Everyone has heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog a new trick.” It refers to how hard it is sometimes for people to accept change. My personal experience tells me that the adage holds water for the most part, but I’ve witnessed some notable exceptions. Let me share one exception that inspired a change in my life and the life of my extended family.
Years ago, when I was in my late 20’s, my wife and I went to a family reunion of my mother’s side of the family. My mother’s family (Copeland) are all people who grew up in the northwest; people who love the outdoors. So we usually gathered in a national park or national forest where we could park RVs or rent cabins. We would spend time hiking the trails, fishing the local streams, and when the kids were younger, creating late-night skits and playing games to amuse ourselves while sitting around the campfire.
On this particular occasion, we were all sitting around a large campfire early in the week, getting caught up after several years of being apart. One of the unique aspects of our family gatherings is that each time we get together, we end our time together with a final Sunday morning church service produced by the members of the family. It’s always an emotional time charged with family tradition that emanates from my grandfather and grandmother’s lifelong Christian ministry as a pastor and pastor’s wife. Their ministry has been the focal point for our faith as an extended family. Even after their passing, their inspiration still holds sway in all our families.
Imagine a group of family members trying to act as though they didn’t care who got the leadership roles for one of the significant events of the reunion schedule. It was hilarious to watch. Did I mention that my family can be competitive at times? With that said, my grandfather suddenly sat up on the edge of his lawn chair, usually a cue for the rest of us to get prepared to listen carefully. Before he starts to speak, he turns to my grandmother, seeking her permission. She gives him a smile and a nod, and he starts talking. Over the next few minutes, he admits to us that after 60 years of ministry, he has realized that he was wrong and has completely changed his mind about the role that women are to have in church leadership.
We were shocked. In general, as a family unit, we were taught that men held leadership roles in the formal church setting. In our family tradition and many other Christian traditions of the day, the responsibility of men was to lead worship, be the elders that govern the church administration, and dispense the sacraments. Of course, almost by default, the woman’s role was to provide support and follow the lead of men. I know it seems almost unbelievable today, but historically that’s the way it was for many faith traditions. Some people still attend churches where women are locked out of leadership roles by unchangeable tradition. Men are the leaders, and that’s that.
It made me sit up and take notice. I remember watching the reactions of my family with a sense of curiosity. Because of their conservative faith tradition, I knew my mom and dad were not thrilled by the announcement. In contrast, a few of my aunts and uncles were overjoyed! They had already made their own decision to be inclusive of women in ministry for many years, in direct conflict with their dad’s viewpoint. I knew this was a big deal and a welcome change of heart for many. But the thing I sensed, foremost, was the gift my grandfather had just given. The gift brought on by a change of heart. Apparently, he agonized over this decision. But, by methodically thinking through this issue, he was able to change his mind and his practice and influence future generations of the Copeland family. I can only imagine the impact he had on the young women sitting around that campfire thirty five years ago. To this day, I harken back to that family reunion when I see women lead in Commonway Church on Sunday.
Another thing I have come to realize is that personal change often takes a long time. Change requires its own process and some degree of patience. Significant change doesn’t always take 60 years, like the ministry issue my grandfather contemplated, but it does take time. Time can be our friend if we use it wisely. So might I humbly suggest that we not put off the idea of scrutinizing our habits and traditions occasionally. Perspective changes as we gain experience and wisdom. At the risk of being cliche’, it takes time for the cream to rise to the top, so don’t be afraid to wait for God’s revelation as your life runs along. Just be aware and take notice when Truth reveals itself to you.
So back in 1985, our Copeland family reunion Sunday service took on a completely fresh new look. The old dog really did learn a new trick. That Sunday morning, my aunts were reading scripture, the teenage girls were serving communion, and grandma gave one of her famous devotionals that suddenly seemed much more like a sermon for some reason. Grandpa sat back in his lawn chair and just beamed, as did we all.