Faith in the Wilderness

Several years ago, someone shared with me an infographic about the Cycle of Change. There are lots of different iterations to be found in a simple Google search, but this one has always stuck with me. At the top of the cycle is change, whatever that change is, good or bad, it’s sets you off on the journey into the first stage of loss, because change inevitably is a cause for grief, even if it’s a good change. The stages then wind on in predictable ways first doubt, then discomfort. But then there is a shift as the progress on the cycle begins to take an uptick to discovery, then understanding, and integration, all before change will inevitably happen yet again and start the cycle over. What’s so compelling about the one that was shared with me all those years ago is a thin red strip that wedges itself in-between the discomfort and the discovery stages; the creators of this graphic dubbed it “the danger zone,” because it’s not an automatic assumption that in every cycle of change that one will get to understanding and integration. Very often folks get stuck in the danger zone; stuck in the discomfort stage marked by anxiety, confusion, and unproductive behavior. When one gets stuck in the danger zone, it often resets the whole cycle back to the first stage of loss that is marked by fear and paralyzed behavior.

The Change Cycle™

This week, the Change Cycle spoke to me as I remembered it and dug into the details of this theory around how to move through change. I’m not quite sure if it spoke to me because of the sudden rise in the Delta variant and moves toward masking indoors again or because of the journey of the Hebrew people in our Exodus reading. Though maybe it was a little of both. Our passage from Exodus is a phenomenal story that often gets told and retold so much that it might begin to lose a bit of its texture.

It’s so common that the phrase “manna from heaven” is practically a common cultural reference. The section that we hear today from Exodus is the story of God’s provision, of God’s testing, and of God’s compassion for the Israelites as they are walking in the wilderness. It begins with the whole group naming that perhaps it would have been better to have died in bondage than to be in the wilderness without knowing if they would have enough food to eat. God, in God’s abundant compassion, does not answer in a way that demands their gratitude, but instead hears their complaints and promises to grant meat at night and bread in the morning. And as God promised, quails came at night and in the morning after the dew lifted, there was a fine, flaky bread-like substance from God to sustain the people. But God only provided what they could eat in the day and told them not to collect more than was needed; a test from God to see if the people would obey God’s commandments and trust in God’s impossible abundance.

In the cycle of change, the Israelites had walked through loss, through doubt, and we find them today thoroughly in the discomfort stage. They have yet to step into the discovery stage which allows space for anticipation and resourcefulness, and today in this lesson from Exodus, they are definitely on the cusp of the danger zone. And it’s not hard to see why.

They’ve been in the wilderness long enough that the realities of their enslaved life have begun to soften, and they began to long for the life they once knew. For the Israelites, it is a long, winding wilderness road between enslavement and freedom. Here in the wilderness, it is hard to see God, to trust God, and to have faith. To put it plainly, is hard to choose faithfulness in the wilderness. Sometimes in that in-between space that is the wilderness, it’s so hard to believe that anyone, much less God hears our complaints; it’s hard to believe that our pain matters, and that our hope can survive, even when it feels threadbare.

The wilderness is a place of which so many of us are familiar. For some in these pews, the wilderness has come to feel like home. You might be used to navigating the world a little bit confused and a lot bit anxious; it might feel like old hat to wonder if your cries to God are heard or to wonder if your hope is tangible enough to see you through. The wilderness is the in-between place, and while some might be more familiar with it than others, I think most of us find ourselves here right now. The rise of the pandemic has once again turned our world upside-down, just as many of us were beginning to regain our footing. Plans for the Fall are in question and with schools starting this week there is a lot of unknowns.

When I was praying through the texts set for today, the idea of preaching from Exodus stood out to me because it seems that so many of us are in the wilderness. So many of us are struggling with threadbare hope and a frayed sense of what’s next. But it also stood out to me because God is present in the wilderness for the Israelites, and what’s amazing to me is that God hears their complaints. And just like for the Hebrew people, God is present in our wilderness as well, and God will hear our complaints.

And in case this hasn’t been communicated clearly: God can handle our doubts and our anger, and I know that I have a lot of both of those these days. I’m angry about the state of the world and the pandemic, my grief for the lives lost has moved to anger, and I worry that whatever is next will never be enough. I worry that even God’s impossible abundance is not enough to cover the gaping holes that are present in our world today. I worry that a threadbare hope is not strong enough to weave together the life we once knew; I worry that the problems are too big and that as humanity, we aren’t taking them seriously enough. I’ve thought so much about God’s presence in the wilderness this week. I’ve thought so much about what it looks like to hold onto our faith even in the wilderness, and I can’t stop thinking about what Moses said to the people through Aaron: Draw near to the Lord, for the Lord has heard your complaining.

Now is the time, my friends. Now is the time when we find ourselves in the wilderness, in the space between the world that once was and the world that is yet to come, and it’s how we choose to live that will shape who we become, and its key to remember that God is present, and God’s compassion is with us. Every day we can choose fear and resentment, or we can trust that God is present with us, even in this impossible wilderness; every day we can choose faithfulness to the God who hears our complaints and whose abundance is always present. Every day, even in the wilderness, there are opportunities for us to choose hope, to choose faithfulness and to draw near to the God who loves and hears us. Thanks be to God.

 A sermon on Exodus 16:2-4,9-15 delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky for Proper 13B on August 1, 2021

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