Change and Decay
July 3, 2011
Earlier this year I received a piece of news that rocked my world to its very foundations. The Kashmir Curry Centre had closed. The Kashmir on Spital Hill, Mecca for delicious food and good conversation, fragrant with the aroma of spices and memories of family friends and assorted people I have shared Peshwari Naan breads with over the last three decades. How can Sheffield still be the Sheffield I know and love without the Kashmir? I’m still coming to terms with that. Change and decay in all around I see, wrote the hymn writer. I know how he was feeling. We all struggle to cope with change, and it’s not just the closure of our favourite restaurant. We all love the security of the familiar. And yet the irony is, if there’s one thing that’s constant in our life it’s change: changes in ourselves as we grow and age; changes in wider society, at an ever accelerating rate. And the same dynamic of change is it work in this physical universe in which we belong. Species adapt and evolve and sometimes become extinct: but nothing much stands still. How do meet with God in this world of change? That’s the question I’d like us to think about together this morning.
It’s a question that’s been prompted for me by reading and praying with this wonderful passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we heard earlier. He talks about a created world that “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God……”. For Paul the created world isn’t fixed and finished, it’s a work in progress, it’s caught up in a process of change. God’s creation – us the whole world, the whole universe – is heading somewhere, and where it’s heading isn’t to decay and death, but to abundance of life. “Creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God.” But the journey is one of struggle, and Pual likens it to giving birth, which of course in the first century would have been a much more fraught and risky experience that it is for us now in the West. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves.” I think this metaphor of giving birth is so powerful. Giving birth is difficult and painful, but when you’re in labour you’re focussed on the baby, on the new life that is being brought into the world. You’re looking forwards. In the same way Paul encourages us to look forward, beyond all the struggles of present to the hope of glory begun in Christ Jesus. And this is not a hope simply for human beings but for all of creation, the non-human creation too. There’s a big vision at work here, and it’s a vision that speaks to our world of flux and change.
Why do we find change so difficult to cope with? I think it relates partly to what I was saying a week or so ago about spiritual growth, and our first-stage spiritual need for order and predictability in life. We need some fixed points of reference. So when for example when good friends unexpectedly separate or divorce, we can feel no just a sense of sadness and but also of disorientation. A relationship that seemed a fixed point in life is not longer that. Coping well with change is about re-orientating to a new reality. And of course it’s in our God-given nature to love and care about others, and so when change brings loss we need to grieve that loss.
The Christian response to change and loss is often to turn form the changing world to the unchanging nature of God. And that’s what we find in the hymn I quoted earlier. “Change and decay in all around I see / o thou who changest not, abide with me.” It’s the prayerful turn towards God who is eternally loving, eternally gracious, and resting in that security that groundedness. There’s a collect prayer from the Evensong service that expresses this rather beautifully, praying “that we are fatigued by the changes and chances of this transitory life, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness.” I’ve certainly experienced this for myself, at times when something shocking or unexpected happens, that letting God become present to the situation can introduce a sense of calm and security which run completely against the grain of the events that are taking place. There’s a Christian community I stay with sometimes whose rule of life is summed up in three words: stability, servanthood, stewardship. Stability is the starting point. At the Sheldon Community part of the ministry is about minister to people whose lives are at crisis point, and that stability, that groundedness of in God’s presence, God’s forgiveness, God’s is essential in order to provide a place where people can start a journey towards healing. We all need stability in our lives, and the more our stability is grounded in God, the less we will invest our need for stability onto other things that can’t deliver it: jobs, relationships, pension plans. We all over-attach to these things, and finding our stability in God perhaps requires us to do a little more detachment, a little more letting go.
So if the first thing we recognise is the eternal and unchanging nature of God, the second aspect of God’s nature we need to recognise is that God is also dynamic, and an agent of change. God is the one who makes change happen, and we see this throughout the New Testament with the activity of the Spirit. We read in the early part of Mark’s Gospel how the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert. In the Acts of the Apostles the Holy Spirit instigates the change in the Apostles that leads to them proclaiming the Gospel for the first time and so getting going the movement that was to become the church. In Acts 13 we read how Paul and Barnabas were “sent out by the Spirit” on their missionary travels. And of course Jesus of the gospels was himself an agent of change, announcing a Kingdom that was quite new and discontinuous with what had gone before. When we pray the prayer Jesus gave us, we pray for God’s kingdom to come: when we do so, we are praying for change to happen. Yes God I eternally faithfully and unchanging: yet by his Spirit, God is the vitality inspiring and initiating change. Where the Spirit of God is we should expect to see the stability of tradition balanced with new initiatives for peace, new prayers for justice, new ways for mission in God’s world. We should expect change, but more than that, we should expect ourselves to be changed. “To live is to change”, wrote Cardinal Newman. “to be perfect is to have changed much.” We can tend to feel that the problem is that the world has changed too much, too quickly . Perhaps we should ask ourselves if the problem is rather that we ourselves haven’t changed enough.
God as unchanging, God as the agent of change: the third thing I want to say is that God is the goal towards which all change is moving. “In hope we were saved” writes Paul in his letter. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” he writes elsewhere. For Christians hope is the reality in which we live, and hope is not a vague, fingers crossed behind the back affair. In Jesus Christ hope has become an objective reality. The cross and resurrection are the basis for our hope: that God has been to hell and back and has prevailed over the worst excesses of human evil. The resurrection shows us what God intends for his creation at the end of all things: the overcoming of sin and death by the power of vulnerable divine love. That is the way of life and freedom and that is the way, Paul tells us, that creation is heading. “Creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” God is not just the origin of all life, he is its ending too. That doesn’t make Christianity a pie in the sky religion, rather the opposite. Our hope and confidence in God frees us up to face reality, with all its changes and chances.