One of the things that being a Minister has impressed upon me is that fact that things change. Now I know that seems an obvious statement to make, but, in my role, I seem to see every day how families and relationships change. Today I will baptise a baby - a new life. A big change for the parents. Their lives will never be the same again because they now have someone who is relying on them for care and nurture.
I work with couples to plan wedding ceremonies: another time of change. Two people have found each other and their love has grown so strong that they want to publicly celebrate their commitment to each other. Years ago, it wasn’t the norm that couples lived together prior to marriage and so the wedding ceremony really did mark the start of a new life together: a huge change. Of course, most couples now live together prior to marriage, but still that act of commitment to each other in front of family and friends is a sign that things have changed.
Sometimes I get phonecalls from folk asking for a copy of their marriage certificate. My heart always sinks when I get these calls because I know what it means: it means that their marriage has broken down and they need copies of the certificates so that they can start divorce proceedings. It’s a shame, of course, when a relationship ends – but I don’t believe that we have to stay forever in a relationship that is clearly not working. Some things last for a time and, when that time is past, no amount of work can mend things. In that situation, change is perhaps regrettable but ultimately necessary.
Then there is the other big change I see – the one I experience most: and that is working with people as they come to terms with loss. Perhaps the hardest change of all: saying farewell and having to contemplate a life without the company of a cherished loved one. This is the change none of us really want, the one we perhaps never think will happen, yet death is as natural as birth.
We grow, we change, we love, we gain, we lose. That’s pretty much what it means to be human – yet we don’t always cope well with the changes.
We want things to stay the same and so we create traditions, rituals, established ways of doing things.
We sing Christmas Carols in December and serve up turkey for Christmas Dinner…. We have chocolate eggs at Easter….the Sunday roast….we sing Auld Lang Syne at New Year even though we don’t really know what it means!
We take comfort in convincing ourselves that some things don’t change – even though, if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that everything does.
And when change comes we can pretend it’s not happening, we can fight against it, or we can embrace it – even if it is a reluctant embrace.
Several times each week I officiate at funerals. During the service we pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the person who has passed away. We pray for their family and friends…. And I always end with the same prayer:
“And God, for we that remain, give us the strength to use the time we have left well and wisely, that we may leave this world richer and better for our lives”.
Change can sometimes be foisted upon us, and it can knock us off balance, but whilst we still have breath in our bodies we still have a life to live.
Sometimes all you can do is put your hand in the hand of God and venture into new territory.
As you may know, I lost one of my dogs recently at a grand old age – and whilst that has been a source of sadness, it has come with one benefit:
And that is for the first time in years I’ve been able to leave the back door of the Parsonage open.
You see Amber was an expert escape artist. If there was an open door she’d go through it (with surprising agility for an old dog). She’d hear the call of the wild, and she’d be off.
On quite a few occasions, I spent hours searching the local area for her when she got out. She’d always come back eventually – usually covered in mud – but I’d be scared stiff for those couple of hours that something had happened to her.
Consequently, I was always very focused on making sure that the back door of the Parsonage was shut – and I have a couple of child-safety gates as well which helped to ensure Amber didn’t escape.
My other two dogs have never had that urge to escape and, even when they go outside, they don’t wander far.
So, since Amber is no longer with us, I’ve not had to worry about ensuring the back door is shut at all times.
What is very interesting is how the two dogs I still have have reacted to this.
Ben, my cocker spaniel, is loving this new sense of freedom. He’ll wander into the garden and then back in again. But Zak, the whippet, is still acting as if the door is shut. He doesn’t go out unless I encourage him. Even though the barrier has been lifted, he acts as if it is still there.
Maybe it’s habit, or maybe he just got so comfortable with how things were that he didn’t want things to change….or maybe he’s just not fully grasped the fact that he now has a bit more freedom.
Maybe humans and dogs are not so different!
Some people grasp new opportunities as they arise. If a door opens, they eagerly pass through. They are happy to explore new ways of doing things, news ways of being, and seize the chance to progress.
Others, are a bit more like my whippet Zak. They’re happy to stay where they are. Even if a door is opened to them they act as though it is still firmly shut.
They continue doing things the way that they always have, even though there may be a host of new experiences waiting for them to try.
I don’t know about you, but at different times, I see both of those aspects in my personality.
Sometimes, I can’t wait to try new things; I’m eager to progress in life, and I want to grab what life has to offer, even if they means venturing into new and unknown territory for me.
At other times, I find the familiar routine too comfortable to contemplate changing. I’ve turned down opportunities because the thought of doing something completely new has felt so disconcerting.
Like my dog Zak, I’ve missed out on things occasionally because, although the door is open, I’ve acted as though it were not.
I guess the risk is, if we don’t take a step into the unknown whilst the opportunity is there, we may find that the door has closed again before long and we’ve missed our chance.
It’s strange that, sometimes, even if we’re not happy with how things are, we don’t feel able to take that step to change – we feel stuck in a rut. (And I guess that’s actually quite a good description of what depression is: when we’re unhappy with how things are, but feel powerless to change them.)
Now that’s not to say we have to feel happy about every bit of change that comes our way. Even Jesus, when he saw big changes coming, wasn’t keen on what he saw.
He could see that pain lay ahead for him and, understandably, he wasn’t in a hurry to experience it. In the Garden of Gethsemane he is recorded as praying “God, if it’s possible let this cup pass from me” (in other words, I don’t want this change) “but nevertheless, thy will be done”.
Thy will be done – we pray it ever Sunday. Some of us pray it every day.
What does it mean thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
If Heaven is where God’s will is done all the time, then what is like?
The Scriptures seem to suggest Heaven is where there is no more pain, tears, sorrow….
That would surely suggest that God’s will is all-good, all-loving….
Then why does change have to hurt so much (we ask)?
Who knows… the best story I think I heard on the subject was the story of the beautiful china cup. The china cup knew how valuable and precious it was, but it could still remember the time when it was a lump of grey clay. The potter pummelled it and shaped it and span it round. Then twice the cup went through the hottest furnace….and perhaps it wished it had stayed as that lump of clay… but at the end of the process it was beautiful. People looked at that china cup and never imagined the pain it had gone through to end up as something so beautiful.
Why can’t we start out as a finished product? We don’t know. Life fashions us and shapes us and refines us….and the changes can be painful, but perhaps we’re all the more beautiful for it, even if others don’t know what we’ve gone through.
All we can do sometimes is trust the potter….
….and we look back and see how far we’ve come.
I think that one day I will look back at my life and see the footprints in the sand. Maybe there will be times that I’ll see only 1 set of footprints and realise that those were the times I was carried.
Perhaps I was carried reluctantly at times, because it was taking me somewhere I wasn’t keen on going at the time…but still, I remain convinced that God is with me, that God is good, and God is love… and that there is nothing to fear.
Everything changes, even this chapel. We have to…
If the whole world is changing but this chapel doesn’t, then we become stagnant and irrelevant.
Unitarianism has always changed and adapted to meet the spiritual needs of its adherents….
What do we Unitarians have as our symbol? A flame – not something that never changes, but a flame that flickers, and moves, sometimes wanes, sometimes burns brighter….
Like life: ever changing, constantly moving….
And when things change then perhaps it’s then more than ever that we have to put our trust in the Potter, who shapes and fashions us… the Companion who takes us by the hand, walks with us and even carries us when necessary….the Creator who makes all things new every day… the God of Love of in whom we live, move and have our being.
“For there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts our fear”….
Even the fear of change.