The Immutability of Change

From: Words and Ways

A Personal Perspective

Recently, I walked my oldest daughter down the aisle, while a classical guitarist plucked a tune she’d selected for the occasion.  It was Lennon and McCartney’s In My Life.  I started mouthing the words to the song, as we strode past the smiling faces of well-wishers, old friends and family; as well as former in-laws from what felt like another lifetime.

There are places I remember, all my life,

though some have changed.

Some forever, not for better,

Some are gone, and some remain.

This last week I viewed the wedding photos.  They showed a statuesque beauty that now towered over her father, whose hair has turned silver gray.  But I’d already acknowledged at the wedding banquet how many changes the passing years had brought with them.  When the bride’s father had given his spontaneous toast, I’d recollected among other things how I’d once held my infant daughter in one arm, scrubbing her in the shower, while singing Zippity Do-Dah at the top of my lungs.  “I don’t do that anymore,” I remarked.  “Like the old Beatle’s song says, some things are gone.  But other things remain.”

The obligatory father-daughter dance was next.  Not being terribly adept on the dance floor, I’d begged for months to know the song that’d be played so I could practice my footwork, but my daughter had refused to tell me.  To my surprise and delight, when the DJ cued up the music, yep, he was playing our song, Zippity Do-Dah.  Some things are gone, and some remain.

The Immutability of Change

Like it or not, change is in the air.  The days grow shorter, the nights are cooler.  The seasons are the periodic reminders at regular intervals that, like it or not, change is always in the air. Change can be cyclical, in a déjà-vu kind of a way.  But there is also a progression to all things, from their beginnings to endings. There is not just inevitability with regard to recurring change, but a sense of novelty that compels us forward, as well. Tomorrow’s another day.  And it may come with a sense of anticipation or resignation; but it will come nonetheless, until our days are over.  Even then, some say, it isn’t over.

This is our common bond and experience.  How common?  Consider the fact these same lyrics have been reinterpreted and sung by literally dozens of musical artists over the years,

Everything must change

Nothing stays the same

The young become the old

And mysteries do unfold

Cause that’s the way of time

Nothing and no one goes unchanged…

            Everything Must Change, by Bernard Ighner

The Predictability of Change

The more things change, the more things stay the same, right?  Often, progression from one thing to the next seems to eventually, predictably come around again to where it all started.  Go around the block a couple times and you sometimes get the feeling you’ve been here before.  In the mid-sixties the marching song of a whole generation put everyone on notice that a new day was dawning.  But decades later there is a contemporaneous sentiment to those lyrics that suggests some things haven’t changed all that much.

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call.

Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall

For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside, and it’s ragin’

It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin.’

Bob Dylan, 1964

Spare (us) change

There is a none-too-subtle feeling these days wishing we might be spared some of the changes that seem to be coming at us faster and more furiously.  Earthquakes and tsunamis, human conflict and famine come in successive waves. The rippling effects of a global economic recession, the increasing inequity of wealth and poverty reaching ludicrous proportions, and the disequilibrium of a succession of despotic regime changes add to the cumulative aftershocks. It all results in a whole lot of things becoming very different than the way they used to be, with world-altering ramifications.

Our collective psyche seems tattered and frayed, as a result. The times may indeed be changing. Again. But we’re not so sure we like the direction a lot of things are headed.  As one unemployed participant of Phoenix’s version of the Occupy Wall Street movement was recently quoted saying, ” All the world’s problems run downhill, and I’m at the bottom.  Bro, I have been lied to so many times that I don’t know who to believe.” (Ken Alandt, 53, , NYTimes, 10-17-2011)

Believable change?

A couple years ago a presidential candidate convinced a majority of the electorate that change was possible.  And furthermore, that it would be a change for the better and was a change we could believe in, under the banner of a single word, hope.  The night he was elected, Barack Obama announced, “Change has come to America.”

