There’s an old joke about a vendor who refuses to give someone their change when buying a pack of gum with a five-dollar bill. “May I have my change?” the buyer asks. “Change comes from within,” says the vendor who wants to pocket the five-spot. Maybe.
As I write this, I’m at a meeting of twenty-five Presbyterian pastors I meet with twice each year. Each of us take turns hosting the group at our church and providing the program. This time we’re in Princeton, New Jersey, centered at the Nassau Presbyterian Church. With a few minutes free this afternoon, I walked onto the campus of my seminary alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, just down the street from that church. I graduated PTS 34 years ago this month. As I sit on a bench, right where I used to sit when I was a student here, I look around and see a campus that looks pretty much the same as it did then—with buildings dating to the nineteenth century all around. Oh, one can spy a handful of newer buildings, including one for Speech/Communication training, a worship annex, and a new library. But all in all, not much has changed. Except, I also know that several of these still old looking buildings have actually been almost entirely repurposed on the inside—with new housing facilities, new “smart” classrooms, an entirely redesigned chapel space, and more. Things look pretty similar from the outside, but are actually very different on the inside.
During this time with valued colleagues we experienced even more of this. We saw enormous changes on the inside of the historic church where we met—to enhance and update programs and mission in exciting ways. Looking the same from the outside, but different on the inside. We shared in new jazz and gospel settings for using the Psalms of the Old Testament in worship, and explored new hymn forms. We were taught how to read the ancient texts of the New Testament in new ways. And we told each other stories of transformations, challenges, delights, resistance, enthusiasm, and the Holy Spirit at work in our congregations.
And the lesson became clear.
Some say that change can only come from the inside. I’m not so sure of that, but I do believe that we can be almost entirely transformed by God’s Spirit on the inside before anyone really notices. We can be born from within. I also know that the converse can be true, that one can change many things on the surface of oneself and still be rotting from within. God seeks congruence: a beauty on the outside of our lives that matches the transforming and changing work of God’s Spirit inside us—which, in turn, helps us change more on the outside. God works within, to work without, to work within some more. And it grows.
How do we think about this for the church? We’re always changing. Every form of life does. And those changes can be big. Even if on the outside nothing looks that much different than it has, God can be doing a remarkable work of change in the core—to prepare us for a new future that might be surprising, and that might be God-filled. And congruence will come, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly. All will be changed, all will be new, and God’s future will indeed come. We shouldn’t resist it.