Becoming Friends With Change that Unsettles Us
When I was in college, I worked as a disc jockey at a radio station in El Centro, California. The station, KXO AM 1230, was founded in 1927. Because it is so old, it falls under earlier FCC rules that permit it to keep its three-letter call sign. In fact, it is thought to be the oldest commercial radio station between the cities of Phoenix and San Diego! While working for KXO, I developed a love for the oldies music the station played. To this day, KXO maintains a format of music primarily from the 1960s and 70s. During my 7 p.m.-to-midnight shifts, I spun records (compact discs, actually) by artists such as the Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin, Simon and Garfunkel, Tina Turner, Elton John, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and so many more. All these artists are known for their fantastic music, much of which made up the soundtrack of the 20th century. Their songs stayed with me for many varied reasons. But one group performed a song that stood out for a very specific reason.
The Byrds, a folk-rock band from the 1960s featuring legendary rocker David Crosby, sang a popular song that began with a twangy electric guitar intro that to this day gets everyone singing along. It wasn’t until I attended a funeral, however, that I realized why the song is so catchy. The Byrds song Turn! Turn! Turn!, which was actually penned by Pete Seeger, takes its lyrics from the text of the Book of Ecclesiastes. During the funeral, the reader began with the words, “To everything there is a season.” And in my mind, I sang the missing words, “turn, turn, turn.” It was quite distracting. However, I guarantee I’m not the only person who heard echoes of Jim McGuinn’s guitar playing as the reading continued. The lyrics of the song come straight from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which highlights the importance of acknowledging that the seasons change. There is, indeed, a time for every purpose under heaven.
The text from Ecclesiastes (and from the hit song) remind us that change is inevitable. There is a time to be born and a time to die (which explains why this reading is commonly used during funerals). There is a time to plant and a time to reap what is planted. There’s a time to laugh and a time to mourn. Sometimes these seasons can overlap, and sometimes they don’t. But one thing that is certain is that the seasons do change. We see the evidence of seasonal changes during our calendar year. We move from spring to summer to fall to winter, year in and year out. The leaves change colors, the temperatures rise and fall, the rains become more and then less common. We go from wearing sweatshirts in the winter to shorts and sandals in the summer and then back again. The seasons change in the Church year as well. Designed to resemble the ebbs and flows of our earthly lives, the liturgical calendar also has seasons. Some of these seasons are high points and some are low points. Christmas is a time to remember that Jesus was born, and Lent is a time to remember that Jesus died. Advent reminds us to be ready for things we don’t expect. Easter reminds us to rejoice. And to make it as noticeable as possible that a season has changed, the colors we wear during worship change. Now that we have celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, the liturgical color of green will be used instead of white for a number of weeks to highlight this seasonal change.
As Ecclesiastes teaches us, we all experience change. Change happens all the time, sometimes day to day or even hour to hour! On the golf course, I’ve had rounds where I was playing tremendously well on the front nine, only to see my score tank on the back nine. I’ve watched my favorite sports teams beat seemingly superior opponents one week, only to watch them lose to lesser teams the following week. I’ve had relationships and friendships develop and then end. I’ve bought cars that I absolutely loved, only to discover I couldn’t wait to get a new car a few years later. Change happens. Sometimes changes are welcome and sometimes they are not.
Humans are funny creatures, and each of us handles change differently. Some of us have no problem with change and we are able to simply “go with the flow”, while others of us become quite disturbed when things are not like we expect them to be. No two of us are exactly alike. And no two of us handle change the same. Even with changes that are inevitable and predictable, people respond differently. For example, some people have a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which makes them feel down during the winter months. In many parts of the country, the winter is cold and dark. There isn’t much sunlight, leaves on trees aren’t green, and the snow and ice never melt. All these factors contribute to some people experiencing SAD. And while one person is suffering from SAD, someone else might be overjoyed that it’s finally the time of year to hit the ski slopes! We all have our preferences.
