Much of the news for the past two days has been dominated by one story - the results of the local elections and especially the very strong showing by the UK Independence Party - UKIP.
I’m going to guess that many of you are feeling unsettled in response to this news.
What does this mean to you???
Commentators across the political spectrum have been scrambling to explain this shift in interviews and in every newspaper in the country. Each group has a different spin on the story - and not surprisingly, each story manages to put their own group in the best possible light. No big surprise there.
Is it about Euroscepticism? About disenchantment with the status-quo whatever that may be? Unhappiness with politics as usual? Is it xenophobia? Racism? A response to a weak economy or to the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in this country? Is it about a leader who smiles a lot and seems to identify more with the “common man” more than with the elite that seem to dominate the major parties?
Have I missed anything????
As the politicians and journalists focus on all of these explanations and all of the questions about what this shift might mean for and about our country and its future, I suggest that we are missing something important.
That something is the deep, fundamental, human response to change.
We know all the platitudes… “change is the only constant”. “when one door closes, another opens”. It all sounds good and reasonable as if we should just - oh - get over it and embrace change. But we’re much more complicated than that.
So, our society… There is dramatic change taking place in Britain. That’s not to say that it’s never happened before - of course it has. But it is major, noticeable and dramatic today.
What are some of the big changes going on in our society????
Big change happens all the time now. Some say it’s bigger and faster than it’s ever been in the past. Others argue that changes brought about by the printing press, industrialization, the telephone, plagues, wars, antibiotics, the advent of democracy and many others dwarf the changes we’re seeing now.
Perhaps we always see the change affect us as the most important and most disruptive change anyone has ever experienced.
Change is not only in society around us.
Change in a place like this is difficult too - maybe even more difficult. Many communities struggle so much with change that they prevent it from happening altogether. That’s not surprising at all. We don’t welcome change and sometimes - in a changing world - there’s nothing we’d like better to than to have just one place where change doesn’t happen - or at least, happens as little as possible… and, for many people, that is the mosque, synagogue, club, church, or temple they are part of.
Where it does happen - as it has at New Unity - it can be disorienting. It can mean that some people no longer feel like their community is theirs anymore.
As we have grown more than 10 fold in the past dozen years - as Sunday attendance has zoomed from 6 on a good day to 70 on average, everything feels different. Only one person is still here from before that period of growth, which is testimony to her flexibility - or maybe her stubbornness…
And very few of us can ever really feel for very long that change is NOT a constant in their individual lives. Sometimes, we guide that change. Most often, change comes uninvited.
It has become increasingly clear to me that human beings age, and that age causes changes. My hairline is never coming back down to where it once was. My eyes will never again be good at reading without glasses.
Change comes to our individual lives in so many ways.
Sometimes we welcome that change. We win the lottery or find love or come across a ten pound note in the street.
We call this change good.
Most often, though, change is an unwelcome surprise that - were our lives novels - would constitute completely unexpected and unintended plot twists that we must somehow accommodate. We try to push this change away. We deny it, negotiate with it, get angry, get depressed, and then we somehow deal with it.
We call this change bad.
There is an old Taoist story
Long ago, an old farmer had only one horse - a beautiful horse that was his prized possession. One day the horse ran away. The farmer’s neighbors came to console her over her terrible loss. The farmer said, "What makes you think it is so terrible?"
A month later, the horse came home--this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the farmer's good fortune. They gazed at the three horses admiringly. “Such lovely strong horses!” The farmer said, "What makes you think this is good fortune?"
The farmer’s only son took to the wild horses immediately and set about training them. One day, as he was riding one of the wild horses, was thrown to the ground and his leg was badly broken. All the neighbors were very distressed and came to the farmer in consolation. “Such bad luck!” they said. The farmer said, "What makes you think it is bad?"
And then, war came to the land, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer's son, because of his broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. "What makes you think this is good?" said the farmer.
Like the farmer in the Taoist story, we seldom know - at the moment it arrives - whether some change in our lives would ultimately bring more good or bad to our lives.
Encountering change can be like being served a surprise meal. You might be delighted to have plates of candy floss, ice cream, and rich cake arrive on the table and call it good.
If plates full of spinach and tofu appeared, you might call it bad.
After a few days of consistently “good” meals, getting up in the morning and putting on your trousers and finding they have become much harder to fasten, you might well start to think differently about the distinction between good and bad.
As I think back, some of the most painful, most unwelcome episodes in my life ultimately led me to be a stronger, better, person - a person who is more content and satisfied and grateful with his life.
Often, it is the disappointment and sorrow that, in the end, brings about the greatest good. A colleague, upon hearing very disappointing news exclaimed “AFOG.” It stands for Another F***ing Opportunity for Growth. We don’t welcome the bad news, but we can recognise that it may, in the long run, make us stronger.
When change arrives, though, how do we know whether it is good or bad? What determines whether something will ultimately be good or bad? The farmer didn’t know, although his neighbours certainly thought that THEY did. I certainly didn’t imagine at hard times that - in the end - I would count those times as among my most formative.
Some change is almost undeniably bad. If you try, you can think of terrible things.
But most change, when it arrives, is a plot twist in a story that can proceed in many directions.
And whilst we are not in complete control of everything in that story, we ARE the authors. It is we who can determine whether the injury we sustain or the job we have lost will - when the story is finished - be a turning point that leads the story toward growth or decline, toward satisfaction or misery, toward a happy ending or a tragic one, toward triumph or defeat.
It is we who can look at a loss as an end or a beginning, something that destroys us, or something that makes us stronger.
I am not one to encounter hardship and say “oh good.” No. I’m more likely to say just the F part of AFOG and forget about the growth opportunity part. But I DO have a choice, and when the pain lessens, it is up to me to determine whether I will begin to write that plot twist into a story that ends well.
It is up to me and it is up to you. It is up to each of us in our own lives to write the difficult times into our growth stories.
And, because we are here, we know that there is something more we must do. We must be there for each other to help craft the chapters to follow the loss or the pain. We must be there to accompany one another in writing the most meaningful, growth-filled, satisfying, purposeful stories we can. We are here to help one another make the random events of life into wonderful stories of joy.
After the service today, I would like you to continue this exploration. Connect with one other person - find a quiet place where you can hear each other easily - and ask each other this question: “How has unwelcome change made you a better person?” And then, just listen. This should take less than five minutes and - especially if you talk with someone you don’t know - you are likely to find that a depth of connection that you never could have expected. I hope you’ll give it a go.
Life is never what we expect. Change comes uninvited - large and small - welcome and unwelcome - every day of our lives.
How will you write the surprising unwelcome twists in your into opportunities for growth?
How will you help others do the same?
This is the work we do to make the most of life.