We’re in the middle of a four-week series on Transitions. Last week, we looked at how to navigate the many changes we face, by keeping the ending in mind. Next week, we’ll finish up as we explore the new beginnings that emerge from the changes we face.
Our theme this week is the neutral zone, the wilderness, that in-between place of not being any longer what we were, and not yet being what we will become. This idea of the neutral zone is found in many of the key stories in Scripture. In our reading two weeks ago, we heard about Abraham and Sarah moved from the ending of life in their home country surrounded by family and friends into the neutral zone—the wilderness of traveling between homes. There are many more, of course! For me, the most touching story of the neutral zone is found in the book of Exodus, in the saga of Israel’s move from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
The people of God come to the end of a generation of slavery only to walk into the neutral zone — literally into the wilderness. And they hated it! The end of their captivity and slavery under Pharaoh was good news; they had languished in slavery for over 400 years. They walked into the wilderness of their neutral zone — that place between Egypt and the Promised Land, and it was so bad that they wanted to die. I mean, this was bad!
The story tells us that they were only a month and a half into their 40-year wilderness wandering, and they were already lamenting:
If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
The wilderness of the neutral zone is a tough place. If the Ending is the place where people grieve their losses and then let them go, then “The Neutral Zone” is that in-between place where we lose our sense of relatedness and purpose. It’s that place where people are no longer who and where they were, but they are not yet who and where they’re going to be.
So much of who we are is tied up in the old way of life that we feel lost and empty without it. At this stage, there’s nothing new to anchor us or to give us any context or meaning, and that can be difficult, confusing and painful.
In fact, many people literally go off into the “wilderness” during this phase to “sort it all out.” There’s a strong desire to be alone, to think and regroup. A lot of people report heightened intuition, personal insights and almost “spiritual” awakenings. But it’s still a challenging place.
Can you relate?
Your old job is over; but you haven’t found a new one yet.
You’re single once again; but not sure if you should begin something new with someone else.
You’ve moved to a new town but have no idea how you’ll define yourself in that community.
You’ve retired, but have no idea what you’ll do with all the extra time.
Your youngest child has moved out of the house, finally! But what’s next for you? You’re still a parent, but now also, an empty-nester. What’s THAT about?!
There are all kinds of analogies and metaphors for “The Neutral Zone.” My favorite: a trapeze artist — there is that in-between stage when you have let go of one trapeze, and you have not yet grasped the other trapeze that you hope is coming your way. The challenge of living in that fluid time between one rung and the other. In the midst of this we ask: “What am I doing?” “Where am I going?” “Why did I do this?”
The most important thing we can keep in mind is not to try to rush through this phase. It’s an important and necessary process, but for a lot of people the natural response is to grab a hold of something — anything —new, in order to get out of that uncomfortable place. But if sufficient time isn’t allowed for the dust to settle and the pieces to fall back into place in their own way, the wrong decision can easily be made. The purpose of exploration in “The Neutral Zone” is to face this reality, and creatively explore and discover new ways of doing things.
It can even be dicey for churches to navigate the wilderness of the Neutral zone. Every congregation faces numerous changes and endings in its life and ministry. And with every ending comes the Wilderness of the Neutral Zone. The Wilderness is where we ask: What now? What do this mean? We’re no longer where we were, but we’re also not yet where we’re going to be. For some, this is comfortable, for others, not so much.
Perhaps one of the best words of wisdom for any of us as we step into this wilderness is simply this: Be still. Be still and know that God is God. The best thing to do is to find solitude in the midst of a very world that constantly demands our attention. Carve out some time each day to just sit quietly and think, journal, pray, listen, etc. And it’s probably a really good idea to resist — if not out-rightly reject the demand to respond, to act, to decide. Only through this stillness can we experience the renewal that will lead us to, and through, the final stage of New Beginning.
Here, God gives us some help. Scripture reminds us of the handholds God offers us to keep our balance. If we’re not sure who we are or what we are to do in this neutral zone, Scripture reminds us that we are the light of God shining in this time and place.
In language that shows up in our baptismal service, Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s gospel that we are the light of the world, and that we are to let our good works shine before others so that they would see God reflected in all we do and give God the glory. (Matthew 5.16) We can reflect this light, even when we’re wandering through the wilderness of the neutral zone.
For, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 2, it is not our power at work doing anything. It is God’s power working through us. That power can flow just as easily now, in this in between season called the interim as it can at some other time.
And Scripture offers a final promise: through it all, God is always with us in the midst of change, guiding us through transition. If the wilderness is that place where God shapes his people for whatever is coming next, and if God is doing that with us even now, calming our fears, healing our brokenness, shaping our vision and making us new.
That doesn’t mean that change and transition will be easy, but it does mean that we will never be alone and that we can trust that God is at work in ways we cannot always see in the moment.