Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Continuity and Change

That was the title to an old Anthropology text from my days in college. The core thesis of the book was an attempt to look at how those two elements deeply impact life for human beings in community. Continuity brings many blessings: a sense of awareness of being somebody over time, a sense of shared history and a deep sense of connection to something in the past that just might lead us into a slightly predictable future. Change brings evolution, innovation, growth. For a sense of well being and health, those two factors need to be balanced. In reality, little exists in human culture, or the natural world, that allows for a coherent and consistent sense of balance. It is the old "pit and the pendulum" dilemma: the blade swings back and forth, never at the same height and always descending. When it impacts us, little momentum is lost and we experience trauma.

Humans would like more continuity than change, honestly. It makes sense. Since time immemorial, the life inside the cave and next to the fire amongst family and friends is much more favorable to our tastes than pushing out into the savannas where predators abound, food is scarce and we have to work hard in order to get enough to survive.

Still, change is necessary. If it weren't, we would still be working with flint knives and wearing hides we cured with our own, worn teeth. If it weren't, then we would still be British subjects and members of the Church of England in the American Colonies. If it weren't, we would still be worshiping with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Women would not be priests or bishops. We would not be arguing more about biblical interpretations on human sexuality. We would not be wondering what is going to happen to us as Episcopalians, globally or locally, in the coming months and years.

Continuity and change make us human beings. They give us culture. They stir us up and pull us into the future...and we resist that evolution almost every step of the way.

Moses had to contend with the Hebrew peoples complaining about being led off into the desert to die of starvation. The flesh pots of Egypt, and their slavery, were to the continuity obsessed more favorable than the elusive prospect of a hungry freedom in the wilderness. Good thing they stuck it out, though. For without their willingness to walk hungry and thirsty for a few generations, there would be no Israel, no King David, no exile in Babylon, no return, no second temple, no Jesus...really. And, perhaps, no reason for one.

Time to get off our high horses and bite deep into being human, incarnational and willing to embrace both the moments of comfort and reassurance and the moments of thrill and transformation.

I had two conversations last night that give me considerable hope. One was with a young father in the congregation who works in publishing. The other was with the adult Inquirers' Class that convened for its first session. The first conversation was one of concern for me and for my stress levels. He was asking how I was doing and expressing worry that I might be overextended. Honestly, I am. That was the easy answer, but the deeper one rang just as loud. Trinity is transforming and changing. What has worked in the past for us is not working now. Old ways applied to old problems gave us solutions, but those prior methods are not bearing the same fruit they did the first, or even second time around. Time to change...and this dad gave me a great example/illustration from his own work life:

"I know what you mean. We have been building up our business for some time, adding on editors and such and now we have more books in the pipeline than we have ever had before. Still, that means that life is a lot more complicated. Success can be stressful."
So, that makes sense. Sure, being used to one way of doing things is a good thing. Habits and routines allow us to get things done without having to continually reinvent the wheel. But, when our adherence to those habits becomes the predominant motivation leading us to action...the gears, quite honestly, begin to slip. Sometimes that leads to denial. We keep doing something/persisting in an attitude in spite of the facts placed before us. Sometimes we even deny their veracity...or even their existence. That only works for a short while. Then, the bill comes due. When the demand for a round cake finds you with square pans...you can't blame the cake mix, or the pans, for the lack of a round form. Time to get a new pan.

I am wondering at the global and parochial level as we grapple with continuity and change. A while ago, I heard of a colleague who is going through a tough time, a textbook transition, really. He is in a smaller parish that nominally committed to growth and change when he was called about five years ago...and now they are balking at the next step (changing their methods of being and doing) in order to become larger, more self-sufficient and effective. Why? Because it means that they have to give up being who they once were in order to become something else. Old power structures and spheres of influence are losing sway. New patterns of leadership, and new leaders, are bound to emerge. Not an easy lesson for my colleagues church to absorb.

We do get a lesson on that sort of evolution from the wisdom literature of the Bible, even from Jesus himself. Ecclesiastes talks about how, "to everything there is a season." Jesus draws attention to the fact that salvation cannot be accomplished with simply the idea of the cross, or of death, or of resurrection. It has to be experienced...and that, over and over again. Not easy. Never easy. But, always human.

This is not me preaching from the mountaintop, believe me. We all persist in old habits, I know that. I have quit drinking coffee coming on eight times in my life. That first cup after those hiatus terms ALWAYS reminds me that coffee is a good thing. My abuse of it is not.

That is one of the reasons I keep the things rotating all the time in liturgy. From the smallest element to the greatest, if we get mired in a routine...well, then the routine becomes the object of worship instead of God...and we begin to lose a wide and diverse palate. We narrow. Overall, I like to think that diversity is accomplished with some degree of sensitivity. Sure, some folks hate the Sundays we chant the Great Litany...but some like it, and many don't mind one way or another...and it is only two Sundays out of the year. But, if we make it a point to use all of the tools available to us when we pray, then we also have to be willing to allow that same tendency to diversity to affect us in our ministries, as well, n'est-ce pas?

I think that is what preserves us from being overwhelmed by crisis when change looms. We have already stretched ourselves into a more flexible state...and responding to a changing environment can then become a creative act. That creativity, by the way, is always accelerating, it is what drives the pace of change in our culture. It is up to us to either accept, or reject it when it looms over us.

My prayers go out to us all as we struggle in our migrations between continuity and change...that we can avoid the temptation to call stasis "peace" and change "reckless innovation."

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