Hello, my friends, and welcome to part one of a brand-new series of articles that I am calling Metamorphosis.
Yes, you read that right, a series.
It’s a bit strange for me to be writing a series. I’ve written articles that are interconnected and related topically, but this is my first foray into the whole series thing. I must confess: I’m quite excited. It’s a new venture, but one that I think is incredibly worthwhile. Not only for me but also for you, my readers.
See, I had this thing happen a few months ago that caused a shift inside of me. It wasn’t this one event, it was really the events of the last five years of my life that came to a head in this one moment. I know that may sound over the top, but you’ve had this before, I’m sure. You’ve been mired in the slog of work for years on end, and you’ve considered leaving the company you’re at. But the timing has never been right. Then one day, someone calls you up and says they have a job with your name on it and, boom, you take the plunge. Or maybe you’ve been thinking about moving across the country, starting a family, opening a new business, going back to school, or exploring a new hobby. The wheels have been turning for weeks, months, or even years, but then one little event brings it all together and causes a shift. Or, maybe it’s not so much about starting something as it is about finishing something. Maybe it has been about ending your studies, finishing a book you’ve been writing, ending a toxic relationship, no longer striving to fit in in a place you simply won’t, ceasing to seek the approval of your parents, or terminating cyclical thoughts of past mistakes. Regardless, you’ve wanted to stop that thing, and then something happens where you finally do.
I find it fascinating that we can have all of these things stirring within us for days, weeks, months, or even years. And we can, for any given period, not do anything about it. We don’t start the thing we want to start, and we don’t end the thing we want to end.
Until that one thing happens. For me, it was an encounter with someone at Starbucks.
Encounters at Starbucks.
There was this encounter I had at Starbucks, and I need to share it with you. Because it caused me to pause, to sit up and take notice, to think, to grow, to evolve. A lot can happen at Starbucks.
I was sitting down to write when a friend of mine walked in and saw me there. He came over for a few minutes, and we chatted. I hadn’t seen him in several months, so it was nice to catch up. The catching up didn’t last long, though. After about two minutes, he unloaded a question most pastors ponder quite often: Anthony, what’s the point of discipleship?
Talk about being hit square between the eyes at 7:30 in the morning.
That’s basically where the conversation landed, though. We talked for a few moments more, and then he sat down to begin his work, and I resumed mine. But there was a fleeting moment of unadulterated and underwhelming brilliance within that conversation. He looked at me and answered his question like this: “Is it just to become a better human?”
You can feel the strain in those words, can’t you? “Is it just?” You can hear the teeth-clenching with disdain. You can feel the desperation in the words. When you hear the words, “is it just,” prefacing the conclusion that was reached, you know there is deep dissatisfaction with the results. The destination was less satisfying than you originally hoped.
“Is it just to become a better human?”
To be honest, I thought the answer he gave, albeit in the form of a question (which would betray an even deeper dissatisfaction with the answer than first surmised), was brilliant. It was brilliant but incomplete. And, in retrospect, that was why he was struggling with his conclusion. It was premature. It wasn’t fleshed out. It was a half-answer.
So, I thought I ought to explore that question more thoroughly. After all, it’s the question that so many people ask. Okay, so maybe it’s not in such a churchy way. Maybe you don’t ask “What’s the point of discipleship?” Fair enough. But, for many Christians, discipleship is equated with living. Therefore, you might ask, just as easily, “What’s the point of life? Why bother living and doing anything?” At the root of it all, you’re asking the same thing: what’s the point?
In other words, does it make any difference to change jobs? Have hopes and dreams? Be devastated by the loss of something or someone? Believe in anything?
And those are million-dollar questions, aren’t they? If you could answer those, your talents would be in high demand.
So, I thought that I should very much like to answer that question.
And that’s what this entire series, Metamorphosis, is all about: attempting to answer the question “What’s the point?” And it would be way more fun if you were to be part of it. I’d love for you to not only track with me, but to engage with me, as we plumb the depths of that question.
But where do you start?
I started by using the Google. You know, as you do. You stop everything that you are working on and you get sucked into the vacuous rabbit hole of a Google search. And I came across the results of a year-long Bible passage popularity contest.
