The Courage to Change

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

When I was in my first few years as a minister, serving as an associate, I was asked to describe to the then-president of the congregation what I did each week. I remember telling her the amount of time it took for me to write a sermon during the weeks when it was my turn to give one. I also remember how she looked at me like I had two heads and said, “What’s so hard, what takes so long, don’t you all use a boilerplate?”

I had to go to a dictionary to see what a boilerplate was. It was then that I understood her intention; what I heard was: “What could take so long when most UU preachers say the same words, phrases, paragraphs every Sunday, the ones we hear over and over that must be easily liftable from somewhere all you preachers know about?”

I was shocked and felt vaguely insulted. Was that how it worked at her job? If there was such a thing, a boilerplate for UU preachers, no one had shared with me? Was she saying I sounded like everyone else, nothing original, nothing rooted in my own experience? 

Nearly a year later, she came to me one Sunday expressing gratitude about something I had said that Sunday morning. Still holding “feelings” about her previous comments, I was quick to add that those were my words, not borrowed. She asked why would I say that? I explained how what she had said a year before had made me fearful of her judgment. 

She looked at me for a moment, again like I had two heads, and then responded, “You know you have frozen me to a certain place and time. I am more than that.” 

Yes, I had. And yes, she was and is, as are we all.

My fear of judgment had kept me from allowing her to be a whole person, from allowing me to get to know her, allowing her to change, to be different one day to the next, one year to the next. I could have risen to the occasion and we both could have evolved into people who listened to and learned from each other, but my fear shut that door.

UUs, all of us, preach the value of change and transformation, of becoming. UUs, all of us, claim the power to evolve, to grow over time, to change our minds, change our behaviors, change our way of responding to the call of love, don’t we?

I hope we do. 

Yet it also seems that we all as humans have a tendency to “short cut” each other, to abbreviate the person or persons who intimidate us, or by whom we feel judged. When we let fear be in charge, rather than courageous love, we reduce each other to one-dimensional caricatures with only a few defining characteristics.

In other words, we often freeze other people to a certain time or place and don’t allow them to change. And in doing that, we don’t allow the space or the grace for the others to become whole, or for ourselves to do so. Fear keeps us from allowing them to evolve, to grow, to become. Fear freezes us, too.

A week ago (on April 22) there was a guest essay written by Rebecca Solnit in The New York Times, titled “Why Did We Stop Believing That People Can Change?”

She is commenting on our culture of the last decade or so, hardening into those who are right and those who are wrong.

Yet she points how much “we” have changed in the last decade as well.

She asks, “Are you who you used to be? Specifically, are you the person who made that mistake, held that view now regarded as reprehensible or ignorant, committed that harm years or decades ago? Most of us who came of age in the last century have changed our worldviews around race, gender, sexuality, and other key issues over the decades. The past decade in particular unfolded like an ad hoc seminar on these issues.”

We have had to change. Most of us have been in a space where we could and did change our minds, our habits, our harms. And yet, there are some parts of our society that won’t allow change. Solnit talks about an incarcerated person with whom she has been friends for years. Over the decades of their incarceration, the young person who was caught up in criminal acts has become a Buddhist who is very different from who he used to be. But the criminal justice system refuses to see that. They only see who he used to be, so he continues to serve time, with no possibility of parole.

She offers examples of other individuals whom the public has not allowed to change from who they once were. We have decided who they are based on who they were. It is as if they are frozen in time.

Solnit concludes her short article by saying:

“…we have to believe in the possibility of transformation—and to embrace the uncertainty it brings…. beyond the individual cases comes the need for something broader: a recognition that people change, and that most of us have and will, and that much of that is because in this transformative era, we are all being carried along on a river of change.”

That conclusion ought to be nothing new for us as Unitarian Universalists; we put our faith in transformative experiences that have caused and will cause us to evolve and change. 

Yet, like all humans, we are as prone to the effects of fear; to all that would limit our faith, our courage to believe in, to defend the “possibility of transformation.”

My second-grade grade boy/girl twins created a birth-to-now timeline of their “development” in their classes last week. I printed out the photos for them to take to class: photos that of course I am so familiar with. They don’t remember, at age 7-going-on-8, what they looked like or felt like as babies, or even as toddlers.

As I am sure that many parents feel as I sometimes do, I would love to have stopped them from growing any further at 18 months, or at 2 years old. If they could always be so cute and little! Always have that special love language between them that twins have. My 3-year-old is growing way too fast; an inch taller every night, it seems.

We don’t—we can’t—“stop” transforming, growing, aging, perhaps becoming wiser, perhaps more and more courageous, and hopefully less fearful, less shut down to all that life offers.

Don’t short cut each other. Try not to think you already know who a person is by one experience of them. Allow transformation. Expect change.

Give each other—give everyone—the space and the grace needed to be who they are now.

Give each other wings to fly, gifts of space and grace to become, to change.

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