A few years later, the vast majority of Americans would agree change has indeed come; but with all this change – “confidence” polls clearly suggest — has come more hopelessness than hope.  Granted, the way things were already headed, significant changes of one sort or another was pretty much a sure bet.  But it seems hope has turned out to be optional, and harder to come by.

This is not just another sociological observation, let alone a political one.  Rather, it is meant to suggest that with the immutability of change, the way in which we handle it seems to ultimately be the most worthwhile question to consider.  It’s an age-old undertaking.

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?

Can I handle the seasons of my life?

Mmm-mm, I don’t know.

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing

‘Cause I’ve built my life around you

But time makes you bolder

Even children get older

And I’m getting older, too.

Landslide, Stevie Nicks, 1973

Coping with Change, reflexively

How do we handle change? Sometimes there’s a wistful longing to retreat, revert and cling to the past.  Witness the emergence of a number of “retro” concerts of old musical groups from the fifties and sixties, singing their one-hit wonder one more time; sometimes with a voice that has become less than reliable, and an aging frame that’s packing additional pounds and a toupee.  Memory Lane may seem preferable to the bumpy road ahead; but it’s echoing refrain doesn’t lead anywhere, but back to the vestiges of what once was, and is no more.

Un-believable Change

Others look to the sky for signs and wonders to interpret and make sense of what’s happening.   “To everything there is a season,” Ecclesiastes reminds us, “and to everything a purpose.”  So we’re left to wonder what possible purpose or meaning there could be to some of these unwelcome changes?  Some of those expected changes are even debated even as they evolve or emerge undeterred (try evolution, or global warming, for example); while other prognostications are regarded by most as un-believable

Last spring, modern-day apocalyptic prophet and radio preacher Harold Camping predicted a big change was about to occur; namely, the end of the world, and “rapture” for the elect.  That didn’t happen; but lots of other things have happened since then, of course.

More recently, Harold once again predicted Armageddon would occur, but this time with less fanfare for some reason.  The “chosen” should nonetheless still prepare for the big change, he advised.  Well, we’re all still here.  Again.  Most recently, it’s been rumored Camping has decided to make a personal change, retiring from the practice of predicting anything.

Harold was right about one thing though.  Change of one sort or another is the one constant in life, so it might be prudent to figure out the best way to handle it.  As unwelcome as it is, in many cases, it is nonetheless inevitable, unavoidable, and consequential.

The Consequence of Change

Okay, things happen, all the time.  That’s a given.  And with everything that happens there’s a cause and effect; leaving some to ask why do things happen as they do?  Some call it an inscrutable mystery, while others offer ready-made answers; calling it luck or fate, providence, or the “will of God.”

In the latter case, that God may seem merciful and benevolent, or capricious and malevolent, depending on the consequences of all the changes that occur along the way; up to, and including, the big final change in our lives that marks our end.  But that still may not be the end of it.

As the poet, T.S. Eliot once wrote, “In my end is my beginning.”  And, in the words of the ancient prophet, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”   (Isaiah 43:19)

For all the time we spend dwelling on the why question, in an effort to answer what the purpose may be in all that happens, there’s little more than the consequential cause and effect kind of conclusion, in the end.  One way or another, it leaves us with the question, so what?  Stuff happens.  Better to ask, so what now?  Here’s one forward-looking perspective.

Progressive Change

The progressive or emergent movement within the Christian tradition is based on the premise that our life journey and spiritual journey are one and the same; and that along the way, there is both changes and choices; the possibility and opportunity around each new bend in the road to meet these changes we inevitably encounter with faith or fear, hope or despair, regret or renewal, even wisdom or foolishness.

It offers a new and different way of being “Christian;” yet the idea is rooted in the heart of our faith tradition. As that ancient prophet once proclaimed, God is always up to something new.  And, if God is always changing, maybe we should have the faith, courage and the good sense God gave us to change, as well.

