Excitement of Change
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 9, 2017
Friends, there has been much in our common life subject to change lately. We began our church year with an intentional up-ending of a few key aspects of our congregation. We chose to explore changes to our facility, changes to how we structure our Social Action work, and changes to how we do faith development and our Sunday mornings. Yes, partly we undertook these changes in response to realities that were changing around us; but still we made a conscious decision to explore these changes. We picked them. We chose them.
And then there was a presidential election in which the nation had a choice between (to over simplify) continuing somewhat along the lines of the previous 8 years or up-ending things in favor of something completely different. And friends, our nation chose to go the route of up-ending things.
And on top of all that, things happen in my life, changes take place: changes I set in motion and changes that send me reeling. Surely you have had your share of personal changes large or small over these past several months. Personal changes tend to take priority when they loom large in our lives. It sometimes amazes me that we each have time for sustained effort at building a better world or responding to national and global situations. Our individual dramas take precedence. And yet we do have time and energy to bring to communal and societal concerns, so somehow it works! Change happens.
Now, generally speaking, Unitarian Universalists are game for change. We have a proclivity for novelty, we like experiencing new things in terms of our theology and ritual. We are not a people who suffer rigid tradition or settle for centuries-old answers to life’s deep questions. And don’t get me started about social change! We love social change; we are often at the forefront of progressive movements. That is our wheelhouse! Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a wide-eyed, this-world-focused, change the world, and have-fun-doing-it type of people.
But friends, I must admit, sometimes I am not so sure about it all. I lose some of the excitement and end up with just the anxiety. I get worn down with all the newness, Innovation Exhaustion perhaps. Occasionally I lose sight of the vision we are aiming for and find myself feeling lost on the emerging edge; and all the change feels like mere chaos. Has anyone else felt that? Do you also slip sometimes?
The experiences of resistance, fatigue, fear, discomfort, and anxiety are all par for the course with change. There are ways to navigate change that ameliorate these negative experiences, ways to bring the excitement back, ways to stay grounded in the chaos of change. When I begin to feel off-balance or anxious, worn out or resistant, I have a handful of practices and perspectives that help me regain my center and stay open to what may come.
In the reading we had this morning, “Doubting Thomas,” my colleague Angela Herrera offers a valuable insight. She begins with that delightful passage from the Gospel of Thomas, (and don’t worry if you don’t recognize the passage, the Gospel of Thomas is not in the Bible. It is one of the books that didn’t get included which we have since discovered.)
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth with save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth with destroy you.” Herrera does not spend her time on the question of what is within you. Instead she focuses on the question of what happens when you do or do not bring it forth. Namely, as it relates to my topic, it will change you.
And indeed, she suggests there is value in that process of honoring what you lose when you change. “…we avoid change,” She writes,
– holding what is within us at bay, burying it for the comfort of our routines. This might save us, but only by aborting the person we could have become. If we would really live, we must be willing to die within the seasons of our lives. … The question is: Will you be reborn?
Every new day is also the ending of an old day. Every new relationship is the ending of who you were before that relationship. We tend to be enamored with the new change, excited about a new job, a new idea, a new possibility opening. Unless, of course, the change is not something we want, then we are not the least enamored.
Herrera suggests there is value in honoring what you lose when you change. That is easier when the change is not something you want. And so, honoring what is no longer comes quickly. We honor loved ones who have died, we celebrate their life. But this is more than simply holding on to what is gone, refusing the reality of what has changed. It is about honoring it as you let it go. And that is easier to do when the change is indeed something you want. The wisdom is in doing it for good changes and for bad. And, if you spend a few minutes pondering changes in your own life you might be thinking right now that few changes are exclusively all good or all bad.
In honoring what we let go, we can embrace today’s changes as reality. And perhaps, without judging each change as good or bad, we can feel that ‘excitement of change’ in letting go so we can see and even shape the positive side of moving forward. As we consider new ways of doing our Sunday morning experience, new configurations of our building and of our Social Action structures – take what time you need to honor what was, and let it go. This practice can alleviate unnecessary anxiety or resistance. And highlight and focus any necessary anxiety and resistance, depending. My point being – what’s past is past. Resistance against reality is useless. But resistance in the name of a vision for moving forward is another matter entirely. Learning to let go will help bring clarity.
As I am a learned clergy, when I offer perspective ‘on the one hand’, you can be sure that soon after I will add perspective ‘on the other hand.’ It is said one can shorten any preacher’s sermon by tying their hands behind their back. So, on the one hand, letting go is of great value. On the other hand, you would do well to learn to hold on.
“We are constantly changing. It is one of those universal truths. As faithful human beings, we grow and we change.” These are the words I often use to begin a homily when a couple has asked for one at their wedding. I am not usually asked to do a homily, but from time to time a couple will ask me to share some spiritual reflections on the topic of marriage. And my standard wedding homily has become ruminations on the dynamic aspect of change in a relationship when the couple decides to make a commitment ‘til death do we part.’
