Sunday, April 15, 2018

What We Will Be

The scriptures referred to are 1 John 3:1-7.

Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

My son was watching Back to the Future 2 with my granddaughter the other day and seeing as the first half of this 1989 film is set in what was then the future, which is now our past, it was interesting to see what they predicted we would have in 2015: hoverboards, self-drying clothes, flying cars. In fact that was one of the things co-writer and director Robert Zemekis resisted doing at first. Films set in the future always get some things wrong. I was reading an article that wondered why Commander Data, the android in Star Trek: The Next Generation, used his fingers to access the Enterprise's computer. Isn't he a computer himself and don't they have wifi in the future? My laptop and the printer communicate wirelessly. Why can't he?

So that's one thing you can predict about the future: technology will change, in some cases drastically, and new technology will keep getting invented. We can foresee some trends in technology but the specifics elude us. 

Another thing we can predict is that changes in technology will change culture. Look at how smartphones have changed us. Some of those changes are for the better. Whenever there's a disaster, if people have their phones and have a signal, they can check in and let family and friends know they are safe. I had a friend working in New York on 9/11. Back then, it took a whole day to find out she was OK. She had to walk home from Manhattan and get to a landline. 

Another upside to modern technology is that I have access to virtually all the knowledge in the world on my hip. While preparing my sermons, I use my laptop, my Kindle and my phone in addition to my physical library to do research and fact-check.

There are downsides to our technology, though. People will sit together at the dinner table and barely speak because everyone is glued to his or her device. The internet spreads knowledge but also ignorance and lies. And while people have been drunk dialing and saying foolish things to those on the other end since phones were invented, now you can get on Twitter stone cold sober, type something stupid and, in front of the entire world, embarrass yourself or get yourself fired or affect global markets and national security. Technology has so increased the efficiency and range of our weaponry that 60 years ago, for the first time in human history, it actually became possible for one person to start the war that ends all wars--by ending all human life, that is.

Which leads to another prediction you can make: whatever the changes in technology and culture, some people will figure out how to misuse, abuse or exploit them for their own purposes. Because human nature doesn't change. Does it?

While there are a number of books and articles out now that show that things are generally getting better for people materially, the fly in the ointment is human nature. It looks like we can now reduce most, if not all, poverty and unnecessary suffering. But will we? Let's look at the last century. While the sciences were conquering diseases and raising standards of living, millions more people were killed by Stalin, Mao, and the two World Wars than were killed by Genghis Khan, the Taiping Rebellion, the fall of Rome, the Conquest of the Americas and the slave trade in the Middle East and the Atlantic, combined. Yes, technology made that much more bloodshed possible but as Jeff Goldblum's character in the first Jurassic Park movie said, “scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could do that, they didn't stop to think if they should.” Indeed, it appears that among the reasons the Nazis didn't develop an atomic bomb first was the reluctance of German scientists to do so. Others say it was due mostly to disorganization and the fact that Hitler didn't make it a priority. In either case, technology wasn't the deciding factor in the Nazis not getting a nuclear weapon so much as human nature.

Human nature is consistent enough that wisdom which goes back for millennia still applies. I am talking about the Bible, of course. And while there are passages like Jeremiah 13:23, which compares the odds of people changing their evil ways to a leopard changing its spots, the basic thrust of scripture is that people can change. Otherwise why would the same prophet say, “Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God. Then the Lord will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you.” ? (Jeremiah 26:13) The Bible is full of calls for people to repent, to change their minds and hearts, to change their behavior, to turn from sin and turn to God. If we cannot, if we are predestined to stay as we are and keep doing what we are doing, why would God keep appealing to us to change?

The reason people don't change is not that they can't; it's that it is very hard to do. There are a number of factors that hinder us. One factor is genetics. Some people are just predisposed to overreacting to negative things, leading to either angry outbursts or shrinking back in fear. Some people are prone to discomfort or anxiety in the face of change. We can see this in brain scans. They may even have inherited this from grandparents who passed on the genes concerned already switched on or turned way up.

How you were raised is a factor. People will pick up attitudes towards behaviors as well as towards novelty and change from their parents. When raising their kids, folks often ape the parenting they got as kids. Ever hear something your mother would say coming from your own mouth? Adverse childhood experiences like neglect, physical, sexual or even verbal abuse, divorce, having a family member abuse alcohol or drugs or go to prison all raise the risk that a person will suffer from chronic illnesses, mental illness, violent behavior and run-ins with the law well into adulthood.

Where you were raised is a factor. In some communities certain things, like talking back to those in authority, are simply not done. That can make it hard to speak up about abuses you observe on the job or in society. Sexual mores, gender roles, racial stereotypes and attitudes towards outsiders are often things we absorb unconsciously from those around us.

Poverty can be a factor. Growing up never knowing where you next meal is coming from, having to move often because of eviction, and being ridiculed for your worn, ill-fitting and smelly clothes has an impact on children. Stress and malnourishment have an immense effect on the developing brain. What seems logical or just common sense to someone raised in a stable home where food, shelter, clothing and social acceptance were taken for granted are not so obvious to those who lack such things.

The type of religion you were exposed to is a factor. Thinking God is vengeful may make you more conscientious, perhaps, but also more rigid and judgmental. On the other hand, thinking that religion is all about making you feel good about yourself might be comforting but it will make it more difficult to take your flaws seriously and work on them. Thinking that humanity is divided into us, the righteous, versus them, the vile and evil, will affect how you regard those who disagree with you and are different from you.

