In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. (Psalm 102.25-26)
Replacing New With Newer
Hearts that cherish freedom and democracy have rejoiced worldwide while watching the first two weeks of the Egyptian revolution. Yet over the past weekend those same hearts sank as reports of the current regime’s concessions belied a baldly sinister motive. The government’s selective compromises were designed to placate the middle and upper classes that shocked the world by joining ranks with the poor and young to demand change. The strategy seemed to work; it appeared life was returning to “normal”—shops reopened, traffic gummed the streets, and banks were back in business. Masses that poured into Tahrir Square went home, leaving a few hundred diehards camped in makeshift tents like squatters. This was as Mubarak & Friends intended. Fully aware crushing the revolution was no option, they shrewdly tried to isolate its leaders, expecting to wear them down until the movement literally vanished before the world’s eyes. (Their cynicism may have backfired, however. Today, tens of thousands of disgruntled citizens retook to the streets. We pray they persist until repression is vanquished and legitimate self-rule becomes the law of the land.)
Observing the conflict from afar—reacquainting ourselves with hope’s elusive ideals and fragile realities—reminds us how rapidly humans get worn down. Fatigue and waning commitment waylay far too many quests for peace, freedom, and justice in comparison to those that succeed through tireless stamina and tenacity. Nowhere is this more frequently seen than in consumerist cultures, where replacing new with newer is the norm. So little we possess endures, not because it won’t last—as advertisers would have us believe—but because faith and loyalty no longer have staying power. Obsession with newer-better-faster-bigger easily spills into our regard for intangibles that sustain our stability and ideals. Grabbing one thing and tossing it aside for another has become a way of life, which is why Americans failed to mount a decisive campaign against the Iraqi War, the French have yet to rally effectively against ethnic inequality, Russians settle for faux democracy, and China’s new capitalists show no interest in ending political oppression. It’s why we find the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts refreshing. Seeing a people commit to whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to rid itself of corruption and injustice has become so rare it actually looks new. Finally, it’s also why so many resist believing in a God Whose nature and promises endure. Everlasting sounds a whole lot like out-of-date to us. So we let God go for trendier “spirituality” and “consciousness”--replacements that taste very similar to faith yet offer none of the sustenance provided by tireless, tenacious trust in the nature and promises of God.
Sameness Isn’t Stasis
I’m increasingly convinced fixation with novelty rests at the core of our greatest struggles, as a species and as cultures, communities, and individuals. We’ve severed the cord that connects endurance with reliability, timelessness with truth. Thus, when we read of God’s timeless endurance, we’re apt to brush it aside before affording it attention it deserves. What do we take from Psalm 102.25-26? “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.” It’s easy. God remains the same while everything else comes and goes. “Fine,” we say. “What else you got?” We look for something newer and more exciting than that, never imagining that God’s enduring nature and promises are consistently the newest, most exciting aspects of our faith. That’s entirely our fault for mistaking “God remains” to mean “God’s stuck.” As a result, the text winds up revealing less about God than how poorly we comprehend God. If we knew God better, we’d understand God’s sameness isn’t stasis. Indeed, with God, sameness is anything but stasis, remaining is the complete opposite of being stuck.
From Genesis to Revelation, newness defines God’s sameness. Creativity and experimentation are the hallmarks of God’s nature and promises. Nearly every page of the Bible finds God coming up with fresh ideas and attempting new approaches. Yes. Attempting—not instituting, and by no means always succeeding. Relentless compulsion to partner with humanity fuels God’s drive to create and experiment. That introduces a wide margin of error that sends God back to the drawing board again and again. In fact, it’s neither inaccurate nor sacrilegious to read the Bible as a chronicle of divine disasters. Eden is a failure. The Flood punishes human waywardness but doesn’t correct it. God’s promised greatness and pledged fidelity to Abraham become Israel’s excuse for arrogance and irresponsibility. The Law of Moses turns into a recipe for sin and injustice. Prosperity doesn’t work. Nor does hardship. The switch from fear of retribution to faith in redemption through Christ launches 2000 years of religious debate, strife, and hatred. Yet, with astonishing, superhuman endurance, God keeps doing new things and finding new ways to revolutionize our lives in order to restore the relationship we were created to have with God. The objective remains the same. But God’s sameness is evidenced by persistent willingness to invent new ways to meet the objective. Jeremiah sums up this contradiction in Lamentations 3.23, saying God’s mercies “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
The Face in the Mirror
We don’t know who composed Psalm 102. All we’re told is it’s “a prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the LORD.” While we wish we had more background linking historical events to the poem’s vivid description of flagging determination—as we often do with David’s blues tunes—perhaps it’s best we don’t. The face in the mirror can be anyone’s, even ours. Life’s afflictions and fears often feel endless, causing us to grab one thing, toss it aside, and reach for another, thinking that latest, allegedly greatest must be the best. In the end, these novelties turn out to be the same old nonsense repackaged in new wrapping. What the psalmist concludes (and we should, too) is enduring doubts and struggles call for an enduring God Who remains but isn’t stuck, Who’s timeless yet never out of date, Who’s sameness isn’t static, Who’s always new, constantly creative, and eager to try fresh approaches. The sun will never rise on the day God’s nature and promises aren’t the newest things we possess. God’s faithfulness ensures they’re new every morning. We rely on that and nothing else.
Modern obsession with newness urges us to look elsewhere for answers to our struggles, when God’s enduring nature and promises are forever new.