‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’
That was the phrase that was bandied around my kitchen as I tried to convince my eight-year-old Labrador, Bramble, that she really did want to learn to roll over.
After months of trying, countless acts of bribery, and quite a lot of gentle shoving, I am delighted to report that Bramble can now roll over on command.
What did I learn from this experience? Many things, mostly dog-related. But one which has particularly stuck with me is how often we resort to turns-of-phrase such as ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ as an excuse for giving up, or for bad behaviour. We know that the older we get, the less teachable we are – science tells us so: as we age, our brain loses some of its plasticity, and we find it harder to learn from experience.
But why is it that we find ourselves using this as an excuse for ignoring unacceptable behaviour, or indulging laziness? We accept behaviour in ourselves that we would never condone in children: ‘do what I say, not what I do’. We refuse to change our bad habits because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’. We can be loath to challenge others in their sin because they’re ‘set in their ways’.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus warns us about letting go of the commands of God in order to hold on to human traditions. Where might we have bought into the idea that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, and therefore stopped believing in the power of the gospel to transform lives?
The transformational nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – his interruption of our old ways, and the bringing in of something new – means that we no longer need to be stuck in the patterns we have lived with for so long. It also means that there is an opportunity for a change of heart from the unruly teenager, a chance for relationship transformation with the patronising colleague, the prospect of breakthrough with a stubborn neighbour. It means we can offer hope to those who are trapped in seemingly never-ending cycles of hopelessness, and bring reconciliation into communities fraught with conflict and violence.
That is the good news and the power of the gospel: transformation, redemption, and a chance to learn new things – tricks or otherwise – no matter how old you might be.