“turn and face the strange changes,” april 24, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
Amidst all that is always changing
and the corresponding sense of a lack of control,
we long for what is consistent to hold on to.
We long for something to offer us a centeredness—
an unshakeable foundation—
a calm peace within the storm.
But do we look for that consistency
in familiar forms and structures,
or in an ever growing stronger sense of identity?
Do we need something unchanging
amidst all that’s changing,
or something that, even changing,
remains true to self?
After all, consistency is not constancy,
yet we often mix up our expectations of the two.
To be consistent, we might drastically change,
as the world changes—
and as we do,
while constancy might actually lead to inconsistency.
So let us not over-invest in what does not change
and thus does not grow.
As those called by mystery into mystery,
we trust more than we know,
and we risk more than we know,
and we change as we grow,
even as the great I AM
continues to become more
than we could ever know or suspect
yet remains ever consistent in truth and grace—
in justice and in love.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
It’s been a year of significant losses
in the world of music.
And whether you like their music or not,
David Bowie and Prince both represent
a creative genius that is a vital part of the image of God
as manifest in and through them.
They were fascinating to observe.

Prince wrote so many songs he gave away hits,
wrote with other songwriters,
played on other artist’s albums—
at their concerts,
and had as many different looks as he did albums.
Along with others, I have thought we could do a lot worse
for a call to worship than,
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today
to get through this thing called life.”

And David Bowie, of course, changed personas
like most people change clothes.
Ziggy Stardust
Aladdin Sane
The Thin White Duke
Jareth the Goblin King
Halloween Jack
Major Tom
Of his personas, Bowie himself said,
”They are one shot, they are cartoons
and the Ziggy thing was worth about one or two albums
before I couldn’t really write anything else about him
or the world that I sort of put together for him”

These artists were deliberately, intentionally, ever-changing—
from the outrageous to the outlandish.
And some of it, no doubt, strategically had to do with marketing—
from the very practical selling of music
to the visceral connection with people through fascination.
But some of it had to do with freedom and creativity.
And some of it was extremely appropriate and profoundly real.

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of spring break,
I took the girls into DC—the Museum of the American Indian,
the cherry blossoms at the tidal basin.
It was beautiful.
It was the perfect time of the year.

And every year—and throughout every year,
we are witness to truly stunning seasonal changes.
Right now, daffodils have already for the most part come and gone.
Tulips—still some blooming and beautiful.
We’re waiting for the fullness of the azalea, hydrangea, iris.
Pansies are into their last few weeks,
but petunia, vinca, impatiens, marigolds have much longer to flower.
Everything’s changing,
and it’s happening all around us.

Truly, to watch a simple plot of land through the years
(or just through one year),
is to see more outrageous change and color and possibility
than even David Bowie could envision.

And this is true down to the invisible levels.
“You lose fifty to a hundred and fifty strands of hair a day
[I don’t, but you do … most of you],
you shed 10 billion flakes of skin a day,
every twenty-eight days you get a completely new skin,
and every nine years your body is renewed”
(Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God
[New York: HarperOne, 2013] 50).
Every nine years, your body is completely—replaced?
renewed? transformed?
“And yet your body, in the midst of this relentless
shedding and dying and changing and renewing,
continues to remember to be you …” (Bell, 50).

As we follow the stories
and the characters of Moses and Jacob and Joseph,
they are inconsistently arrogant and rude
and thoughtless and brave and careless
and wise and ignorant and foolish and fearful.
They are slaves and leaders and visionaries
and always alternatively respected and rejected.

Yet through it all, they are ever open
to the God with them—
the future unfolding in relation to and with that God—
not always easily—
not always obviously—
arguing, disagreeing, demanding,
but trusting—
holding fast to the story embraced.

Later in the story, Peter is always having to revise
his understanding of Jesus, and so, his understanding of God—
whether that’s recognizing the limitations
of his own understanding of Messiah (Matthew 16:23),
or the limitations of his faith’s food restrictions
and its holiness code—
that get in the way of relationship (Acts 10).
For Peter not to change—to keep changing—not to grow,
would be for Peter to get stuck in what was not true—
or partially true—dimly seen.
In the scriptural story,
we watch him grow into ever deeper truth.
Could we ask for a better model?

We talked about this this past Wednesday night,
and John Roberts loaned me a fascinating book
suggesting how Jesus changed—how Jesus grew—
learned more about himself and his mission
based on where he was—on his context—
moving from the small village—
the small provincial village of Nazareth
to the more open—more progressive—
more inclusive Capernaum—
moving from the Galilee to the northern coast.
And I don’t know how else to read that story
of his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman
other than that she taught him more than he knew
about his own mission.
She corrected the limitations to that mission
his context had grown him up into.
Then again, when he moved from the north to Jerusalem
(Charles R. Page II, Jesus & the Land
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 63, 66, 133).
And Luke, after all in Scripture—as Scripture,
affirms that Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52).

