Transitions are not elegant. They are doctors’ handwriting. They are gangly fifteen-year-old boys and girls covered in acne. They are playing mud soccer, tripping, and sprawling headfirst into the mud. Then sliding fifteen yards. Transitions are painful and jarring.
This much I know about transitions. In the last twenty years, I haven’t lived anywhere for more than three or four years. I am pretty well always in transition, between communities, trying to build a life in a new community and maybe also shifting life stages—student to career or something. Every time, I start over and think that nothing is familiar, least of all the things I thought would be. Nothing feels solid, nothing familiar to trust to sink my roots in. This much I know. Then this summer I was reminded by a friend that ecologically, transitions aren’t just difficult and exhausting; they’re dangerous. Uprooting and replanting a tree or a shrub makes that plant fragile and more susceptible to the ravages of weather. Transition ecosystems like riparian zones (bogs and other systems that are transitioning from land to water) are the most fragile kinds of ecosystems. All of these are liminal spaces, and liminal spaces are dangerous.
For myself, when I’m in a new community I feel that my roots are searching for good dirt to reach into, clinging to every bit they can with every last fiber, afraid the first storm will wash me out. I’m trying to grow into an established forest. It is a dangerous space. A big enough storm could wash me out. Or a gust of wind in just the wrong place could throw me to the ground.
Students are in transition, often several transitions at once. They have left one community and now enter two more: the school they now attend and also the city and region they now live in. Seminarians are transitioning from undergraduate work to graduate with all the increased expectations that entails. Some seminarians are transitioning from a career or decades of work to being a student. Seminarians are also transitioning from being interested laypersons to professional Christians—how can a person both study God and be dazzled by God anymore? Undergraduates have their own set of transitions that include becoming an adult. When seminarians graduate, they might be ordained and become pastors, transitioning to a new form of work and life, likely a new community and a new set of relationships and kinds of relationships. So many churches are in transition right now, so many denominations, so many institutions. Transitions are dangerous places. Have we recognized the danger these people and institutions are in? Do we recognize the danger when we ourselves are in it?
In this kind of fragility, where is our stability? How do we weather storms when our roots simply cannot be very deep? Two things, I think. One: we hold on to our roots in whatever most stable community we have. There are a couple of communities I remain rooted in even as I have moved away. Those relationships remain solid, and I call on those people in any way I can. The steadiness of even one stable community gives me steadiness for the rest of my life, especially when the rest of that life is unstable. Those parts of my life are rooted deep, have thick trunks, good bark, are in forests of friends, offer a kind of steadiness. There’s consistency. They’re the same even as they grow and change. I know where I belong in those forests. I know as these other roots are seeking deeper soil, some of my roots have found the water table.
Two: we shoot our roots out over Christ the solid rock. Those older communities are Christ’s provision, God’s providence in our lives, sustaining us while we find our place in a new community. They are places our roots find Christ. Yet we also know that Christ alone is our hope, and like a lichen or a subalpine fir, we attach our roots to the rock himself, and into whatever little dirt we find. It never seems like the rock should be a place for sturdy trees, but those tend to be among the hardiest, able to live in the harshest conditions. We root down on Christ, trusting the Rock to be solid enough to hold us. That is, ultimately, where our stability lies. The only place, in fact. No community in this life will be completely stable. For that, we must stand on Christ.
Easy enough to say, I know. Made pretty by metaphors. Yet it is true. So if you’re a member of the established forest, reach out. Give those around you something for their roots to attach to. Provide stability for someone else.
And if you’re the one seeking stability? Make sure you’re going to church. Preferably the same church every week, so you can grow roots there. Show up to the table every week and trust that Christ strengthens there. Let the sacrament be a touchstone. Make space for prayer in some form. Look for God’s sustaining work around you. Draw water from your older communities even as you take risks to find new water in your new setting. However you can, hold on to the Rock with every fiber you have. Christ will not disappoint, even if your community does.