The Greatest “Change” Story ever told

Because the story portrayed in the biblical tradition is a story about us, it is a story of constant change; and pretty remarkable changes at that.  The basic plotline is about creation emerging out of nothingness; then liberation from bondage to freedom; then the lost and forsaken being found, turning sorrow to joy, while dancing all the way home.

The good news of the gospel is the very proclamation of change, of an imminent and intended reversal of the way things are going; with the repeated call to change and envision a new and transforming way of seeing, hearing, being.  There is to be a reordering to the created order that is in disorder; from the way things are, to the way things are going to be, or supposed to be.

And furthermore, that death and new life is a two-part saga of change with which some of us are even graced in this lifetime.  For instance, when Jesus invites Nicodemus to be born again, and he asks how such a change is possible, it would have been helpful had the prodigal son been there to share the end of his own story.

In the Bible, change is the operative dynamic of a world in which a “living” God, a dynamic divine constant, is understood to be present and participatory.  Unfortunately, what this has often led to is an image of the divine that is as inscrutable as to why God does what God does sometimes, as our perception of God is unchanging.  It has led to all those dead-end questions and unsatisfactory explanations of why this or that has happened.  If God is this (e.g. loving, compassionate, omniscient, omnipotent), then why that (those awful, evil, insufferable changes)?

But what if God isn’t forever this or that?  What if this divine constant is as much a participant in the dynamic changes as we are?  What if one of the changes we might recognize and honestly acknowledge is that our ideas and image of God might change? In truth, our ideas of God probably have changed, as we ourselves have changed. But why stop there?  If everything changes, why shouldn’t God? Is the “God” question, then, really simply only a matter of us changing, maturing and getting our understanding right, once and for all?

But what if God isn’t forever this or that?  What if this divine constant is as much a participant in the dynamic changes as we are?  …  If everything changes, why shouldn’t God? Is the “God” question, then, really simply only a matter of us changing, maturing and getting our understanding right, once and for all?

The Immutability of God?

And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered.

Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline.

Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Burnt Norton, Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

I’m not much of a dancer, but I know enough to realize if neither my partner nor I make a move there’s little to the dance.  True, we can dance all we like around an inanimate object, and some may prefer the predictability and certainty that object won’t move or change.  That “greatest story of change ever told” mentions a golden calf; but also calls it the idolatry of false and empty things, while offering instead the covenantal imperative to worship only a lively, dynamic alternative.

Still, we long to believe there is something, anything, that would never change; something permanent, unmoving and unmovable.  An anchor in the storm, a mighty oak that may bend, but never break, a burning bush that might get torched, but cannot be consumed. Incredibly, lots of people still hold this pretty conventional notion of God as the one immutable constant, never changing, always predictable.  It’s made many unbelievers, as a result.

But what if we were to let go of the idea that God is some immovable, immutable “rock” once cleft for me, once and for all?  Instead, what if our whole idea of God was one in which there was a dynamic, changing, evolving, relationship; forever in the process of transformation, recreation, death and resurrection?  What if this divine dynamic/constant wasn’t, in fact, all-knowing of an unknown future; nor all-powerful, with the ability to alter the course or of all the continual successive changes that occur?

“For everything there is a season,” Ecclesiastes indisputably observes.  But as for the purpose of every change “under heaven,” there may be little to propel us forward when left with all those static explanations that come up short.  Instead, the voice of one that beckons us to not remember, but rather “forget former things,” and “perceive the new thing” that springs forth [Isaiah 43:18-21] might be a better way to handle all these changes.

One way or another, today is today, and the path we are on is our pathway.  How might we navigate our way, and not only accept the inevitability of change, but embrace and even become an active participant and agent of change.  How might we welcome change as a gift, with the buoyancy of the only three things scripture suggests will never change: a little faith, a little hope and charity?  [I Cor.13]

What doesn’t change?

Actually, in addition to the three constants above, there’s one more.  Change isn’t merely something that happens to us, in spite of all we do to resist it. It is also option we can choose, and sometimes a preferable one at that.  That’s the one other thing that doesn’t change.  It is the choice to be co-participants in this dynamic constant, and to do so in a certain way.

