Transformation and the New Normal
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on August 26, 2012
Part 1: The World is Changing
Heaven knows where we are going. Sometimes, I am amazed at how real life seems more and more to be like something out of a science fiction book. Last week, I was astonished to watch a camera that is able to capture the speed of light. Literally – it captured a laser packet as it went through a coke bottle. In a mind-blowing ending, there were light ripples & shadows headed in the wrong direction because the speed of light had not caught up.
And it was recently reported that Harvard folks have crammed 700 terrabytes of data into one gram of DNA. That’s 14,000 Blu-ray discs, or 70 billion books. To store the same kind of data on hard drives today, you’d need 233 3TB drives, weighing a total of 151 kilos (333 lbs!). And turns out DNA is a much more stable mass storage system than other bleeding-edge technologies because it does not need to be stored in a vacuum at sub-freezing temperatures.
Medical technology is going nano – using devices that are measured in nanometers to treat illness and disease.
Then there is the Voyager space mission, which has breached the edge of our solar system and is finding that things are not quite the way we thought they are out there in deep space.
Rapid mobilization of large groups of people is available via technologies like twitter and facebook – the Arab Spring would never have happened without them.
Flash mobs of orchestras appearing in shopping stores introducing people to the joys of live music.
More information than you will ever need is available at your fingertips – anytime you have a question, like about butterfly DNA being the same or different than that of the caterpillar, immediately look it up online (it is the same).
Not a week goes by that my mind is not blown away by new information, discoveries, or technologies. Even if you are not using a specific application, so many people are that the language has infected our common speech. If you don’t believe me, you can google it. Even the word multitasking itself is a term from technology. And spam is now much more than canned ham.
Applications like facebook and email have changed how we relate to each other, how we communicate, what we communicate, and what our expectations are for responses. Once upon a time, if I called someone I would not expect a response for a a day or so. Now, if I don’t get a response to my email in a few hours, I get nervous. Did I say something wrong? We are rewiring our brains through multitasking and the rapid collaboration and sharing of information.
These are not the kind of changes that have happened in the past. Yes, the creation of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century was an enormous technological advance for humanity. And we would not be where we are today without it. But the general public didn’t go from illiterate to book readers in less than a generation.
Likewise, the discover of electricity was an enormous step forward, but it took a long time to get it out to the general public use.
For comparison purposes, take a look at this:
How long did it take to reach 50 million users?
- Telephone…………………………75 years
- Radio……………………………….38 years
- TV……………………………………13 years
- Internet………………………………4 years
- iPod…………………………………..3 years
- iPad……………………..less than 2 years
These are all things that cost a fair chunk of money. Appliances, if you will.
But if we look at applications instead of applicances, the numbers show how fast things can move now:
How long until 1 million users signed up?
- AOL………………………………9 years
- Twitter……………………….24 months
- Facebook………………….10 months
- Draw Something………………9 days
- Outlook.com…………………..6 hours
And there are no signs that these massive changes are slowing down anytime soon.
For most of human history, changes have been incremental. One step at a time, allowing us to keep up with them. That is not the case anymore.
And most of us can’t predict where we are going next. What new amazing feat might be unlocked in these brains of ours? Because remember, the human brain itself has not changed a lot over the last 10,000 years. We have had the capability for these advanced thoughts built into our brains, which remained unused until now. What else might be in there, waiting to be unlocked or discovered.
This is not the same world it was 40 years ago. 30 years ago. Not even 20 years ago. So if we are waiting for things to return to “normal,” then I suspect we are waiting for a pipe dream. There is, really, no such thing as “normal,” if indeed there ever was.
Certainly, at this point (culturally, economically, even spiritually) it is safe to say that there is no going back.
Responsive Reading #612, by Rabindranath Tagore
Is it beyond thee to be glad with the gladness of this rhythm? To be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy?
All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no power can hold them back, they rush on.
Keeping step with that restless, rapid music, seasons come dancing and pass away.
Colors, tunes, and perfumes pour in endless cascades in the abounding joy that scatters and gives up and dies every moment.
Part 2: So What?
All things rush on. Is it beyond us to be glad with the gladness of this rhythm, as we are tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy of discovery? Those words were written by Rabindranath Tagore in the mid 20th century, as things were starting to speed up.
The thing about these changes is that, whether we like them or not, use them or not, they impact our lives, daily, in ways that we are only beginning to understand: at the societal level, community level, and at the level of our individual lives.
Implications for Individuals
For individuals, it is important to understand the different ways generations look at these changes. Rev. Derek Penwell, from Douglass Blvd Christian Church, points out “If you are conditioned to believe that the world is largely a stable place,[like the silent generation and baby-boomers mostly were] any change is a potential threat to that stability. If you are conditioned to believe that the world is constantly changing [like the Millennials and Gen-X mostly were], then change isn’t threatening; it’s an inevitability.”
Most of the time, I find this stuff thrilling. I am not a member of the silent generation or baby-boomers, who grew up and became used to a relatively stable environment. I am a gen-x’er, the first generation to come of age amidst these incredible technological advances. For my generation and the ones after, change is expected. We have mostly grown used to the mind blowing pace of new discoveries and tools that have become indispensable. I have learned not to every say “That will never work” – particularly after I questioned why anyone would need an iPad.
Even I marvel at the staggering impacts these changes are having on our society. Technologies turn over in approximately 2 years. This means that if you are just starting a 4 year technology degree, by the time you end, what you learn your first year will be obsolete.
