All the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many who had seen the first house on its foundation wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping. (Ezra 3:11-13)
For Cecilia’s fifth birthday, we gave her my old dollhouse for her birthday present. We had cleaned up the massive collector’s house, found all of the tiny and detailed miniatures to set up and revealed the gift to her. She was over the moon with excitement to learn that my dollhouse was now hers. However, we had to reorganize some things in her room in order to make space for it. I could see conflict written across her little face as she looked at the gift and looked at the new lay-out of her room. An emotion other than excitement about the dollhouse was taking over. Her lower lip began to quiver, a slight pink of emotion spreading across her face. “I liked my room better before,” she said, and burst into tears.
My daughter reacts to all change negatively. Whereas, when we get older, we might explain our reactions to change with pat phrases like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” or “I’m stuck in a rut,” it is telling to observe the unlearned, purely instinctual response of a child. Understandably, she has cried freely and loudly and over extended periods of time when we moved cities, when my grandmother died, when we lost a family pet. But she also struggles to adjust her life to changes that she actually wants (like the dollhouse) or that end up being positive in their own right (a new teacher) or that really affect her very little (moving the furniture in the chancel of our church).
My son reacts to change differently. He isn’t as keenly observant of the physical world around him as his sister. If we were to reorganize his room for a massive dollhouse, there would be a good chance that he wouldn’t even notice. In the face of important or sad family news, the kind of news that parents plan how they are going to share with their children, he shows very little reaction. He is appropriately quiet and solemn, and if anything, seems concerned at the hysterics of his sister, looking for the first opportunity to resume play, to go outside and continue on with his normal pattern of life.
I was invited to speak at an ACW Meeting in Orillia last week. The ACW—Anglican Church Women—is an institution within the Anglican Church that has long been a driving force in the socializing, the fundraising, and the community service of our churches. The ACW Deanery Day, the event I was at, has been an annual event where all of the ACW groups in that area gather together, the Bishop leads them in worship, they have a meeting to check in about regional projects and concerns, and finish with a guest speaker. As it turns out, I was to be the last ACW Huronia Deanery Day speaker. Just before I began, the group had voted to disestablish. This demise is representative of dynamics that are changing church life everywhere: members have died or become incapacitated, the ones who are left are finding it increasingly burdensome to manage the same level of responsibility as before with fewer people, some churches are experiencing overall decline as newer members fail to materialize, and churches that do have younger members are nonetheless noticing groups like the ACW shrinking as the next generation has neither the time nor perhaps the inclination to commit to the same social groups that those before them did.
I could see in the faces of the group a variety of reactions to this decision. There were some wet eyes. There were words of resigned lament: “the young people just don’t have the time these days.” There were those who were already bustling on to the next activity, the next challenge, closing one chapter and opening the next with a practised optimism. The first person to come and speak to me following my talk was dying to criticize a funeral that I had led five years previously because the church sanctuary in which I was at that time serving had screens to aid in worship. In her pent-up frustration toward me, technically irrelevant to the occasion at hand (nothing about the event or my talk had anything to do with funerals or screens in worship), I recognized familiar stirrings of grief. How often have I, myself, redirected sadness or uncertainty in my own life into annoyance or even anger toward someone or something else? The truth is, no matter how each woman in that room felt about the ending of a beloved church tradition, those feelings would be wrapped up in other circumstances and emotions too: how it feels to get older, whether or not they feel loneliness or isolation in aging, what other losses and uncertainties might be fresh in their minds. It is easy for us to misdirect our grief, to target others with anger and frustration because we ourselves feel lost. It is difficult for us to entirely separate one loss from the many other facets of loss affecting our lives.
I think again of Cecilia and Gordon. They each cope with change in their own distinct way, and have done so from the time they were mere toddlers. Cecilia’s tears are not better than Gordon’s solemn silence. It isn’t either bad or good that Gordon needs to return to more familiar activities as soon as possible, that it takes him months in order to process his feelings about the new circumstances in which he finds himself. And it isn’t a flaw in Cecilia’s personality that her immediate reaction to every change, good or bad, is sadness for how things used to be. These aren’t learned behaviours, they are representative of basic human gut reaction adaptations in the face of shifting landscapes.
