The specter of change

Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be. — Thomas à Kempis

arlen-specterToo often, it seems the things we wish we could change we cannot, while the things we wish would stay as they are, change. The world is in flux and we’re changing right along with it, though not often in ways we might hope for.

I unexpectedly tore the retina in my right eye back in February while on a business trip in Mexico (I wrote about that experience here). The surgery to fix the tear was done expertly, but my vision has not returned to what it was, and probably won’t. There are black floaters and wavy distortions now, and an annoying cloud that floats in and out of sight, as though someone has smeared my glasses with grease.

I make my living reading computer screens all day long, so it has been frustrating not being able to read as easily as I once could. Dr. Amy, my friend the optometrist, has helped a great deal by adjusting my glasses to compensate for these changes. I’ve also made changes to my work space, and I’ve had to increase the font size on my computer screen.

But I’d rather not have to do any of these things! I don’t especially like change, particularly the kind that reminds me that the warranty on my body parts expired a very long time ago.

Today the news has been filled with Arlen Specter’s change of political affiliation, from Republican to Democrat. Utah Senator Bob Bennett has probably analyzed Specter’s motives correctly:

“In my opinion, this was a purely political decision on his part. He read the polls, came to the conclusion that he could not win a Republican primary, decided he wanted to stay in the Senate and therefore went with the switch.” — Deseret News

Specter, on the other hand, claims that it was the Republican party that changed, not him. Arlen Specter has always been what we used to call a “country club Republican,” someone who supported Republican fiscal (read: tax) policies, a strong national defense, law and order, etc., but never had much use for the party’s conservative social agenda, especially its stance on abortion.

And he’s right that the Republican party has changed in the nearly 30 years he has been a US Senator. The Democrats of John Kennedy’s era were fiscal moderates who favored cutting taxes to stimulate jobs growth. Political parties change, and so do politicians. Just a few years back, Arlen Specter wanted to ban Congressmen from changing their party in the middle of a term. That was then…

Arlen Specter isn’t much different from the rest of us in that respect. We’re all of us apt to change our opinions and loyalties when it suits us.

A new study by the respected Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, titled Changes in Religious Affiliation in the US, examines the phenomenon of Americans changing their religious beliefs and practices from the faith, or non-faith, they were raised with.

The study finds that 44% of Americans no longer belong to the faith of their childhood. It gets a bit tricky, of course, because about 1/3 of that number involve Protestants moving to a different denomination in Protestantism. But the numbers do show what we know already about America, that we are a restless people who find it difficult to sit still.

According to the survey, 11% of Americans raised in either the Catholic or Protestant church are now unaffiliated with any religious faith, whereas only 4% went the other way. Pew also found that Catholics left their faith in higher numbers than others.

About 3/4’s of those who change faiths do so by the age of 24, which isn’t surprising. Young adults do a host of things intended to proclaim their emancipation from parents, very often making a point of rejecting the values and norms they grew up with. They want to think for themselves, decide for themselves, live as they see fit. Colleges often aid in this, by encouraging young people to challenge the beliefs of their parents.

Pew also discovered that the large majority of those changing faiths don’t do so for trivial reasons. It’s not that they are unhappy with the pastor or the music or the color of the carpeting. Unlike Arlen Specter, most people place responsibility on themselves, saying that their churches had stayed the same while their own personal beliefs about God and faith had changed over time.

They talk about drifting away, about their spiritual needs not being met, or no longer believing the things they once did. As their own values change, they become dissatisfied with the teachings of the church, and so they search for a faith that is more compatible with their new beliefs.

Jesus seems to have preached change at every opportunity. He appears to have delighted in shaking things up. He challenged his listeners to take difficult steps, to make great sacrifices, for instance, telling the rich young man to sell all he owned before joining Jesus’ band of disciples.

He famously challenged Nicodemus to be born again if he wanted to have a part in Jesus’ Kingdom:

“I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

“What do You mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”

“How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked. — John 3:3-9, NLT

Nicodemus wants a different message from Jesus, but Jesus isn’t budging. Thomas à Kempis was right that in some ways, we can’t easily change ourselves. Jesus claimed that we can be changed, but only by undergoing a transformation of our innermost spirit carried out by a work of God’s Spirit.

The truth is, we do change, whether we want to admit it or not. We do change, but the message of the church has stayed the same for two thousand years. And the things we want to change the most — learning patience with our children, getting along with a difficult boss, learning moderation and self-control in the face of oppressive addictions — these are the sorts of things that seem out of reach, beyond our powers.

We often get stuck in a very uncomfortable place, not really liking what and where we are, but not much liking where God wants to take us, either.

And so, we cut our ties and move on.

We opt for a change of scenery, hoping a new place, a new church, a new group of friends will distract us from the fact that we’re the one, the one in need of change. You must be born again, said Jesus, and like Nicodemus, we’re puzzled, and we wish he would say something different.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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  1. Carol zylstra says

    You’re right–we only like change when we see it as personally advantageous. I’ve started to read another book with insight on this issue: Transforming Worldviews by Paul Hiebert. Interesting information on how groups of people can change their outlook. In Jesus’ language I think it’s a lot about how a society or group of people can acquire a new wineskin to be able to contain the new without falling apart.

  2. I love this article and it gets me thinking. Thank you for writing it. I have many friends that I grew up with that are no longer in church, no longer claiming to be Christians even. I have a Sunday School teacher (my age, actually) who, on his facebook page under “Religion” writes “When I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know”. I find myself struggling with belief. Being reared in a very conservative family and church, going to a Christian university, and so on, I have, in the past, been a very black and white thinker, very incompassionate with those who have chosen to stray from the truth. And yet, here I sit, reading blogs and books and talking to friends and pastors and counselors, trying to figure out whether hell is real or whether God is really good or whether I’ve been duped or why this and why that.

    Why? Why do we who doubt go seeking elsewhere? Is it not because some part of us deep down inside is not satisfied or fulfilled? And if Christ is the ultimate fulfillment, why do I, many times, still feel empty? Why wouldn’t I search for “something more”? Is this why my friends are leaving the faith or, at the very least, strongly questioning it?

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