Now it gets interesting.
How about God?
If Jesus changes—learns—grows, does God?
We sing, on the one hand, Henry Lyte’s “Abide With Me”:
“Change and decay in all around I see—
O Thou who changest not, abide with me”
(Henry F. Lyte, “Abide With Me”).
Then, on the other hand, as we sang this morning,
Brian Wren’s words: “While others bowed to changeless gods,
they met a mystery: God with an uncompleted name,
‘I am what I will be’”
(Brian Wren, “Deep in the Shadows of the Past”).
A God who changes represents an uncomfortable idea for many—
though there is plenty of Scripture to support that.
God changed God’s mind, we read, consistently through the Old Testament:
in Exodus, 2 Samuel, Jeremiah, Amos, Jonah
(Exodus 32:12-14; 2 Samuel 24:16; Jeremiah 18:8; 26:3, 13; 42:10
Amos 7:3-6; Jonah 3:9-10).

We talked some Wednesday night whether God changes,
or whether our perception—our human understanding of God changes.
Well, there’s no way to answer that, is there?
We hold onto both possibilities honoring the mystery,
but we don’t let either of them go.

All of which brought me back to our rather well known
Ecclesiastes text—
which on one level, is simply true, right?
All of these things listed in Ecclesiastes 3,
they’re are part of human experience.
They are true in that they happen.

Yet there are several elements to this text
which bring greater complexity to what is “simply true.”
As scripture, the named experiences
get an element of divine justification.
I’ve always had trouble with that when it comes to
there being a time to kill—
a time to hate—
a time for war.

To be sure, the juxtaposition of opposites
does not allow God
to be confined to a single understanding.
We affirm the mystery of God beyond us.

This past week, reflecting on this text,
I wondered about how it divides experience into dualities—
into opposites.
What if that’s not the point?
What if it’s not dualities here in Ecclesiastes 3,
but the range of change inherent to life as it is.
Life is the fullness of experience—
everything between birth and death,
seedtime and harvest, weeping and laughing,
mourning and dancing, love and hate, war and peace.
Not a justification,
a description of what is.

It’s as if the wisdom literature urges us
to accept the wild ride that is life,
and inasmuch as changes,
to trust God both with life and within it.

But when so much changes—
when so much feels utterly out of our control
and is yet significantly changing and affecting us,
what does that mean to trust God?
What do we hold on to?

Some of the Wednesday night suggestions included:
humor, friends, family, and chocolate!
Dark chocolate’s particularly helpful, I have found.
Hold on to someone who’s been through similar changes,
hold on to hope and excitement—
though we acknowledged that hope and excitement
are for change that is hopeful and exciting, and not all is.
What about when it’s not?—
when it was not sought after—
when change was not desired?

We hold on to who we are—
to our identity.
And we hold on to relationships—
our identity in relationship with others—
and we hold on to God—God’s identity—who God is,
and then our identity in relationship with God.

To be sure, there are immense challenges.

After the diagnosis
when life changes so dramatically
we lean into who we are as loved—
loved by family and friends—
loved by God.
it’s not aways easy to do that—
not always obvious how to do that.

And what happens when the change is greater than expected?—
other than that with which you’re comfortable?

Allyson Dylan Robinson was born male—
declared male at birth.
But her sense of self was always female.
It took years of digging into her sense of self,
and her sense of God,
and her sense of self as loved by God
to claim herself.
She was Baylor-educated—Truett-educated,
ordained a pastor in Texas—
going through counseling—
going through surgery.
She is now a re-ordained member of Calvary Baptist in DC.
I’ve gotten to know her a little
through the years of swapping pulpits with Amy.
Allyson actually served as the first interim pastor at Calvary
those first months after Amy left.
Through all the profound changes,
Allyson’s commitment to the love of God—
if you listen to her,
has deepened.
It’s interesting, in various media,
she has been designated the most radical preacher in our country,
but she credits her congregation as being the truly radical ones—
for loving her—
for making her ministry possible—
for celebrating and amplifying the voice of God speaking through her.

What happens when the change is greater than expected?—
other than that with which you’re comfortable?
What do you hold on to?
Could it be love?
Could it be love that changes issues into relationships—
positions into conversations—
and abstraction into hope,
and opens ears to hear the voice of God
from where you never expected to hear it?

