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THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGING (Life in a Time of Lockdown 5)

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter, author, and visual artist who has been a major figure in popular culture for more than 50 years. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when songs such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1963) and ‘The Times, They Are a-Changin’ (1964) became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements. His lyrics during this period incorporated a range of political, social, philosophical, and literary influences, defied pop music conventions and appealed to the burgeoning counterculture.

Ever since its release ‘The Times, They Are a-Changin’ has been influential to people’s views on society, with critics noting the general yet universal lyrics as contributing to the song’s lasting message of change. Some have suggested that the song has been outdated by the very changes that it gleefully predicted and hence was politically out of date almost as soon as it was written but others suggest that the song transcends the political preoccupations of the time in which it was written and in fact speaks to any and every age in some way of other. The song’s lyrics echo lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), and the climactic line about the first being last, likewise, is a direct scriptural reference to Mark 10:31: ‘But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then’. This is perhaps unsurprising because Dylan himself is from a Jewish family and later on (in the 1970s) professed to having become a ‘born again’ Christian. Today, no one quite knows where Dylan stands faith-wise – both Christians and Jews claim his allegiance – and Dylan himself remains quiet on the matter simply professing to be ‘spiritual’.

There is an old saying – which has never been truer than today – that says: ‘Constant change is here to stay!’  I am reminded of the old joke: ‘How many Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: ‘Change? Change? Who said anything about change?’ It was wise King Solomon who said: ‘We humans keep brainstorming options and plans, but it is God’s purpose that must prevail’ (Proverbs 19:21). For years churches of every hue have been cursed by an over reliance on ‘brainstorming’ or ‘blue sky thinking’ (to be more politically correct) instead of a prayerful seeking to know ‘the mind of Christ’ (Philippians 2:5) in order to implement the plans and purposes ‘God has already prepared beforehand to be our way of life’ (Ephesians 2:10).  Rick Warren’s somewhat ‘tongue-in-cheek’ story of an alleged Church Council Meeting that took place in a particular church paints a far too familiar picture for many of us. Here is my semi-anglicised, revised version of the story he tells.

‘The Pastor called the meeting to order to formulate the church programme for the following year due to be presented to the Church Meeting in two weeks’ time.  He was worried because only the annual budget meeting provoked more disagreement and debate that this programme-planning meeting. “Who wants to go first?” he asked tentatively. “This ought to be easy” replied Ben Faithful (who had been a church member for 50+ years), “last year was a good year, let’s just repeat all the good things we did last year – tried and tested is better than a lot of new-fangled ideas!” “I disagree’ responded Bob Newman (a comparative newcomer to the church), “times have changed and we need to re-evaluate everything. Just because something worked in the past doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to carry on working in the future. I would like to start a different kind of Worship Service with a different style of worship … we’ve all seen the growth that that church just down the road has had since it started a Contemporary Service to reach the unchurched!” “Yes,” replied Ben, “some churches will do just about anything to get a crowd. They forget who the church is for? It’s for us Christians! We are supposed to be different, separate from the world. If we let anything like that happen here at our church it will be over my dead body!” Over the next two hours a host of ideas and programmes were suggested for inclusion in the church calendar. Karen Doer passionately insisted that the church take a more active role in Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Movement. John Manly gave a moving testimony as to how the Men’s Movement had changed his life and called for more activities for men. Linda Loving spoke of the need to develop more Support Groups. Jim Learner made his usual pitch for a better Church Teaching Programme (especially for the young).  And of course Jerry Tightwad kept on asking how much this was all going to cost? What was apparent was that there seemed to be no standard of reference by which all these ideas and suggestions were arrived at, or by which they could be evaluated and adopted. Finally Roger Reasoner spoke up. His was the voice everyone was waiting for. Whenever issues became confused at Church Business Meetings, Roger would bide his time and then stand up, make a short speech ‘clarifying’ the issues … and then the majority would vote his way. It wasn’t that his ideas were better – the reality was people often disagreed with him – but sheer force of personality (and the fact that everybody was now exhausted and wanting to get home) made whatever he suggested seem reasonable at the time!’

During that period between the Ascension of Jesus and the Day of Pentecost, the New Testament Church (all 120 of them) waited prayerfully on God (Acts 1:12-14). Yes, they too initially struggled with simply waiting prayerfully for God to reveal his ‘new normal’ – as Jesus had told them to do (Acts 1:4,5) – and degenerated into ‘institutional mode’ by substituting a business meeting for the prayer meeting (Acts 1:15-26) – but eventually they appear to have got back on track and once again ‘devoted themselves to prayer’ (Acts 1:14).

It is said that ‘Prayer not only changes things … prayer changes us!’ and these ten days of prayer in the upper room was clearly a time of formation for them as well as prayer. It was a time in which God shaped them, changed them, prepared them for the ‘new normal’ that was to come for them on that first Day of Pentecost when they were all ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:4). They did not know what that ‘new normal’ would be like – a rushing mighty wind, tongues of fire, a supernatural enduement (Acts 2:1-4) – although they must have known that it would involve huge changes for them. But they were ready for change. They were ‘all together in one place … all who believed were together and of one mind’ (Acts 2:4,44).

My friends, the times are a-changing – we will never be able to go back to the ‘old normal’. Thanks to this world-wide pandemic the old way of doing things have gone for good … but are we prepared for God’s ‘new normal’?

Come gather ‘round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics, who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get outta’ the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

~ Bob Dylan

Jim Binney

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