A dead-end road taught the Rev. Glenn Wagner “an important lesson about myself and about human nature in general that I never forgot.”
GLENN M. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications
A gravel road taught me a valuable lesson about myself. Like many others that I know, my first reaction to change often is to resist.
It was just a gravel road named after a fibrous vegetable that occasionally grew wild alongside in season. The city called the gravel road a lane. It remains to this day a minor dead-end stretch that connects a few older homes and several small businesses that were all situated downhill and off a much busier paved and numbered state road. Low ground, wetlands, and a bordering river just beyond the descending end of the lane make further development unlikely.
It is still easy to drive by Vegetable Lane on the main road and not even notice it snaking off into the woods. Curious motorists who ventured off the pavement and onto the lane to see where it went drove a short distance into the woods before meeting the end of the road at the dirt turn around. It is a good guess that many, of both residents of the town and those who passed by the lane every day on their way somewhere else, had never even driven down the graveled Vegetable Lane to the end even once.
Gravel roads to nowhere serving only a few people don’t usually receive much attention. In the winter, in the aftermath of a snowstorm, Vegetable Lane got left to the end of the plowing list. And when the city was budgeting resources for road maintenance each fiscal year, the insignificant gravel lane usually got overlooked.
I even bother to mention Vegetable Lane today because, more than 20 years ago, the few residents on Vegetable Lane taught me an important lesson about myself and about human nature in general that I never forgot.
The vital life lesson is this, “I generally don’t like change.” There is a built-in, natural, and sometimes visceral reaction in me that rears its stubborn and ugly self in stiff resistance to change that is foisted on me by surprise or by others.
“There is a built-in, natural, and sometimes visceral reaction in me that rears its stubborn and ugly self in stiff resistance to change … “
Please don’t misunderstand, I have learned that some changes are actually good for me, and I have gratefully adapted. Some alterations and surprises in my life have been welcomed and readily accepted. Because I have been able to overcome my natural aversion to change, I have been able to travel and live in foreign countries. I have moved 17 times to new places of living. I have been introduced to new foods and made new friends along the way. I have learned how to use a computer, carry a cell-phone, and cook with a microwave oven. I am grateful that someone introduced me to the change of a remote control and cable television. I am a glad beneficiary of the online social networking revolution that is changing our world dramatically. I know a few words of Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic. I count as friends, persons who are adherents to different religions, come from different races, and claim different sexual identities. I am happy to listen to music in digital formats and no longer pine for eight-track tapes.
But along the way and more frequently than I care to admit, a change is introduced into my life, and it takes me time to adjust. Sometimes I don’t accept the change as well as I would like to. When unexpected or unwanted change intrudes into life without invitation, I am aware of passionate and personal resistance.
I am happy to report that some things in my life are still the same as they have always been. For example, in my hometown of Elmhurst, Illinois, there is a very old hamburger stand on the town’s busiest intersection called Hamburger Heaven. Hamburger Heaven predates McDonald’s. If someone tried to build Hamburger Heaven today, it would not be allowed. The lot is too small. There are no public restrooms on the premises. It has a single walk-up exterior window that serves all customers from its cramped indoor kitchen. The menu is the same as it was when I was a kid. Because it has resisted transformational change, I still stop at Hamburger Heaven for a burger and a root beer float when I am driving through town. Sameness tastes great to me.
In England, I am glad that the British cling to the traditional “ceremony of the keys” which has been used to lock up the Tower of London each night, following the same script, for the past 700 years! In Michigan, I value the tradition of no motorized vehicles allowed on Mackinac Island. I hope the Islanders never change this custom. I find in my retirement that even though I can adapt and sing contemporary praise choruses in church, I prefer, because of my upbringing, to worship where a preponderance of traditional hymns are sung during Sunday worship.
But my awareness of my natural resistance to change was brought to light over 20 years ago and involved the residents of Vegetable Lane.
In the community where I was appointed to serve as a United Methodist pastor, I also volunteered as a Cub Scout leader. On one of our outings, we wanted to introduce our Cub Scouts to the workings of City Government. So, we arranged to take our Cubs to a City Council Meeting. Just by chance, that was the evening that the council addressed a request by the local school board, on behalf of one of its school bus drivers, that Vegetable Lane be paved.
According to the report from the school bus driver, Vegetable Lane was not easy to navigate with a school bus, particularly in inclement weather. Making the students from Vegetable Lane walk uphill to wait for the bus on the adjacent busy state road was not safe. Leaving the busy road to pick them up and then turning the bus around, in conditions that were sometimes muddy or icy, was difficult.
