Evolution and Revolution: How Things Change

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Chalice Lighting

We leave our homes this morning
We travel to this place
We sit still
We let go of speed and striving
We find a calmness in this meditative space
And even as we sit, we are changing
Slowly, we are transforming from who we were to who we will be
Change is not always dramatic, but it is ever present
Let us learn to see the change that proceeds so discreetly
Let us work with the processes that slowly create our future selves
May the light of community and love guide our journey

Reading: Report on the Fourteenth Subcommittee on Convening a Discussion Group, by Marge Piercy

This is how things begin to tilt into change,
how coalitions are knit from strands of hair,
of barbed wire, twine, knitting wool and gut,
how people ease into action arguing each inch,
but the tedium of it is watching granite erode.

Let us meet to debate meeting, the day, the time,
the length. Let us discuss whether we will sit
or stand or hang from the ceiling or take it lying
down. Let us argue about the chair and the table and
the chairperson and the motion to table the chair.

In the room fog gathers under the ceiling and thickens
in every brain. Let us form committees spawning
subcommittees all laying little moldy eggs of reports.
Under the grey fluorescent sun they will crack
to hatch scuttling lizards of more committees.

The Pliocene gathers momentum and fades.
The earth tilts on its axis. More and more snows
fall each winter and less melt each spring.
A new ice age is pressing the glaciers forward
over the floor. We watch the wall of ice advance.

We are evolving into molluscs, barnacles
clinging to wood and plastic, metal and smoke
while the stale and flotsam-laden tide of rhetoric
inches up the shingles and dawdles back.

This is true virtue: to sit here and stay awake,
to listen, to argue, to wade on through the muck
wrestling to some momentary small agreement
like a pinhead pearl prized from a dragon-oyster.

I believe in this democracy as I believe
there is blood in my veins, but oh, oh, in me
lurks a tyrant with a double-bladed ax who longs
to swing it wide and shining, who longs to stand
and shriek, You Shall Do as I Say, pig-bastards.
No more committees but only picnics and orgies
and dances. I have spoken. So be it forevermore.

Message Part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula

Unless you’re very new or haven’t been paying attention, you know this building is due to undergo a massive renovation throughout the whole of 2019. The building needs the love and we’ve been fortunate to get funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. We’ll be back and better than ever in early 2020. In the meantime, we’ll be meeting two minutes away in the wonderful Newington Green Primary school with its excellent space. You’re going to love it.

The upcoming renovation and the move to the primary school means that we have a bunch of work to do in cleaning this place up. We’ll need to get rid of everything we don’t want to keep and everything else is going to go into storage. This feels very much like all of my experiences of organising and cleaning spaces I live in or work on. When I find myself in an organised, tidy environment, I resolve firmly to keep it that way. I intend to do a little bit every day to prevent clutter from finding a refuge in my home. I will organise. I will not bring anything new into my home unless I get rid of something else. (With Miriam’s permission, of course.) And then, surely enough, I wake up one day to notice that the clutter has accumulated while I wasn’t watching (magically on its own - not like I had anything to do with it).

I don’t panic. What I will do is tackle the clutter a little bit at a time, making new sensible places for things, using labels, going through the house regularly with a large black bin bag. Pretty soon though, I recognise that I can’t move things from the office until I put the living room clutter away, and I can’t do that until I move the tools into the storage space, and I can’t do that until I do a big clearout of the storage room and - well - that’s a huge job and so it doesn’t happen.

Ultimately, it is sure to happen if I move out or if there is a flood or some other drastic happening that completely upends the obstacles and breaks through the interlocking steps of organising that have stymied me. And then I’ll be in a new nice, clean, organised place and I’ll resolve to keep it that way, to organise, and not bring anything new…  Well, you know.

In other words, I can make some progress in maintaining and even a bit of progress in changing through small, evolutionary steps that do not overly disrupt the status quo, but I find that the big improvement only happens when there is turmoil - when there is a revolutionary change.

You probably identify with my home organising challenges and - if not - please talk to me and teach me how to organise a home! Either way though, I hope you will see that the tension between evolutionary and revolutionary approaches is much more general than home life. It plays out regularly on a world stage.

Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators abandoned hope of an evolutionary change to get a Catholic monarch back on the English throne. The American colonies, for example, worked at evolutionary change in their relationship with Britain - for a while. Eventually, there was enough impatience to take bolder steps that led to a violent, full-fledged revolution. Everything changed, but at a great cost.

Evolutionary change is slow, messy, and often very frustrating. Marge Piercy’s brilliant poem about ‘the 14th subcommittee on forming a discussion group’ conveys that feeling. Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to just dictate the formation of that group? Who’s got time for this?

We are living at a time when people are turning more and more toward leaders who promise to ignore the complexity and make decisions on their own. People are voting for them. This is a time when many feel like the world is changing too fast. Changes in population. Changes in power. Changes in sexual and gender norms. All of these things frighten them. And they want conservative change - they want to go back to what they were comfortable with and they are frustrated by the slowness of checks and balances and giving everyone a say. When there’s enough anxiety about change and enough frustration - resolute, decisive, and even dictatorial decision-making becomes appealing to some. They seek a revolutionary change in how things work if not a full-fledged revolution. We should always remember that powerless, fearful, frustrated people are likely to undertake radical action.

