Friday, September 27, 2019

A Mindset for Withering Grass and Falling Flowers

“All people are like grass,
     and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
     because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
     Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
-Isaiah 40:6-8 (NIV)

The Mindset List is the creation of Beloit College Professor Tom McBride and former Beloit administrator Ron Nief. It was originally created to keep faculty members aware of how quickly “contemporary” references in lectures can become dated. Now associated with Marist College, each year a new list for the entering freshman class is created. The lists have become a yardstick for the passage of time and the changing world we live in. Mostly, it'll just make you feel old. To wit, some excerpts from the Mindset List for the class of 2023….
     Most students entering college for the first time this fall were born in 2001. Most of the class have never shared the earth with Joey Ramone, George Harrison, or Timothy McVeigh.
     For students in the class of 2023, 9/11 is as much a historical event as the Kennedy assassination was for their parents, or Pearl Harbor for their grandparents. Nearly half of their generation is composed of people of color. They have witnessed two African-American Secretaries of State, the election of a black President, Disney’s first black Princess, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
     Entering freshmen have always used a flash drive, rarely a CD, and never a floppy disk. They've always had the option to use PayPal for online purchases. As far as they know, news headlines have always been crawling across the bottom of TV screens. For them, there have always been smartwatches, and taking photos has always been a primary use for a phone. Facial recognition technology has always been used at public events. Bad hearts have always been replaced by self-contained, battery-powered artificial ones.
     The year they were born, the number one draft pick in the NBA came straight from high school for the first time. As far as they’re concerned, Pittsburgh’s Steelers and Pirates have never played at Three Rivers Stadium. Troy Aikman, as far as they know, has always been a football analyst. Cal Ripken, Jr. never played a baseball game in their lifetimes. Sporting events have always included honor guards, flyovers, and God Bless America.
     Students entering college this year have always known what “If you see something, say something” means. Passengers have always had to take off their shoes to get through airport security. Oklahoma City has always had a national memorial. They have grown up with the Patriot Act.
     For them, Monica and Chandler have always been married on Friends. Alex Trebek has never had a mustache. When they pulled themselves up off the floor for the first time, they may have been hanging onto their parents’ brand-new Xbox. Heinous, sexually-based offenses have always been investigated by the Special Victims Unit on Law and Order.
     You get the point. A decade or two can make a world of difference in your frame of reference. When I was a college freshman, no one imagined Berlin without a wall. It's been a while, but not that long. The fact is that the world changes around us. We're young, and then one day we're not so young anymore. One day we're welcoming a child into the world, and it seems only the next that we're sitting across a table with someone who's getting frighteningly close to adulthood. One day we're talking with friends about who we're dating or what career path we're on, and the next the topics of conversation have changed to mortgage rates and our parents' declining health.
     It seems that we instinctively freak out about change and the passage of time. (“Freak out” - I don't think anyone says that anymore, do they?) We don't like it when things change around us. Hang around an office one day when they upgrade the computers and you'll see it. Or a church when they change – well, pretty much anything. As a rule, change makes us uncomfortable. We develop certain little shortcuts in life, certain little routines that revolve around things staying generally the same. It can be downright unsettling when things change and those little shortcuts don't work anymore.
     And, of course, the most unsettling changes of all are the changes that we see in the mirror. A few more lines in the face. A few more gray hairs. A little more width around the middle. The inability to hold what you're reading far enough away from your face to get it into focus. All evidence of the one change in the world that affects all of us most deeply: that one day we won't be here anymore.
     Our world screams hysterically that we have to resist the passage of time. It sells us creams and dyes and exercise equipment and clothing and surgeries that will make us look – more or less - like the passage of time isn't affecting us. But that's an illusion, of course, as evidenced by the fact that it gets harder and harder to pull off as the years go by. However loudly our culture screams that we must look untouched by age, you can still hear the rush of the river of time. 
     “People are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field,” the prophet reminds us. It's a good thing he does; otherwise, we might forget what really matters. We're not built to resist the passage of time, any more than the grass and flowers in a meadow are. We navigate a changing world in dying bodies, and all the hair coloring and pilates in the world won't change that. Oh, in some cases we can improve a little on Job's “three score and ten,” but not by much. “The grass withers and the flowers fall,” the prophet says. “Surely the people are grass.”
     Our world calls that depressing, but it isn't. Depressing is people going about their lives like they're going to be anything but a hazy memory a mere century from now. Depressing is not being able to read the writing on the wall. Depressing is living for wealth and influence and control. Depressing is forgetting that we are mortal. And forgetting what does last.
     “The word of our God stands forever.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, what God says is true. What he speaks, exists. Isaiah's point in reminding us of our mortality is to remind us of God's glory. “The glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it,” he says. “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:5) 
      And this God never forgets his people. That's our hope – not in holding on to our youth, because “even youths grow tired and weary.” (Isaiah 40:30) “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.” So while our world changes around us, we trust in the God who never does. When our strength fails, we trust in the God who renews our strength. And when our bodies fade and die like a flower dropping its petals, we trust even then in the God who lives. And who gives life.

      So bring on your Mindset List, Marist College. You don't scare me. 

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