And lest you think email and facebook and iPods and the like have just become bricks on the road to ruin, recent reports indicate that Spring Breaks -once known for their wild and crazy, not to mention dangerous and decidedly unhealthy, antics are now much more tame. Why? Because enough people went through wild and crazy spring breaks with cell phone cameras making a permanent record and sites to share those photos. Reporter Lizette Alvarez writes, that Spring Break “has been Facebooked into greater respectability.” Would that something similar would happen with the upcoming political conventions!!!
For those of you who are teachers – you have my undying appreciation, because I think you have it rougher than most. Teachers are being told that they are preparing students for jobs in entire fields that don’t even exist yet. The ways of teaching are changing. Teachers looking at new core curriculum expectations are being told to put students in small groups, actively engaged in problem solving. This has, apparently, become the norm in public schools all over the place. One of my colleagues observes that if you combine this new craze with youth’s intense engagement with interactive digital equipment, you’ll find that we are producing a generation that will not be able to sit still to listen to a sermon. I would argue that that actually happened about a decade ago.
Implications for the Church
Just out of curiosity – all other factors being equal, how many of you prefer a longer sermon, more than 20 minutes? And how many think that something between 10-20 minutes is about right? Anyone for less than 10 minutes?
Technology, and the changing economy, also are impacting the role of the church. Now you can hop online for an inspirational TED talk and read or watch an amazing sermon from a minister in New York, or hey, the most recent speech from the Dali Lama. Churches have to offer more than inspirational words or music – they need to provide outlets for people to engage in the world, to do work that has meaning, to be of use and to create relationships.
And it used to be that churches could count on at least one stable volunteer pool: middle class housewives. Gone are those days for most households. Today, if a family has two parents who live in the same household, they are both likely to be working – and often in jobs that require more than 40 hours a week. Our amount of free time has diminished. And if we are talking about a family with children, the hours spent shuttling them to and from enriching activities to give them an edge in getting into a good college take up what little time we have remaining.
And it is harder to find volunteers willing to come to meetings. So we are rearranging how we do things: doing more on email and even some meetings via video teleconferencing so that people don’t have to find childcare or drive in. Cramming as much as we can onto a Sunday because most folks don’t want to, or aren’t able to, make that trip more than once a week.
Email in particular has revolutionized church work and the field of ministry itself. I cannot count the hours I spend on email and facebook. Some of it is administrative, but I find myself providing pastoral care in email more and more often. And frankly, I cannot imagine crafting a sermon before search engines gave me footnotes at my fingertips.
Does that mean that the church, as an institution, is dying? No! But it does mean that the old ways of doing things are not serving us as well as they used to. So where does that leave us? It means that we continue to change. To adapt. To try new things. Just like teachers are learning to do. This means changes in staffing, changes in programming, changes in how we do Sundays. All of this in an effort to find a new way of being that works for today, with a recognition that what works today may not be what works 5 years from now.
Implications for Society
We can lament the times that are gone, the stability that perhaps we grew up with or crave. Or we might agonize over decreasing attention spans and the hazards of multitasking, but lamenting and agonizing do not help us accept that this is how things are, and there really is no going back to the way things were. I suspect that for many of us, all these changes leave us feeling left behind – as though everything is changing except us.
Which means it is essential to hold on loosely. Yes that wisdom from .38 Special in 1981 is applicable today far beyond a love song. Just hold on loosely…they sing…if you cling too tightly, your gonna lose.
Or, phrased another way, we can try to be present in the moment. When the rush of the world feels most overwhelming, we can stop, breathe, and be in the moment. I had an experience of this recently. I got to ride the Diamondback rollercoaster at Kings Island. It starts with 230 ft lift with a 215 ft-drop and a top speed of about 80 mph. It had been a good decade and a half since I had ridden a roller-coaster. As we went up and up, I could feel a panic attack starting. So I breathed, and breathed, and then, as we were dropping, I just let go. It was the strangest feeling, but I was totally just along for the ride. And it was awesome. So I did it again. If I could I would ride it every day, just for that moment of blissfully letting go.
We human beings are remarkably adaptable. We can breathe, let go. And we can wonder. Our curiosity is a gift that can help us stay feeling connected, even as we may not understand all the changes. Wonder. Marvel at the amazing things we are capable of creating. Maybe even try something new out with the help of a trusted friend or family member. It can seem scary to try something new for the first time – whether that is a food or a computer program. Someone to hold our hand can go a long way.
In a recent edition of Quest, the newsletter for the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes: “Change will come whether we work for and celebrate it, or distrust and resist it, or simply wait. Our history says it will come whether we want it or not. For that we can be thankful.”iii
Be thankful, because these changes, all changes, as overwhelming as they may feel, are born of a vision, an imagining, a reaching beyond where we are now – a quintessentially human characteristic. We can fight it, but how much better is it to recognize the changing times and to allow ourselves to change as well. To transform, like the caterpillar. Because we know really, that for all this change going on around us, there are some things that won’t change: the struggle to bring justice to the oppressed, the need to love and be loved, the desire for friends and family to share our lives with, the faith that we need not think alike to love alike. This foundation does not change, through the structure built upon it might.
And so it is that we build a new way, with new tools and technologies. We build, because that is what we do. And that doesn’t change, though we may find ourselves be transformed through the process.