Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ring in the New, Bring Along the Old

As the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book was approaching, the BBC decided to do an updated version. The original was a record of almost everyone in southern England and parts of Wales, where exactly they lived and what property they owned in the year 1086. William the Conqueror had it compiled in order to more comprehensively tax his new kingdom. The finality of its judgment is what gave it such an ominous name. Historians love it for it gives us a fairly accurate snapshot of much of southern Britain. The BBC's project was more of a multimedia tribute and involved children from 9000 schools and the work of 1 million people. There were links to maps, videos, photos, etc. It would be an achievement to rival the original had they not decided to use the latest technology in the mid-1980s, namely the Laserdisc. For those of you scratching your head, imagine a CD-ROM the size of a medium pizza with 300 MB on each side. The problem with the increasingly obsolete format became increasingly obvious by the time we reached a new millennium. Several attempts to convert and preserve the new Domesday project have been attempted. A version is available online, though copyright issues may tie up some material till 2090! The original Domesday book can be viewed online and even in person, thanks to the fact that it was preserved as an actual physical book!

For a similar reason I still keep a pocket address book on me. I know a lot of people use their phones for this but I accidentally smashed the screen of my phone years ago and even with eager help from the phone company, I was unable to transfer all the numbers to my new phone, using the SIM card. So I use back up technology that can never be entirely erased inadvertently or made irretrievable through electronic innovation, a depleted battery, or one of those capped double pipes in motel corridors at pants-pocket height.

The downside is that books do get frayed and the pages can start to loosen and fall out. So I'm in the process of transferring all of the names in my old book by hand. There are new names I should have added but stuck their cards in there instead. The saddest part is removing names of people I never have contact with anymore. Either they are coworkers from very old jobs, or people who have moved but whose new addresses or phone numbers I don't have, or people who have died. A number of those are former parishioners.

It's a new year and all of the emphasis is on ringing out the old and ringing in the new. Especially the latter. As a culture we are in love with the new. The minute Apple puts out a new iPhone, people start speculating on what features will be included in the next version. Sometimes a movie sequel is announced while the blockbuster original is still in the theaters. As soon as questions about whether celebrities are going to marry or not are answered by a "yes," the focus shifts to asking how long till they divorce. On the other hand, news that rightly belongs to the present is considered, in the words of a popular TV commercial, "so 20 seconds ago." The actual past is seen, of course, as beyond the pale.

But as the two anecdotes at the beginning of this homily show, dealing with the past, present and future is not that clear cut. Some things of the past must be left behind but some are enduring. Some things that are "up to date" will be, as C. S. Lewis said, "eternally out of date." And the future is never easy to predict, nor is it always shiny and good. While all earthly things change, not all change is good. Growth is a form of change but so is decline. Birth is change but so is death. Marriage is change and so is divorce. Some change is irresistible and some is entirely elective. Change is too broad a category to pronounce either good or bad. Even specific changes can have both good and bad effects. For instance, making something more secure means giving up some freedom, whether you're talking about the internet or the airlines.

One key to weathering change is discernment, picking out what to preserve and what to leave behind. Nothing new is completely new. It usually involves improving on the old, or rearranging its elements, or delivering the same value or content in a new way. Movies did not spell the end of live theater, nor did television kill movies, nor will the internet bring about the end of scripted and unscripted shows, though the doomsayers of the day in each case said they would. And in no case did the old way of doing things disappear. You can still go to plays and enjoy the electricity of live drama. Some films will never look as good on the small screen as on the large. Some stories work best told in the long form of TV rather than compressed into 2 hours. In the future, you might download shows after a certain time rather than switch to a channel at a fixed hour, but you will probably want to watch them with loved ones and friends on something larger than your phone or laptop. The new way the content is delivered will have new advantages but you will lose some useful older features. If you still get a compelling story with engrossing characters, the rest will not matter much.

So what do you preserve from the past as we live in the present and look to the future? Since we are speaking in the context of faith, we can point to certain beliefs, certain values and certain behaviors that have shown themselves to not only have the strength to endure but to offer us a corresponding strength to not only survive but thrive.

I'm not going to catalog all of these but merely point out a few vital ones.

The center of the faith must always be Jesus Christ, who he is, what he has done and is doing for us and our proper response. When it comes to Jesus, you have to accept the whole package: the incarnate God, the crucified Savior and the risen Lord, whose words we must heed, whose commands we must obey and whose Spirit we must embody. Settle for anything less and you will not experience all of his grace, or know all of his power, or benefit from all of his wisdom. If you accept Jesus' divinity but neglect his humanity, if you treasure his teachings but not his actions to rescue us from our sins, if you are thankful for his death for our sake but not obedient to his commands for our growth into his image, you won't find the fullness that is in him.

