by Jenna Pulkowski

It’s that time of year when my social media frequently remind me that summer break is drawing to an end and the school year is beginning. Friends with school-age children have started posting “first day of school” pictures, saying goodbye to summer break and hello to the school year rush.

Since I’m not in school anymore, don’t have kids of my own, and am not serving a parish, it can be easy for me to be nostalgic about the beginning of a new school year. I miss shopping for school supplies. Sigh, the smell of freshly-sharpened pencils (is everything mechanical now? That would be sad). New books and new course materials, new teachers and new friends, new schedules and new opportunities.

In that nostalgia, I forget the anxiety, uncertainty or even fear that can come with a new beginning. Whenever we move into a new phase in our lives, whether it’s the new school year, a new job, or a change in the season, we may find ourselves wondering where God is in this. We may ask ourselves if we are making the right choice, if we shouldn’t have just stayed where we were. Why go back to school, or change jobs, or move? Have you ever found yourself going, “What was I thinking!”

Not just me? Whew. Good.

Even when I’m so ready to move on that I can’t even focus on where I am, I’m still surprised by how hard it can be to let go of the past, to let go of what God is calling me to do now. I know part of that is personal–I really don’t like endings–but part of it is a simple human response to the unknown. All those new things I had thought were fun and hopeful suddenly become roadblocks and dead ends.

This fear has caused me to almost back out of major commitments more than once. The only thing that stopped me was the bigger fear of disappointing others or wasting money. I still remember crumbling into a sobbing mess at the storage facility the day before I was to move 9 hours away to start my first parish call. I started crying as my dad helped me load the moving truck, overwhelmed by the immensity of what I was doing. Was it too late for me to call and tell the church I’d changed my mind, thanks anyway?

As people of faith, many of us have had some solid experience with nostalgia and holding onto the past. Churches are notorious for the “that’s how we’ve always done it!” pattern of thinking and acting, and if our buildings aren’t an homage to nostalgia and the past, then I don’t know what is. Yet so much of our faith does require being well-versed in the past, as we spend time with scripture, worshiping in community and growing in our discipleship.

We can do both, be both. We are “both/and” people. We can delight in learning about our past, and we can delight in what God is doing now. We can be ready for a new phase in life and be sad about things changing. We can kick the dust off our sandals and later on think it wasn’t really that bad.

Through it all, what remains steady is the loving presence of God. We may have been taught that the church is supposed to remain constant, but it is God who is constant. God remains constant in love, mercy, grace, and presence. The story of our people’s past as told in scripture is a story of a God who always keeps God’s promises to name and claim Israel as God’s own.

And when we realize that God’s constancy helps us change and adapt to the world, when we expand our understanding of who God is and who we are as God’s people, then our fears and anxieties need no longer dictate our lives. We can release them to God, trusting that through the tears and worries and doubts, God has always and will always be with us. For us. Loving us and on this journey with us.

Whether this new school year that means you or a loved one will be going to school across town or across the world, starting a new job or taking on a new role, this prayer and blessing can be used as you go forth into a new time in life.

Good and gracious God, we come before you to ask you to keep (name) safe in this next part of their life in you. Keep them safe in their travels+, give them laughter and light for their journey, energy and focus for their work, and a passion for using their gifts to serve you and your people. Give them courage to meet hatred with your love, division with your peace, suffering with your care, and hopelessness with your grace. Show them ways to honor their past, to be present in their now, and to look forward to where you will call them next. May God the Creator, Christ the Redeemer, and the Spirit that Sustains bless them and keep them until you bring us back together again. We ask this in the name of your Beloved, the restorer of relationships, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Discussion questions:

1. If you are getting ready to go back to school, start a new job, or shift into a new rhythm in your life, what are some of the ways you experience God’s presence?
2. What are some ways you have found to help you give thanks for your past while inviting God’s continued work in the future?
3. When is a time that a feared change ended up being a wonderful thing for you?

+ If you’d like to name specific parts of their travels–the roads, bikes, trains, parks–or how they’re traveling–walking, biking, driving, etc.–this is a good place to do so.

Jenna lives in Chicago with her husband and two fur babies. She serves as chaplain to the wonderful residents and staff at St. Pauls House, a long-term care community for assisted living and skilled nursing residents. If she weren’t working in ministry, she’d probably work in a coffee shop and talk about all things nerd-related–especially Harry Potter, Outlander, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. Oh, who are we kidding–that’s all she talks about anyway!