Fearful Change

With quite a bit of regret, before we left Bradenton, I wrote my final monthly column for the Bradenton Herald. I am grateful to the editors there – Jim, Jennifer, Joan – who have become through this process great friends and a source of great encouragement. They will be missed.

The column was published this past Saturday, can be found here for a time, and is copied below.

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Embracing Change

The mother looked at her child playing with two other four year olds, and moved by sentiment remarked to the other mothers, “Oh, I wish they would always stay this age.” Her friends nodded in agreement.

The wise among us see that such desires are sentimental poppycock. Still, change is something few embrace, and many fear.

In the 2002 movie Tuck Everlasting a family finds a spring of perpetual youth. Having drunk the water of this remote and magical spring, each member of the Tuck family no longer ages and cannot die. Life goes on, but they do not change.

Sentimental mothers aside, life without change, the Tucks discover, is not life at all. Explaining their strange life to a young girl who has discovered their secret, Angus, the father, says, “What we Tucks have, you can’t call it living. We just… are. We’re like rocks, stuck at the side of a stream.”

We understand that. But change scares some of us so much that we prefer to be unchanging rocks.

When my Bradenton grandfather died I was 12 and visited Bradenton for what I ‘knew’ would be the last time. I was surprised, then, when God, twenty years later, led me as a young pastor back to Bradenton.

What I had not expected has been exceptionally good.

I’ve been pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church in Bradenton now for nearly 25 years. Some applaud what they judge to be my faithfulness. They don’t see the deep fear of change that lurks under the surface of my longevity.

That fear has been subdued as the door has opened to be the pastor of a wonderful church (Covenant Presbyterian) in a new community (Oviedo, Florida).

J.R.R Tolkien mused, through his Hobbit character Bilbo,

“It’s a dangerous business…going out of your door…. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

We are being ‘swept off’ to Oviedo. We leave beloved things behind, but we look for the blessing ahead. God is the Lord of this Road. His blessing would have been lost if Abraham had stayed in Ur, Moses in Midian, Lincoln in Springfield, Bilbo in Hobbiton, and I, once, in St. Louis or now, in Bradenton.

In the end, we know that we are not rocks, but people, and that the future is not blank and fearful, but ruled by God and full of promise.

Who can fear that road?

Salvation by Starbucks

Needing a break from the fairly heavy reading of A Distant Mirror and The History of the Ancient World, I was glad to receive for my birthday from my son and daughter-in-law the book How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill.

A friend had been recommending this book to me for some time. It is a book that could be enjoyed and tossed aside without much of a thought. However, there is more here of value than one might at first imagine.

The book’s subtitle rightly casts Michael Gates Gill as a son of privilege. His father was a writer for the New Yorker, his Yale education was a matter of course, and his rise to prominence in a major New York advertising firm partially due to the connections his background afforded him.

But at around age 60, it all fell apart. He was fired from his job (younger men were cheaper and just as capable) and he lost his marriage (due to an affair he now sees as foolish) and, in due time, his fortune. Trying still to maintain some semblance of success, he was sipping a latte at a New York Starbucks one day when the African-American manager offered him a job.

Being desperate he took the job. The story unfolds from there. He who in his previous life would argue against the expectations of affirmative action found himself working for a black woman whose mother had been a drug dealer, and alongside of men and women he would have barely noticed much less trusted before. And it all morphs into the happiest time of his life.

Starbucks was the context for Gill’s transformation, and much about the Starbucks culture contributed to his transformation, but the points at which his transformation occurred transcend Starbucks and expose tendencies many of us need to examine. One example will suffice.

Gill is honest about his elitist and arrogant treatment of those unlike him. He was a man who had in his life met the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Jackie Kennedy and was used to treating underlings as capital to be spent and cast aside. At Starbucks, however, he began to see those who were once ‘invisible’ and ‘dispensable’ as real human beings.

One night, he was closing the store with two African-American partners, Charlie and Kestor. When their work was done, they got ready to head to the subway together.

“Kester and Charlie were changing into their street clothes: do-rags, big caps, baggy pants, and boots. They were completely transformed from the smiling Partners in green aprons. They both had earphones dangling down their chests. When I went back upstairs, I was accompanied by two guys who I would have at one point typed as hip-hop artists or gangsters—probably both. But now I knew when I saw guys like these, they might be something else, too. They had lives and loves that were as full or fuller than mine.”

Gill had to fall to see what many of us do not see yet. We look at people and type them: gay, atheist, bitter, happy, homeless, buddhist, liberal, Republican. Once we type them, we fail to see them as real people. They are merely categories about whom we form blanket opinions.

It was no coincidence that I was reading this alongside my study of John 4, where Jesus crosses gender, lifestyle, racial, and religious barriers to do what no one else was doing: treating a sinful Samaritan woman as a real person. May his grace so infiltrate our souls so that we might do the same, see others as people having “lives and loves that [are] as full or fuller than” our own.

My Friend, the Root Canal

Last week I compared change to visiting the dentist. We never want to visit, but we are always glad that we have.

As if to add emphasis to that thought, at the end of last week I had to see my friend the dentist. He determined that it would be a good idea to meet his friend the endodontist. My new friend the endodontist liked me so much that tomorrow morning he has invited me back to meet his friend the root canal.

I’ve met enough friends this week.

Our Heavenly Father

For a meeting the other night, I was led to read for our devotional a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a portion which we all needed to hear:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

I’ve read the passage, of course, dozens of times. But it certainly takes on greater meaning when read during a period of uncertainty and transition.

No one, I have long held, is able to stop worrying. We cannot “turn off” the worry button. What the passage asks us to do is to look to the abiding and unfailing love of our Father. When we do that, and see that he has loved us to a degree in his Son that we cannot measure, worry of its own fades to the background.

When I read it, a memory was triggered, a memory of some lines from an old Phil Keaggy song. The lines (dredged up from some deep part in my memory and reproduced here, perhaps imperfectly) may not be original with him, and they will never be mistaken for great poetry. Nevertheless, they drive my heart to where it needs to be:

Said the robin to the sparrow,
“I would really like to know
Why these anxious human beings
Rush about and worry so.”

Said the sparrow to the robin,
“Friend, I think that it must be
That they have no heavenly Father
Such as cares for you and me.”

Change Is a, uh, Friend

Given the changes happening in our lives right now, a friend sent me a message in which she said, and I quote, “Change is my friend.”

People who know me know that change is not at all my friend. There are times I want to say that change is my mortal enemy.

But that, I realize, is WAY over the top. The reality is that it is through change that God brings growth into our lives. A plant that does not change is, well, dead.

So, I’ve decided that change is my friend. Like my dentist is my friend. I never want to go see him. But I’m always glad that I did.