The values we must carry with us are righteousness, faithfulness, justice, love, mercy, grace and peace. Righteousness is not very popular because we confuse it with self-righteousness. But righteous in the Bible means being "upright" or "straight" as opposed to crooked. That is a rare quality and people respect it. It goes hand in hand with faithfulness. People appreciate someone they can count on. So does God. And a person who is righteous and faithful works for justice. But justice alone, giving people what they deserve, is inhumanly rigid if not administered with love. And love leads to mercy, not giving people all that they deserve. God's love leads to grace, which is giving people what they do not remotely deserve. And if justice and mercy are perfectly balanced by love and grace, it leads to peace.

The behaviors we practice flow from these values and are really expressions of them. This means the expressions can come out slightly differently in different contexts. Corrie Ten Boom and her family were Christians living under Nazi occupation. In their case, being righteous and just meant hiding Jews, lying to authorities, and forging documents to get the rations to feed the people they were protecting. Usually Christians should obey the law. In their situation, obeying Christ's law of love meant breaking Nazi laws. And they paid the price, going to the camps where Corrie's father and sister died.

Self-sacrificial love is a behavior displayed in Christ going to the cross, in St. Francis going behind enemy lines during a Crusade to preach the gospel to the Sultan, in Martin Luther standing up to the Emperor and the pope and refusing to deny the truth of the Gospel under the threat of being condemned to death as a heretic, in Dietrich Bonhoffer refusing to compromise the proclamation of the Church by mixing it with the Nazi ideology, in Martin Luther King Jr. facing death for non-violently protesting injustice, and in many Christians today who live where one can still die for following Jesus. It is exhibited in Christians who do not live under the sword but otherwise do not insist on their prerogatives, mutually submit to each other, put others ahead of themselves and bear one another's burden, fulfilling the law of Christ.

Keeping these old but enduring beliefs, values and behaviors enables us to face and even embrace the best of what's new. A recent survey found out that Christians are--gasp!--just as much tech users as the rest of the population. I think the authors were surprised because when something new comes out, you can always find those who see in it some new kind of evil. But technology is morally neutral. The internet, yes, makes porn and hate speech more readily available but it also allows the gospel to be heard almost everywhere in the world. My blog has an active if small following in Russia, Germany and Latvia as well as the US, UK and Canada.

Unlike Islam the church has never said the Bible was only valid in the original tongues. Christians have translated the gospel into every language possible. Many tongues were given written form by missionaries. At college I met the son of missionaries who had been trying to get across the idea of the "Lamb of God" to an Amazonian tribe which had never seen sheep. Substituting the sacrificial animal used by that tribe, Jesus became the "Monkey of God." It sounds blasphemous to our culture but the words had the right impact on the intended audience because it expressed the same idea in a new form.

The church has always adapted cultural items to communicate the Good News. Yes, many of the traditions of Christmas began as pagan rituals. Rather than trying to strip everything from a culture they encountered, missionaries turned them into visual parables about Christ. What's odd is people who want to eliminate them now because of a pagan past long since forgotten by most people. If you have to educate people on why something used to be bad, you've just demonstrated how out of date your response is.

The church has found different ways to organize and express itself. Right now one of the fastest growing movements in global Christianity is Pentecostalism. Sometimes it combines with more traditional forms such as Evangelicalism and even Catholicism. Hopefully this trend for Christians coming together rather than always separating will continue. Out of the Church of England alone came the Methodists, the Salvation Army, the Quakers and even the Baptists. It would be nice if, in the face of rising secularism in the West, Christians stopped thinking so much about their secondary and tertiary differences and started working together out of the vast primary beliefs, values and behaviors we share. It would be nice to visibly and in new ways demonstrate what Jesus said about us: that the world would know we are his disciples by how we love one another.

The essential thing is not to greet either the old or the new with knee-jerk reactions but to use discernment, and make your selection not on the basis of age, newness or tradition but on what is good and what is not. Jesus spoke of someone pulling out of his store of treasures valuables both old and new. And if something old no longer serves its purpose, feel free to mourn its passing as I do the names I need not transfer to my new address book. My wife in her childhood loved singing the Latin Mass. The Roman church wisely decided that using a liturgy that people could understand was more important. My wife knew that even though she missed the old language. And it's fine to feel that.

We can't conserve everything so it's important to know what must be kept and what has to be changed. Thinking clearly about that will help us keep what is essential and translate it into new expressions that will communicate it to a changing world. After all, we serve an ancient, eternal God who nevertheless says, "Behold I make all things new!"

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