Pastor’s Perspective – April 2014
I grew up in Western New York. I was born in Buffalo and raised in rural Western New York in a town that could barely sustain a single gas station. Being a resident of New York State, one grows used to the assumptions that people make. If you tell someone that you are from New York, they immediately begin to tell you about a cousin they have that lives in the Bronx or assume that you are a big city Northerner. You parry their comment, explaining that you grew up in the Buffalo area, which then begins the obligatory conversation about the terrible winters. Western New Yorkers grow up with a chip on our shoulder that is measured in feet of snow and wind chill values; but as I am wont to share with people, you can acclimate to any kind of weather or any slight, perceived or real. After a while you just get used to it.
Believe it or not, we were allowed to leave. That, however, did not mean that we would. The first time that I had the opportunity to leave the winter weather behind was when I left to go to college. Of all the schools that I could attend, I chose Houghton College in South Western New York State. Houghton was located in what is affectionately referred to as the snow-belt. Believe it or not, I actually went to College in a location that boasted more snow (and had less commerce) than the barren wasteland that I grew up in. Why would I consider the weather in my decisions about college? My experience provided no other options concerning the weather. It was not a choice, it was an expectation. Living in that region provided for some strange occurrences. I vividly remember walking past rows of students sunning themselves in lawn chairs (on otherwise snow covered platforms) on 40 degree March afternoons. Acclimation is a beautiful thing.
Correctly understood acclimation (or adaption) helps us to learn how to survive conditions that other people would find unlivable. Acclimation allows people who live in Arizona to speak glowingly of a 120 degree day and the value of a dry heat. It allows people in Florida to survive a billion percent humidity, and Buffalo Bills fans to think back to the glory days of losing 4 straight Super Bowls. No matter where you live or in what conditions you live, eventually you can acclimate to your conditions.
The Bellavia family had a difficult time adapting to winter in Ohio this year. My sons had heard stories about the Western New York winters, but had never experienced it for themselves. When snow was on the ground in January and February they were excited, but once the snow continued to fly past March 1, their enthusiasm began to wane. I had grown up expecting winter to last until Easter. I assumed it as a part of life, they thought of it as a story from the past, like the golden age of radio or the days of 50 cent gasoline. One can hear the old shows, or even get a great deal on gasoline; it doesn’t mean that we have reset our expectations. Acclimation takes more than a season to truly set it, it can take years for old patterns to fall away, for old expectations to change, but eventually we adapt. Eventually we change. We get used to even the most radical of changes.
Adapting takes time. It also takes an enormous amount of effort and it can be painful (or at least uncomfortable). Today the Church (and American society) is in the middle of a major paradigm shift. Many of the cultural assumptions of the past are being transformed. Issues such as property rights, the role of parents in the raising of children, gun ownership, freedom of the press, and the definition of marriage are all in flux. While opinions “seem” to be changing, much of the cultural transformation is occurring with the advent of generational changes. In other words, the cultural changes are occurring in young people, not as a product of change, but due to their unique 21st Century experience. The changes are not taking place due to adaptation as much as through learning. If they are taught (by experience or through education) something different from their parents, then they will hold very different beliefs and expectations from previous generations.
Think about this on a personal level. How much do you think a car should cost? I am looking to buy a new small car for $10k. For some reason I can no longer find new cars at that price point. How about a gallon of milk? I grew up thinking that a reasonable price to pay was $1 (now I get giddy when I can find a gallon of milk for $2.50). Does anyone else remember when people used to bring pen knives to school? Your assumptions of what “should” be are often set in your formative years (the years where you began to notice or value things). Your sense of propriety, beauty, value, and worth are all set in the formative years of your life. Once they are set, then it is extraordinarily difficult to change these values. In other words, acclimation becomes more difficult the older you grow (studies show that resistance to change peaks in the late fifties; the good news is that people begin to show a greater sense of adaptation in their elder years).
Understanding how people learn, how they adapt, and how they grow is important to the work of the Church. Studies are clear that the most important work of the Church continues to be our work with children. These are the years in which we set the foundations of our faith and our values. Those in governmental circles have long known the value of early inculcation of values to the children. For better or worse, we are in a long range battle for the souls of our nation and our children.
Now here is where I will depart from the typical end game. I don’t want us to teach our children our American values. I do not want my children to live in a world that idealizes the values of my childhood. I do not believe the hype of my idyllic youth. As much as I tell my kids about how much I enjoyed cross country skiing, we all know that swimming is a lot more fun. It wasn’t any better in the past (whether the past was the eighties or the seventies or the forties). Each generation has faced their own crises and cultural sins. Each generation has rebelled against the generation that preceded them. The goal of the Church is not to enculturate our children to our way of life. It is not enough that we have them understand our music or to help them to bow to our values. We must go deeper.
Our responsibility is to make sure that they are exposed to the faith of our fathers. It is our goal to introduce our children to a relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To share with them a faith rooted in the past but moving toward a future that is far better than anything that any of us have experienced in our past. In other words, we are called to invite our children into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ that will demand that they place all of their assumptions to the test of scripture and Jesus’ law of love (Matthew 22: 36-40, Deuteronomy 6:5).
Furthermore we must find a way to shake loose from the assumption that are making the miraculous and astonishing look too familiar. Many within the Church have grown too comfortable with our salvation. Few take the time or put in the effort to “work out (our) salvation with fear and trembling.” We have grown accustomed (we have acclimated) to grace. We assume eternal life and resurrection, yet we bristle at the concept that we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds. When is the last time that you truly wanted God to cure you with fire and suffering?
The Church needs to redouble our efforts to create strong foundations within our young people. Then we need to allow them to challenge those foundations through the right interpretation of scripture and with the continued work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. This is the faith that can grow our Church and can inspire future generations. We are not going to move forward by looking backward. Neither will we move forward by following the wisdom of the world. Instead we must move forward with our foundations set in the word of God and in the full confidence that God continues to act in the Church to bring the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ to the world.
Join me in acclimating to God’s call.