How then do we choose to change, in response to the inevitability of unavoidable changes that continually happen all around us? Whether change happens for better or worse, how do we become agents and co-participants of change, with a trusting willingness to see it through with a little faith, hope and charity; to heal and restore, renew and transform, in such radical ways that our very resistance to change itself gets uprooted?

Portraits of change

Again, this is the biblical story of change; but not just a story of unfolding, sometimes unwelcome events, but of a willingness to accept and embrace change, and subsequently a deliberate intentionality to become the change that is needed.

This is the biblical vantage point from which all kinds of characters encounter all those “swift and varied changes” in life.  Because God acts, everything changes; and because everything changes, the peoples of the biblical story are faced with change.  Tongue-tied prophets are called to speak, timid, thick-skulled fishermen are called to preach.

The whole creation “groans,” in Paul’s words, but it’s all in the process of evolving change (Romans 8:22).  Stones change to bread, water changes to wine, hearts of stone are moved with compassion, the sick are made whole, valleys of dry bones are enfleshed once again, the dead are raised.  Fickleness and fear is replaced with faithfulness and willingness to be agents of change, instead of conscious resisters of change.

This is the immutability of change, as seen through the eyes of biblical faith.  It is the dynamic interplay between a God who acts and a people who respond to those changes.  And the good news is this changes everything.

Getting Changed

Take for example, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, as told by all three synoptic gospels (Mt. 17, Mk 9, Lk 9).  Jesus goes up the mountain, where his appearance changes before his closest followers.  They almost mistake him for an ancient prophet or the Baptist, both dead and gone; but whose mantel and message of change (repent, change course, for the reign of God is at hand!) Jesus had assumed.

Sequentially, the gospel writers place this story shortly before Jesus will turn towards the final confrontation in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, of course, not only represents the seat political and ecclesiastical power, but resistance to change, as well.  And his entire brief ministry and message had been a threat to the status quo.

Jesus’ “transfiguration” on the mountain heralds the advent of change.  The hollow sound from an empty tomb will subsequently be the echoing refrain of the ancient prophet’s song about a “new thing” springing forth, yet again.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Other changes have already been foretold.

Sure, Jesus changes.  First he gets transfigured, then executed and buried.  Then he disappears.  Then he becomes a tangible apparition (!), reappearing and vanishing once again; leaving nothing but a breath of fresh air behind.

And, to whatever extent one attributes to Jesus any earthly manifestation of that dynamic divine constant, God is doing a whole lot of changing too.  Abdicating any claim of omnipotence to hang on a cross, for example, is hardly insignificant.

But Jesus’ story isn’t the only one about change.  Transfiguration and resurrection represent two versions to a story about change.  Every so-called post-resurrection appearance story is as much about how the encounter changes the lives of those who had once journeyed alongside the Galilean spirit sage, as it is about the fleeting presence of a risen Christ.

So go back to the last line of the transfiguration account, as Jesus and his bewildered followers descend the mountain.  One can only speculate what had already changed for them, how differently they began to see everything, and how their lives would never be the same.  But I’d like to imagine there might have been something different in their step.  For, as the poet says,

And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered …

Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

When nothing seems to change

Writer Brian McLaren tells the story of attending a 2004 conference in Bujumbura, where he conversed with Tutsi and Hutu tribesmen from Burundi and Rwanda, in the aftermath of decades of genocide in that region.  As McLaren relates it, one of the first to speak was a man named Claude, the son of a preacher, who’d been raised in the church, but who’d heard only one sermon, over and over, his whole life.

