Birthdays can be pretty awesome. Growing up, I really enjoyed knowing of others who were born on my day. My favorite birthday partner was Benjamin Franklin, born January 17, 1709. Who couldn’t like Benjamin Franklin? What a great thinker, adventurer, inventor, and world changer. His life wasn’t perfect by any means, but his accomplishments as a writer and a revolutionary remain a persistent inspiration to me.
Ben, as I refer to him (as in What would Ben do?), added a lot of meaning to my birthday. As I grew older, my birthday became a time to reflect on my own life, not only others with whom I shared a special day. My birthday wasmy New Year’s Day, an auspicious day like no other.
On Benjamin Franklin’s 300th Birthday Celebration in 2006, my wife, Dr. Melissa Arnott, surprised me with a birthday trip by taking me to the Franklin exposition that just opened at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. You can imagine how thrilled I was to visit exhibit after exhibit exploring the attributes and contributions of my birthday partner. All that came to an abrupt halt when in a corner, a small, poorly lit plaque explained that Franklin’s birthday was not January 17, but in fact, I learned that Ben’s birthday was actually January 6th! What, I gasped! How could I have missed that fact? As a student of history, how did I get that date wrong. Upon further research, I learned something even more remarkable about Ben than his date of birth.
It seems that Benjamin Franklin was born during the time when standardizations regarding calendars were in flux. In the 18th century, most of the world since 45 C.E. used the Julian Calendar which was replaced with the radically different Gregorian Calendar. The Julian Calendar also moved the beginning of the year from March 1 to January 1. Crazy.
When Pope Gregory XIII decreed the calendar fix, not everyone embraced the change. In fact, Great Britain was (naturally) not a fan of the Roman Catholic Church and many in England protested the calendar change. For those born in that vortex, they lost 11 days of their lives (See calendar image)! September 3 instantly became September 14 and, “as a result, nothing whatsoever happened in British history between 3 and 13 September 1752.” The British Calendar Act of 1751 proclaimed that in Britain (and American Colonies) Thursday September 3, 1752 should become Thursday September 14, 1752. According to Slate, Franklin embraced the change while others in England and America were a bit upset. Many people believed their lives would be shortened. They protested in the streets, demanding “Give us our eleven days!”
Artist William Hogarth, ca. 1755; captured the sentiment in a painting titled: “An Election Entertainment” (See my call-out in the photo showing "Give us our Eleven Days" protest slogan against the Gregorian calendar at lower right, on black banner on floor under foot). While anxiety ensued, Ben offered a more optimistic, if not effective, approach to calendar shifts and changes in general. The most complete reference to Ben’s advice from in his Poor Richard’s Almanack was found in the English Forums which included this quotation:
“Be not astonished, nor look with scorn, dear reader, at such a deduction of days, nor regret as for the loss of so much time, but take this for your consolation, that your expenses will appear lighter and your mind be more at ease. And what an indulgence is here, for those who love their pillow to lie down in Peace on the second of this month and not perhaps awake till the morning of the fourteenth.”
(From Benjamin Franklin’s Almanack, quoted by Cowan, 29; Irwin, 98) Cowan, H.C., Time and Its Measurement, World Publishing Company, New York, 1958. Irwin, Keith G. The 365 Days - The Story of Our Calendar, 1964. Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, NY.)
Ben was born on January 6th, not my birthday, but when he was confronted with new data, he did not argue with the information, but instead internalized the contextual changes in his life. When asked when his birthday was, he would have replied, January 17th, because Ben got it. He understood that the birthday change did not change his life. Its just a day on a different calendar.
Like Ben, change occurs in every part of our lives; our bodies, mind, and spirt. Change affects our families, our communities, congregations, and our world. Many of us try to resist change, like the British protesters did in 1752 (depicted in William Hogarth’s painting, above). We hold fast to the familiar instead of embracing God’s emerging future which by definition is always, de facto, change. The future is that time that is “going to be” what’s next.
We ask questions that are often a way to deflect the reality of the change by debating the change observed, such as, "Was the Julian to Gregorian calendar shift a good change or a bad change?" Or, we describe our neighborhoods that change, calling them the "badlands," or we disparage change that appears to take away our comfort, convenience, or preference. "The pastor keeps changing things." What's worse, those of us in a community of faith often mistakenly equate God's changeless attributes as justifying a rigidity in our mission and our methodologies that soon become anachronisms, testimonies of irrelevant mission, and our churches become institutions, then museums, and finally, monuments. Even monuments change and crumble to dust. Life changes. Mission must adapt and our messaging and practices must be more agile to actually be more faithful.
Change is not a problem to be solved. Change is a delta, the difference between two or more events in a different space-time relationship. Change is. It is not good or bad. Even though Ben's birthday shifted on a piece of paper, he didn't loose one second of his life of learning, discovery, invention, and engagement! To Ben, he had two birthdays. No matter what your date of birth, (maybe you have multiple auspicious days, too); you are God's gift of enormous value offered to the world. Be that gift.
Let every new year find you a better person (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack, # 321)
I think Ben is an even more amazing birthday partner than I first imagined, no matter the date. You can’t get what was back again, but what’s ahead, that’s your's to gain. No wishes, but your's to make. Birthdays are awesome, no matter when they occur. Build a great one. That's what Ben would do.