Change vs. Progress

One of the sessions I attended at the UST Gaudium et Spes conference that I wrote about the other day was titled Evaluating Progress.  In that panel, Professor Philip Rolnick of the UST Theology Department gave a talk titled The Paradox of Progress.

In his paper, Rolnick distinguished between change and progress, something we don’t always do.  he called change “the meretricious cousin of progress,” suggesting that “one of the great challenges of our age is to let the Gospel heal the hyperactive pursuit of change-for-the-sake of change.”

Change means simply that something (or someone) is different.  Change, by itself, is not a good, although many people tend to treat it that way.  Progress, unlike change, has “a clear sense of direction.”

It goes without saying that one can’t speak of “progress” apart from a vision of what we are seeking.  I thought Rolnick nicely articulated that vision from the standpoint of Catholicism: “In relationship to God, progress occurs in the individual as sanctification; in the Church as a sanctified consolidation; and throughout the earth as a movement toward becoming the human family of God.

Others might articulate the vision differently.  But whether one would or would not frame the vision as he does, it struck me as I listened to his talk that, as a general matter, insufficient attention is paid to how we evaluate progress, that is, how we distinguish between change for its own sake and change that moves us to a place we want to be.

God Keeps Working on Us

Not infrequently parents whose children are in their late teens or early twenties come to me concerned about the fact that their children are not actively practicing their faith. Some have stopped going to Mass or other worship services, others have toyed with atheism or at least expressed serious reservations about the faith in which they were raised.

Usually my counsel to parents in that situation is patience. If nothing else, the twists and turns of my own faith journey have convinced me that God has got it covered, that God is with each of those young people every step of the way and will help them find their way.

A book I’ve been reading shared two quotes, one by C.S. Lewis and the other by Karl Marx. One of the quotes, which could have been written by one of the young people whose parents have expressed concern to me, read like this:

You know, I think that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention – Christ as much as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things he didn’t understand….Thus religions, that is to say mythology, grew up. Often, too, great men were regarded as Gods after their death – such as Heracles or Odin: thus after the death of a Hebrew philosopher Yeshua (whose name we have corrupted into Jesus) he became regarded as a God, a cult sprang up, which was afterwards connected with the ancient Hebrew Yahweh-worship, and so Christianity came into being – one mythology among many.

Although many might guess that was the quote written by Karl Marx, in reality it was written by a young C.S. Lewis, in a letter he wrote when he was eighteen.

Clearly something happened that radically changed Lewis’ worldview. The truth is that God never stops trying and God will use all means at God’s disposal to help change our hearts.

Risking Growth

Yesterday evening Dave and I attended the wedding of the daughter of friends of ours. It was lovely ceremony and celebration.

The officiant was a Presbyterian minister, whose address to the couple spoke beautifully of some of the gifts these two young people bring to their marriage, and the challenges they would face. But the line she spoke that kept coming back to me was a very simple one: She spoke of marriage as requiring a willingness to risk who you are for the sake of who you could become.

Isn’t that the risk we face in all change, in all opportunities for growth? Invitations to change, opportunities to grow, by definition, always require us to risk who we are for the sake of who we might become.

And that makes change and growth a bit frightening. Who we are is comfortable. Even when we are not fully satisfied with our situation, our environment, ourselves – we become accustomed to the situation we are in. Changing that seems unsettling. Even more so when things seem to be going well. Why upset the apple cart? Why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken?

But to fail to grow is to fail to thrive. It is to accept being less than our true selves. (To quote St. Irenaeus, “the glory of God is a human person fully alive.”)

To thrive, become fully alive, we need to step out of our comfort zone. We need to risk who we are for the sake of who we might become. Time and time again.

Living in Limbo

This is a time of transition for me in many ways. One is a physical one – our house in the Southwest suburbs of the Twin Cities just went on the market and we are in the process of negotiating the final details regarding a home we wish to purchase in St. Paul. We are both downsizing and moving to a more convenient location to the various things Dave and I involved with. (We picked Chanhassen when we moved here solely for the high school, since Elena was entering high school at the time.)

