The mail two Friday’s back was anything but subtle. I returned from a doctor’s appointment – nothing serious but a reminder that these bodies of ours do take a lot of maintenance – and I had three pieces of mail waiting for me. There was an ad from Viking River Cruises, a large packet of material from the Presbyterian Board of Pensions with all the forms to sign up for retirement and then a lovely offer to pre-plan my funeral. Yikes! Can all this change be more in my face! Alison also loves to kid me that we’ve got our bases covered for our retirement home in Wilmington, Delaware for it is three blocks from a liquor store, two blocks from a hospital and one block from a cemetery. Got it covered.
My response, in the great words of Monty Python: “Not dead yet!” The other day a visitor to the church office rounded the corner and exclaimed, “Are you still here; I thought you had gone!” …. “Not dead yet.”
Today’ sermon is about change, welcoming change, wrestling with change and finding God in the midst of change. It comes by way of a sermon purchased at the youth auction by a woman who has retired from a long and successful career and who is also moving out of the Annapolis area, even though she has loved being here. She’s decided that it is time for a change. We wrestle with change…… even if we choose it.
The shop worn adage that the greatest constant in life is change is certainly true ….. but it has not always been that way. For many centuries the majority of our ancestors lived lives not that much different from their parents. Even those radical few who immigrated to the States or who were brought here in chains then settled into new generations taking their place - the family farm, the slave quarters, the coal mines, the family store. But, we live in a completely different setting and our children have come to expect that their lives might be very different than those of their parents. My mother, who turned 95 two weeks ago, remembers her father plowing the fields with a team of horses, as his father did, as well as his father’s father. The horses are gone, as well as the family farm. The pace only seems to quicken.
A couple in their early 30’s was outlining a bit of their shared history in our conversation about their wedding when Kelsey stopped and exclaimed, “Cal we met even before I phones!” Our 37 year old son complains about the 20 year olds who are always on their phones at work. He said to me, “Dad, I know I sound like an old guy but …..” The pace is dizzying at times. And, typically, laws and ethics lag behind technology. We are all scrambling to figure out life with the never ending computer in hand, formerly known as a phone. What does it mean that a 14 year old has the world at her hand?
Change. Good change. Bad change. Just change.
In Ecclesiastes we read and many can sing a tune from Pete Seeger or the Birds (that one dates me) of turn, turn, turn…… a time for every matter under heaven. “A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted.” This section of Ecclesiastes ends with the lines, “a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” These words come from the Teacher who opened this unusual book of the Bible with the line, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (1:2)
In contrast, when I read the verses that start with the words, “For everything there is a season and at time for every matter under heaven” at a funeral or memorial service I tend to conclude with the reminder that it is all “under heaven.” All things, all times are held within the mercy of God. I’ll often couple this passage with Psalm 139; the one that speaks of God’s never ending presence. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” the psalmist asks of God. Then she answers, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” So confident of God’s presence that not even darkness can take away the care of God, for “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:11, 12)
Change. God is always present. God is in the midst of it all. But where and how we often ask.
Jesus told lots of parables and a short one is included in today’s passage from John. It goes like this:
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
John frequently works with the theme of death and resurrection, noting that change is a series of stops and starts. Life is rarely a smooth line; it includes lots of small deaths and new beginnings, constant change many would say. Years ago Hegel described life as a continual process of transformation, what he outlined as the constant process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The synthesis becomes the new thesis and the process goes on. Marx took that work and described an on-going class conflict while others use Hegel’s theory to describe the process of personal change. Jesus spoke of a life coming out of death, like the grain of seed that first must die before it can flourish.
One of the skills of navigating change is to be able to say goodbye to the old. Years back, when our circle of friends were first having children, I remember one very misguided couple boldly announcing that they had decided to have a child and they had also decided that it would not change anything currently important in their lives. We looked at them, thought about being gentle, decided against that and howled in laughter and scorn. “You are idiots; everything changes,” we told them, “and you’d better be ready for it.”
In all those big changes, the wise say goodbye in order to welcome the new. The adolescent says goodbye to being a child and enters young adulthood. Those who can’t say goodbye get into all kinds of trouble. And on and on, in all of these transitions – single to married, childless to children, health to sickness. We say goodbye to one part of life in order to embrace the next.
Part of dealing with change is learning how to do it. Many of our military families and others who move a lot, like former days of IBM employees (by the way that stood for “I’ve been moved”) learn some skills in change. I recall Courtney Bass, married to Navy man, Bill Bass, had a plan in each transition: in the first week she would enroll the kids in public school, get library cards and find the Presbyterian Church. She managed life quite well. It is the formula: think, pray and act. Walk the beach then make a plan. Leave the sanctuary and hit the street.
Yet, beyond skill levels, we are prone to ask: where is God in this mix of change? I went back to school some years ago when Jack and Susan raised questions that I could not answer in confidence. Both were highly committed Christians with deep ties to the church but they held very different perspectives on how God relates to us and effects change. Jack believed that God had given us the world and pretty much stepped out. As he said, “We’re on our own to do with it what we want. We can make something of it or blow it.” In contrast, Susan, who was suffering from cancer, said this, “I firmly believe that when God created me God set the day that I would die. It is in God’s hands, not the doctor’s, the cancers, or anything else.” When it comes to God and change I don’t agree with either Jack or Susan even though they had worked out a faith that made sense and gave them support and drive.
Where is God in the midst of change? I believe that God is a constant force for good, a power that pulls and coaxes but does not control. We are neither robots on a predetermined course nor alone in the universe to find our own way. God is a constant spiritual presence guiding us towards harmony and complexity, justice and love. God’s power is real but not unilateral, ever present but not controlling. We are free entities within a dynamic relationship with one another and with God. So, as we pray, “God is our refuge and strength” we follow Jesus’ urging that we strive for the kingdom of God.
We can be confident in the midst of change, not because the course is set, but because God is with us. And we can trust. When I am unsettled in change, I’ll walk the beach or take in the ancient rocks and mesas of the mountains or simply sit in our chapel and look up at the old wooden beams in the ceiling. The age and depth of these holy places remind me that God is much bigger than my life and that God’s time holds my time. For even in that most monumental of change when we close our eyes, take our last breath and join our ancestors we know that in life and in death we are God’s. God’s love is everlasting. That, ultimately, is the ground of our trust in the midst of change.