“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” For Dickens, those lines are meant to set the stage for a novel that takes place during the difficult times of the French Revolution. It is also a novel that struggles with the social injustices that come along with war and the pursuit of power. It is sort of a call to arms for the characters that will be called upon to live out another of the book's themes – self-sacrifice. It also can be argued that the opening line is an inverted foreshadowing for one of the predominate themes of the book – resurrection.
Now, from what I just told you, you should be able to deduce two things rather quickly. 1) My first undergraduate degree, indeed, was in English (yes, I am a book geek) and 2) in his themes of social justice, resurrection and self-sacrifice, Dickens is clearly flirting with topics near and dear to the heart of the New Testament.
That is where the Spirit of God drives us, toward lives focused on social justice, metaphorical resurrections and, when even necessary, self-sacrifice. But increasingly, that is not the case in many traditional churches in the U.S.
Part of our problem is that we have attempted to domesticate the Spirit of God. The very ruah (breath of God). The wild winds that ignited the flames of creation as they whipped recklessly over the face of chaos – in the beginning; God's essential nature described in Deuteronomy as a devouring fire; the radiant and elusive Spirit that gave the revelation of Jesus' messiahship at his baptism; the Spirit Jesus himself would describe to Nicodemus as being mysterious and unpredictable like the wind; the winds that rushed into an upper room ripping the windows open, resting as a flame on the disciple's shoulders, causing them to speak in tongues and be looked upon as if they were drunk; that Spirit scares us because we can't control it. So, we have attempted to domesticate God’s Spirit – much like the common dog. We tried to tame it, teach it to curl up beside our hearths and be obedient. We want to quantify it, objectify it, demystify it - train it, contain it and constrain it. Like our children, we want it stop being so wild and uncontrollable. We want it to lose its propensity to form something new out of a world in which we feel comfortable.
The Spirit however is unruly. It is apt to doing a “new thing,” to bringing about a change on God's people and on the world which God created. Should we really expect anything less out of the Spirit of God – not the God we created in our image, but the God that said, “behold, I am about to do a new thing,” the God who used chaos to form this world, the God who did the unthinkable and became human flesh, the God who overcame death itself...should we really expect the Spirit of that God to be docile, domesticated and dormant? In churches throughout the U.S., we seem to.
Churches throughout the U.S. must ask themselves, which Spirit do we follow? The one we, as a society, have created out of our own needs? The one that allows us to trust in ourselves? The one that plays nice and gives us warm fuzzies? Or are we ready to celebrate the Spirit of the biblical text? One who is willing to grapple with chaos. One that is unruly, unexpected, unconventional and unconcerned with what we want or how things have always been done. Which one do we truly celebrate?
Change is a given. You don't have to like it, but you have no choice but to acknowledge it. Being alive means changing. To be just a little bit morbid, even in death our bodies change as they decompose. Like I said, change is a given.
Inexplicably, churches have come to think they don't have to change. The world around them changes at an ever quickening pace as technology changes our ability to travel, communicate and gather information, and the Church clings to the past believing that if we just believe hard enough we can make the reality of change go away. But we can't. Change is a given.
The Church's general resistance to change is really odd if you think about it. God was (and is) always about to do a new thing. From Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to the prophets, to Jesus, the disciples and Paul, the people of God are always experiencing God moving them from one state of being to another. The way it was done (the old life) is gone and the new way (the new life) has begun, and those are just the most obvious Bible stories. Add to that the fact that the history of the church is also littered with constant change. It truly is inexplicable that we think we don't have to change.
So, how did we get to this place of such a staunch resistance to change? We forgot that Jesus was a radical redeemer. You see, as a colleague once reminded the congregation where I serve, Jesus never met anyone he didn't ask to change.
If you don't think you need to change, you haven't met Jesus. He never met anyone he didn't ask to change. Now, while change comes in all forms (some change is small, some is big), it isn't all that surprising to see in scripture that Jesus was typically interested in the big changes. The kind that challenged the status quo and flipped our whole way of seeing something upside down. He was a radical reformer. A reformer in that he asked us to change, radical in that it often required a paradigm shift to become the person Jesus said God was calling you to be.
Are Churches radical reformers? Do we ask the people we meet to change? Radically? Better yet, are we willing to change radically? And don't think that we are talking about change for the sake of change here. That would just be mean and short-sighted. We are talking about change that engages fully with the reality that change is inevitable.
In that, the Church must also recognize that it has been clinging to the past for so long that it lost sight of the communities in which God planted them. The Church must acknowledge that as it clung so desperately to how things have “always” been done, it lost it's ability to hold onto a God who moves about in a tent (2 Samuel 7:5) and is always about to do a new thing.
If we can recognize that, then we can also see that in order to catch back up with the community in which God has planted us, it is going to take a radical change. Not change for change's sake, but change for God's sake. It is not about changing what we believe about God, rather, it is about trying desperately to live into it! It would feel better, it would feel safer, to move slowly, methodically and only in places that cause the least stress, but that's not the kind of change Jesus asked of those who met him.
Have we truly met Jesus? Do we hear his call to radical reform? Are we willing to let loose of our past and let the Spirit move us as the Spirit will?
It is time for the Church to change at the speed of grace.