Kay Spiritual Life Center, May 2, 2018
Berachot 31b, Psalm 42:1-7; Qur'an 2:255
Before anyone had ever posted a meme, there was the cultural equivalent known as the "e-mail forward." These were chain emails forwarded from one person to another, usually of something humorous, though occasionally they were in all caps and full of conspiracy theories or dubious etymologies of everyday words.
One such proto-meme that made the rounds was about how many of different kinds of X it took to change a lightbulb. When it got to different religious groups, it was always some variant on the same theme. For the Pentecostals, for example, 10 are needed: one to change the bulb, nine to pray away the darkness. For the Presbyterians none are necessary: the light will go on and off at predetermined times. For the Methodists, the answer is undetermined: "Undetermined - Whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, turnip bulb, or tulip bulb. Bring a bulb of your choice to the Sunday lighting service and a covered dish to pass." And finally they get to the Lutherans, whose answer is simply, "Change?"
Now, to be fair, I've heard some variant of that joke from pretty much every religious tradition, and there are a lot of groups that get put into that "Change?" position. To be honest, every single religious group, no matter how progressive they imagine themselves to be, has wound up as the punchline to that joke at some time or other.
So long as the phrase, "But we've never done it that way" is still possible to utter, there will be resistance to change in religious communities. I used to brag to my colleagues in the wider church, with some measure of snobbish pride, that in campus ministry, we didn't really have the "we've always done it that way" syndrome. Then I was having a conversation with my student leadership about when our weekly meeting should be. Noting people's schedules I suggested Wednesday. "But we've always had the meeting on Thursday!" a leader said. "We had it on Wednesday last year!" I said. "You were there!"
So, I was wrong. Even campus religious communities have "we've always done it that way" syndrome. It just sets in really fast.
Now, this is not a problem just for religious folks alone. We're all resistant when it comes to change.
Part of that is a function of our nature. For so long our survival depended on nice, predictable surroundings: knowing where the clean water was, knowing which plants were safe to eat, knowing where the saber-toothed tigers tended to be lurking.
And so, we react badly when changes in circumstances emerge. I had a student who would get bent out of shape if we rearranged the furniture in the office area downstairs. And one who was so distressed by change that when she read the email that I sent out about leaving my campus ministry position for the one I have now, she never even finished the first line to find out where I would be. The change in the first sentence was too much for her. And she had graduated already and wouldn't even be directly affected!
We are, at best, ambivalent about change. Sometimes we want it; sometimes we don't. It's an ambivalence found in two different lyrics from two different songs by one of my favorite bands. In one song they sing, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, the more things change the more they stay the same." In another, they sing, "He knows changes aren't permanent; but change is." So, is change just ho-hum more-of-the-same, or is it a constant stream of one impermanence after another? Should we be content or should we dread? Well, which is it, Rush?
The reality is that it is both and, as in many things, we are frequently of two minds about it. There are times when we're okay with change and times we are not.
A. When We Want It
There are certainly times when we do crave change. There are elections that are described as "change elections." There are times when we just need to find a new job or a new house or a new life. I remember coming home late one night, looking at the arrangement of the furniture and saying to myself, "Nope. It's all got to change." That was not necessarily the most productive from a sleep point of view, but it did give me the aesthetic rearrangement that I was in need of.
So, we can be okay with change when the present circumstance is unfavorable or untenable. When things as they are are just not okay and need to be different.
Much of the social upheaval of the last seven decades is a reflection that the status quo is untenable. The work for civil rights, human rights, and basic equality is work that demands change-work that is built upon the notion that the status quo might be safe and predictable for some, but it is not that way for all.
B. When We Don't
And sometimes, it's the opposite. It's what is that is perceived as good and what it's changing into as bad. Certainly, the changes in the 1930's in Europe were not something to be embraced easily. Not every change is a welcome change.
And sometimes it's doesn't have anything to do with the nature of the change itself-but with the unrelenting pace of change.
Consider someone born in 1918. They might very well have childhood memories of unpaved streets in their hometown and horses still being used as a mode of transportation. They might have known someone with a telephone or they could go down to the Western Union office and send a telegram. They would likely not know many people who traveled more than twenty miles from the place they were born. And the people in their hometown were likely the descendants of some of the families who settled there originally.
Within a couple of decades in that person's life, automobiles would be ubiquitous on city streets, airplanes would be crossing the skies, and telephones would be in nearly every home. Scientists would astonish and terrify as they unleashed the power of the atom in ways that were productive and devastating.
