Welcoming the Constancy of Change

2016-10-30 oos imageRoughly two weeks before a momentous election, it’s fair to say that the future is unknown – and yet that is usually the case. “Change is inevitable, growth is optional,” according to a Facebook meme. Even as life continues, it might change in all manner of ways, as new opportunities arise in the face of collapsing old certainties. How do we go about embracing what is new, with open hearts?

RE Annual Halloween Costume Parade

Celebrant: Arrhiannon Kirkpatrick, Anchor: Ann Hanus
First Service Music: UUCS Choir
Second Service Music: Jon Chinburg
Share The Plate: Microfinance Project

Centering Thought: A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn. – Helen Keller



Sometimes a newspaper headline screams out news we never expected; and sometimes I wonder what the editors were thinking. This was the case many years ago, when I picked up the paper to see the bold statement: EXPECT CHANGE. My first reaction, I confess, was to say out loud, “Well, duh!!”

In just over a week, we in this country will elect a new President. Regardless of the election results, we know that change will be inevitable.  I’m not going to share my voting preferences with you from the pulpit – indeed, I can’t – but as I thought about this morning’s service, I remembered the Reverend David Rankin’s reflections regarding the 1968 election.

He wrote afterwards that his sermon “was not a partisan plea, since [he] was not overly impressed with either Richard Nixon or Hubert Humphrey.”

Instead, he merely recommended, at the conclusion of the sermon, that he hoped everyone would “vote for the most intelligent, experienced, and compassionate candidate.”

So imagine his surprise when a man confronted him in the reception line angrily shouting, “How dare you use the pulpit to support Hubert Humphrey!”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” this morning’s reading reminded us.

All around us, right here in this room, we see evidence of change. We often kindle candles of joy or sorrow, for example. Some of the milestones that are honored might be long-anticipated; some might come out of left field, totally unexpected; some are wished-for, some un-wanted.  And not all of those causes for recognition are spoken aloud; some are held precious in the heart.

No matter how much we might expect it, change is so often hard to welcome. Reminiscent of this morning’s reading, and like the main character in J.D. Salinger’s classic novel, Catcher in the Rye, we’d like to imagine that bits of our lives would remain constant, like museum exhibits.  As Holden Caulfied says, “Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”

And yet, change is indeed a constant in life.  All that you touch/You Change/ All that you Change/ Changes you. The only lasting truth/ is Change. So wrote the poet Octavia Butler.

This is a lesson of Buddhist philosophy:  life is impermanent. We are ever-moving creatures, challenged not only by the tough transitions, but by the every-day; for we are always starting anew, never in complete equilibrium for long, in spite of a natural tendency to seek stability.

The process theologian Alfred North Whitehead taught that everything in the universe is in motion, constantly creating something new.  On the one hand, that knowledge is comforting – there’s always another chance to welcome this fact of life – as one grief expert and author notes,

…we seem never to get to the end…There’s changing careers, moving to another city (or another country), losing a job, taking care of (and then losing) parents,being left by someone we had committed to or ourselves doing the leaving. There are the kids moving out (or back in), our own aging, the retirement account crashing, and [life threatening illnesses]. There’s changing careers, having a baby, blending two families, and retiring….There’s death, disaster, and despair. (Neeld)

And that’s not all. There are new partnerships, new career prospects, graduations…well, you get the picture. Throughout our lives, we all have ample opportunities to practice welcoming change,  and at the same time, knowing that change is a constant can be scary, too.

My colleague, the Reverend Meg Barnhouse, who for many years was a professional counselor, offers a metaphor I can relate to, based on her own experience. In her book Did I Say That Out Loud? , she writes:

Some sights in this world embed themselves in memory and encapsulate a truth about life in a way that words just can’t. I saw one of those one day when I was driving up Route 64 in the mountains of North Carolina toward the town of Cashiers. I came up fast behind a slow flatbed pickup truck. In the back of the truck was a man holding a goat. The goat was standing, stiff-legged, and the man was talking to it. The goat was trying to look over the side of the truck bed, but the scenery whizzing past was no comfort. The man, who had warm-brown skin and the clothes of a farmer, kept talking in its ear. Slowly the goat folded its legs and sat down in the man’s lap. Lifting its head into the breeze, eyes closed, it finally relaxed.

I could almost hear myself with my next therapy client, saying, “Yep, this is a real goat-in-the-back-of-a-pickup-truck situation.”

We tend to think of change and transition as two interchangeable words, but there is a difference.  According to one authority:

Change is your move to a new city or your shift to a new job.  It is the birth of your new baby or the death of your father.  It is the switch from the old health plan at work to the new one, or the replacement of your manager by a new one or it is the acquisition that your company just made. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological.”

Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of furniture. (Bridges)

The way I understand this, transition is the in-between, the standing-on-the-threshold, adjustment time in our changing lives.  Considering the original meaning of the word threshold, that’s appropriate. I was tickled to discover that in Old English, it refers to a thorn. In ancient Danish, it means to thresh or beat with a stick. (Neeld)

So, like the title of a book I came across once, shift happens!  Changes in life occur as a matter of course; it’s an obvious fact. But accepting that change is part of life as a truism is not the same as welcoming the constancy of change. To welcome change as inevitable, to me means embracing the possibilities of fulfillment. It means appreciating not only the present, but the potential that life offers in the future, whatever that future might hold; as a song in our hymnal encourages us, to “trust the dawning future.”

And, in fact, we live in constant expectation of the dawn. We don’t need to demand it; it will arrive, that’s guaranteed. It’s also true that “the dawn may look quite different from the story we tell ourselves about it…” The trick is to remain open to the possibility of growth in any and all circumstances, without ever knowing what shape that growth may take. (Remen)

I have been known to say that whatever happens, it will be perfect – not necessarily what we expected, but perfect nonetheless.  Now, I should say that I’m not so naïve as to be unaware that the unexpected twist in life could be devastating. “Perfect” is, at the very least, an overstatement in that case. I do not subscribe to the belief that everything unpleasant happens for a reason.

Even so, the attitude of the Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams resonates for me.  Rather than cringe in despair, he advises that we cast off fear and allow ourselves “to respond in hope to the light that has shone and that still shines in the darkness.”

Our faith tradition encourages us to trust in that hope, to be bolstered by it, in spite of the tension created by uncertainty and ambiguity. We can draw strength from a certainty that the universe is not out to get us, in spite of what may feel like evidence to the contrary; and we can draw strength as well from our companions on the journey. When we acknowledge in community the changes we’re experiencing, we’re giving other people a chance to accompany us.

Remember that goat in the back of the pickup?  The man in the back of the truck is talking to the goat. We don’t know what he is saying, but we know he is present with that goat in more than body. Sometimes that’s all that we really need when we’re feeling a sense of panic, loss of control. We need to know, at the deepest level of our being, 

that we are not alone. And that, as you may have heard me say before, is what we do in community.

Honouring transitions eases the impact of change – provides a welcoming aura – whether it is through rituals such as lighting candles, rites of passage like child dedications, memorial services, adoption ceremonies, or anything else. It’s a way to formally let go of one chapter in life and make room for the next one – what anthropologists refer to as “a transformative practice that seeks to reorganize identity.” (Rudolph)

The Jewish tradition recognizes that some changes require more time for that reorganization; so after the death of a loved one, their ritual includes sitting Shiva for seven days, followed by reciting the Kaddish for as much as eleven months; and covering mirrors in the house serves to minimize distractions. The expectation that these rituals will occur – as much as the rituals themselves – allows space for the transition.

Hebrew Scripture reminds us of the wheel of change that is life, in the book of Ecclesiastes, often-cited in rites of passage rituals. That was the inspiration for Pete Seeger’s song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  That particular song is personally meaningful to me, because a friend of ours sang it when Roger and I were married. We had been living together for nearly a year before that spectacular day in Muir Woods. You might assume that a simple ceremony would not mark a dramatic shift in our lives; and yet for some reason, it did.

We have experienced no changes at all since then.

Of course, I’m kidding. Forty-five years ago, Roger and I planned not to have children; and then we changed our minds, and decided to become parents after all. We got used to the idea – that was our new reality – only to be told after several disappointments that we wouldn’t be able to have children. So we adjusted to that reality; and just a few months later, the longest-running case of the flu I’d ever had in my life turned out to be a successful (if totally unexpected) pregnancy. Imagine that doctor’s chagrin if he knew that we have four children. I could add that Nathan, the baby of the family, was a surprise.  As it happened, he surprised us, too, by not waiting for us to get to the birthing center. Roger carried me back into the house from the car, and ushered Nate into the world in our living room.

Over the years, we moved from California to Arkansas to Texas to Oregon to Ohio to Illinois, to Florida, to Winnipeg, and back to the Pacific Northwest. The first several moves were because of changes to Roger’s job; the last five were consequences of my ministry. Oh, and did I mention my decision to go to seminary and enter ministry?!

I tell you all of this not to say that we’re so unusual, because change happens in all our lives; and of course those are not the only ones Roger and I have experienced, either as a couple or individually. Sometimes, I know, I was like that goat in the back of the pickup truck, surviving intact only because someone was whispering reassurances in my ear and holding me close.  At times, I have identified with the Facebook post I saw some time back – “Dear Whatever-doesn’t-kill-me, I’m strong enough now, thank you.”

And yet, I’m convinced that it’s possible to welcome the constancy of change, despite the challenge it often presents. I remind myself (as if I needed reminding) that as long as I’m alive, I will always have another chance to reach that goal.

The story of two caterpillars crawling along a tree branch one day comes to mind. A butterfly flew overhead, and one caterpillar said to the other, “You will never get me up in one of those things.”

Change is always in the air, in each of our personal lives, in the life of this congregation, in this country, and in the world. Each and every day, we cross over thresholds, passing from one place of being into another. It is always thus, and always will be part of the dance that is life. May we respond with a resounding “Yes!”


Blessed be.