The accident happened in the fraction of a second. One minute my husband was walking down the sidewalk, and the next, he was sprawled on top of a patch of nearly invisible ice coating the concrete. The fall knocked the wind out of him. Stunned at first, he gradually became aware that his left leg didn’t feel quite right. Pulling himself into a sitting position, he realized that the leg might be broken. He managed to struggle to his car and drive to the hospital. After some time, he emerged with a cast on his leg, his first ever pair of crutches and a big question in his mind: Would he ever be the same again?

After some kind of trauma the question looms: Will we ever be the same again?

The followers of Moses lived with this question. They had left behind the old way and had not yet entered the new. The old way had meant slavery and hard labor for someone else’s gain. Escape initially had been exhilarating and full of wonder. The promise of a new way of life offered inspiration and hope. But between the old way and the as yet unfulfilled new there was the wilderness. The followers of Moses were definitely in the wilderness and, as the years dragged on, it seemed they were stuck there. The familiar habits of the old way beckoned and people were constantly complaining that things were not the same. They continually wondered: Would it ever seem familiar again?

Their leader Moses had a special relationship with God. He would often go up one of the mountains to speak with God. He seemed different when he returned and the people were sure that the conversations between God and Moses meant something important. One time, Moses returned with a set of commandments, principles by which the people could worship and honor God and live with one another in justice and peace. These commandments were to be part of the new way, life for the people as God meant it to be.

But when the people were threatened or afraid, it was easy to forget about this new way and turn once again to the familiar. So it was that the followers of Moses, during one of his lengthy absences, created a golden calf as an object of worship. It must have been comforting to the people to have this image in their midst, close to them, but it angered the Lord God mightily. Not only were they worshipping and sacrificing to the calf idol, but they claimed that this was the god who had delivered them from slavery. God felt the insult and said to Moses, “ I’ve had it with this stiff-necked people. They don’t appreciate all I do for them. I am going to destroy them and give their inheritance to others.” But Moses loved the people. In spite of their complaining and stubbornness, Moses genuinely cared for the people. Moses bargained with God for the people’s lives. “Remember,” Moses said to God, “ these are your people, whom you delivered from slavery.” And God relented and spared the people. This was a sign that God never abandons God’s people.

But things were not to be the same! The people had to make some changes. They had to truly give up their spiritual dependence on false gods and put their whole trust in the God who had delivered them and was sustaining them in the wilderness. They had to trust that God was bringing them into a new and better way of being. They had to enter into a covenant relationship with God and each other. Recital of the Commandments, and, more importantly, abiding by them, was a mark of the covenant relationship.

We Americans are living through a time during which we wonder if things will ever be the same again. We are living through a period when the American way of life is undergoing rapid change and when our own President is charged with acts that could lead to his impeachment. In the face of events that have unfolded in the past days, weeks and months, and with what is yet to come, we know one thing for sure: We cannot move back to the way it was. We are moving to something different and are in our own kind of wilderness. There is pain as we let go of the familiar, but it appears all too clearly that the way things have been often has encouraged our own selfishness and, in the end, betrayed us, as individuals and as a nation.

Americans, and perhaps nowhere is this more intensely felt than in Washington, will become different as Congress deals with the Starr Report about President Clinton. How that difference manifests itself is yet to be determined. But, as this process unfolds, it provides a time to ask what we want to leave behind that is destructive. What is part of the old way that does not honor God or serve the people well? What is it that we want to embed in our common life as Americans as we move into a new millennium? We are a nation founded on principles that hold individual freedom and well being to be of major importance. It is part of what makes us great as a nation, but it also can be our Achilles’ heel. Individual freedom can never be construed to mean you or I can do what we please whenever and wherever we like. Individual freedom must be balanced by a sense of responsibility and accountability to the community. Communities are held together by common beliefs and shared values and behaviors. In an increasingly diverse population, Americans are seeking to discover what such beliefs, values and behaviors are. The present situation emphasizes that one of our deep and abiding principles is that we are a people held together by the rule of law. What is playing out now is that no one, not even the President of the United States, is outside of the law.

This moment in history will leave all of us in a different place when it concludes. None of us will be untouched by these events. We cannot go back to the way it was. We must go forward. Let us pray that God will sustain us in our present wilderness and strengthen our commitment to finding a new way that genuinely respects the dignity of every human being and upholds the importance of community as our valued place of nurture and support.