So often our culture presents the ideal marriage relationship as something other than reality – in love forever, a constant and full feeling of love at all times, for all time. And, as I say, the reality does not line up. We are constantly changing. Not only will each partner in the relationship grow and mature at their own rate and pace, the feelings of affection and attraction have more ‘ebb and flow’ to them than ‘constant current.’ So I give couples this warning. One time I got a little carried away and actually began my homily saying, “As you stand here on the cusp of a new day, I must warn you …” I may or may not have had a malicious grin when I said this. That couple took it in good humor but I have since made all effort to stay on script during such homilies.
The point I steer toward in these marriage reflections, the counter balance to change, I say, is choice.
We are not static, [I remind them] we change, grow, and mature. We adapt to the changes we choose as well as those we do not choose. People do not choose to fall in love, but they do choose to marry. Falling in love is not enough to sustain you through the years because you do not stop being a dynamic growing person when you marry, [I say to them]. You make a choice to commit to this one person beside you “through all the changes of your life together.”
And all this applies to situations other than marriage; particularly the point about choice serving as the counterbalance to change. There are changes we choose and changes we do not choose – but even for those we do not choose, we still can choose how we respond.
Acknowledging my capacity, my agency in the face of change helps keep me stay centered. Instead of lamenting as things happen to me, I can bow to the whims of circumstance and still act within my integrity. I can still let go of what was – and – I can hold on to my capacity to choose my way forward.
In many ways this is about finding what you still hold while all else changes. It is about discovering your guiding values, your integrity, the vision leading into the change in the first place. With the various changes and experimentations we’ve had here in the congregation have you made choices about them, have you responded, have you changed? You have a choice of what you hold while all else changes.
Knowing what you hold on to will help you weather the changes, help you stay grounded and headed in your chosen direction through the changes – even the changes you do not choose and cannot control. Let go, that you may be open. Hold on, that you may stay true.
And as I am a learned clergy, I will now deliver point number three, for every good ministry student doth learn that a good sermon shall have three points “Three shall be the number of the [points in thy sermon] and the number of the [points] shall be three. Four shalt thou not [offer], neither shalt thou [offer] two, excepting that thou then proceedeth to three. Five is right out.” (from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975)
So, point number 3: the rubber band theory of change. There are, I am sure a multitude of versions of the rubber band theory; some of them probably copyright protected. What I am offering is a simple analogy rather than a full blown theory. And it is simply this: We can stretch ourselves to reach a goal. Like stretching a rubber band, we can stretch the systems and institutions, and that will create significant tension. When you stretch a rubber band it goes from loose to tight, right? Similarly, we can stretch; it is possible, and it causes tension.
And the other part of this is that eventually the rubber band will snap back to its relaxed position. Christian theologian and ethicist Paul Tillich suggested something very similar in his Systematic Theology book. In his chapters on Human Nature, he spoke of growth this way. Imagine a dot on a piece of paper as the center point of your Self. When we stretch, when we receive some challenge, some new learning, some opportunity to become “more fully actualized” – imagine an arrow arcing in a semicircle away from the point to a new spot … and then continuing in circle back to the original point of your Self. Much like the rubber band theory of change, we can stretch but we also return.
Now, Tillich goes a step further. And so he should, for we all know that change does happen while the rubber band analogy suggest a futility of change. No. Tillich says instead, using the image of a circle drawn from the starting point of Self out to a new learning and back to the start again, and suggests that the circle now defines a new center and thus a new Self.
Tillich says we do stretch, but we also then integrate new learning into our current Self which then creates a new Self. You are not the person you were ten years ago, ten months ago, or maybe even ten minutes ago. We are always growing and changing in small ways and large. And our outer most stretch is not the definition of who we are, it is the integration of that stretching into a new sustainable Self we are striving for.
Tillich’s process for the growth of the Self is also a fair outline for communities and institutions. We as a congregation have stretched ourselves in several ways. We would do well to remember to also work on integration each step of the way. Social and spiritual change does not happen all at once, it is a building and integrating evolution.
Friends, as we work our way through changes as a congregation, as a nation, each in our own ways as individuals, I caution us each to be wary of our reactions and the reactions of others. Resistance, fatigue, fear, discomfort, and anxiety are all par for the course with change. Such experiences are not to be avoided. There are ways to ameliorate these negative experiences, ways to bring the excitement back, ways to stay grounded in the chaos of change.
Let us honor what we lose that we may stay open to what may come; let us hold close to our guiding vision and values that we may stay grounded as we move forward; and let us allow time for integrating new learnings that we may keep our integrity as we and the world around us change; and a new day again dawns.
In a world without end,
May it be so.