Soon thereafter pictures from far off places could find their way into your home through a new miracle: the television. Before long, men were landing on the moon, satellites were broadcasting images from around the world. Then a quantum leap forward and technology would connect humanity in a way it had never known before. Places that were merely imagined but never seen could now be encountered in a new and powerful way, or generated straight out of the imagination. But as the wonders of technology increased, so did the dangers-the effects on privacy and the unintended consequences of social isolation and alienation.
In that same time frame, the economy would undergo several upheavals, from outright collapse to a wartime boom, to post-war plenty, to inflation, recession, boomtime, recession, and so on. The family farm that had once been the mainstay of prosperity was now losing ground to industrial agriculture. The factory job was going away to cheaper labor markets abroad.
The nation was changing demographically, culturally, and religiously. The old order was gone.
Our 100-year old would have witnessed staggering change with their lifetime. And it seems that the pace of that change has only increased. It's hard to imagine another period of time when the changes have been so many, so quick, and so unrelenting.
One can understand how it could be that change might not be welcomed-as people simply try to catch their breath.
No, we are not fans of change. Change suggests unfamiliar (and thus unsafe) surroundings. It suggests unpredictability and uncertainty. And those are anxiety inducing in us.
C. How We Cope With It
Many of us cope with this anxiety by finding something we can depend on, something that is constant. And we get frustrated or even angry when that unchanging thing turns out to be not so stable after all.
Some psychologists have even described a phenomenon whereby people create worldviews in order to find something stable to believe in, something constant amidst the change and uncertainty. Because these worldviews are essential to their coping with existential anxiety they defend those worldviews at all costs. Studies have even shown that when such folks contemplate death, their desire to entrench their worldviews is even stronger. We want something unchanging.
Religious folks sometimes project their desire for constancy and certainty onto their clergy. As one writer notes, it's okay for the individual believer to have doubt or to be unsure from time to time, because the pastor (or priest, or rabbi, or imam) believes on their behalf. "I'm not sure about what's going on," they think, "But that's okay, the Pastor does." God help a congregation where the religious leader admits that they've got doubts or that they are not the solid rock of faithfulness that their congregation imagines them to be.
It's all the more so with God. It's why a few decades ago when Process Theology was in vogue that it made people really upset. The idea that God had a process of God's own and that God changed was thoroughly upsetting to many people. Never mind the fact that the Bible presents a God whose mind can be changed and who can be talked out of things. Nor the fact that as a philosophical matter God's unchangeability is in direct tension with God's activity. We don't want to think about those things-we want God to be unchanging. Fixed. Static. Reliable.
Finding something that's stable and unchanging is essential to address our anxiety about a world that is changing. When the world is changing at a pace we cannot cope with, God must be static and unchanging, else all is lost.
Because in the end, the usual way that we have come up with to cope with change and uncertainty in our lives is to find something, something we can hang our hats on that's constant and unchanging. But the reality is that doing so doesn't really alter the fact that we are in a world of change, it just allows us to convince ourselves that everything is okay.
III. THE CONSTANT AMIDST THE CHANGE
Now, I may have just preached myself into a corner. In all this talk about how we respond to change, I have pointed out that our temptation is to seek something that is constant as a way of coping with-but not really addressing-the changing world we live in.
The prophetic side of my role wants to insist on the unavoidable nature of change and to say "deal with it." The pastoral side of me wants desperately to give you something quick and easy that'll make you feel better. And therein lies the rub.
Because that seems to be the two primary ways that we've been dealing with major and disruptive change in our society recently. In the face of such change, one set of options is essentially to go back in time to a time before all of this disruption took place, when things were better and no one had any problems. At least, that's how some of us remember it. The other response seems to be something along the lines of, "Yeah, things are changing. Get over it." I submit that neither of those responses is particularly constructive.
As we are a community defined by "both/and" rather than "either/or" perhaps there is another way to look at it. One that does not simply surrender to change both good and ill nor attempt simplistic solutions and coping mechanisms designed to ignore or futilely undo the change.
We might acknowledge that change is not always a bad thing, but neither is it always an easy thing. Change can be terrifying, even when it is desperately needed. So perhaps the solution to our anxieties about change is not to wish it away or to handwave the trauma of change, but to commit to being there for one another in the change, to commit to facing the change together.
For it is in this solidarity with one another, standing together in times of change, that we find our salvation.
