Back about 100 years ago, when my son Tom was in the 2nd grade, his best friend was a boy I'll call "Jeffrey."
Jeffrey was one of those kids that was always smiling and laughing and talking, and always in motion: running, riding his bike, roller blading everywhere. And for a seven year-old, he was an amazing athlete. He could do a standing back flip: one minute he’d be standing in front of you, and then all of a sudden he’d say, “Watch this,” and then he would jump into the air, flip backwards, and land back on his feet.
He loved to see the look on my face when he did that.
And Jeffrey always had trouble in school.
One day Tom got on the school bus without his lunch so I stopped by his school later that morning to drop it off; and that’s when I found Jeffrey sitting on the floor in the hallway outside his classroom. I knew something was wrong because I called his name and he didn’t look up at me with his usual big grin. Instead he kept his head down; and when I knelt to talk to him I could see he was crying.
I said, “Jeffrey, what’s the matter?” And he said, “I’m so stupid! I keep getting into trouble! I don’t know why! I’m so stupid!”
I said, “Hey, Jeffrey. You are NOT stupid! Don’t you ever believe that!”
Later that day I spoke to his mom. Usually, when you see a good kid like that, who has trouble controlling his impulses, you think maybe he’s got ADHD or some other learning problem. I asked if she had ever had him tested. Well, the color rose up in her face and she said, “There’s nothing wrong with my son!”
I agreed with her. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with him. But he is having problems. But she couldn’t see the difference. “If I have him tested he’s just gonna get labeled for the rest of his life,” she said.
The next day I ran into Jeffrey’s teacher and shared my concerns. I mean, I didn’t want to meddle, but here’s a talented boy who thinks he’s stupid. She just shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve got 28 kids in there,” she said. “I can’t be giving everyone special treatment.” It seemed to me she was more interested in punishing a bad boy than treating a kid who was having problems.
Jeffrey and his mom moved at the end of that year. I think about him now and wonder: did he ever graduate from high school? Did he ever make it to college on that football scholarship he used to dream about?
Jeffrey, for me, illustrates the difference between having a problem, and thinking you are the problem.
Anyone can have a problem; and if you have a problem, that means the problem might be fixed. But if you are the problem, what solution is there for you? Millions of youngsters like Jeffrey just take themselves out of the equation: they are taught to think they are the problem; and long before they’ve given up on school, they’ve given up on themselves.
If a kid genuinely believes he’s stupid, what hope does he have? But if he sees that he’s having trouble controlling his impulses; that maybe his brain is firing off confusing signals – well, that’s a different story. That’s a situation that can be fixed.
You see what I’m talking about here? It’s the difference between being and doing; between being the problem and having the problem.
That’s exactly what’s going on in today’s parable. There’s this fig tree that has a problem – it isn’t producing figs. The owner is convinced that the problem is in the being of the fig tree. It’s just a bad fig tree! “Cut it down!” he says.
But the gardener sees something different going on. It’s not a bad fig tree; it’s just having problems. “Don’t cut it down just yet,” he begs. “Let me loosen the soil around its roots. Let me lay in some fertilizer. Let’s see what happens if we stop blaming the tree and instead start looking instead at what’s really going on.”
One way of thinking about this difference is the difference between people who think primarily in terms of nouns, and those who think in terms of verbs. Now, I know that sounds pretty strange or simplistic but hear me out. When we think in terms of nouns, we focus our attention on things and their attributes. We see a boy and we give him an attribute: Oh, he’s not very bright. Or he’s ADHD. Or he’s gifted. He’s good; he’s bad.
Like Jeffrey’s mom was afraid of: we label things – even a 7 year-old boy; we treat him as an object frozen for all time with a certain set of attributes.
But nobody is fixed; we are all changing and responding to various influences in our environment. Kids especially! Psychologists have proven this time and again: kids who are told they are stupid will underperform; kids who are told they are smart will achieve more. It’s not that they are stupid or smart – those are fixed categories. It’s that they are in motion, constantly responding to expectations and influences.
Kids are in motion; we are in motion, the world is in motion.
The truth is that the world is much better understood when we focus on the verbs than the nouns; when we focus more on what is happening than on what is. He’s having trouble concentrating. His brain is sending mixed signals. His teacher is feeling overwhelmed. His mom is feeling defensive.
The fig tree is not a bad fig tree. It’s not a good fig tree. It’s a fig tree that is having problems.
Some people might think this is just a matter of semantics but in fact there is a profound distinction here: Quantum physics tells us that at the deepest heart of reality, sub-atomic particles are not particles at all but better understood as "occurrences". In other words, at the most fundamental level of reality, there really are no nouns – only verbs. It turns out that reality is a verb! Matter is nothing but time slowed down. Or something like that.
I’m no physicist but this is what the physicists are telling us. We used to think of the smallest elements of matter as a bunch of nouns – a vast field of tiny billiard balls bouncing off each other. But it turns out this is utterly wrong. Elements of energy/time/space come into existence because they are in constant fluid relationship with other elements of energy/time/space; and nothing simply “is.” Instead, everything is happening.
Focus, in other words, on the verbs, not the nouns; on the doing, not the being.
In theological circles this way of thinking is called Process Theology. Process theology encourages us to think about God as a Verb rather than a noun.
In other words, don’t ask, “What is God,” but instead ask, “What is God doing?” “How is the divine breaking into my life? How am I responding to God?”
Whenever we start talking about God as a fixed object with certain attributes, we start putting God into a box. And God doesn’t live in a box. God needs to move in order to live.
I was talking to a homeless man the other day; he was asking me for money and I could smell alcohol on his breath. When I asked him if he’d been drinking he said, “Look, man, I’m just a drunk, alright?”
“I’m just a drunk.” To me that sounded like a man who was begging to be treated as a noun instead of a verb: I’m just a drunk. Because he didn’t want to change; he didn’t want to cast himself into the dangerous waters of God’s possibilities; he couldn’t take on the action verbs of repenting and healing and growing; instead he was begging me to just let him be… a drunk.
But the bad news for him, and for all of us, is that life is all about change. The only things that don’t change are dead. We can’t escape change because our very existence is defined by change.
Churches that define God as a fixed object want the world to just stop turning. This is natural - we all want this – we want something stable and permanent that we can hold onto. Sometimes it feels like we’re in the middle of the ocean, clinging to a buoy – we want something solid; something that won’t change on us.
But we know that’s an illusion. Our bodies are changing, our families are changing, our society is changing, our world is changing. Even at the end, at our own burial service, the priest will declare that in death, life is “changed, not ended.”
And that’s where we find God, too. God is in the change. When we refuse to accept change as the only constant in life, we are not only denying reality; we’re denying God as well.
So we ask ourselves: Where is God in the changes of our lives? Jesus says, God is in the gardener: loosening up the soil; digging around the roots; laying in the fertilizer.
And we are in motion: we are turning toward God; we are opening; we are taking in God’s life and light; we are giving thanks.
Our bishop has a favorite prayer; it memorized it many years ago; and as he is fond of reminding us, it appears in the Prayer Book no fewer than four times. And it’s all about finding God in the change:
O God, we pray: look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord….
May this be our prayer today, on this day of divine change.