February 18, 2008

Polar Bears

Tristan, my six year-old, loves polar bears. He has a polar bear named Lars that he sleeps with at night. And when Tristan heard that there was a nature program on TV Sunday night featuring polar bears, he convinced me to watch it with him.

The program focused on a mother and her newborn cub. In late winter, Mama Bear roamed the ice, hunting for seals, using her superb sense of smell and powerful strength. The cub watched, mimicked, and learned.

Unfortunately, the number of seals have been declining. The program pointed out that this is due to climate change. Polar bears must search harder for food. They must swim farther, too, because there is less ice than there used to be. Polar bears are excellent swimmers (some scientists even classify them as "marine mammals," like the seals they hunt) but even so, an increasing number of polar bears are drowning.

Eventually, Mama Bear and her cub made it to land. Summer was now approaching, a time when polar bears typically relax, but because Mama Bear had not eaten enough, she was still hungry, and the search for food continued. She found some kelp and chewed on it. Kelp does provide some nutrients for her, but at the same time, she ignored the shellfish that covered the shore. She did not recognize the shellfish as food.

It was at this point that I could hear the polar bear's thoughts. Those thoughts sounded eerily similar to the thoughts of many church folks I know. "Eat shellfish? I can't do that. We polar bears have never done it that way before."

By August, salmon is plentiful. In September, the mountains are covered with berries. In fact, the amount of food available on land is increasing due to climate change. Grizzly bears, who never leave land, are able to take advantage of this. But it's all new, all different, to the polar bears. The polar bears' world is changing, and they are having a hard time adapting.

In so many ways, our world is changing. In order to survive, much less thrive, the church must also change.

Climate change has always been a part of the earth's history, and life on earth has adapted. However, the current rate of change, propelled by human activity, is unprecedented. Many species cannot adapt fast enough.

The rate of cultural change is also unprecedented, providing a challenge for churches that want to adapt. As a pastor, I know that I not only need to be a proponent for change; I also need to help the people I pastor adapt to the changes.

Too much change is disorienting. The polar bears can't adapt fast enough, and even if they could, it's possible that they would become indistinguishable from the grizzlies. In other words, they would lose their identiy as polar bears. The church people who resist change fear that the same fate will come to them, that they'll be forced to change so much, that their identity will be lost.

That's something to keep in mind as I continue to ministering to God's people.

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