And it reflects the very heart of God, as we see in the Psalms:
Psalm 46:1-7 NRSV • God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea." What is instructive is the manner of how it is that God provides refuge in times of trouble:
"God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved. … The LORD of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge." The salvation here described is because God is with the people. There is no promise that the trials and disruptions of the world will not happen-indeed the Psalmist writes that "the nations are in an uproar; the kingdoms totter"-but only that in the midst of the turmoil God will be in the midst of the people.
And here it is that we find our hope.
We face a great deal of change. Our world is changing rapidly. Our campus is undergoing all manner of changes in leadership, vision, and soon strategic plan. Some of our ministries are changing as longtime servants move on to new opportunities. Our students who are graduating are facing significant change as our incoming freshmen will be doing later this fall.
But through it all, we understand that we are not alone in facing the change. We stand in solidarity with one another, as community, and face the change together. It does not mean that the changes will stop coming, or that they will not be disruptive, or that they will not cause us anxiety, or that we can even anticipate all of the ways that they will affect us for good and for ill. But what it does mean is that we are not alone when we face them.
And there is great power in that. For whether it's true that the more things change the more they stay the same or that the only permanent thing is change itself, we are able to face those changes with confidence and hope together.
And in that we understand our salvation. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.
IV. WHAT DO WE DO?
So what do we do about all of this? In seeking to craft a response, it is helpful first to have a vision. And there are few visions more powerful than that of the prophet Micah:
Micah 4:1-4 • In days to come the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
What does it mean to beat a sword into plowshares? What are the "swords" that we're supposed to be transforming from instruments of violence into instruments of peace?
A. What the sword is
1. The gun
The most obvious answers is, of course, the gun. In the 1996 film Romeo & Juliet, they thought as much. In that film, which used Shakespeare's original words but set the action in a modern-day setting, all of the guns were referred to as "sword."
And indeed, guns are usually what people think of when thinking of instruments of violence. Soon, thousands will gather in this city to call for more meaningful regulation of precisely those instruments of violence.
2. But also not the gun: the alienation
It is absolutely true that guns make violence more catastrophic. And the more powerful the gun, the more powerful the catastrophe. And so it is not unreasonable to ask what can be done about guns and the easy access to firearms that makes such tragedies so common in this country.
But focusing on guns alone would prevent us from looking at deeper problems. At deeper issues that people of faith should care about.
B. Whence the Violence?
In his 2003 film Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore set out to explore why it was that gun violence was so high in the United States. He looked seriously at the question of whether it was the presence of firearms alone.
In statistics that today are similar to the results Moore found in 2003, there are 112 guns per every 100 residents in the US. In Canada, there are only 30.8 guns per every 100 residents. A nearly 4-1 difference. But the U.S. sees 3.5 firearm related homicides per 100,000 people versus Canada's 0.5 firearm-related homicides per 100,000. That's a 7-1 difference. That cannot be accounted for by the number of guns alone. Something else must be at work.
Is it that we're more violent than other peoples? That is certainly a fair question to ask in a nation founded on settler-colonialism, genocide of indigenous peoples, and captive slavery of Africans. But it would be hard to say that we were more violent than, say, the Germans or the English or the French, all of whom have firearm related deaths 14 to 35 times lower than we do.
In talking to some Canadians, Moore encountered a common refrain they had about the US after having watched a fair amount of American television: "It seems you all are really scared down there. What are you so scared of?"
That's a really good question. There is no doubt that we Americans are a scared lot. Fear is used to sell foreign policy: fear of terrorism. Fear is used to sell domestic policy: fear of immigrants, fear of racial minorities, fear of economic instability, fear of change. Fear is used to get you to tune in to the evening newscast: "An everyday product probably in your house right now can kill you! Find out which one at 11!" Fear is used to sell products: we are told to fear receding hairlines and off-white teeth. Fear pervades our national life.
And fear is a powerful motivator to violent action.
It has been pointed out that states tend to revert to violent oppression when they fear that their power slipping away. It's not when they are powerful that they use violence to effect their will-in some ways, true power is in not having to use violence-it's when they feel they are losing power. (Again, just look at who the perpetrators of most of our gun violence are and you'll find disaffected white men, who are feeling powerless.)
And when we're afraid, we want control. When we're feeling powerless, we want power.
C. The Nature of the Gun
And nothing gives us that feeling of control, that feeling of power, like a gun.
