August 1, 2007

O Thou Who Changest Not

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:17

One of my favorite lines from Dicken's A Christmas Carol—An out-of-season text to be quoting on the 1st of August, I admit!—is Scrooge's response to his old friend Marley's ghastly ghost hovering about his living room.  Ebenezer cannot believe what he is seeing, and when the apparition inquires into why he does not simply "trust his senses," Scrooge replies:

Because, [such] a little thing affects them.  A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.  You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!

Dickens may be on to something. So many little things affect our view of reality. One is never quite sure why one day the world is green and the next gray.  Who can finally say why we sometimes feel the way we feel, why we see what we need to see, or why each of us experiences the cosmos the way we do on any given day?  There are plenty of physiological explanations, of course, as Scrooge suggests. Your doctor is quick on the draw with those. Yet "slight disorders," often real enough, are ultimately not very satisfying explanations for the deep mystery of perception and reality. As many days as exist, there seem to be just as many moods.

A few weeks ago, pondering our susceptibility to so many short-lived dispositions, I jotted down these lines:

So many moods
And they change
By the hour, week

One day, all despair
Hope anew the next
Third, all is ordinary

Thank God there is a
God who if he bends
Bends only in grace

The old theologians used to speak of God's impassibility, a Latin word essentially meaning "not able to suffer." They reasoned that since God is an active subject in the world (Psalm 46:10), not a passive object able to be acted upon, God cannot change in the way we frequently do and therefore is not susceptible to suffering or pain the way we are.

At its worst, this traditional view has imagined God's innermost nature as impenetrably uncaring, unmoved and unfeeling—a sort of plastic deity quite unaffected by the cries of his children. Though promoted in a few Christian circles down through the centuries (usually in an attempt to protect God from the problem of evil), this rigid view is finally hard to square with the gospel's compelling tale of a compassionate Father who does not spare even the Beloved Son in mending the world (e.g. Exodus 3:7-9; Matthew 9:36; John 3:16). In the Bible, "unchanging" cannot mean "uncaring."

Yet the best of impassibility reminds us that God is not simply a much bigger version of us, moods and all. In saying that God does not change, the church appreciates that God is not subject to the passing emotion, the fleeting perception, or the many moods that come and go within a week. Whereas we are fickle and prone to fits and starts in our seeing, God is thoroughly consistent and unaffected by passing whims of perception. This is what James 1:17 celebrates: a God in whom there is "no variation or shadow due to change." Every good gift finds its home in this unalterable God.

Beloved, in a world chock full of change and decay, let us give thanks for God's insusceptibility to alteration. No matter what our mood may be at any given moment, no matter if the sky is bright with promise or dark with doubt, no matter if our distorted realities are caused by afflictions in body or soul, we the baptized can daily celebrate the good news—the certain relief!—that our perception is only a small slice of reality. There is One whose eternal perception is really real, whose outlook sets the true course for the world, whose only bending is to move toward the world in inexplicable grace. And so the old hymn can pray:

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see.
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

In all your comings and goings, beloved, may the "Father of lights" bolster and bless you along your way.