Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Constants of Change

The first birth I attended as a nurse ended once and for all any romanticized idea of the beginnings of life. It was very bloody, very messy and, though I knew the baby's skull was designed to “give” a little in order to make it through the birth canal, I was shocked to see how much it could deform. I thought at first the baby's skull was crushed. But slowly it expanded from a football shape to a rounder one. The mother's pain was obviously great. It was so far from a Hallmark card moment that it influenced my first Christmas sermon, which was a somewhat more realistic look at what the birth of Jesus would be like. I entitled it “Christmess.”

Beginnings are rarely clean and neat. And it is difficult to make clear delineations of when the beginning actually begins. Just as a baby doesn't come into this world out of nothing but only after 9 months of development, it is often hard to say precisely when something starts. We've just entered a new year but the world didn't reboot at midnight on December 31. For that matter every new day is largely made up of the state of affairs that existed the previous day. There will be new developments and of course some lives will begin and others will end but much will remain the same. That consistency can be comforting and stabilizing, while the new features keep the world from stagnating.

It's the same way with human growth. Every day cells in your body die and new cells take over and yet you are not radically different. Every 7 years all the cells in your body have been replaced and while a comparison of photos and medical imaging that far apart will reveal obvious differences, you will most likely be recognizable as the same person. There is that You Tube video in which we see a little girl, photographed every week, go from infant to 14 year old. At each point it is clear we are looking at the same kid, yet the changes between her original and final state (in terms of of the video) are plain.

Newness then is not a matter of total discontinuity but of the accumulation of many small changes over time. This is true not only of the material world but of spiritual and moral development as well. Jesus frequently compared the kingdom of God to mustard seeds, wheat and other things that slowly and often imperceptibly grow into something quite different looking. This is important because a lot of people think, say, repentance should work like the Emergency Bat Turn Lever in the 1960s Batman TV series which allowed the Batmobile to make a 180 degree turn in place. That was ludicrous even in a campy TV show. It is well-nigh ludicrous in real life. A few people do seem to change their lives overnight but for most of us change is slow. And that can make people doubt that change is taking place. I've had patients feel like that when when recovery from surgery seems to be taking forever or they seem to have hit a plateau while in rehab. We aren't microwave meals. It takes time for us to be ready.

The reason I bring this up is twofold: first, many people make New Year's resolutions to change some habit of theirs but second, and more importantly, Christianity is about transformation. It is not about maintaining the status quo. That's the role the powers that be want religion to play in society: tell everyone that God is cool with the way we are running things. But Jesus was also a prophet, called by God to critique society and hold it up to God's standards. He was anything but a proponent of continuing to do the same old boring thing. As Dorothy L. Sayers said, “The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him 'meek and mild,' and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

Jesus started his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor...” Isaiah was talking about the exiles in Babylon coming home. These are the captives and the oppressed being referred to. The “year of the Lord's favor” also harkens back to the Jubilee year. According to Leviticus 25:8-13, every 50th year in Israel all debts were canceled, all economic slaves were freed, and all leased land was returned to its original owners. Imagine if we did that today. It would disrupt our economy. Being in debt is an accepted part of life nowadays. It's how we do business. The banks and corporations would oppose canceling debts. Jesus is using it in a spiritual sense, though. He is talking about how he will free us from our enslavement to our sins, our own self-destructive habits, our indebtedness to God over past harmful behavior. In Christ God graciously forgives us our sins and cancels the penalties we otherwise would incur for them.

And just as the Jubilee year, and the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, would disrupt life as we know it, so should our liberation in Christ. In the case of Zaccheus the chief tax collector, after Jesus met with him he gave half his possessions to the poor and reimbursed any whom he cheated 4 times the amount he took. (Luke 19:1-10) In Acts chapters 2 and 4 we see the early Christians selling their property, putting it in a common fund and supporting everyone from it. That's pretty radical. And we see that the reason that it apparently didn't survive was selfishness and deceit. People were not willing to give everything and more importantly, they were not willing to be honest about not giving everything, even though that was not required.

Maybe the problem was that they were trying to radically change everything at once. Sometimes that's necessary to make a change stick. You could argue that the reason why the change to the metric system failed in America because the government let the English system remain alongside the metric. People weren't forced to learn the new and so they didn't.

But sometimes this "all or nothing" approach works against making the change stick. If you are going to take up running, don't just run outside and start doing marathons. You need to, after talking with your doctor, start small and work up to running several miles a day. A lot of us try to suddenly radically change our whole life—no snacks, no coffee, no cigarettes, all organic foods and getting up at 5 to work out at the gym 4 times a week—and it falls apart because it's too big a change. The best way is to work out a timetable that you can stick to, phasing out some things and adding others according to a plan.

One important element to making changes is having a plan. We know what we want to change but we don't come up with a feasible plan to do it. We expect to wing it. But inertia and our ingrained habits will stop us every time. We need to work out just how to implement the change.

