Times They Are A-Changin'
Hanging On To A Tradition Can Cause A Church To Be Lost In Biblical Translation
Bob Dylan,[i] born Robert Allen Zimmerman, is an American singer-songwriter who has been a major figure in music for five decades. While growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan and his parents were part of the area’s small, but close-knit Jewish community.
The Times They are a-Changin’ is one of Dylan’s most famous song. Many people felt that it captured the spirit of social and political upheaval that characterized the 1960s. Dylan issues a challenge to gather together to consider the changing times, specifically addressing the press, politicians, and parents—the present establishment that holds the reins of power. At the time, Dylan was perceived as his generation’s prophet-singer, lending his voice to the civil rights movement seeking change across the American landscape. His song comes across as a timeless anthem for the sweeping dramatic change that keeps coming upon the country:
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.[ii]
The climactic lines of the final verse: “The order is rapidly fadin’/ And the first one now/ Will later be last/ For the times they are a-changin’” have a biblical ring to it, as it echoes the familiar lines in the Gospel of Mark, “But many that are first shall be last, and the last first.”[iii]
What the song is saying is that history is in the making. It’s calling people to get ready and be prepared for change. A change is coming whether you are ready for it or not. It’s like saying, “Tomorrow will be here whether you are ready for it to come or not.” When we die, time moves on, the world keeps turning. The social order, as we know it, is changing. Everything is changing. That’s how it has always been and always will be. It’s a wake-up and protest song against the ‘powers that be’ that change is coming and the downtrodden will be lifted up.
Some 2000 years ago, another young Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, spoke of a cryptic prophecy against the old religious order of his time—a wake-up call to the powers that be that the times are changing:
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
When I was a little boy, I loved to collect all kinds of glass bottles. As soon as a bottle was emptied, I’d dip it in water to loosen the label, then carefully scrape it away. There was nothing like having crystal clear colorful bottles to collect in all shapes and sizes. One day, curiosity got the best of me. What would happen if I filled some of my prized bottles with water and store it in my mother’s freezer? So I set my secret experiment in motion. Needless to say, the results were explosive. Mom opens the freezer compartment the next day and witnesses a war zone of sorts. Broken bottles littered this frozen landscape as glass shrapnel spilled over into the kitchen floor.
Only then did I learn that no puts water into glass bottles and stores it in freezers. The water will freeze, expand, and burst the glass bottles. The water will be lost and so will the bottles.
In Jesus’ day, animal skins, rather than glass bottles, were used to store and transport liquids. The skins of goats were sewed up with the hair outside and used as a container to carry water[iv] or for storing wine.[v] [vi] As the new wine is stored, it will begin to ferment from within, and will surely expand and stretch the wineskin.[vii] A new wineskin would have enough elasticity to expand with the fermenting pressure of the new wine.[viii] If new wine was poured into old wineskins, the brittle, inflexible condition of the worn container will cause it to burst and loose its content. The parable clearly illustrates that “Christianity cannot be contained in Judaism, nor can grace be confined in the bonds of the law.”[ix] The symbolism behind the old garment and the new wine simply states that old dependable ways are now obsolete and the new and living way is here to stay. The apostle Paul said, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything thing has become new!”[x]
After delivering my pastoral meditation entitled “Awaiting A God-Given Sail,” the entire church set sail into the New Year in a 24-hour Candlelight Prayer Vigil. This vigil has been a tradition in this church since the 1970s. Individuals and families select the hour in which they would want to pray. It’s interesting how the majority of members chose the 9pm slot, the first scheduled prayer hour, right after the service. In so doing, the 10pm prayer group saw a handful of people, and by 11pm it was just Malú and I along with one of the oldest seniors in our church. But even still, it was a very meaningful hour as we ushered in the New Year in deep meditative prayer.
This prayer vigil also allowed us to rethink church traditions that are handed over from one generation to the next. 2010 saw the passing of many seniors in our church. Just recently, we received news of the passing of another member from our midst. I have, in fact, conducted seven funeral and/or memorial services for these loved ones. These pillars of the faith have gone home to be with the Lord. Other seniors are not well enough to visit the church. As they are confined to their homes, the homes of their children, and care homes, it’s the pastor and/or members that pay them an occasional visit.
