Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A change of heart

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; Matthew 5: 31-37 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
February 16, 2014 

Wednesday afternoon, as I was driving home, I heard on NPR highlights of the upcoming stories that would be covered on All Things Considered. The one that caught my attention was an interview with author Elizabeth Kolbert and her new book entitled The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. I remembered that more than ten years ago I had read a book with a similar title, The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind, by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin. Given the duplication of the title, I was eager to hear if the earlier book would be mentioned. 

There was not even a hint that an earlier book on the subject had been published. You would think this was the first time we had heard anything about living through a mass extinction of plants, birds, and mammals. In 1979 Oxford University ecologist Norman Myers published a book entitled The Sinking Ark, entailing the catastrophic effects of deforestation, stating that by the year 2000 we would lose one quarter of the earth’s species if we continued on our current path. In 1986 at a biodiversity conference held in Washington D.C., there was a consensus amongst mainstream biologists that the earth is living through a sixth crisis of biodiversity, this time caused by human beings. 

To see this graphic full-size, click here.

As early as 1859 it was theorized that a concentration of certain gases could produce climate change. In 1896 the first calculation of global warming from human emissions of CO2 was published. Yet even with all the scientific evidence illustrating that humanity is the major cause, there are still those who believe that climate change is a natural phenomenon. 

Apparently, it takes a long time for truth to sink into the human consciousness, because truth is often inconvenient and disturbs the status quo. Author Sue Monk Kidd wrote, “The truth will indeed set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

Moses knew all too well that following God’s truth would shatter his life. He had been a man on the run the length of his days, after killing an abusive Egyptian, to hearing God’s voice in the flames of a fiery bush, to becoming God’s megaphone to a people hard of hearing. He’d finally herded God’s people within viewing distance of the promised land, but he would be staying behind to die. So he makes the grandest of last speeches by putting God’s truth in plain language: Choose life and good times or death and hard times. Follow God’s law and things will go well for you. If you don’t, you’ll be on the fast track to a short life. Don’t do it just for yourselves but for your children and grandchildren—the generations that will come after you.

He makes it sound so easy: bright and shiny door number one or doom and gloom door number two—which will it be? But even when life is chosen, what kind of life is it that God is offering to a people prone to wandering? God knows the truth about us; that left to our own devices, we’re more likely to take the path of least resistance. Ted Koppel once said in a commencement speech that they aren’t referred to as the Ten Suggestions. 

So when Jesus says, “You have heard it was said…”, he is calling upon an ancient memory of God’s law, stuff the people of God have heard over and over, time and again, over centuries. But he’s not just repeating what has already been said. Obviously following the letter of the law has not made much of a dent in changing hearts, aligning human behavior with kingdom living. We can’t skim the surface and be a disciple of Jesus. Rather, Jesus goes deeper, to the heart of why we do what we do: attitude and intention.

Many of us joke about our New Year’s resolutions: that they won’t last long, that we break them just in time to give up something for Lent, which only lasts forty days, not including Sundays. Change is hard and incredibly slow, especially initiating it ourselves. 

Even when we are presented with a choice, like life or death, we may look like we’re choosing life but on our terms. There have been recent studies that show when doctors tell heart patients that they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will follow through successfully. One in seven will live. 

For the last 25 years, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, researchers and educators at Harvard University, have been working with individuals and organizations to assist them in overcoming our universal immunity to change. In their work they have observed that when human beings want to make substantive, systemic change, we create a list of goals and behaviors that support those goals. But underlying our well-laid plans are hidden commitments and assumptions that compete with the goals and behaviors we say we want, even need, to change.

For example, a branch of the National Forest Service, whose job it is to start fires to clear underbrush, was committed to reducing the number of fatalities of these fire-starters. When they examined their behaviors, they found that they were not conducting rigorous debriefs, that they did not publicize their errors either internally or publicly, and that they were not looking hard at their mistakes. Hidden below the collective surface was a conflicting commitment to not facing the possibility of losing personnel and a fear that they may not be able to do anything about it. Unconsciously they assumed that if they did face their helplessness that they would be overwhelmed to the point of paralysis.

Over time this group of fire-starters was able to share with one another their worst fears and the paralyzing shame that accompanied them, thus allowing them to change the defeating behaviors that conflicted with their goal of saving lives.

I think often we read this passage from the Sermon on the Mount and get stuck in the rather important details (anger, lust, divorce) rather than see our own selves and our own immunity to change. I diligently and eagerly read Kegan and Laskow’s book but stopped when I got to the chapters about diagnosing and overcoming my own immunity to change. We may be willing to change but often find ourselves going back to where we started. Or the changes we make take us only so far. 

You may have heard it said, use compact fluorescent bulbs, use public transportation, ride a bike, unplug appliances when you’re not using them. But we have also heard it said, we are addicted to oil and cheap energy, and much of our economy is systemically supported by the oil and gas industry. We know this system needs to change, not just for ourselves but for generations after us. Yet the idea of systemic change feels like such a behemoth that we feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. 

(Photo: NASA) Jakobshavn Isbrae, Greenland

If the gospel has not changed our lives, then we have not heard the gospel. Indeed, God loves us, accepts us, and calls us as we are. But if this good news does not shatter the safe, sweet way we live, if it does not disturb the status quo, then that is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.

What are the hidden commitments and assumptions that thwart the mission of this church? How is the Holy Spirit calling for not just this church but for the entire Church to change? What is it about the way the world is changing that frightens us? Excites us? How can the church help shape these changes? Are we an 8-track, VHS church that will continue to appeal but in a vintage sort of way or are we part of a movement that can help find the sacred in an ever-changing world?

Our building directly impacts the mission of this church, a great deal of which is hospitality, safe shelter, and extravagant welcome. How might we still be nimble and light on our feet, a “church without walls” even though we have four of them? 

We talk about change sometimes moving at the pace of glaciers, yet they are melting at an ever-increasing rate. 1500 years after the birth of the church, through the needs of the world, the Holy Spirit was calling for another way to do and be church. Here we are again 500 years later, the Church going through another climate change, the words of Jesus still disturbing our status quo, still calling for us to go deeper, to the heart of it all. It seems that the future is now calling us to truly be the church in the world. O God, grant us the grace to accept with serenity the things we cannot change; grant us the courage to change the things that should be changed, and grant us the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.



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