single one of us faces uncertainty. Every single one of us is made anxious by unknowing. Every single one of us wonders what the future will bring and faces coming change with a mixture of excitement and dread. Every single one of us has those feelings. But not a single one of us need face those feelings alone.
We are all walking through this wilderness, but we are walking through it together. And in that is our hope and our strength. We can face times of change. We can be honest about our anxiety and our unknowing. We can be honest about our need to know for sure in the midst of uncertainty. But when we walk through these wilderness experiences—together—with open hearts for what we may find within, we can find ourselves in an encounter with the very heart of God.