“That sermon,” he said, “went like this: ‘You’re a sinner and you are going to hell.  You need to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus might come back today, and if he does and you are not ready, you will burn forever in hell.”  Then Claude continued,

“When I got older, I realized that my entire life had been lived against the backdrop of genocide and violence, poverty and corruption … and in spite of huge amounts of foreign aid, our people remain poor, and many of the, hungry. … So much death, so much hatred and distrust between tribes, so much poverty, suffering, corruption, and injustice, and nothing ever really changed.  Eventually I realized something.  I had never heard a sermon that addressed these realities.”

McLaren observed, “As he spoke, I thought, this is not just an African problem.  The same has been true here in America where I live. … I realized it is just as true in today’s headline stories, both in Africa and America.  Has nothing changed?”

Shaken and stirred

Later that day, McLaren writes, he noticed another participant, sitting alone at a table with her bowed head in her hands.  Having a translator inquire if she was all right, Justine replied,

“I’m Okay, but I’m shaken up.  I don’t know if anyone else here sees it but I do.  I see it.  Today, for the first time, I see what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. I see that it’s about changing this world, not just escaping from it and retreating into our churches.  If Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God is true, then everything must change.  Everything must change.” [Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren, pp18-23]

Justine realized change was not only something that happens to us, but something of which we must be active and intentional co-participants; even if it means miniscule changes in the face of what might seem overwhelming resistance.  And, along with the divine imperative comes the compelling question, if a God of change can change things, why shouldn’t we?

Chump Change

Those agrarian kingdom parables Jesus spins in the gospel accounts of his brief, itinerant ministry to a peasant class of the chronically disenfranchised and marginalized are essentially stories about insignificant changes that can produce dramatic results.

There’s the tiny mustard seed that becomes an enormous bush where the birds of the air can roost.  There’s the pinch of leaven that causes the whole loaf to rise.  And between the time of planting and the time of harvesting there is that mysterious, almost imperceptible change that occurs.

The one thread that runs throughout every parable of change is unmitigated, intentional and deliberate hope and promise in the face of what otherwise might be overwhelming forces that would quell that change.

What doesn’t change is the gospel vision of God’s kingdom changing this world, again with the hallmarks of that vision: faith, hope, charity.  The immutability of such changelessness is embodied in the experience of the gospel life; that repeated experience of one’s changing circumstances; from one as good as dead, to one raised up once again to new life.

Changeovers

If Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God is about change through the transformation of the world, death of the old is the ultimate expression of not only the inevitability, but importance of change!  The very realization of this can be life changing.

Following the death of Apple Computer guru, Steve Jobs, the commencement address he gave at Stanford University in 2005, six years before he died, got a lot of replay.  In that speech, he shared his big change story.  It wasn’t about how he’d changed from being a college dropout to becoming one of the wealthiest, most creative and influential business tycoons in the world.  It was about the terminal diagnosis he got from his doctor 11 years before he died, and the day the doctor advised him to go home and put his affairs in order.  It was about how he learned how to handle these other changes in what for him was his mean-time.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.  If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Those life-changing events

If you’re anything like me, you’ve run into your fair share of unwelcome changes in your life. “Some forever, not for better,” as the old Beatle’s song goes, “Some are gone, and some remain.”

Of those that remain, however, I’ve found there’s little to be gained in nailing down some ultimately inadequate answer as to why certain changes occurred, other than the obvious. There are those causal consequences, which ultimately includes our mortality. Stuff happens. And the seasons come and go.

But more so, as it so often happens, when the dust settles, the smoke clears and you discover you’re still standing somehow, there is sometimes an almost unwelcome reassurance that even though you’re not going to get entrapped into thinking some divine puppeteer was trying to teach you a lesson for your own good, something new, life-changing and life-giving has risen out of the deadness of what once was, and is no more. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”

That’s the gift. It comes with no warranties or exchange privileges, only an operating manual that’s optional. And it may be best used in consort with that immutability of change we might come to know and believe as that constant, dynamic divine reality.

Some things change. Some are gone. And some remain.

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

Visit Words and Ways for commentary from John Bennison on the world we live in from the perspective of a progressive pilgrim in the Christian faith tradition.

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