Since Vegetable Lane was the only unpaved road left in the entire town, it made sense to all the members of the council, all the members of the school board, and all of the Cub Scouts and chaperones, like me, that this minor improvement should be made.
None of us that evening were prepared for the passionate and almost militant resistance to the proposal that came from the small army of Vegetable Lane residents. They crowded into the modest council chambers ready to make their vocal, passionate, and unanimous case for opposition to the road paving proposal.
I was amazed at the intensity of the debate. Arguments given included. “We bought our home because we preferred to live on a gravel road.” “Paving the road will increase traffic and bring greater risk to our children and our pets when they play in the road.” “Paving the road will increase our taxes.” “We’ve never had a paved road before, and we don’t need one now.” “We shouldn’t have to pay for a school bus driver’s problem.” “The bus driver is an outsider who only uses our lane for a few minutes twice a day for five days a week during the school year. We live here all the time. The bus driver should not get to decide what is best for our road!” “Paving the road could increase water run-off into my yard in a storm and cause flooding in my basement.”
The residents adamantly refused the suggestion by members of the city council that insinuated that the increased assessment of hundreds of dollars per homeowner, to help pay for the paving improvements, had any role in their opposition to the proposal.
It seemed obvious from my distance that there was universal opposition by the homeowners to any change on their street that had not originated from the actual people who lived on that street. Now that I am a homeowner myself, I understand this powerful instinctive territorial desire to defend your turf and the familiar status quo.
Despite the passionate objections, the council acted “for the good of the whole city and the safety of our children.” Vegetable Lane got paved.
The residents survived. Paving did not noticeably increase the traffic or adversely harm property values. Vegetable Lane is still an obscure dead-end street on the way to nowhere in particular. Except that it is easier and safer for the school bus to pick up children and drop them off twice a day during the school year.
I have noticed during my preparation and service as a United Methodist pastor that stiff resistance to change has been a common theme in the life of the church from back to the roots of our Judeo-Christian tradition.
You may remember the Israelites in the wilderness in the Old Testament, who were newly freed slaves from Egypt. They found it difficult to change their religious practices from the idolatry of their past to a new faith that banned graven images (Exodus 32).
Jonah proved exceptionally resistant to the new idea that God was concerned for the salvation of the hated Ninevites (Jonah 1-4).
In the New Testament, even the apostles Peter and Paul were remembered quarreling in Galatians 2:11-21 over Peter’s lack of public courage in the presence of the members of the circumcision party. The change for Jewish followers of Jesus to fully accept and welcome uncircumcised Gentiles into the community of believers was resisted so strongly that it led to a break from Judaism and the birthing of an independent Christian community. Those opposed to the idea of inclusion and welcome for the uncircumcised likely cited Genesis 17:10-14 as irrefutable scriptural justification for their staunch opposition.
I am familiar with people of good faith who have resisted change to the point of conflict. Faith communities have sometimes splintered over other issues like slavery, biblical translations, musical styles, mixed-gender worship, adherence to creeds or methods of biblical interpretation, use of inclusive language, women in leadership, and positions on issues of social justice.
I lived through resistance to change in churches that I served, resistance to computers, video projection in worship, changing musical and worship styles, dress codes, paying for handicap accessibility improvements, and even accepting advances in telephone technology.
“The God we worship and serve is greater than our worries, more eternal than our fears, and continues to empower faithful witness through every change.”
Our United Methodist denomination appears to be on the verge of splintering again, like many other denominations already have, in a new break caused by resistance to changing cultural convictions over issues relating to full inclusion of persons from the LGBTQ community.
I share anxiety over what this change may mean to current and future mission and ministry. I happen to believe with good biblical support that Jesus values unity in the Body of Christ and that we are much more effective in ministry when we are united than when we are divided. But I am also grateful for enough experience coping with change to know that change happens. Life goes on.
And the God we worship and serve is greater than our worries, more eternal than our fears, and continues to empower faithful witness through every change. The change that occurs when a seed is planted in the ground and is transformed through time to become a fruit-bearing tree appears to be part of God’s plan. So, I must assume that the God we worship has also blessed the process of change in us, too.
I know, for example, that congregations once pastored by followers of Jesus, like John in Asia Minor and Paul in Corinth, are now remembered by piles of rubble studied by archaeologists and visited by tourists. But the living seeds of faith in Jesus that they planted have spread so that today 2.4 billion persons, almost one-third of our world’s population, embrace Jesus as Lord. I also know that churches are not exempt from the same life and death struggles of other earthly organizations. Many congregations that have failed to adapt to continuously changing life circumstances have closed.
I pray for the grace to know when and how to accept change whenever it comes, and the wisdom to remain both flexible and faithful to Christ, whose love and grace have inspired a whole-life change for many of us that continues.