It's the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. In our lives, on our TVs, in our conversations, on our social media, right now, we’re talking about beginnings and endings a lot. We do this every year at this time- we look forward and anticipate, and we look back and reflect.
But there’s a part that’s necessary for beginnings and endings to have any meaning and context: The Middle. No one ever talks about the middle. What’s the middle?
The middle is when you’ve invested, you’ve given, you’ve risked, but you don’t see any return yet.
The middle is when you’ve embraced the grief, but don’t see any joy yet.
The middle is when you’ve committed to living differently, but you don’t see any change yet.
The middle is when you’ve closed the door on the last thing, but you don’t see the next thing yet.
The middle is when you’re going through the motions, but you don’t feel anything different yet.
The middle is when you’ve faced the truth, but don’t see any purpose yet.
All the stories we hear (and love) emphasize the breathless starts and triumphant endings. They don’t talk much about the middle, where your output is greater than the results, when faith is greater than sight. Here’s what’s true about the middle.
You’ll probably hit a wall in the middle.
You’ll probably want to quit somewhere in the middle.
It’ll seem more like failure than success in the middle.
It won’t feel worth it in the middle- it’ll feel like a waste.
The pain is just too great in the middle.
You’ll want to give up on love and settle for numbness in the middle- God, the people in your life, your calling, yourself.
The thing you want more than anything in your life right now probably has a middle associated with it.
Some of you are at the end of a year, and you want to close to the door on something to “end” it. It seems so much more viable and attractive than keeping at what you’re currently keeping at. But you’re not actually at the end, you’re in the middle.
Some of you see the new year ahead, and want to embrace the rush of a “new” thing while leaving an old thing behind. But really, the only reason it feels like it will be better is because it’s new, not because it’s much different. And once you’re through the rush of the new beginning, you’ll be right back where you are now- the middle.
In both cases, the biggest lie you could embrace at the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017 is that you need to create an ending, or start a new beginning because you feel stuck. Maybe you’re not stuck, maybe you’re just in the middle.
New beginnings have no lasting value unless you get through the middle. In my role as a pastor, one of the most recurrent personal tragedies I see in people’s lives is that they live beginning to middle, beginning to middle, beginning to middle, and bail out when the middle gets tough and begins to challenge them. This is literally the most common thing I come across in my conversations with people. People do it with their careers, their relationships, their finances, their community circles, their faith. (And to be honest, I’m tempted very often to do the exact same thing.)
The worthwhile ending at the finish line is nothing unless you push through the middle. We all like the idea of the ending- success, achievement, fulfillment, heaven, however you want to define it. But it’s the middle develops within us the character necessary to live fully and wisely and thankfully in the ending.
I actually think that the big gap between "starting" and seeing the “ending” that is success or purpose or meaning is THE thing that develops the character within that's necessary to properly interpret and steward those things when they come. Otherwise, it ends up being self-serving, or worse, consuming. The middle develops within us the character necessary to live fully and wisely in the end. Whenever we short-circuit this, we miss this critical part.
In the Bible, there’s a famous section in the book of 1 Corinthians that’s read at nearly every Christian wedding. It talks about love. But at the end, it takes a weird left turn:
"For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
I believe that the writer, the Apostle Paul, is basically saying “you’re in the middle. You don’t see it all yet. It’s dim, cloudy, murky, unclear. But there’s a day coming where it will be clear. In the meantime, here’s how you must live in the middle."
Hope is holding onto the promise of the ending- that you don’t see it, don’t feel it, haven’t realized it yet. Faith is hope with feet- it’s when you transform hope from a sentiment or platitude into a discipline. It’s sticking with it when it feels like there’s no reason to. Love is how you approach all of this, the language this all speaks- with God, with others, with yourself.
Many of us will make New Year’s resolutions. Most of them are about beginnings and endings. Some of those things are necessary and important. But maybe the most important thing you can resolve to do is to stick with the middle.