Too many people find themselves in a marriage
that over time through work and prayer
does not celebrate and amplify the best of each person
and the best relationship of the two.
No question but that divorce is all too common
a change within married life,
and no question but that it’s often
the easy way out for people who don’t want
to do the hard work of growing together.

But sometimes it’s escape from abuse.
Sometimes it’s consequences of mistakes.
Sometimes it’s growing apart.
And sometimes it’s consistency
with what we understand marriage to be
that this one is not.
Sometimes it’s consistency
with who we understand ourselves to be
compromised in this relationship.
Sometimes that can be redeemed.
Not always.
Always I believe,
the opportunity to grow beyond what’s past.

So I do think it’s some basic fundamental sense of self
that may even itself change,
but maybe that’s more a function of growth—
about insight into truth—
into the implications and consequences of ever greater consistency.

I think we do strive to remain true to the best sense of self we have—
the best sense of God—
the best sense of love—
and then we are ever invited to explore how to love better—
how to love more deeply.

It’s the peculiar genius of David Bowie and of Prince—
and of Jacob and of Peter—
to explore what too many of us too often think we know.
And so they discover—
They don’t always do their exploring
in what I would name the healthiest of ways!
But they model an openness
of which we would do well to take note.

Last week, Greg and our youth led us in thinking
about liminal space—about thin places—thresholds.
So here’s a question,
if God is with us—
as we believe God always is—
if God is with us,
what place is not thin?—
and, if thin, then invitation into ever more?

Again on Wednesday, we talked about whether
church is often perceived as a comfortable place
precisely because it’s perceived as a place that does not change.

If church is where we hold onto identity,
then, as our sense of identity grows,
must not church change too?—
growing and deepening in what it means to be loved
and what it means to love—
growing in what it means to extend grace—
how to exchange blessing?

As we read through the Bible—
Old and New Testaments,
isn’t a key part an unfolding into ever more love—
ever deeper blessing—
being confronted with artificial limits we place on love—
being challenged to bring more love?

When we arrived here in Baltimore,
Sydney was three months old.
A little less than two years later, Audra arrived.
Look at them now.
It was hard to believe back then,
that we could ever love them more than we did
when they were born,
but we do.
You’ve watched the changes with us.
We’ve gone from changing diapers
to arranging and rearranging schedules—
from talking to them about what all they will do,
to trying to keep up.

The longer someone’s married—
the older the children grow—
the more committed the friendship—
the more honest the relationship—
the more it all deepens.
The more love there is.
And the more everybody changes.
George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church since 1989,
speaks of how he has pastored several different churches
in his tenure at Wilshire.
The church has changed.
He has changed.
And they’ve remained in a deepening relationship
because they embrace that change.

Next week, we baptize Isaiah Laich.
Some of you will remember with me dedicating him.
It was Sunday, November 18, 2007.
I carried him around this room,
and we made promises.
We told him about what all he would do
growing up in this church,
and now we can barely keep up!
The most important promises we made had to do with loving him
and always reminding him that God looms behind and within such love.
Through the years those promises have deepened
in being fulfilled.
He has been loved.
He knows himself to be loved—
by us and by God,
and now he has committed himself to such loving.
The story has deepened for him.
He is growing into it.
Has such change been our prayer?

If through those same years the story has not deepened for us—
if through the years the love has not grown for us,
then we have not walked through doors God has opened.
We have led the child.
Did we let the child lead us?

In DC the other week, after the museum and the cherry blossoms,
we went to the Renwick Gallery—
on Kacey Stafford’s recommendation—
an exhibit called “wonder.”
it’s still open, by the way—
some of it closing May 8, some of it July 10.
You have another few weeks.
Nine big rooms—nine works of art—
each work of art as big as a room—
art with changing light and changing color.
I thought about the appeal of such art—
art you can walk through and around and in and under.

And the art is beautiful.
You look both at how it’s put together
and at the whole,
and it’s all magnificent.

We tell a story big enough to walk into—
to walk through and around and in and under—
in which to see the changing of light and color—
the deepening of life and love.
It’s a story big enough in which to grow.
It’s a story that invites us ever deeper
into ever richer truth and possibility
and love and grace.

It’s not an invitation and a prayer—a hope for our children.
it’s an invitation and a prayer—a hope for us all—
And it’s beautiful.
It’s magnificent.
And it’s not closing on May 8!
It’s not over.
It’s never over.
It is not done with us yet.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
John 12:24-26
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat
falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain;
but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it,
and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there will my servant be also.
Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.


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