All of these factors make it hard to change. As does the Backlash Effect. That's the name scientists have given to the fact that trying to correct people's cherished misconceptions makes them double down on their original position. The same part of the brain that registers pain is activated when a deeply held belief is attacked. Essentially we feel that we are being attacked. Correct my understanding of hockey and it won't bother me because I'm not really into sports. Prove me wrong on my politics or my religion or anything I strongly value and I will experience the fight or flight response. That's why it's so hard to change people's minds.

Nevertheless, people do change. All of us change a bit over time or else as adults we would still be exclusively eating spaghettios and chicken fingers and watching My Little Pony rather than Frontline. Some of us do rebel against certain ideas and cultural artifacts we grow up with. More importantly, some people do change their values and lifestyles.

Christopher Picciolini was a troubled and lonely youth who found a family in what was the first Neo-Nazi skinhead organization in the US. When the adult leaders went to prison, Picciolini took over as head of that racist group at age 16! He played in a white supremacist rock band. He started a white power record store in Chicago. But when talking to the people whom he encountered there, including a lot of people he had spent years hating, he found it harder and harder to justify his beliefs. He is a Nazi no more and has co-founded Life After Hate, which helps people leaving extremist movements.

Saul was a zealous Pharisee who hated people perverting Judaism by saying that an executed criminal was really the Messiah. He persecuted these heretics, arrested them and brought them to the Sanhedrin, who stoned some to death. Everything about Saul's heritage, upbringing, and education predisposed him to be against Christianity. And then, on a trip to arrest followers of Jesus in Damascus, the risen Christ appeared to him on the road. Saul changed his mission and changed his name. Paul became an indefatigable missionary for the gospel.

Change, especially radical change, is hard. That's why so few people do. Even if their life is crappy, even if they find themselves in the same bad situations, making the same poor decisions, at least it is familiar to them. And it doesn't take as much work. To make the kind of change we see in Paul you need to change the way you think, speak and act. That requires help. Fortunately God knows that. And he is our helper.

After his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, Saul is blind. God sends a disciple named Ananias to lay hands on him and he says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here, has sent me so you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17) Saul regains his sight and is baptized. He also spends several days with the disciples in Damascus. Saul doesn't make his transition to the apostle Paul under his own steam. He has the Holy Spirit and the local church to help him.

With the power of the Spirit and the support of his home church, Paul changes the future of the Jesus movement and of the Roman Empire as well as world history. But Paul changes too. The man who persecuted Christians becomes persecuted for Christ. The man whose zeal leads to the martyrdom of believers himself becomes a martyr. The man called Saul, the name of the first Hebrew king, changed his name to Paul, which means “little” or “humble” in Latin. He goes from a man breathing threats and murder to the man who writes about love more than anyone else in the Bible, just edging out John. He writes a whole chapter on Christian love in 1 Corinthians and people read it out loud almost every time someone gets married. I even heard it at a Jewish wedding!

We know technology changes but the good news is that people can change, too. As Ann Lamott says, God loves us just as we are but he loves us too much to leave us that way. We are not static, doomed to be the same flawed person forever. We can grow. We can be transformed by the power and love of God. The power is his Spirit and the love we experience, at least partly, through his church. The purpose of the Spirit is to make us new creations in Christ. We are to become Christlike. And since Jesus is the very image of God and God is love, we become more like him as we become more loving and more a part of the community of love, the body of Christ.

At the beginning of this sermon I read a verse from our passage in 1 John. And the author is making a point about our future in Christ. He says that we are God's children now but says we do not know what we shall be. Surely we will not become less than God's children in the future so it must be that we will become more. But how?

On the cover of the book Explaining Hitler is a photo of a cute baby. That baby grows up to be the man who started the second World War and was responsible for the death of millions. It's impossible to see that in the face of the infant. Nor can you see in the face of a rather girlish young FDR the man who would face off against Hitler. For that matter I doubt you could see what kind of person they would become simply by watching them sleep and yawn and suckle and crawl. If we can change that much physically in a matter of decades, who can predict how we will grow spiritually over eternity? Will we become an increasingly angry, bitter, hateful, greedy person or will we become a calmer, more forgiving, more compassionate, more generous being? Will we retreat into spiritual darkness or turn to the source of everlasting light?

Though we grow and lose the baby fat, we do tend to retain a family resemblance. You can often see our parents in us. And it says in 1 John, “What we do know I this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” The resemblance will become undeniable. We will definitely be children of our Heavenly Father.

When we are children we can't wait to grow up. We play at being mommies and daddies, pretending to do the things we see our parents do, saying what we hear them say. As Christians we should also desire to grow spiritually into the image of God our Father, and practice doing what we see him do in Jesus and say what he said. As Paul says, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us and give himself up for us...” (Ephesians 5:1-2)

The only constant in this life is change. But change can be for the better or for the worse. If we must change may we become more loving, more faithful, more hopeful, more Christlike people. Change is hard but we have the help of God's Spirit within us and his people around us. And while we may not be able to foresee all the specifics of this transformation, we can see the general trend and more importantly we see our goal: to be the very image of the God who is love, who is revealed in the teachings and in the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

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