January 1, 2017
A Time To Change
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.
He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”
* * * * *
There used to be a New Year’s Day tradition at this church that would pack the house. It was during the era of Jacob Little, who was the longest-serving pastor of this congregation ever. He led this flock for almost forty years, from 1827 – 1865. His tradition was to call out the sins and misdemeanors of his congregation on New Year’s Day, in hopes of spurring them to reformation. As you can imagine, it was the highlight of the year. Everybody came, some in fear of having their name called out, and some in hopes of hearing him dish the dirt on their neighbors. Lore has it that he used to bribe the children of this town to be his informants.
So in the tradition of Jacob Little, I’ve made a few notes about you all…
Can you imagine?
His heart was in the right place; from everything I’ve read about Jacob Little, I’m sure of that. He wanted what was best for his people, and he was convinced that carousing of any kind wasn’t what they needed. But it takes a mighty confident and upright pastor to be able to point a finger at other people’s foibles and not come off as a hypocrite. And truth be told, I have never known shame to work well to reform anybody. Shame just freezes people up.
What is it that motivates people to change? What makes us want a new beginning so badly that we’ll actually do something different than in the past? I’m not sure that the flip of a calendar page is enough to motivate anybody; witness all the gym memberships that are bought the first week of January, and how empty the gyms are by March. I have no doubt that people make New Year’s resolutions with the best of intentions, it’s just that simply wanting something is seldom enough to actually change anything.
The truth is, most of us are ambivalent about change. As Jesus said, “No one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’” It’s one thing if you all you have is new wine; by all means find a new wineskin. And if you have a tear in the old cloth, there’s no sense in ruining something brand new trying to patch up the old one. But sometimes the old is just so comfortable, and familiar; even if it’s ragged, it’s ours. And a good old wine is something to savor…
I remember learning from Family Systems theory years ago that our lives are built for homeostasis. There is something in us that craves stability. Not just in us personally, but in our relationship networks and families. “Change back” is one of the most powerful forces we live in. In fact, the theory goes, if we are trying to change something and there’s no resistance, chances are we’re not really changing much of anything. That’s why personal change is so hard. Life is a lot more complicated than just knuckling down and deciding to do something.
We have this myth in America that anybody can do anything. That if you put your mind to it, you can make any change you want in your life. The whole self-help movement is built on that premise. Ten steps to being perfect. Just follow this plan and you’ll be happy, healthy and at the top of your game. Try telling Coach Meyer that today! The best laid plans…
It’s not that we’re powerless, or can’t alter our course. I don’t mean to suggest that. I think about the Financial Peace University series we’re offering – I’m planning to take it, because I know it will help me get my house in order and set priorities. It will give me lots of information about the habits I have, what the unseen consequences are of my decisions, and what I can do differently. And I know I can and will take much of it to heart and make some changes. It doesn’t take a crisis or a tragedy to do reset some patterns in our lives.
But it’s not the turning of a calendar or shame or even strong resolve that motivate most people to make significant changes. It’s moments of crisis and opportunity. It’s when things are shaken up around us. It’s like we’re in a snow-globe, and our lives are picked up and shaken, and the world becomes a different place, whether we wanted it or not. There’s a tear in the old cloth and we can’t mend it. All we have is new wine and the old wineskins will break if we try to use them. Only a new way of life will work.
My life has been filled with those crises and opportunities the last few years… it seems like everything was topsy-turvy. Luke graduating and going off to school; Gene dying; my battle with cancer; my niece moving in with me; Ben getting married; and now two close family members dealing with major crises of their own… It’s like the dust doesn’t have time to settle before another life-change comes roaring in. Some of it was happy, some sad, but all of it was major change. You may have had your own in your family: births, deaths, marriages, divorces, retirements, illnesses, moves… New wine, every single one.
Someone told me a long time ago to never waste a good crisis. There’s energy in life-changing events that creates its own opportunity. Remembering that has served me well. It’s not just about coping or getting through something, it’s seeing the crisis as a challenge, a door, a new beginning. And I want to say, as much as I am able, bring it on.
Now, I am not suggesting we sugar-coat tragedy as somehow wonderful. That’s cavalier and naïve and even cruel. Just tell someone who’s had a terrible diagnosis or lost a loved one to embrace the change! Seriously? That’s just arrogant and mean. It is not our place to tell someone else how they should feel about a loss or a change in their lives. Never.
But I also never want to lose sight of the fact that built into every death is resurrection. Built into every loss is the potential for new life. It’s not a matter of our willpower or the power of positive thinking. God has made it so. For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
The most significant change in my life has come not by running after it, but by paying attention to the waves that come and then riding them as best I can. When I have tried to force solutions it has seldom turned out well. But taking things one day at a time, watching and waiting and then seizing the day, that has served me well.
It’s not Machiavellian. It’s being rooted in faith that helps.
I have a friend who’s going through a really difficult time right now. So much is at stake, and so much is out of her control. Wave after wave of challenge is coming toward her. Honestly, sometimes it feels like she’s drowning. It’s just too much. Sometimes my heart breaks for her, and what she’s facing.
But she is one of the most faithful women I know, and I have watched her reach for life again and again and again. Every time I think she’s going under, she’s back again, holding on to what is good and strong and right. She keeps holding on to God. She believes in resurrection. And she has surrounded herself with people who will help her keep doing that.
I don’t know what her new year will be like – I know she is afraid of what it will bring – but I know she will seek goodness and life wherever it is possible. And I am in awe of her faithfulness. The more the wind blows, the more the earth shakes, the deeper the roots of her faith go down.
When I think of her life, and how she’s living through this, I remember the words of Psalm 46:
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.
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.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Thanks be to God!
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church