Speaking of inertia and our habits, there are many obstacles to change. For one thing we may be comfortable with the way things are. In my experience as a nurse, people don't make healthy changes until their present condition is so painful that change and all its attendant inconveniences are seen as much needed relief. People decide to stop smoking when the hacking cough leaves them feeling beat up. People decide to get in shape when their hip and knee and back problems get so bad that they must do something. They give up texting while driving only after the collision that harms or kills someone else. Comfort and complacency are major obstacles to change. Sadly enough, pain is often an important element in getting us to change.

A lack of knowledge or the skills to change can be an obstacle as well. You want to change but you don't know how. Fortunately, today you can find all kinds of resources to help you—your doctor, a trainer, a 12 Step group or support group, books by experts, and reputable internet sites. Ignorance is no excuse today. We live in the information age. My only caveat is to look for consensus. For instance, there are lots of diets that claim if you simply eliminate one kind of food or start eating one exotic vegetable, the weight will melt off without additional effort just like magic. Even if it did it may be impossible to maintain such a radical diet. If one site or book insists that there is a one-size-fits-all single factor to change, keep looking. Especially if they are trying to sell you the cure. Life is rarely that simple.

Fear can be a huge obstacle to change. It may be fear of the change itself. If you are trying to give up alcohol and you fear this will change your ability to socialize with friends or a spouse, that may discourage you from making this vital change. Or you may fear failure. You may be afraid that if you tell everyone about the change you are trying to make and you fail, you will look bad or silly in the eyes of others. Getting an accountability partner, someone who is also trying to make the same change or who has already done so, can help tremendously. Give them your plan and give them permission to check up on your progress. Keeping your plans to yourself can make you fail.

Perfectionism is a major obstacle to making a change. You want to do it perfectly or you don't want to do it at all. I am a recovering perfectionist. And paradoxically it resulted in me procrastinating. I didn't want to try anything unless I was completely ready to do it perfectly. Which is really not an option in this life. But I would put things off because I wasn't sure I could do them flawlessly. Two quotes helped me deal with this. One is by Samuel Johnson who said, “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.” Certainly it is advisable to consider the most likely objections and obstacles to arise and make plans to avoid or minimize them. But some will always remain and you have to accept that nothing you do will be absolutely without fault. The second quotation really helped with this. Christian writer G. K. Chesterton wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” He was speaking about hobbies and amateur pursuits but the point is similar to Johnson's. Don't avoid doing something just because you won't do it as well as you'd like. Rarely will you will called upon to improvise something that will result in death if you don't do it precisely right. Everything you have mastered in life you once did for the first time and you did it badly. Every artist, every writer, every salesman, every mechanic, every nurse, every public speaker, every teacher, every leader has some early effort that they look back on which causes them to shudder—or to laugh. If you don't try something, you'll never get better at it. Everyone can improve. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly, at least at first.

And that applies to following Jesus. The disciples screwed up royally again and again. They said and did the wrong thing many times. Jesus didn't kick them out. He worked with them. He knew they were imperfect when he chose them. Even after Jesus' ascension Peter still could be hardheaded as we see when in Acts 10 where he argues with a vision God gives him about accepting Gentiles. We see in Galatians 2 that Peter chickened out on his stance on Gentiles until Paul confronted him. And Paul, too, was flawed in seeing an asset given by God. He evidently changed his mind about John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, his first missionary partner. Their joint ministry broke up because Mark had left them during a trip and Paul would not let Barnabas bring him on the next. Yet in no less than 3 of his letters (Philemon 1:24; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11) Paul commends Mark as a fellow worker and as someone who was very useful to Paul's ministry. Even Paul could be wrong!

Following Jesus isn't a science. And even if it were, science is always a work in progress. You wouldn't want to teach a class with a science textbook from the 1950s. This is not to say that there aren't certain constants in following Jesus. You still must pray, study your Bible, find and join a community of Christians trying to follow Jesus, worship regularly, be a good steward of the gifts given you, tell others the good news and obey the commands to love God and to love others, not just in word but in action. But you are going to find yourself fighting the devil in the details. C.S. Lewis said that becoming a Christlike person is more like painting a portrait than following rules. The only way to get better is by practice.

My granddaughter is starting to walk. She takes a step or two and then ends up on her butt. Nobody is trying to stop her from attempting to walk until she gets it right. We are encouraging her and trying not to make her feel too bad about the setbacks. Every step pleases us. And every step we take in following Jesus pleases God. He is, as Lewis said, easy to please but hard to satisfy. Just as we would be unsatisfied if by age 21 Zoe still couldn't walk. But what's important is that she's trying. And that's true of our walk with God. The whole point of the parable of the talents is that the 3rd servant didn't even try to use what his master gave him. The master even suggests a conservative course he could have taken that would have seen him make some increase. (Matthew 25:14-30)

To paraphrase Lao-tzu, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...followed by another and another and another. As hard as making the changes necessary as we follow Jesus are, that pilgrimage also begins with a step, followed by many, many more. But we have a great companion who has trod that path before and who will encourage us to keep going until we arrive at the gates of his Father's house.

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