The Possibility of Change


When Anita and I were in seminary, we served a small and loving congregation in southern Indiana. One of our next-door neighbors, a generous man in his late fifties and a faithful member of the church, was crustily cynical about the possibility of change.  At some point in nearly every conversation, he’d circle around to his favorite question: “Do you think anybody ever really changes?” It wasn’t really a question at all; it a flat statement of his skepticism

The first few times he asked, I gave him some examples of people who had, as I saw it, undergone significant transformation. I also reminded him about Bible stories he knew as well as I did: vacillating Simon’s becoming bedrock Peter; church-persecuting Saul’s becoming gospel-preaching Paul; and Jesus’ encouraging Nicodemus to be “born again,” despite Nicodemus’ protest (based on wooden literalizing of Jesus words) that old men can’t crawl back into their mother’s wombs and be born a second time.

My neighbor would listen impatiently and then say something like: “Well, maybe there’s an exception or two, but most people stay who they are. A leopard can’t change its spots. Once a crook always a crook.”

Sometime during those seminary years, my grandfather, Fred, asked me: “Son, can you explain to me how a man can go to church nearly all his life, hear all those sermons, and sing all those songs, and still be as mean as a snake on the day he dies—as mean as he was when he first darkened the door of the church?” I couldn’t explain it.   

For a long time now, I’ve been asking versions of those questions—not so much “Can people change?—I’ve seen that it is possible—as “How can people change?” 

We’ve got to admit, I think, that even modest change can be difficult. Several years ago, centenarians Sadie and Bessie Delaney released their charming memoir, Having our Say. Reflecting on lessons she’d learned, Bessie commented: “I thought I could change the world. It took me a hundred years to figure out that I can’t change the world.  I can only change Bessie. And, honey, that ain’t easy either.”

It ain’t easy, because, even though change is possible, it isn’t a self-help project. We can’t change ourselves by ourselves. We need emotional-spiritual energy from beyond ourselves, a magnetic vision of the change we hope for, wisdom about the ways change happens, and support from others. Without those resources, the inertia of habit will keep us stuck, the entropy of discouragement will deplete us, and the gravity of the status quo will ground us.

One name for the emotional-spiritual energy we need is grace. Grace describes the gift of realizing, to paraphrase Paul Tillich, that we are accepted unconditionally despite our simultaneous and sometimes overwhelming awareness that we are unacceptable. Experiencing the full acceptance of the Divine, or sensing that the world welcomes us without reservation, or feeling that there is at least one person’s heart which is a shelter for us is necessary for us to be able to accept, welcome, and be at home with ourselves.

Grace also names the power of restoration and healing. I trust that God wills our wholeness which isn’t perfection or flawlessness or the absence of brokenness. Instead, wholeness is the flourishing that emerges along with our astonished gratitude for the forgiveness we receive, for the compassion we learn from living honestly with our flaws, and for the capacities for “all-is-wellness” which brokenness can create is us.

Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” One way to understand the purpose of life is to grow into that promised abundance of life. It is a gift of grace.

It’s also an invitation to answer and a challenge to undertake.  It’s work, but it’s work we do collaboratively and gratefully, in partnership with Love and people who love us.

In future posts, I’ll explore some of the other resources for change I’ve mentioned here.

Unlived Life: Reflections on "When Breath Becomes Air," 1

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A friend recently invited me to meet with a book group that was reading the late Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful memoir, When Breath Becomes Air.  It describes his heartbreaking but heart-mending sojourn through cancer into an all-too-early death at age 37.  While tragedy shadows his story, the narrative isn’t unrelentingly bleak. Kalanithi show us windows through which he looked out onto gratitude, wonder, and joy. His wife, Lucy, their baby daughter, Cady, and a quiet, questing faith provided many of those openings. 

What follows is the first of three posts, based on my own experience with serious illness, to a few of the book’s themes.

I resonate with Kalanithi’s question: “If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?” (31). As I navigate the sometimes stormy waters of my voyage toward a no-longer distant horizon, I’m unremittingly aware of regrets over unlived life. Simultaneously, I hear an incessant (thank God) call to live while still alive, rather than merely to exist and only to survive. 

For me, early in this uncharted passage, it was important to examine the reasons for unlived life, to ask myself hard questions:

Why had I allowed so many things of lesser importance to make greater claims on my time, energy, and attention?

Why had I been, unwittingly but certainly, a conspirator in my own diminishment?

How had I surrendered, before I knew I was doing it, primary authorship of my story to others?

What persuaded me to focus so myopically on duty that I was essentially blind to delight?

I’d been asking such questions for a long time, but diagnosis with Multiple Myeloma has made them unavoidable. I’m glad it has, for they’re essential. 

So, for me, examining the extent of my unlived life, along with my familiar rationalizations of it, was important.  However, after nearly four years at sea, I know that I’m capable of substituting the examination of unlived life for the actual living of it. 

It does little good to know why, if that knowledge doesn’t become practical wisdom— the wisdom of practice.  It is, I’m convinced, the wisdom of doing, in advance of feeling like doing, those things I imagine I would do if I was as fully alive as I yearn to be. It’s past time for me (paraphrasing William James), to act my way into new ways of feeling, rather than to wait on feelings to lead me into new ways of acting.

The only way to live is to live.