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A couple weeks ago I went camping with my family. I love camping. I love the relaxed pace. I love being outside. I love hiking and going to the beach.
I HATE the mosquitoes.
I’m one of those poor, unfortunate souls who are loved and adored by mosquitoes. I’ll get ten bites to most people’s one.
So this year, like all years, I was prepared to cover every inch of skin in the evening and douse myself in bug spray.
But then dad gave me a present.
An electrically charged fly swatter.
It might be the best gift I’ve ever received.
I wreaked carnage with this thing. Absolute carnage. Every night I’d swat my swatter through the tent, killing any fly or mosquito who’d snuck in with me. Mornings began with a massacre of those bugs audacious enough to nest beneath the tent vestibule. In the evenings I sat around the fire, just skimming it through the air, relishing in the crackle and pop of a bug being zapped.
It was immensely satisfying.
It also made me keenly aware of some of my…baser instincts.
Here was a creature that was annoying me, pestering me, causing me distress…and I could just take it out. Make it disappear. And do so with no judgment from others.
I could exercise immediate vengeance. I could make my problem disappear just that that.
And that felt good.
Because I can’t do that with much of what’s bothersome to me these days. And there’s a lot that’s bothersome! Drivers who cut into my lane at the roundabout. Pestilential politicians. The price of eggs.
It’s not just individual bothers on their own, though, that are so bothersome. It feels like everything is topsy-turvy, is changing, is challenging, and I am unsteady, off-kilter, and generally angsty because of it.
It seems I’m not alone in this. I’m reading Navigating the Future: Traditioned Innovation for Wilder Seas by L. Gregory Jones and Andrew P. Hogue. One chapter is devoted to our growing sense of bewilderment. They quote an article on college football in Sports Illustrated, in which Charles P. Pierce writes, “We are in some sort of unstable period right now. Nothing seems solid. Nothing seems permanent. The tectonic plates of our institutions – all of our institutions – seem to be grinding loose, and all the questions begin, ‘How can you still…?’ ‘How can you still…believe in politics, go to that church, or trust your money to that bank?’1
Pierce wrote this in 2018, even before Covid-19 had upended so many norms and givens. Now we feel even more the winds of change blowing…bringing with them lack of trust, expansive competition, and identity crises. We are in an era of significant change and challenge. We feel a little unmoored. And most of us aren’t sure what to do about it. Jones and Hogue write, “The reality is that most leaders feel a sense of helplessness about these big, brewing storms; we have enough on our minds as it is. That is, there’s so much fog down here surrounding our own boats – more immediate concerns that are amply disorienting – that we can hardly pay attention to the storms brewing on the horizon.”2
Our instinct, in the face of these storms, is to do one of two things. Some of us prefer to hunker down. To sit in our chair, take out our fly swatter, and just bat away anything and everything that feels like it could be a threat to our sense of order and understanding of the world. Jones and Hogue call this traditionalism. There’s comfort in looking to the past, which is familiar and known, and doing the things we’ve always done. But, the authors argue, this can lead to an unrealistic nostalgia, and a marginalization of those who aren’t part of our connection to the past, who present a need for something different.
On the other hand, some of us look to change as the solution. To take out, not a fly swatter, but a magic wand, pointing it at this institution and that problem, undoing everything that’s problematic, distancing ourselves from the past, reinventing ourselves again and again to keep up with the pace of change.
This futurism, say Jones and Hogue, is also problematic, fragile. “We start to think that we are masters of the sea, and we don’t adequately account for the storms and the fog or our own fallibility,” they write.3 We don’t, it turns out, have all the answers.
So what are we to do, if fly swatters and magic wands don’t offer real solutions to our angst?
Well, Jones, in an excellent plenary address given at the Calvin Worship Symposium in 2016, would suggest we take up a saxophone.
We need to change. We need to innovate, and improvise, to meet the changing needs of our communities and institutions. But the best improvisation, in music at least, happens when it’s built on a foundation of learned skills, on years of practice, gleaning from wise teachers and an understanding of the unchanging building blocks of music theory. When a jazz band gets together, if they have this foundational knowledge, they can create new music together, improvising because they know where the others are going, and where they have been.
So as we stand on shifting stands, and see storms on the horizon (or storms right around us), our best bet probably isn’t to look back to the good old days and bolster our protective walls. Nor is it to abandon everything of the past in favor of constant reinvention. But rather to look to the past for wisdom from those who have gone before, and pull together people who bring a unique and needed voice into the ensemble, so we can make beautiful music together, improvising and innovating, all done with the hopes of bringing flourishing into our communities. Whether there are mosquitoes there or not.
1 Charles P. Pierece, “The Head vs. The Heart: There Are Plenty of Reasons for the Thinking Fan to Disown College Football, and Yet, Every Fall…” Sports Illustrated, September 10, 2018, 38.
2 L. Gregory Jones & Andrew P. Hogue, Navigating the Future: Traditioned Innovation for Wilder Seas, Abingdon Press; Nashville, 54.
3 Ibid, 70.