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Friday, January 26, 2018

The Gift of Unwanted Change

Recently, at a workshop I attended, a young pastor made this observation:

“People in my church want transformation. They just don’t want change.”

What a profoundly insightful comment, I thought.

We want things to be different. But we don’t want to change the way we do things. We want the outcome – transformation. But we don’t want to pay the price – change.

We dream of how our lives – and our churches – could be different from what they are. We imagine our problems solved, our deficits turned into surpluses, our weaknesses transformed into strengths, our past mistakes wiped out and failures overcome. But ask us to give up old habits, to set out on a new path, to break out of the familiar and comfortable – not so much.

The Israelites cried out in their misery and oppression. They hungered for freedom. They longed for transformation. But when they found out that the road to the Promised Land led through the desert – heat, hunger, thirst, danger, uncertainty – and all they had to trust in was the faithfulness of God – they demanded to go back where they had come from – to the slave camps of Egypt. The security of the known and familiar, no matter how unpleasant, trumped the risk of freedom.

Like them, we too long to be transformed. But we can’t be transformed if we insist on keeping everything the same. This is an important message to hear in these times of uncertainty.

But let’s not be too superficial about it. Let’s not talk as if the changes we’re facing – from Presbyteries and Conferences to Regions, for example – are some bold and courageous venture in to the unknown. The truth is that we are where we are because for at least 40 years, we’ve insisted on doing what we’ve always done, and resisted the deep changes that might have led to a transformed church.

But here’s the thing. God knows that we don’t like to change. God knows that, sometimes, we need to be pushed. And change that is forced on us, even though it is deeply unpleasant, can be a moment of great opportunity.

I recently read a book about the desert narratives in the Hebrew Bible by the Jewish scholar
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. (Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers.) She pointed out something interesting. When we read the stories of Israel in the desert from Exodus or Numbers or Deuteronomy, they read like tales of unfaithfulness and failure. But later generations of Jewish rabbis interpreted them as stories of spiritual transformation. What the rabbis saw in these narratives was that God had never been closer and more real to Israel than in the desert – in spite of their stubbornness and backsliding and complaining.

So maybe change that is forced upon us has the potential to lead to a richer outcome than change that we are able to carefully manage and control. Maybe its in those perplexing and uncertain times when we can’t control the outcome that God is nearer than ever.

May we have the eyes to see this time of disruptive and largely unwanted change, which is making us all anxious and afraid – may we see it as a moment in which God is very near.

And may be have the courage to embark on the spiritual journey of change that is the path to transformation. 

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