The house in which we have lived for the seven years we’ve been here is now “staged” for potential buyers to look at. Everything in the kitchen put away, bookshelves removed to make rooms look more spacious (the realtor’s “stagers” couldn’t believe how many bookcases are in every room of our house), little wrapped soap in the bathrooms (with toothbrushes and usable soap hidden below the sink), etc. And while it doesn’t make the house uninhabitable, it is not comfortable. “You don’t show a house the way you live in it,” I’m told.

So there is a feeling of limbo – of not living anywhere. I suspect that sense will get stronger as we pack more boxes and as we continue to donate or otherwise dispose of items that have accumulated over the years and for which we have no further use. (I’m trying to avoid “I can’t figures out why I have this and haven’t used it for a decade, but perhaps it will come in handy sometime so I should hang onto it.)

There is no small part of me that just wants all this to be over – to just be settled in a new house. But the reality of all major transitions is that they can’t be rushed. They put us in a state of limbo for some period of time, a state that is not particularly comfortable.

The only thing to do is take some deep breaths and stay centered in the present. Not to wish to be elsewhere. Not to give into anxieties. Not to want to curl up until it is all over. Just to be. And to accept the gift of the present.

Dealing With a World of Change

My friend and former student Phil Steger was the speaker yesterday at Weekly Manna at the law school. Phil is a very thoughtful man and someone who understands (read: lives) intentional discipleship, and I have always enjoyed and benefitted from our discussions. So I was happy he accepted our invitation to return to the law school to speak.

Phil asked that we use as our opening reading the beautiful plea for unity and humility in Chapter 2 of Philippians. Following the reading, he began by observing that we live in a time of “difficult, stress-inducing, sometimes fantastic, change.” We face change in so many areas – environmentally, politically, socially, culturally.

How do we deal with that change? Phil suggests that the early roots of Christian thought and spirituality help us to deal with a change in a way that avoids the danger of either a loss of faith or what he terms a “walled faith.”

You can access a recording of Phil’s talk here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 24:14.

Transitions

With the end of May come several changes that will impact my life. Two fall in the category of pretty darn major changes.

St. Ignatius Retreat House, my spiritual home for many years, will close its doors for good tomorrow. The place I did my training in retreat house ministry, the place I both attended and gave many retreats and other programs, the place I had so many experiences of God and so many “favorite” spots to sit and pray, will be no more.

At the same time, Chato Hazelbaker, one of my closest friends at the law school and my “go-to” person when I want to talk something out or get feedback on an idea (not to mention his contributions to our spiritual formation programs at the law school) not only will leave the school, but is moving to the Pacific Northwest. I have no lack of security about the ability of our friendship to survive the distance, but his new location is not exactly convenient for morning coffee conversations.

These kind of transitions are not easy for us. We tend to want to get things organized and in place and have them stay that way. I have the people around me I need, the places in my life that help center me, etc. So I ought to be able to just have things go merrily and comfortably along.

But that’s not the way it goes. People move (or die). Places close (or simply change character). We never are really settled.

Buddhists would speak in terms of our need to recognize impermanence – that everything changes moment by moment – and to see that our attachment to the way things (or people) are only creates suffering. That is a truth that transcends Buddhism and is a useful reminder for all of us.

I recognize that truth, but I’m still sad at both of these (although in the latter case, I’m enormously happy for Chato). For me, the way to deal with that sadness is to spend some time giving thanks for the gift of St. Ignatius Retreat House and for Chato. I have been (and continue to be) enormously blessed by them.

“We’ve Never Done that Before”

Often the first reaction to a new initiative is “we’ve never done that before” or “we’ve never done it that way before.” I’ve heard that response in parishes, in schools and in other organizations. We’ve never done that before. Full stop. End of consideration of a proposal.

Change is always difficult, which makes it easy to dismiss new ideas and initiatives. But, as Einstein once observed, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

We’ve never done that before or we’ve never done it that way before, are perfectly fine words, so long as they are followed by a comma, not a period. We’ve never done it before, but let’s give it a shot. We’ve never done it that way before, but it seems like something worth considering.

This is especially true in the church when we are facing many of the questions we face today. For example, how to engage our young people. At a Catholic Campus Ministry Meeting earlier this year, Archbishop Chaput observed that “too often in the Church we expect young adults to simply fill the empty slots fo existing structure and ministries, even when some of the programs are obviously dead shells. Old methods of pastoral outreach predetermine the ways in which we employ new disciples. Then we’re surprised that nothing seems to change.”

