A young man bent over a crossword puzzle yells over to the clerk at the Subway sandwich shop, “Hey Julie, blank and the whale?” Julie, who was making my sandwich at the time blurts back, “It’s Noah and the whale.” I nearly laughed out loud before catching myself and saying, “Do you mean Jonah and the whale?” “Oh yeah, that sounds right. Shows you how much I know,” she giggles. I give her a little education and tell her it’s “Noah and the flood or Jonah and the whale.”
I just left a short presentation on adaptive change in our congregational and denominational worlds. I brought my failing laptop with me to begin my blog post before heading back into a full day of worship and meetings that will take me until nearly 10:00 p.m. I was just getting ready to sit down and write about what the presenters, Jim Kitchens and Deborah Wright, both Presbyterian pastors, had to say about how adaptive change models can help us negotiate from world to another. Then Julie blurted out “Noah and the whale” and made my point better than I could about the changing world.
Jim used a wonderful analogy in his part of the presentation. He explained that just a few years ago (I’m being very kind!) he played high school football. He said if you want to understand what adaptive change is like imagine playing football for a full half and then heading into the locker room to rest and re-strategize for the second half. Then imagine that your team runs out of the locker room and you discover that the football field has been hydraulically shifted and the lines repainted to now serve as a baseball field. You are still playing ball. You are still on grass. You are still entertaining a stadium of spectators, but everything else has changed. There are nine players to a side rather than eleven. The ball is more like an orange in size rather than a misshapen watermelon. And now there are nine innings rather than four quarters. Plus the uniforms are less like armor.
Sometime in the last forty years we went in for half time and came out and the world was different. Shoot! Even the young people don’t know that it was Jonah that got swallowed by the whale rather than Noah. Didn’t Julie know that Noah had a big fish tank on the ark with both a boy and girl whale in it swimming around in circles in the cramped space? I swear, these young people don’t know anything! The church went in for halftime and came out and the field was different and the rules changed.
But I loved Jim’s image of the football field and the baseball field. Both are sports. Both use grass fields. Both use balls. And both are entertaining unless it’s the Oakland Raiders, of course. Eighteen months ago I did a spiritual pilgrimage that I titled “From Rome to Rumi.” That is exactly what I was doing—traveling between two religious worlds that are about the same business, but look and act very differently. This Lent I am working with the “Between Two Worlds” theme. It’s just the thing that is in the air these days.
This is my commitment to you. I will continue to go back and forth between the football field and the baseball field until we all know how to play the new game. I will continue to cross back and forth over the bridge that both separates and connects our traditional religious institutions with the re-emergence of religious mysticism and emerging spiritualities. Shoot—I’ll even build an ark and give Jonah and the whale their own room, if I need to.