And yet to observe them is also to learn something. They remind me to be more understanding of the various reactions to change I, or those around me, will inevitably display. More importantly, I see in them a natural gravitation toward resources that will make it possible to cope. In Cecilia, I learn that coupled with this gut instinct to name all change as negative is also a gut instinct for seeking out rituals, songs, poetry and symbol in order to find her way. She gravitates toward all of those most human, and most sacred, ways of making meaning of the stories that happen to us. She needs safe places to cry. She needs those physical reminders of what she has lost that give her permission to shed tears and to tell her stories. She needs to rail against the injustice of losing those things that are dear to her, and she needs to pray and ask God for strength to see her through.
Gordon, despite the unruffled way in which he immediately grasps change, is ultimately more changed by the losses and transitions that happen to him. He is a different person now than he was when we lived in Orillia. The experience of moving from a place where he was always surrounded by friends and family that he knew, to being entirely new in every situation, has brought out shynesses and uncertainties in him that he never had before. Again, this is neither good nor bad. But it is real.
For many centuries, the church in general, and the Anglican church specifically, has been closely tied to the order and good governance of society. Through wars, immigration, economic uncertainty, governments and rulers coming and going, people have been able to flock to the church as a place of constancy and predictability. Leadership might change, but the words of the prayers, the tunes of the hymns and the set-up of the pews would be staid. Now, the winds of change have worn down the institution of the church too. Survival is not a certainty. Assumptions can no longer be made that the people coming into our churches will be able to navigate their way around our prayer book or know when to stand and when to kneel. Assumptions can no longer be made that people will come into our churches at all. The question across our congregations is how we honour and utilize the gifts of the church passed down faithfully through generations, and how we adjust to new realities in order to share our faith with others. For some congregations and some groups within our congregations—like the regional ACW group at which I was speaking—the question more plainly is how to go forward when the end has come.
The good thing is that God has given the church the richest of resources in meeting the challenges of a changing world. Those centuries of institutional centrality, the church so strongly located at the centre of all that was stable and powerful in society, actually masked the greatest gifts that the church has been blessed to offer. Our Hebrew Scriptures are written by people on the move—wandering people, imprisoned people, wilderness people, exiled people. Their stories and teachings look for the presence of God in the midst of all that is uncertain and unsettled. The New Testament, likewise, is written by the beginning of the Christian community, a community not just on the move, but on the edge. These are people who are writing out of the grave danger of counting themselves followers of an executed criminal of the Roman state.
If I think about my children and what they so clearly need as they manoeuvre change, I also become grateful for the ample resources found in our church life. We have the stories and the rituals, the prayers and places of sanctuary where people may learn to cry freely and to connect their sadness to a bigger story and a truer strength. We have the invitation to self-reflection, repentance, confession and absolution in response to the ways that we will find ourselves angry or hurting because we fear the fragility of our own lives. We have the promise that out of death and loss, God is raising us to new life. We will be changed by the circumstances that happen to us, and God can work through our changed lives to offer greater compassion and generosity, understanding and service to the world around us. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” God promises through the prophet Isaiah to the people in exile. “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you, when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:1-2)
The church’s own sense of instability can open us to a new compassion for all of those who experience themselves as lost and struggling. And that sense of instability invites us to be more aware, and more generous, with what God has actually given us to offer the world’s need:
Not an ‘out’ from the changes and chances of life, but the stories and rituals and prayers that will equip us for saying our goodbyes and giving thanks along the way.
Not a protective armour that will shield us from vulnerability and grief, but God’s armour of light—
commissioned out of our vulnerability to better care for others;
witnesses of how God our Shepherd and our Shelter is redeeming us, loving us and calling us by name.