There in lies the dilemma. There are church traditions that have been passed on that have been lost in transition. I know that there are a few members that genuinely look forward to this year-end vigil—you can actually count them. Yet there are many that continue to practice it out of obligation. It’s interesting to note that a large number of our young adults and youth were not present. There were also other families indicating that they would be holding their own hour-long prayer vigil in their homes. I couldn’t help but hear concerned comments like, “Where are the rest of the people?” “We used to be much more than this.” “Many members used to stay up for the entire 24-hours.” Somehow the vigilance of this tradition is vanishing before their eyes.
Practices and priorities do change in time and that’s fine. In the end, it is understandable that people in general will make time or even honor that which is important. New family practices, fresh commitments, or even prior engagements happen in the process.
Only two seniors remained vigilant by staying on from the evening, to early morning, and into the first day of the year. While the one able senior managed to stay awake and keep watch over the event, the other was not able to finish out the vigil. She was weary and didn’t get much sleep. Her spirit was willing, but her flesh was weak. By 3pm, her family came by to take her home due to their heartfelt concern over her health. I’m guessing that when it comes to the practice of this church tradition, the sole senior that faithfully held out until the very end may be the last of the Mohicans. Based on the zeal and turn out of past prayer vigils, change has certainly paid us a visit at the year’s end.
2011 will be a time of transition our Filipino-American Church in San Bruno—a time wherein we will be revisiting age old traditions in order to discern its relevance in light of the biblical principles for a new generation of Filipino-Americans. How will we “do church” in the coming year? How will we celebrate important days? How will we conduct our worship service or prayer meetings? How will we prioritize our time in proclaiming the gospel? Specific seasons in the life of the church cause us to ask the right questions as to where the Lord wants us to be and how does He intend to get us there.
We are the household of God in this corner of the Bay Area. Good housekeeping has it that we ought to take a year-end inventory of the life of our church—its traditional practices, ceremonies and such—what is dated, what can be improved, and what is still relevant in our times. We can learn from the earthly establishments that have come and gone in recent days. In fact, 100,000 companies closed in 2010. Just this past year we bid goodbye to the likes of Blockbuster, Hummer, Loehmann’s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Mercury, Newsweek, and Pontiac, to name a few.
The movie-rental chain, Blockbuster ‘went bust’ when it failed to notice the future happening all around it. While Blockbuster was doubling down on retail stores and charging its customers with loathsome late fees, Netflix and Redbox wooed millions of movie fans by mailing them DVDs and offering overnight movies for a buck. Even though the company declared bankruptcy in the hope that it would reemerge, she is sorely way behind the competition.
These companies were put to pasture for failing to react realistically to the Great Recession. They took on too much debt, expanded beyond what they were capable of containing, and burst into obsolescence. These companies disappeared simply due to the fact that their relevance faded. They failed to contain the new wine, the market strategy, dispensed in a new world order. Newer, more aggressive companies displaced older, outdated ones in a constantly changing capitalist economy.
Churches across America have not been spared of such a sobering scenario. For we know that “God makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[xi] This economic downturn has drained the financial resources of many congregations, seminaries and religious day schools. In areas hardest hit by the recession, members have moved away to find jobs, leaving those who remain to minister to communities struggling with rising home foreclosures, unemployment and uncertainty. Long after the economy improves, the changes that we make today will have a profound effect on our world. How will we reflect the love of God upon a hurting world as we practice our faith? Where will we turn for help in times of trouble? How will we pass our beliefs on to our children?
By the grace of God, our church survives the religious downturn. What’s interesting is that while the Lord continues to build His church in San Bruno, there will still be resistance to change. Those that are staunch believers of certain practices are becoming stragglers of a lost church tradition. Sometimes it’s best to stand back and allow the Lord room to initiate the changes that our church is currently undergoing. There isn’t much that we can do or say to change the hearts and minds of people who are convinced that “this is how we do things” and “these things are never going to change.” Yet in God’s time, changes are happening in our midst. Change is painful as it is inevitable. It only hurts all the more when God chooses to pry these traditional practices from our unyielding grasp.
The old wineskins are bursting with the new wine that is being poured into our church. God is always in the business of moving us away from our comfort zones. Moving from one place to the next causes us to lighten our load by ridding ourselves of the stuff that will burden us, and others, along the way. If Jesus didn’t set his face like flint toward Jerusalem, there would be no cross and no crown—no pain, no gain. Change for the whole world came about through his sacrificial death. Comfort zones are settled places where we find people that have lost their dependence upon God to keep moving forward in their faith. To settle would spell the death of us—the loss of God’s vision. Let us not live in immovable sanctuaries, but in mobile tents of meeting. Let us not be pillars of ingrown faith, failing to believe in the God of the impossible. Let us not hang on to a tradition that can cause a church to be lost in biblical translation.
