This morning my six-year-old asked me to read a comic book with him before school. So, we headed for the little reading nook we have in our living room, hopped into the faux-leather-armless-chair that sits next to the record player, and started to read. A few pages in my wife called for him to head to the car, so we paused our reading until school is over later today. He was walking into the garage when he turned and ran back into the living room. He came over and gave me the biggest hug, said I love you, and went back toward the garage.
It was the perfect way to start the day.
As I thought for a minute, I couldn’t help but lament how quickly he’s growing up. He’s almost a first grader now, which is unbelievable to me. Just yesterday (or so it seems) he was a toddler, but now he’s a big kid.
And it’s happened way too fast.
Yet, when I think about how he’s growing, I also think about how normal it is. Of course he’s taller, of course he’s learning to read, of course he’s learning all sorts of things that he didn’t know before and becoming more mature. That’s a sign of health, right? The opposite, not growing and maturing, would be cause for alarm. Growth is natural and healthy, even essential, for us to become thriving human beings.
So, as a parent, I’m trying to learn how to hold memories closely, while also being open and present in all his ages and stages. That’s what he needs. If I keep insisting that he’s growing too fast or that he needs to slow down, I’m actually working against what is not only best for him, but also necessary for him to become all he could be in the world.
We have a tendency to want to hang onto things, don’t we? We want to hang on to how it was yesterday, to how it used to be. And this is natural and normal too, I think. Yet, when we are reluctant to embrace growth and change, we contribute to the stunting of whatever it is that we love.
This is true of people and communities.
To be a living, breathing human being is to be in a constant state of change and flux. Every second cells die and new cells are born. At a fundamental, cellular level, you and I are always changing. Yet this is also true at what we might call the “Spirit level.” If we are really alive and engaged at the deepest level of who we are, we will change. It is inevitable.
I’ve been fortunate to be a pastor at Morgantown Community Church for eleven years now. Sometimes people who’ve known me for the majority of that time will say things like, “You’ve really changed,” or “You’re not the same Josh you were in 2005.” This is sometimes a compliment, but often it’s said in concern, as if the Josh I was then was perfectly fine, perhaps the pinnacle, and now I’ve become less somehow.
The truth is, I have changed. Some sermons I gave eleven or eight or even two years ago, I can’t give today. My way of seeing and being has changed, and I can’t pretend it hasn’t. That doesn’t diminish or devalue who I was then; it simply acknowledges that I’ve grown. I’ve changed.
This happens in communities, too.
MCC will celebrate 20 years in June, and as you can imagine, much has changed since 1996. People have gone and people have arrived. Ways of “doing church” have changed. The ways people relate and connect have undergone change. 2016 just isn’t 1996. That doesn’t devalue 1996 MCC, it simple acknowledges that, like in healthy people, a healthy community will change.
We want the people, communities, and traditions we love to be static and unchanging, but in resisting change, we ultimately stunt the growth and transformation of these same people, communities, and traditions.
The word for this kind of change in the Bible is transformation. Paul writes about this in Romans:
Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature. [Romans 12v2 CEB]
This word, in Greek, is metamorphoo (which totally sounds like an awesome kind of martial arts, right?). Metamorphoo describes a process of change. An ongoing experience of being formed and reformed. This command here from Paul in the NT is essentially calling us to a continual openness to growth, change, and transformation. This doesn’t mean we have no stability or consistency, but that we are open to letting go of whatever impedes our journey of growth, over time.
Our insistence on defining and imagining the future solely on the past is toxic to both our present and our future. To become the people, communities, and traditions we are being invited to become will involve the transformation of us as people, communities, and traditions.
There’s a scene in the Gospel of John that I’ve always found compelling, but more so recently. Mary Magdalene is standing outside of Jesus’s tomb, crying. The risen Christ appears to her, but she thinks he’s the gardener. She asks him to show her where he’s taken the body of Jesus.
Then he says her name. “Mary.”
Immediately, she knows it’s Jesus. She exclaims, “Rabbi!”
And Jesus says to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” [John 20v17 CEB]
Don’t hold on to me, Jesus says.
Things are going to be different; Jesus will no longer be confined to time and space. He will no longer be (physically) present with them, so that he can be present everywhere, to everyone. And if Mary and his disciples hold on to him in this way, they will miss him in the larger way he intends to be with all people.
Don’t hold on to me, because what is ahead requires that things be different.
These aren’t just Jesus’s words to Mary, they’re also words for us. In holding on to the past, as amazing as it was, we cut ourselves off to the present and future that could be ours.