PHOTO: For more than 60 years, the “Star on the Mountain” in Anchorage, Alaska rises annually on the Chugach range in the east, on the day after Thanksgiving and stays up until the sled dog team crosses the burly arches in Nome, Alaska signaling the end of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race sometime in March. There is no fanfare for its yearly lighting but this star serves as a beacon of hope that moves people forward through the darkest days of the year wherein some places in the state, the sun does not even break the horizon for months.
I lay there in that hospital bed completely lost. I kept repeating these two words to no one in particular: Now what?
I realize now that these two words were forming a prayer. Now what?
In a visceral way, prayer is naming what matters to you.
Now what? is what mattered to me.
I had all this energy and passion and desire to give myself to something, and now I had nothing.
It was a gut-wrenching question, that Now what?
A full-bodied, desperate plea.
It was angry and impotent and honest.
I had no plan B.
Now what? was all I could muster up. (Rob Bell “Everything is Spiritual”)
These are words from Rob Bell’s latest book, “Everything is Spiritual,” which he says is “part memoir, part confession, part extended riff on the endlessly evolving nature of reality.”
In the early part (the book has no chapters), Bell talks about the time when he contracted viral meningitis. The illness effectively put an end to the life he so passionately threw himself to – as leader-songwriter of his college band, Ton Bundle, which he was sure would be his ticket to a successful life.
Now imagine the conversation of the Magi at breakfast the day after seeing Jesus. “I had this dream.” “I did too!” “Me too!” “An angel warned me about going back to Herod, saying he is up to no good.” “Same!” “Ditto!” Now what?
It probably was not the first time these wise ones asked that question. When the star appeared for the first time back east, it capped years of waiting and affirmed years of research and calculations. Now what?
In multiple moments on the journey when they seemed lost or couldn’t find a water supply or were caught in the middle of a sandstorm or feeling homesick did they ask themselves Now what?
When they encountered an oblivious Jerusalem public, clueless about the birth of a great one in their midst and hinting at the Magi’s worst fear that their journey may have been for naught. Now what?
When their questioning led to a private meeting with Herod, erstwhile King of the Jews, who was suspiciously overly enthusiastic about wanting to be the first to know once they had found who and where the baby was. Now what?
When the star reappeared after their audience with Herod and after not seeing it since its rising. What’s more, it seemed to be moving, coaxing them to follow. Now what?
Think about it. This journey was not the only time Now what? was asked in the Christmas story. Mary, you are going to be with child. It will be the son of God. Now what? Joseph, your betrothed is pregnant. Marry her anyway for the child is the son of God. Now what? You need to travel to Bethlehem for the census – yes even if it is a long, treacherous trek – and Mary is almost due. Now what? Sorry, I can see that your wife is in labor but there is no spare room anywhere. We do have a stable, though. Now what?
Throughout scripture, we find story after story of moments where people encounter extraordinary circumstances. In anger, fear, desperation and hopelessness, they cry out: Now what?
This led me to reflect on 2020 and the multiple times we found ourselves in angry, impatient, hopeless and helpless Now what? situations.
- A strange virus is spreading like wildfire in China with no known cure. Now what?
- We now have a global pandemic. We need to shut down to slow the spread of the virus. We need to conduct our affairs, yes including worship, online. Our children will need to do online learning. We need to work from home. Now what?
- This is going to take much longer than any of us thought. Our efforts are successful in flattening the curve but the reality is, without a vaccine, we cannot go back to normal. Now what?
- The simple acts of wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance are recommended but pushed-back on by some as an infringement of rights. Now what?
- For United Methodists reading this, General and Jurisdictional Conferences were postponed, delaying all critical decisions about our future and the our LGBTQIA+ siblings inclusion. Now what?
- George Floyd is killed by police sparking nationwide protests against white supremacy and re-revealing the centuries-old, yet still uncontrolled, pandemic of racism. Now what?
- The economy, especially small businesses, is suffering. Many have been laid-off and are unemployed. Now what?
- The death toll continues to rise. ICU bed capacity is at maximum. Frontline healthcare workers are at the breaking point and have been for months. Now what?
The list goes on and I’m sure you have had more than enough of your share of Now what? moments from last year. And like me, I know you are tired of them.
Rob Bell goes on to share in “Everything is Spiritual”:
I eventually recovered and went back to school, but that prayer stayed with me.
It gradually morphed from an anguished, bitter cry to a question, a quest, a line of inquiry.
As the emotion ebbed from it, curiosity emerged. Now what?
It’s like those two words grew into the question they’d always been.
I started paying attention to my life in new ways.
I started looking for clues and direction.
I started listening more.
I went back to my journal from this day a year ago and my entry simply has a drawing of a star and the words, “The star has moved (is moving) again…” The star in the Magi’s story was an invitation to journey. So was their dream, and that of Mary and Joseph. Anything that comes our way, expected or unexpected, can be and, dare I say, should be seen as an invitation to journey and to ask the question “Now what?”
Yes, we may start out from a place of anger, frustration, confusion and helplessness. For that is normal. Rob Bell reminds us in this same book that “it’s at the end of ourselves that new futures open up.” Naming the fact that something in our lives has come to an end is the first step in moving and accepting and grieving that end.
Susan Beaumont, quoting William Bridges’ work in the book “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season,” states: “Transition depends upon the ending of what was: saying goodbye to the old building, letting the old leader go, releasing the identity attached to the old roles. The starting point for any kind of transition is not the outcome you are moving toward, but the ending that you must make to leave the old situation behind.”
So go ahead and be angry and frustrated; hopeless and helpless. For endings are painful and we need to grieve the loss. But let’s not stay there. After we name the desperate situation with a deep Now what? cry, may we step out into the unknown with a curious and open Now what?
From disorientation to discovery.
From confusion to curiosity.
From weariness to wonder.
From exasperation to excitement.
Beloved, how might we enter into this new year, into the unknown that these stars – these major life-altering events of 2020 have brought us into – no longer with anger, despair and resignation, but with hopeful curiosity and openness to possibility, of what might be birthed in our midst? For remember, as the wise ones of old believe; when a star appears, someone or something great is being born.
Star of wonder
Star of light
Star with royal beauty bright
Guide us to thy perfect light
Rev. Carlo Rapanut
Rob Bell: “Everything is Spiritual” pages 40 – 42.
Susan Beaumont: “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season” page 11
The United Methodist Hymnal, “We Three Kings” page 254