For those of you who long for the “good-ole-days” allow me to share a little dose of reality with you. Awhile back, I went to the library and borrowed a copy of E.B. White’s collection of essays called One Man’s Meat. For those of you who are saying to yourself “the name sounds familiar,” E.B. White is best known as the author of Charlotte’s Web. He also wrote for the New Yorker magazine for many years. The essays were written just prior to the start of World War II and they were published in book form in 1942. Mr. White chronicles the journey of his move to a farmstead in Maine and what life was like, with some observations about the world at large, thrown in for good measure. Reading through the book, I am reminded, once again, of the old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
In an essay titled “Sabbath Morn,” written in February, 1939, Mr. White made the following observations:
“In this house we cling to a few relics of religious observance, but there is no heart in it. If we possess faith (and I guess we do) it is of a secret and unconsecrated sort ill at ease in church….The church sometimes seems painfully unimaginative in its attempt to perpetuate a faith which has been gutted by so many fires. Whether or not people are essentially less religious than they used to be, I don’t know, but it is obvious that something has happened….I go to church once in a while and sing the hymns very loud; it clears the blood, and I love the gush of holiness when the old bone-shaking anthems ripple up and down my spine and crackle in my larynx. But for the most part, religion is tucked away in a bottom drawer among things we love but never use. In two generations there has been a great falling off. When I was a child, I could feel heaven slipping…By the standards of a hundred years ago, my family to-day is a group of misguided agnostics, seeking after an illusive beauty and fumbling for grace…”What a familiar tale, I think to myself! How similar and relevant are Mr. White’s words today?! The great angst that we possess as the United Methodist Church over decline in attendance is the same thing that was going on back in “the good old days” that we fondly talk about. The rosy days of “back yonder” were not quite as rosy as we would like to believe. The reality, the truth of the matter is this-we struggle with the same issues that previous generations struggled with. That doesn’t mean that we choose to just accept this as a fact of life, we can choose to try to change the outcome. But if we intend to change, we had better make sure that we have thought things through carefully. “Change for change sake” is not true change at all. Learning from the past, taking off the rose colored glasses and seeing things as they really were, rather than how we imagine-that is the lens that we need to use when we decide what to change and how we go about changing things! Until we can do that, until we can accept the fact that there is nothing new under the sun, all of our best laid plans will be nothing more than just another plan.
Let’s be honest with ourselves and recognize the fact that the more things change-the more they stay the same, if we choose to ignore the truth of the past. We will not change the course if we do not learn the lessons of yesterday. In my humble opinion, this is indeed a valuable and timely lesson in light of General Conference. A voice from the past holds an important reminder, to us all, for today!