It is my prayer that I am not misunderstood. I am not on a 21st century crusade to rid our church of its time-honored traditions and practices. As the new pastor on the church block, I am simply stating my honest observations.
There’s the story about a Chinese holy man. He was very poor and living in a remote part of China. Somehow, he came to love God and made a vow to worship him all the days of his life. As poor as he was, he understood that worship involves some sacrifice on our part. Although he was in short supply of food, he put a bowl of rice and fish up on the windowsill as an offering to God. As he would do this everyday before prayer time, he noticed his cat would come along and eat the steamed rice and fish. To remedy this, he tied the cat to the bedpost each day before prayer time. The problem was solved permanently.
This holy man, who was held in high honor for his faithfulness, gained a following of disciples who worshiped God as he did. Generations later, long after the holy man was dead, his followers would likewise offer up to God a bowl of rice and fish on the windowsill before their prayer time. Furthermore, each disciple brought a cat and tied it to the bedpost. After all, it was part of the honored ritual and it was a practice worth preserving.
In time they would get into endless discussions and debates whether the rice should be steamed or served raw. Were they to use long grain rice, brown rice, or Uncle Ben’s instant rice? Or could you even use ready-made rice cakes instead of going through the tedious process of cooking the rice? What type of fish was proper for this practice? Should it be fried, broiled or baked? Was the cat supposed to be color black, white or possibly a mixture of both? Could a dog be used in place of a cat? And what on earth should we use to tie the animal down? Was a leather leash with a gold-studded chocker acceptable to God or should we use a hand-woven rope of virgin hemp to do the job? That is how tradition is created!
There are many churches today that continue to scorn or resist the new things that threaten the old way of doing things. They have not tasted the new wine and are determined never to try it. They are saying, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”[xii]
The Psalmist offers you this opportunity saying, “Taste and see that the LORD is good.”[xiii] Peter and John laid their hands on those in Samaria who had accepted the word of God and they received the Holy Spirit.[xiv] While Peter spoke to Cornelius and his entire household, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.[xv] Taste and see that the LORD is good! When Jesus attended a wedding in Cana the wine gave out.[xvi] He had them fill six thirty-gallon stone jars with water and turned it into wine—new wine. The chief steward tasted the wine and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.”[xvii] The old wine, the so-called good wine, had become inferior to the newly created wine. Jesus has kept the new wine until now! And he is pouring it out on all flesh. If you haven’t yet tasted the new wine, Jesus is inviting you to try it. Taste and see that the LORD is good!
In the film The Patriot,[xviii] the American colonists capture Yorktown in the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. In the aftermath, the defeated British General, Lord Cornwallis, said, “Everything will change. Everything has changed.”[xix] As our church turns a new leaf this year, I pray that we resolve to meet out any and every God-given change that comes from above to further His kingdom in our corner of the world. Let us remember that we are a church that in exodus. For as long as the coming kingdom is here, but not yet, we live between changing times. There are traditions and practices that may tempt to root us where we stand and keep us in the wilderness. The eventual growth of weeds will erase the path where we should go and hamper our view in following the pillar of cloud. As the Great Wine-Giver pours new wine into a fresh new generation, what shape will our church take? Let us pull together as ‘one body in Christ’[xx] rather than tear each other apart at the seams. Let us willingly yield to the leading of the Holy Spirit as He continues to reach out the next generation of Filipino-Americans pouring His new wine into fresh wineskins. Amen.
[i] Wikipedia. Bob Dylan.
[ii] Times They Are A-Changin’, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.
[iii] Mark 10:31.
[iv] Genesis 21:14-19.
[v] Joshua 9:4, 13.
[vi] J. D. Douglas, Rev. Ed. and Merrill C. Tenney, 171.
[x] 2 Corinthians 5:17.
[xi] Matthew 5:45.
[xii] Luke 5:39.
[xiii] Psalm 34:8.
[xiv] Acts 8:14-17.
[xv] Acts 10:44.
[xvi] John 2:1-12.
[xvii] John 2:10.
[xviii] The Patriot (Columbia Pictures Corporation, 2000) screenplay by Robert Rodat and directed by Roland Emmerich.
[xx] Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12.
© 2011, Gicky Soriano. All Rights Reserved.