Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Surprised by Change

“Spirituality wrongly understood
or pursued is a
major source of human misery
and rebellion against God.”
Dallas Willard

Hank, as we’ll call him, was a cranky guy. He did not smile easily, and when he did, the smile often had a cruel edge to it, coming at someone’s expense. He had a knack for discovering islands of bad news in oceans of happiness. He would always find a cloud where others saw a silver lining,” writes John Ortberg in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted . Ortberg continues with his description of good ole Hank.. . .

Hank rarely affirmed anyone. He operated on the assumption that if you complement someone, it might lead to a swelled head, so he worked to make sure everyone stayed humble. His was a ministry of cranial downsizing.

His native tongue was complaint. He carried judgment and disapproval the way a prisoner carries a ball and chain. Although he went to church his whole life, he was never unshackled.

A deacon in the church asked him one day, “Hank, are you happy?”

Hank paused to reflect, then replied without smiling, “Yeah.”

Well, tell your face,” the deacon said. But so far as anybody knows, Hank’s face never did find out about it.

There was a period of time when Hank’s primary complaints centered around the music in the church. “It’s too loud!” Hank protested -- to the staff, the deacons, the ushers, and eventually the innocent visitors to the church.

The pastors finally had to take Hank aside and explain that complaining to complete strangers was not appropriate, and he would have to restrict his laments to a circle of intimate friends. And that was the end of it. So they thought.

A few weeks later
, a secretary buzzed John Ortberg on the intercom to say that an agent from OSHA- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – was there to see him. “I’m here to check out a complaint,” the man said. As Ortberg tried to figure out who on the staff would have called OSHA over a church problem, the agent began to talk about decibel levels at airports and rock concerts.

Excuse me,” Ortberg said, “are you sure this was someone on the church staff that called?”

No,” he explained. “If anyone calls – whether or not they work here – we’re obligated to investigate.”

Suddenly the light dawned: Hank had call OSHA and said, “The music at my church is too loud.” And they sent a federal agent to check it out.

By this time the rest of the staff had gathered in Ortberg’s office to see the man from OSHA.

“We don’t mean to make light of this,” Ortberg told him, “but nothing like this has ever happened around here before.”

Don’t apologize,” the man said. “Do you have any idea how much ridicule I’ve faced around my office since everyone discovered I was going to bust a church?”

So, sometimes Hank’s joylessness ended in comedy; but more often it produced sadness. His children did not know him. He could not effectively love his wife or his children or people outside his family. He was easily irritated. He had little use for the poor, and a casual contempt for those whose accents or skin pigment differed from his own. Whatever capacity he once might have had for joy or wonder or gratitude had atrophied. He critiqued and judged and complained, and his soul got a little smaller each year.

Hank was not changing. He was once a cranky young guy, and he grew up to be a cranky old man. But even more troubling than his lack of change was the fact that nobody was surprised by it. It was as if everyone simply expected that his soul would remain withered and sour year after year, decade after decade. No one seemed bothered by the condition. It was not an anomaly that caused head-scratching bewilderment. No church consultants were called in. No emergency meetings were held to probe the strange case of this person who followed the church’s general guidelines for spiritual life and church membership and yet was non-transformed.

The church staff did have some expectations. We expected Hank would affirm certain religious beliefs. We expected that he would attend services, support the church financially, pray regularly, and avoid certain sins. But here’s what they didn’t expect: We didn’t expect that he would progressively become the way Jesus would be if he were in Hank’s place. We didn’t assume that each year would find him a more compassionate, joyful, gracious winsome personality. We didn’t anticipate that he was on the way to becoming a source of delight and courtesy who overflowed with “rivers of living water.” So, we were not shocked when it didn’t happen. We would have been surprised if it did!


 Are we more often surprised by change or are we more surprised by lack of change within an individual or community?

“I could not quiet
the pearly ache in my heart that
I diagnosed as the cry of home.”

Pat Conroy

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