Revolutionary change somehow seems wrong on the face of it. Perhaps it is all the loss of life we associate with the word. We may have a tendency to feel that evolutionary change is always right and revolutionary change is always wrong.

It is true that revolutionary change is more painful. The French revolution, which both Richard Price and Mary Wollstonecraft supported, became a bloodbath filled with unnecessary and arbitrary cruelty. Once revolutionary change undoes the connections that hold systems together, there is less restraint to keep things from spinning out of control. The Arab spring has had - in many cases - terrible outcomes. We can’t know yet if that movement will prove to be good in the long term, but it has been catastrophic for many in the short term.

Does that mean evolutionary change is always right? It didn’t work to appease Nazi Germany. It didn’t secure greater civil rights in the American south. It didn’t get women the vote on a reasonable timescale. It didn’t end slavery. In each of these case, sudden change was needed - change that hurt many financially, psychologically, and physically. But evolutionary change wasn’t enough.

What about income inequality? What about climate change? What about racism? What about generational poverty? What about classism? Will these yield to evolutionary approaches or will more drastic revolutionary change be necessary to bring about greater justice?

Revolutionary change does not have to come with blood, but it will always involve discomfort. Let’s work for a world where revolutionary political change is unnecessary and have the courage to embrace dramatic change when it is needed.

Reading: No Title Required, by Wislawa Szymborska
(trans. S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh)

It has come to this: I'm sitting under a tree
beside a river
on a sunny morning.
It's an insignificant event
and won't go down in history.
It's not battles and pacts,
where motives are scrutinized,
or noteworthy tyrannicides.

And yet I'm sitting by this river, that's a fact.
And since I'm here
I must have come from somewhere,
and before that
I must have turned up in many other places,
exactly like the conquerors of nations
before setting sail.

Even a passing moment has its fertile past,
its Friday before Saturday,
its May before June.
Its horizons are no less real
than those that a marshal's field glasses might scan.

This tree is a poplar that's been rooted here for years.
The river is the Raba; it didn't spring up yesterday.
The path leading through the bushes
wasn't beaten last week.
The wind had to blow the clouds here
before it could blow them away.

And though nothing much is going on nearby,
the world is no poorer in details for that.
It's just as grounded, just as definite
as when migrating races held it captive.

Conspiracies aren't the only things shrouded in silence.
Retinues of reasons don't trail coronations alone.
Anniversaries of revolutions may roll around,
but so do oval pebbles encircling the bay.

The tapestry of circumstance is intricate and dense.
Ants stitching in the grass.
The grass sewn into the ground.
The pattern of a wave being needled by a twig.

So it happens that I am and look.
Above me a white butterfly is fluttering through the air
on wings that are its alone,
and a shadow skims through my hands
that is none other than itself, no one else's but its own.

When I see such things, I'm no longer sure
that what's important
is more important than what's not.

Message Part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula

Stop for a moment and think where you hope to go and who you hope to be five years from now. Is it the same as today? If not, how will you navigate that transition?

In all of our lives, change can happen gradually and suddenly, smoothly or with big, uncomfortable shifts that create distress and pain. Maybe that relationship can be improved by slow, careful work. Maybe you need to change or even end it in a revolutionary step that upends everything. Maybe satisfaction and happiness can be found in that career through consistent, small steps. Maybe you need to drop it and go through the turmoil of revolutionary transition.

Maybe you’ll get fit by making small changes in what you eat and your physical activity. Maybe you’ll need make big changes like joining a gym, taking up a sport, adopting a dramatically different way of eating - revolutionary steps that force you to re-prioritise your time and accept some discomfort.

Maybe you can find ways to be comfortable and happy in London - yes - you definitely can. Don’t even THINK of moving away!

I notice that in my own life, I have sometimes changed a great deal in an evolutionary way. At other times, revolutionary steps made change happen swiftly.

When I was dissatisfied with my career in biotech and longed for change, I worked with a career coach who urged me to stay generally in that world but to make small changes - like becoming a career coach for people in tech. Hmm…  In the end, although I seriously considered evolutionary change, revolutionary change happened. It was - as revolutionary change tends to be - painful, disruptive, and uncomfortable. In the long term, it was very positive but evolutionary change would certainly have been easier.

Evolution has always been more comfortable and revolution more painful. Revolution has always been faster and, although risky, more certain to bring major change.

In the time of stillness now, I invite you to think about the ways in which you’d like your personal life to be different and for each, whether you think honestly that it can happen through evolutionary change or would require something revolutionary. This doesn’t mean you will seek revolution - don’t let that alter your thinking - it just means being honest with yourself about the potential and limitation of evolutionary change.

During the week to come, you might want to do this exercise in writing as well. What goals of yours can be met through evolution? Which would require revolution.


Closing Words

Everything changes
Even as we are not watching,
The world changes, the people around us change,
And we ourselves change.
We can guide some of our change
It takes courage and sometimes the willingness to suffer for the change we want to see
Have courage
Have commitment to the life you want
And the world you want to live in
May it be so