Our scripture reading today is traditionally read during the season of Lent as part of the storytelling that happens around the death of Jesus. In that context, our ears automatically tune to recognizing Jesus as the grain of wheat who will soon be buried in the ground, dead to the world.
Read in the context of our series on change however, it begs the question what are we holding onto so tightly that we might actually be destroying the possibility of flourishing that can only come when we let go? What are we being invited or perhaps forced to let go of that will allow us to be more reckless in our love?
The last two weeks as we’ve been thinking about change in our personal lives, in the church and in our world, we’ve considered that as human beings, we are actually made for change. We’ve reflected on the way that lasting change comes when it happens from the inside out and how the Spirit enables us to make lasting change in our lives.
Along the way, we’ve been learning from a theory of change developed by Rev. Lillie Brock. So far, this theory has taught us that there are three things that motivate us to make changes in our lives 1) Crisis 2) Chance and 3) Choice. We’ve learned that of those three, crisis motivates us the most and choice motivates us the least.
Perhaps most importantly, we’ve learned that no matter what motivates us to change, we often resist it. In order to actually integrate a change in our lives, our brains require us to move through the same six stages.
Last week we considered stages one and two in this cycle which are about loss and doubt. We talked about the role our internal feelings have in propelling us forward or holding us back when we are undergoing a change. We can’t fully experience something new without feeling that something is missing and we cannot get to a place of certainty in the change process without first feeling at least some amount of uncertainty. Even if we move through these stages quickly, we still move through them.
This week the two stages in the change cycle we are going to ponder are stages 3 and 4 which are known as the discomfort and discovery stages. In between these two stages is a condition called the danger zone.
Discomfort is what happens where you try something new and although it might look and feel great when you first try it on, like a pair of shoes that looked and even felt great in the store, when you get them home and start wearing them suddenly they start to hurt your feet because you’re not used to them.
For me this is the moment a few weeks ago when I walked around in the newly re-organized kitchen here at the church, thought it looked awesome but then I went to make a cup of coffee and nothing was where it used to be. I felt confused, somewhat anxious and rather unproductive. It felt uncomfortable.
Confusion, anxiety and a lack of productivity are all associated with the discomfort stage of change. Lillie Brock says that the danger of this stage of the change process is that this is the point when we either breakdown or we breakthrough.
Do you remember when we were about six or eight months into the pandemic and we were all talking about how much we were learning and growing through this experience and how when this was all over we were going to make some significant changes to our lives? We were never going to allow ourselves to run at the pace we did before the pandemic started. We were going to change our ways and perhaps you have done just that. For many of us these commitments we told ourselves we were going to make have broken down because our old patterns of being are so strong and so comfortable we have fallen back into them like a pair of well-worn slippers.
If we think about this in terms of social movements the same thing often happens. So, for example, we experience something like the death of George Floyd, or the discovery of the 215 bodies at the former residential school in Kamloops and we gather together for collective organizational change. And then we start to bump up against the discomfort of the implications of that change and suddenly momentum begins to flag because people can’t figure out how we are going to actually make the changes that need to happen and some folks begin to drift away. There’s a breakdown in the strength of the movement.
If the breakdown is complete then we have to circle back and start all over again. The good news is that even if you have to do that, you are never really starting all over again because some things will have changed along the way. But if we want to break through rather than break down, what allows us to keep moving forward from discomfort to discovery?
A moment ago I mentioned that confusion, anxiety and a lack of productivity are all associated with the discomfort stage of change. In fact when we are in this stage it often feels like you can’t get anything done. It feels like we’ve stalled out. Lillie Brock says that in organizations undergoing change you can actually track the increases in sick time people take off during this stage. It is an extremely hard thing for we who live in a culture in which productivity and knowing the right answer is valued almost above all else to feel unproductive and confused.
But let’s go back to our scripture reading for a moment in which we are told “unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never more than a grain of wheat.” After you have planted a grain of wheat in the field, or a cucumber seed in your garden, do you go out night after night to dig up the seed to see just to see how it is doing? You do not. In order for the grain to sprout and reproduce itself many times over or for a seed to do the same thing there is a period of time when our job is keep our hands off it.
The same is true when we are going through changes of any kind. There comes a point when we have to let go. If we don’t we can literally destroy the possibility for new life to flourish. That’s because the brain literally needs time to upload new information it has been gathering through the loss and particularly the doubt stage of the change process. It’s like when your computer is uploading new software and you get the message on your screen that says don’t hit refresh until this process is finished.
It’s like the wisdom of a mother who says to a child “why don’t you sleep on it? I’m sure things will be better in the morning.”
Stages 1, 2 and 3 are the most challenging stages in the change process for North Americans. We expect people to move on from grief and loss practically before they have had a chance to acknowledge it. We have entire religious systems built on certainty with little room for mystery or doubt and we are raised from cradle to grave to be highly independent and seemingly in control. And then a pandemic or some other crisis comes along to remind us that we are not in as much control as we think we are and we have no choice but to change.
There comes a point in every experience of change when we have to let go and trust that what is needed will be given and what we don’t know will be revealed. Sometimes we just need to trust that change is a good an natural experience that we are go through all the time and that we have actually been created to for it. This is true in our personal lives and it’s true in our communal lives.
The translation of today’s scripture reading from Eugene Peterson’s version of the bible called The Message has some powerful words in it about letting go and staying the same. “Anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”
All social movements like Black Live Matters and the Truth and Reconciliation process and all change that happens in our personal lives come up against moments of discomfort that can cause us to either break down or breakthrough.
This is the moment when our spiritual practices serve us well. If we accept these moments of anxiety, confusion and lack of knowing what step to take next as part of the process, if we let go and trust that God is always on the side of goodness, always on the side of new life, then the promise is that the seeds that have been planted will sprout and flourish in ways we might not have even been able to imagine. But if we hold on too tight to what has been, the danger is we might just destroy the life that is waiting to come our way.
If we can loosen our grip and let go we will enter the discovery phase of change in which we have much greater capacity to problem solve, organize and fully participate in the change that is upon us and we will begin to grow and flourish.