by Eddie Pipkin
I was cleaning up the good ol’ Honda CRV last week, when, lo and behold, I discovered a feature that I had never used before. We’ve owned this car for six years, and you’d think by now I would know the minutiae of its equipment configuration and operational options. But no! I pulled on a little recessed handle in the rear cargo space, and – shazam! – the back seats released and lowered themselves into the flat position all by themselves. How did I not know this was a thing? Oh, the countless steps I wasted in the past half-decade, trudging around to first the left and then the right side of the car, opening the doors, and manually lowering those seats! That’s how it is, though. There’s always something new and surprising to learn about anything and anybody if we just keep paying attention and leave ourselves open to a shifted perspective.
We think we’ve gotten the maximum use out of a piece of equipment, discovered every feature of an app, or hung out in every room of the house, but there are new insights to discover if we put our minds to trying new angles and approaches. We finally get around to reading the owner’s manual, and we discover a new component we’ve long overlooked. We do a little Internet sleuthing, check out a user forum, and find out there’s a whole bevy of cool tricks our little-used app will perform. We sample a familiar but infrequently visited room at different times of the day and note how the light is dramatically different from hour to hour. Welcome to our favorite new morning reading spot!
And unlike things, people change constantly. They grow over time. They settle down. They mature. They learn from experience. They gain new skills. If we are interacting with people in exactly the same manner as we did ten years ago – thinking of them in exactly the same way and limiting them to the roles in which they’ve always served, we are selling them short. We are selling short the whole process of growth and full development that we have promised people they get to be a part of when they join a faith family. Sometimes a shift in a person’s attitude, outlook, interests, or skill set is obvious, but sometimes it is a quiet evolution, and we have to be attentive to notice the subtle shift. We should not take for granted that we know everything about a person, that we have them “figured out.” They may be showing us the side of their personality that we are expecting to see. It’s good to periodically evaluate a person’s trajectory by asking others about them and – although this may sound radical – engaging the persons themselves (!) in direct conversation relative to growth and change: “What things do you find you are less interested in than you were five years ago? What things are freshly exciting to you? Have you / are you developing new skills that you’d like to put into practice?”
A person who might have been a less than great fit for a leadership role or programming opportunity five years ago (or even two years ago) might be the perfect fit for that role today.
We are creatures of conventional thoughts and repetitive routines, however, so we run into roadblocks that make it hard for us to see new possibilities.
The Prison of Our Prior Perceptions
We limit ourselves by our preconceived notions about how people and things will be in the future, based on how they’ve been in the past. It’s an interesting balance. On the one hand, it’s healthy to heed Maya Angelou’s admonition, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Taking that advice can save us from a lot of hurt and chaos. On the other hand, we serve a system that believes in the power of redemption and reinvention.
The Bible counsels that we shouldn’t get stuck in what has been as if it is what will always be. Check out Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV):
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
And Peterson’s take on this passage in The Message:
“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands.
We all occasionally feel like we’ve been lost in “the wasteland” or that we’re struggling through “the badlands,” trying to solve a problem that has proven impervious to solution or trying to find just the right spot for a person who has proven impervious to placement.
Maybe what we need – not in a general sense, but in a focused and specific sense – is an old-fashioned Romans 12:2 “renewing of our mind.”
Such reorientation comes, not by accident or by luck, but by the application of an inquisitive spirit, asking good questions and exploring familiar territory from unfamiliar angles.
The Horrors of Half-Hearted Habits
We all get in a rut. This can happen when we stick with the same old way of doing things, even though we’re not really happy about how things are going. This is sticking with the current system even though we know it’s broken. There is something about the familiar that is comforting, even when it has become cumbersome and uncomfortable. Any change, even if it’s change that makes logical sense, is scary, because change is uncertainty, and we choose inefficient and ineffective certainty over potential outcomes that we can’t clearly control, even if the new way offers wondrous possibilities. Have a little faith, and maybe it’s possible to teach an old dog a new trick or two.
The Chasm of Keeping Current
It’s almost impossible to stay relevant (in relationships, programming, and community connections) without changing to adapt to the times. Conditions on the ground dictate adjustments in how things are going to need to be done in the future. That’s reality. If we don’t adjust to what’s happening around us, we doom ourselves and the institutions we serve to becoming increasingly, painfully disconnected.
Our faithful quest to keep up-to-date and in-the-know provides a pathway to see old, familiar things and faces in new ways. Sometimes, like with bell-bottom pants, old things and old ways of doing things can even become fashionable again. Take, for instance, the popularity of simplified, stripped-down worship services as a sign of authenticity of the spiritual experience.
Sometimes a pivotal event in the life of our church community, greater community, or key people can mean that the time is right for revival and renewal of ministries that had previously been floundering. In the wake of the national trauma of 9/11, for instance, there was an intense season of spiritual reawakening. During the pandemic, our understanding of relationships and their importance was expanded and reinvented in many ways. For church campuses that are in neighborhoods experiencing dramatic demographic shifts, buildings that once brimmed with Sunday School classes find new life as locations for job training, 12-step groups, and language immersion programs. Old spaces become new. Old models become new avenues for engagement.
Likewise, a person who once was a thorn in our side, an ongoing distraction, might over time become an ally! Life changes and spiritual growth can mellow the once cantankerous. That previous life experience as one who stood in the way of progress can, once reformed, be used to great effect in relating to those who need healing and hope in their lives. It gives insights in how to move troubled projects forward through turmoil.
The impulse to trust others in new ways and the impetus to try new approaches to old ways of doing things stems from taking a detailed look at something that is already familiar. Slow down, spend some time with the person, place, or idea. Get to know them all over again, then see them through fresh eyes. You have changed as well, and your changes might also mean that you are open to thinking of these things in different and useful ways.
What new uses for the familiar have been revealed to you recently? Do you have a discipline for periodically reevaluating the familiar to search out new angles and new perspectives, thereby promoting new life? How might repurposed and reimagined physical spaces and ministry roles revive our purpose and create the conditions for unexpected wonders? How might helping people put their growth and evolved perspectives to use change them, change us, and change our churches?