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Friday, January 16, 2015

Unchanging

As for me, I call to God,
    and the Lord saves me.
17 Evening, morning and noon
    I cry out in distress,
    and he hears my voice.
18 He rescues me unharmed
    from the battle waged against me,
    even though many oppose me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old,
    who does not change—
he will hear them and humble them,
    because they have no fear of God.
-Genesis 8:22 (NIV)


I have a project going on. I’ve been digitizing some old analog videotapes — probably 50 or so of them, covering the time from my son’s birth until he was 6 or 7 years old. The tapes were fine, except for one small problem — it’s harder and harder to find something to play them on. (I had to borrow a friend’s camera to convert them to digital files, in fact.) When I’m done, by the end of this week or early next week, a shoe box full of analog images stored in magnetic tape and plastic will be converted into 1’s and 0’s stored on a hard drive.  
    It occurs to me that changes in technology are one of the ways we measure the passage of time. Even if you’re not an early adopter, nothing stands still, technologically speaking. VHS gives way to DVD gives way to digital streaming. Phones go from party lines to single lines for an address to multiple lines to cellular. Maybe you remember how old you were when you first watched TV, or got cable for the first time, or first used a computer, or got your first cell phone. All of those things, now, are pretty much commodities — everyone has them, or could if they wanted to. But there was a time when they were all the bleeding edge, times when seeing them or adopting them for the first time made an impression. And think of the technologies left behind; when did you last use a pay phone, or listen to a radio with tubes in it, or turn a hand crank to mix the ingredients for a cake, or pop one of those little plastic adapters into the middle of a 45 record?
    Driving across town this week, I started thinking about billboards. I played a little game with myself: if in 1985 I could have transported myself 30 years into the future, how many of the billboards I was looking at would I understand? I would have seen one advertising a phone company’s data plan. One for a TV streaming service. One for something called Google Play, for crying out loud. I think in about a half an hour I noted something like 8 billboards that 17-year-old me wouldn’t have understood in the least.
    Things change. Time passes. Human beings aren’t born into a world that’s static and unchanging. That’s always been true, even in previous eras when technology didn't change as quickly as it does today. Sometimes we find change disorienting, upsetting. It can even be catastrophic. And then we find some changes exhilarating, liberating, life-giving. Different people can look at the same changes, even, and see them very differently. It’s all in the perspective, I guess: where you find your security, how adequate you feel the status quo is, how much you’re invested in either the way things are or the way you hope they might be.
    That must be why God reveals himself as unchanging. Over and over, the Bible speaks of him as constant, faithful, and dependable. “I, the LORD, do not change,” he said to faithless Israel through the prophet Malachi, “so you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” His promises to them didn’t change because of their sin, and so he invited them to return to him, promising that he would return to them as well. James promised believers that God’s unchanging nature meant that they could trust him to give “every good and perfect gift.” He is well-intentioned toward human beings, and as part of who he is that will never change.
         God intends to be, as T.S. Elliott once said, our “still point in the turning world.” His word to his people through Jeremiah was that they should “ask for the ancient paths,” and promised that if they would walk in them they would find “rest for [their] souls.” Though we, like them, often consider the old ways outdated, if they’re God’s ways they never really are. Oh, sometimes what we think are the ancient paths are really our own relatively new trails, and no more reliable than anyone else’s. But the true ancient paths, laid out by God, are worth spending our lives exploring. We will find rest on them, because they lead us in the way God has always intended that we go.
    Jesus promised that, though the world we live in would pass away, his words never would. He meant that we can trust his promises, find courage and hope in the things he said about God and about himself, that will even keep us secure when the world we live in falls apart around us. “The world and its desires pass away,” wrote John to his churches, “but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” In Jesus, God has shown himself to us as the one in whom we can put our hope, even beyond our own deaths.
    Because of course we know that a lot more will change in our lives than the technology we use. We’ll lose people we love. Our financial status will change. Jobs will come and go. Children will grow up and leave the house. The place we’ll call home will change, and even our friends and family will drift in and out of our lives.  And one day, of course, we’ll have to face our own mortality, and learn that even the fact of our own existence isn’t enough to sustain us.
    So what do we do in a world filled with change, all the time? We trust the One Who doesn’t change. James says that we’re “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think I’m a little more permanent than that. And that’s just the problem; I tend to overestimate my own permanence. But our hope isn't in a world that doesn’t change, or a life in this world that stretches on and on. Our hope is in the power and promises of the God who doesn’t change. So he tells us to trust in his promises, walk in his paths, look for his gifts, and put our faith in his Son. That’s how you navigate a world in which yesterday’s miracles are obsolete today. That’s how you travel through a world full of shifting landscapes and unfamiliar signposts.

    And when your journey is over, when all the changes are through, then your trust in him will be rewarded in life with him, stretching on into eternity, unbroken, joyful, and peaceful forever.

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