The same could be said for other questions.

I’m not suggesting change for the sake of change. But we need to reflect on which of our “old ways” are working and which aren’t. And we need to be more open to consider new ideas and initiatives.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Yesterday’s Gospel was Jesus’ parable to the Pharisees of the rich man and Lazarus.

This is one of those tales we’ve all heard countless times: during their lifetimes, Lazarus lies suffering at the door of the rich man. The rich man does nothing to alleviate Lazarus’ suffering, but spends his time enjoying all of the fruits of their riches. When they die, Lazarus is carried away to heaven and the rich man is in torment in hell. The rich man cries out to Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony.” Abraham refuese, as he refuses the rich man’s subsequent plea to send Lazarus to warn his brothers so they don’t end up like him.

I confess that there are times I hear this passage when I think, well why not? If the rich man is sorry for the life he has led, why not send Lazarus to him or his brothers?

In his sermon on the Gospel, Fr. Bill Walsh made what in retrospect seems an obvious point, but one that had escaped me in all of the times I have read or heard proclaimed this passage and it provides a good answer to my occasional query. For the rich man, nothing at all has changed. During his lifetime, he thought people like Lazarus existed to serve people of his kind and he thinks no different in death. Let Lazarus come and serve me, is what he asks of Abraham. Lazarus is still inferior, still not an object of his concern. There is not repentance here of the way the rich man has lived his life.

I was struck by that observation. It is easy to regret the consequenses of our acts, especially when they involve suffering. But mere regret of the suffering conquences is not itself an indication of any change of heart. But there can not be any chance in the consequences without a real change of the heart and mind that produced them. And that change wasn’t there for the rich man.

Negotiating the Narrow Spots

Last night was the Lenten Retreat at my parish, Christ the King in Minneapolis. Our speaker was Ruth Bachman, an inspirational speaker who shared the lessons she has learned about change and growth. A 2003 cancer diagnosis that forced the amputation of her (dominant) left hand and lower arm led her to her current vocation of talking to people about how to encounter change in times of crises and plenty.

Her starting point is the reality that change is inevitable and that often change is challenging.

She uses a useful image in her talk – that of an hourglass. The narrow spot in the hour glass is the crisis or disaster or some more minor event that changes something for us. We can’t control or choose what those narrow spots will be, but we all face them. And they change who and what we are. She observes

If cancer is the narrow spot in the hourglass, and I am the sand, then I have traveled from the top, through the tight spot, to the bottom. I am the same sand — but with a different arrangement.

We don’t choose the narrow spots. We can, however, choose how we respond to them. And that ultimately it her message – our need to approach each narrow spot with grace and faith, making decisions based on reality, not on anticipation and fear. (She describes fear as False Expectations Appearing Real.) That requires the support of others. And it requires an openness to God.

Bachman’s talk invites us to spend some time reflecting on some of the narrow spots we’ve experienced in our own lives. Did we view them as catastrophes or as invitations to growth? Were we open to the presence of God as we traveled through the narrow spot? What might have helped us to respond with greater patience, persistence and grace?

You can read more about Ruth Bachman and her vocation here.

Transitions

I just returned from several days in Appleton, Wisconsin, where my husband and I dropped our daughter to begin her college studies at Lawrence University, where she will do a five-year double degree program with their Conservatory and College. We moved her into her dorm yesterday morning and participated in various orientation events before the parent send-off just before noon today.

Surprising myself, I shed virtually no tears when we said our good-byes. Some combination of my excitement at the adventure Elena is about to begin and my conviction that she is more than ready for this new phase of her life managed to overshadow any feelings of sadness. I know that I will miss her tremendously – in addition to being the daughter I love, she is an incredibly wonderful young woman whose company I enjoy a great deal. But I am so excited for her and it was wonderful to watch her settling in.

Still, there will be adjustments for all of us. There are always unanticipated stresses and fears as we all settle into lives that are different than they were before.

Transitions are never easy. But I approach this one with gratitude for our love and closeness and with knowledge that we have sent Elena off with “roots and wing”. And we send her off, of course (and helping an enormous amount) filled with security that God walks with her on each step she takes.