Sundry and Manifold Changes

Turbulence Often Manifests as a New Impediment

Todd Brewer / 3.22.21

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Of all the prayers said on Sunday mornings in churches, this one from this past week is always a high point. I look forward to it every year. This, though, has not been a normal year, and the line that rang out loud and clear above the rest had little to do with “unruly wills and affections,” but with “sundry and manifold changes of the world.” These days, the world has been anything but stable. The obvious resonance between the prayer and the pandemic was stirring for the connection it implicitly makes between change and constraint, between the eternal joy of Christ and the comparatively joyless variations of the world.

The world has changed, and with it have come “sundry and manifold” constraints. What was normally done is no longer, and the semblance of life that persists has been made possible through increased regulations: masks, distance, plexiglass, and different expectations for social interaction. What was once a simple trip to the grocery store is now more challenging.  Within Covid and beyond, the experience of change brings with it new behavioral impediments. A new car might offer (fleeting) joy, but also a thick users manual for upkeep. That apartment upgrade (or downgrade) has new neighbors who complain about your noisy children. That social media app you got in college gives rise to novel social customs. With even the slightest of amendments to the status quo, what was once reliably true is no longer and that turbulence often manifests as an obstacle: new difficulties, more responsibilities, greater disruption.

Alterations to life can be accommodated, but genuine love lags far behind. The outward demand arises, but the inward desire resists. This conflict between what must be done and what one wants to do is the heart of this prayer. As Paul Zahl notes in his commentary:

The prayer bids us love that which we are required to do. The vision is for people to obey God’s commandment not out of constraint, nor even out of a sense of duty, but rather out of spontaneous desire. What a revolutionary idea! For the I ought to be the same thing as the I want.

Are we not more typically in conflict? Romans 7 describes the human predicament of our not being able to do what we ought to do. We actually do what we know we ought not to do! (v. 19). St. Paul sees the human condition as one of experienced wretchedness (v. 24), because the Law of God is unable to be fulfilled by conflicted human nature.

The Apostle resolves this universal conflict by affirming that the forgiveness of God (8:1) makes it possible for the human being to begin willing from the heart what is right to do in agreement with God’s will. The title of a film by Francis Ford Coppola entitled One from the Heart (1982) catches the wave of Christian ethics. Right doing comes from the inward will of a person, not from outward demands upon that person.

How does a change not become yet another limitation? The prayer proposes a supernatural solution: the revelation of that which does not and never will change, namely, the forgiveness of God. Though the globe may increasingly spin off its axis, there is at least one place that is unaffected by the ever-changing, demanding, constraining world. By finding one fixed point of stability, of love that does not grow weary, the demands occasioned by change are less disruptive, less chaotic.

Seeking not the security of normalcy but the promise of the future, the change that comes by the hand of God is received as a gift. Knowing “where true joys are to be found,” the many transitions, protocols, and mandates might even themselves be transformed into a child-like adventure. The wind may blow this way or that, but the one tethered by love sails through it all like a kite on a string.

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One response to “Sundry and Manifold Changes”

  1. ceej says:

    I remember back in 2017 when, right outside my church in Charlottesville, “Charlottesville” happened–the nightmarish unite the right rally. The next day we went to church & were so comforted to discover that though the world seemed upside down, the message of the gospel had not changed. It seemed to be the only stable thing left. Great post, Todd.

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