At a previous congregation I had the pleasure to get to know an older woman named Mary. Mary was a core part of the congregation and by the time that I met her she had lived and seen about as much as any-one in the congregation had. Over the course of about a year and a half, Mary’s health began to deteriorate. For those who had known her for a long time, it was a rather sudden downhill slide. It was a major life change that really prevented her from doing the things that she enjoyed and even prevented her from feeling as though she could be a contributing member of the congregation anymore. She was a part of the quilters at the church, but her fingers stopped working in a way that kept her from contributing to the projects. She was one of the people who always helped provide food for a funeral dinner or church potluck, but she lost the strength to be able to even pick up a casserole dish anymore.
Her life changed in some fairly drastic and difficult ways in a very short period of time. One day she and I were sitting in the fellowship hall, drinking some cof-fee and watching the other women working on the quilt, and Mary said something that I’ll never forget. She said, “Alan, one of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that the only thing that stays the same is that everything keeps changing.” Now con-sidering that she had lived quite a few more years than I had and that she was in the midst of some major change, I figured that she actually knew what she was talking about on this one.
As I’ve reflected on her comment since then, I’ve come to see that she is right. Change is a constant thing in life. There is not “the way that it’s always been” because everything we know is continually changing. That being said, I would also say that not all change is equal, particularly when we’re talking about changes later in life. See, when we’re younger, life is constantly changing in big ways, but generally we’re the ones who are causing the change. Marriage, going to college, moving away from home and so on are all changes that we seek out and that we have a certain amount of control over. At the other end of life, however, changes seem to happen to us without our choice or control. Declining health, deaths of loved ones, changes in society, or even the church, all seem to happen whether we want them to or not. Change happens, the difference is whether or not we feel like we’re in control of that change. And it is that loss of control that can cause a tremendous amount of anxiety.
Part of the reality is that our congregation is in the midst of a large amount of change. We have had a number of long time core members pass away this year, and others who have had significant life altering health issues.What’s more we live in a culture that seems to be shifting rapidly under our feet. Even the wider institutional Christi-anity is falling apart at the seams. But that being said, we have always experienced change. 60 or 70 years ago our congregation was experiencing a lot of change: building a new building, we had growing families, we were influenc-ers of the culture and community around us. The difference is that earlier in our history, we were the agents of change and now the change is happening to us.
So how do we cope with these changes that happen to us, whether they be personal or as our church? To that end allow me to offer a few things:
1.Grieve well and let it go. When these changes happen to us they often feel like a significant loss in our lives. It’s ok, and even important to acknowledge that loss. Whether it’s the loss of ability, a loved one, or simply the end of an era, it’s important to take the time to grieve that loss well. But it is also equally important to then turn our attention to what comes next. It is good to remember the past but it is also important to embrace the present and the future. It is when we try to recreate the past that we really get stuck.
2.Prayer and scripture. Keep the discipline of making space for God. It may be that in some of these times of change we’re not particularly happy with God or we don’t feel particularly close to God. Nevertheless, keeping regular times in our daily routine open for God allows the possibility that God will speak a word of hope to us. At the very least, it can bring a sense of order in times that feel chaotic. In addition, continue to create time for prayer, but don’t be surprised if prayer changes for you. Times of change are also times of growth. Often the way that we understand or
communicate with God will undergo significant shifts. Don’t be frightened by that, that’s a good thing.
3.Stay connected to community. God gave us the church for a reason. We walk together as a group so that when one of us falters the group can pick them back up. Sometimes in the midst of our difficulty it is tempting to retreat inward so that people don’t see our vulnerability, but that’s not how God designed us. It is through our individual frailty that we come together and by doing so we become stronger than we can be alone .
I actually do see many reasons to be hopeful, not the least of which is that God has given us the Holy Spirit. Even back to the days of the Early Church, we have always faced changes, some of which we have caused and some of which have happened to us. Through it all, what has always helped us navigate those changes is a reliance on the guid-ance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God has continued to be faithful over the generations, and now as we are faced with our own set of changes and challenges, if we turn our-selves back to the Spirit we can trust that God will, once again, lead us through it all.
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Each month for our newsletter Pastor Alan writes a short article on a variety of topics. At times he will also create a video version of the article.