There is something particular about the gun: it is powerful, it is immediate. In the martial arts, by the time you get to the point where you could kill a person with your bare hands, you don't. You've undergone so much discipline and training that the awesome power you now wield is grounded in that very discipline and training. But a gun requires no such discipline-it is immediate, it is powerful, it is deadly.
If we are to truly vanquish violence, especially gun violence, we have to do something about the underlying causes of violence, as well.
Our task must be to build communities in which no one is alienated, no one is feeling disaffected.
D. A new way
Right now, our world is undergoing great transformation. And change causes fear and anxiety-and with the high level of unprecendented change taking place culturally, scientifically, and socially, there's a lot of fear and anxiety out there.
But our two main responses to that change is: (1) say that change is terrible and promise people that we can go back in time and undo all the changes; or (2) say that change is inevitable and tell people to get over it.
But nowhere is there anyone who is acknowledging that change is frightening, but also offering a vision of a shared future. It must be terrifying to lose the family farm after generations because of industrial agriculture and not have any sense of how you'll fit into the future economy. That should be affirmed. But is not our task to provide a vision of how we can all move forward together and will take care of one another?
There are a lot of my white brothers and sisters who are terrified at the prospect of losing their privilege (a privilege most of them deny they have in the first place, paradoxically). Is not our task to provide a vision of how a diverse and inclusive world is a world that benefits everyone?
Beating the swords of gun violence into plowshares of prosperity won't be as effective if we cannot simultaneously turn the spears of fear, alienation, and anxiety into the pruning hooks of well-being for the whole community.
There was a meme that circulated for a time after the Parkland shootings. It was of the empty cargo hold of a delivery truck with the caption, "The first shipment of thoughts and prayers has been delivered to Parkland, Florida."
There has been a fair amount of justified criticism of the usual politicians' response to violent tragedies with "thoughts and prayers." Now, that might seem strange to point out in a chapel service that is all about prayer and reflection.
But it is important to point out what we understand prayer to do. If we understand prayer simply as petition to the deity-"Dear God, we have a problem, please fix it. Yours truly…"-then prayer, and certainly thoughts, can be seen as insufficient.
But if we view prayer not as a petition for wish-fulfillment or to speak to the divine, but as an opportunity to listen to the divine, then we understand something different to be going on.
The mystics and the philosophers of all the great religious traditions understood prayer in its most meaningful sense not as an opportunity to get God to listen to you, but as an opportunity to allow God to speak into you. It's a spiritual discipline that helps us to focus, to center on what's important, to be mindful. The answer to our prayers comes not when the Deity grants all our wishes, but when we, having opened ourselves up to inspiration, are filled with a sense of purpose, a direction to move forward in.
We have gathered here today for just such a moment. To open our hearts in prayer, but then to use those prayers as an opportunity to be spoken into, as an opportunity to hear the call to transform our world from a world of fear, anxiety, alienation, and violence, into a world of love, comfort, inclusion, and peace.
Words of Sacred Tradition
Texts Used in the Chapel Service
Talmud, Berakhot 31a
אל יפטר אדם מחבירו אלא מתוך דבר הלכה שמתוך כך זוכרהו
A person should only say farewell to their friend with a word of halakhah (Jewish law), for through this, they shall be remembered.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained: Halakha (Jewish law) comes from the word hilukh, journeying. To journey is to rise and grow from level to level, with one ascent after another. The parting words before they leave should not be just any Torah-teaching, but one which prepares these friends to become mehaleikhim journeyers.
And in this way, their Torah - and their friendship - shall surely be remembered.
Psalm 46:1-7 NRSV • God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
ٱللَّهُ لَآ إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ٱلْحَىُّ ٱلْقَيُّومُ لَا تَأْخُذُهُۥ سِنَةٌ وَلَا نَوْمٌ لَّهُۥ مَا فِى ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَمَا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ مَن ذَا ٱلَّذِى يَشْفَعُ عِندَهُۥٓ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِۦ يَعْلَمُ مَا بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمَا خَلْفَهُمْ وَلَا يُحِيطُونَ بِشَىْءٍ مِّنْ عِلْمِهِۦٓ إِلَّا بِمَا شَآءَ وَسِعَ كُرْسِيُّهُ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضَ وَلَا يَـُٔودُهُۥ حِفْظُهُمَا وَهُوَ ٱلْعَلِىُّ ٱلْعَظِيمُ
God! There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).