The Church is no different when it comes to how we manage change. Some people are quite content participating in different expressions of worship, while others have an idea in their minds about how worship should be, and they don’t like to deviate. Think of the differences we see in churches. If you attend a church in Hawaii, you’re likely to see at least some people wearing aloha shirts, shorts, and “slippahs” (flip flops). But if you attend a church in Manhattan, people are certain to be dressed in “Sunday best.” In the South, depending on the time of year, you’re likely to see people in seersucker attire. Some people love to worship with incense, bells, fancy vestments, and choral music, while others prefer simple vestments, a conversational sermon, and guitar music. All these expressions of worship are valid, and it is important for us to participate in worship that nourishes us spiritually.
So what are we to do when things change at church, and these changes are not changes that sit well with us? I can share the advice that worked really well for me when it was taught to me during seminary: embrace it! Wait. How do I embrace something that unsettles me? What if the music isn’t the same music I enjoy? What if the lector doesn’t read the way I want them to? What if there’s incense during a service when I don’t like it? What if they’re using a different communion cup than the cup I prefer? What if the priest and deacon aren’t wearing matching vestments? What if this truly disrupts my ability to worship? How do you expect me to embrace it? And the answer is, it takes work and effort. It’s a process. But, as they taught me in seminary, it’s a worthwhile process. And it’s a process that requires introspection.
Sometimes we have to look within. And we were taught during seminary to “make friends” with our feelings of discomfort. How do we do this? Well, we have to pay attention. We have to notice. We have to tune in to our emotions. And instead of rushing straight to complaining about things we don’t like, we have to first take a moment to recognize that we don’t like them. When we recognize that we don’t like something, we get to look at it objectively and ask ourselves why. Our internal dialogue might be something like this: “That lector’s voice really bothers me. But why? Hmm. I just noticed this. His voice reminds me of that of a college professor who failed me on my midterm.” Could it really be that simple? Well, sometimes it is. And when we recognize the reality of how silly that is, we get to acknowledge it and move on with our worship. “Ok, I guess he’s not so bad. My dislike for this lector isn’t about the reader. It’s about something else.” And then we can relax a little bit.
Certainly, it isn’t always that simple. Sometimes it is. But not always. Sometimes it’s quite a bit more complex. Sometimes change disrupts us so much that we find we need to seek pastoral or even psychological support. But doing that initial homework for ourselves can help us to recognize that we are in need of that support. When we decide we don’t like something and we don’t take the opportunity to analyze it, we’re taking the easy way out. In reality, it’s almost always more complex than “I don’t like that.” Maybe the vestments used last week were vestments that remind me of the vestments worn by my childhood priest, and seeing those vestments brought back good memories of my youth. And now that there are different vestments, I’m not experiencing those same warm feelings. Maybe the smell of the incense reminds me of the funeral of a loved one, and the sight of the thurible swinging makes me feel sad because I realize how much I miss that person. Notice how it’s always more complex than “I don’t like those vestments” or “I don’t like incense.” While those statements might be true, it’s much more helpful to do the difficult work of looking for why.
To everything there is a season. Change happens. We experience change every day and we might want the Church to feel like a security blanket that remains constant while everything around us changes. But change happens in the church. It isn’t always quick, but it happens. The Church of today is not the same as the church of 40 years ago. God continues to make revelation to us through a process called “lex orendi, lex credendi” (translating roughly to “as the Church prays, its beliefs are shaped”). Sometimes these changes feel welcome and sometimes they don’t. Our role is to pay attention to how these changes make us feel and then to try to understand why we feel that way. When we do that difficult homework, we can discover it enhances our spiritual life and that we can even share some of our newfound freedom with others. This doesn’t mean we’ll grow to like all the changes, but at least we can acknowledge that maybe the change comes from a good place. As both Ecclesiastes and the Byrds remind us, there is a time to every purpose under heaven.