*Bear with me as I recite some decade-old statistics.*
In 2010, Bible Gateway released the top 25 Bible passages for 2009. The results weren’t surprising. (In fact, with only minute differences, the results for the top Bible passages of the last decade are all very similar in their makeup.) The famous love passage of 1 Corinthians 13 was the number one passage of the year. Surprise, surprise. It’s all about love. (That was the most searched Bible term of 2018, according to Bible Gateway.) It was followed in popularity by Psalm 23. Are you surprised yet? Neither was I. Out of the remaining 23 passages, all but five were from the New Testament. Again, no surprise. The average person doesn’t care about the Old Testament. The same could be said for pastors too if you were to look at their past sermon series. The New Testament reigns supreme. After all, we’re people of the new covenant, so we can disregard the first 39 books of that old and soooo played covenant. Nineteen new deal passages, six from the old. It seems like a good ratio. I’m actually stunned it was this close.
But here’s where it becomes very interesting, and, dare I say it, surprising. Two of the top three passages were from the Old Testament…wait…what?!? Okay, let’s look at that a little closer. What passages were they? They were – drum roll please – Psalm 23 and Genesis 1.
Can I hang my head at this?
Listen, I’m not saying these are unimportant passages. Far from it. They are beautiful and theologically staggering. I have been deeply mesmerized by Genesis 1 for the last six months. You could study it for years and never run out of things to marvel at. It’s a bottomless well of beauty, myth, and love. And Psalm 23, well, need I say more. But if there are any Old Testament passages that the average person is familiar with, it would make sense that they were the very first chapter of the Bible and the most famous psalm of all. Just sayin’.
Okay, so what else was surprising? Nothing that I could see. Oh, except that the only other passage from the Old Testament that made it into the top 25, that wasn’t a Psalm, was Jeremiah 29:11. Surprise, surprise. (Actually, not at all. According to Bible Gateway and YouVersion, this has become the most popular verse in all of Scripture in both 2018 and 2019.) People love the idea of God declaring his knowledge of the plans he has for them. In fact, the trend seems to suggest that individuals increasingly love to latch on to the verses that are declarative in nature. You know, the ones that say God is for us and won’t abandon us. Those verses are cherry-picked through Google searches and keyword searches on Bible Gateway. Frankly, I’m shocked that passages like Exodus 4:24, Judges 19:25-28, or this, the happiest of psalms, didn’t make it into the top 25. (That’s a conversation for another day.) But there you have it, verses that declare God’s love for people, with unabashed positivism, are the most popular.
Okay, so was there anything else about that list? Yeah, there was one more thing that I noticed. It was the twelfth entry on the list. It caught my eye, first and foremost, because it was a passage about a twelfth chapter and it was twelfth on the list. (Staggering the way my mind works, isn’t it? Look at that, twelve and twelve!) The twelfth entry was Romans 12. And this was utterly shocking expected.
Transformation: Fodder When You’re Out of Ideas.
To quote every evangelical pastor ever, “It’s all about life transformation.”
If pastoral vernacular is any indicator, then it sure is.
But is it really?
Romans 12 is one of those passages that, often, gets used as a filler passage within a sermon because it mentions the word transformation. And that’s flashy. It’s affirmative. It indulges the ideology that we can “let go and let God.” It also goes well with modern worship music. It idolizes a positive outcome and makes a great soundbite. It also sounds better than saying “um.” When you’re not quite sure what to say, revert to Romans 12:1-2.
It’s why I’m not surprised at all that it’s on the list of top Bible passages for 2009. After all, you can hear the sentiment of the passage dripping through every weekend service, in every evangelical church, of the last 15 years.
“Jesus loves you! Just like Romans 12 says, let that truth renew your mind so that you can live transformed and free.”
Compare those words to, “Jesus loves you! Um.”
Yeah, the former sounds brighter and more hopeful than the latter.
If you haven’t heard that before, how about this iteration of the same idea:
“When you accept Christ as your saviour, you become a new creation. It says so in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The old has gone, the new has come. The old way you lived is gone. The sin that kept you in bondage has been taken away. It’s like Paul says to the Romans, “If you want to be renewed, if you want to be transformed, then you have to allow your mind to be renewed. Then you will be transformed. And that’s what it’s all about.”
Generic enough for you?
Okay, maybe it’s not in a sermon that you heard it referenced, but somewhere else in the service. After all, the sermon usually clocks in at about 50% of the time you’re gathered together. That still leaves roughly 30-45 more minutes to fill. Then, subtract about half of the remaining time for a mash-up of declarative, driving, repetitive, and angst-laden ballads to the deity we wish we could conjure more feelings for. Don’t get me wrong, I think that there is great beauty when we sing to the creator. However, I am skeptical of whether the worship we have created is actually worship, or if it is actually cloaking much deeper symptoms of our brokenness that we refuse to acknowledge.
But singing is not all there is to our weekend services. There’s more!
At this point, you have about 15 minutes to do some more talking about transformation. Usually, that happens in the announcement slot of a weekend gathering. You know, the time where the service comes to a grinding halt in order to push small groups and serving within a particular church ministry so that the pastor/host/emcee can hide the offering while you’re not focused on it?
Often those announcements go something like this:
“Here at [insert name of church], we believe in life transformation. We believe that God wants all of us to experience a radical transformation; to be made new. Around here, we believe that happens in the environments of weekend gatherings and small groups/circles/clans/squads/tribes/collections/compilations/bands/units/crews/troupes/assemblies of people. We believe that’s where God works. So, stop by our Next Steps Area so we can chat about your next step to experiencing life transformation in a group.”
And so, after the service, if you’re comfortable, you can step forward and uncover the predetermined, unique, cookie-cutter pathway for you to change your life.
Bam! Life changed forever. All because of your one decision that fateful weekend in September. (Or after Christmas, but no more than two weeks into the new year. Or, lest I forget, right after Good Friday and Easter.) Because let’s face it, that’s when church leaders think everyone comes back to the church ready to be changed; after summer vacation, on the high of Christmas, in resolution mode at the turn of the year, or when feeling shameful gratitude because of the sacrifice we remember on Good Friday and Easter.
Okay, so that was tongue-in-cheek, but if you stop and think about it, it’s not a foreign concept to many of us. Transformation is a word that is liberally tossed around. It’s the new “um” when your brain isn’t fast enough to tell your tongue what to do. It’s applied as a filler when we’re out of ideas for what to say. And we support our use and overuse of the word because of its presence in Romans 12 – one of the most popular passages of scripture in 2009. Yet we never move beyond the word itself into something deeper. It’s as though ‘transformation’ sits on the shelf waiting to be picked up. It remains ink within the pages. It’s an idea that is awaiting incarnation.
That’s why I’m so shocked it actually made the top 25: because even though it’s talked about ad nauseam, I don’t think it’s actually understood. The best manifestation of the transformational ideal the church seems to have is to attend church and join a small group. Thousands of years of history and that’s as far as we’ve come with Romans 12. If it is such a popular passage, such a prominent idea, and such a poignant summary of what it means to have faith, shouldn’t we attempt to understand and embody it in vastly different ways? Isn’t there more to transformation than simply sitting on our rear-ends?
A Beginning of Understanding.
Okay, so that was a rhetorical question. It was also leading. There was only one answer, but you knew that.
And that’s the point.
According to many-a-pastor, there’s only one way to talk about and experience transformation: come back next Sunday and/or (especially and) disrupt your week with a small group of your new “friends.” Fundamentally, there isn’t really an option here, either. It’s never “or.” It’s always “and.”
What it boils down to is consume our talking and talk with other people that we select for you.
But talk is cheap.
Talking often causes us to do nothing. In the long run, it keeps us from a true experience. That’s part of the problem of language. It helps you talk about things, but it doesn’t necessarily help you experience them. Have you ever tried to talk about a trip you took, only to have your words pale in comparison to the experience? Yeah, the trip now sounds like it was dull, but it was really a delight! You know that. But you’re not sure everyone else knows it. What about describing a brilliant scene from a movie? Words don’t seem to cut it, do they?
I can know what it looks like on top of Mount Everest.
I don’t know what it’s like to stand on its summit.
And that’s what it’s like with the word transformation. It is very likely that the way in which transformation is talked about can keep us from actually experiencing it. I once heard a Canadian pastor, Bruxy Cavey, say something that applies in this context. (He may have been referencing someone else, but I could not ascertain that, so I’ll attribute the saying to him at this point.) He was talking about the all-too-often sad seminary experience of many pastors. He said this: quite often, seminary is the place where people go to talk about God as if he’s not there. Shots fired. I’m a seminary graduate, but I could recognize the words for what they were; reality. In other words, for all the “Jesus-y” talk that occurs in the hallowed halls of a seminary, the Jesus that’s talked about is not often encountered. Let that sink in for a moment. Seminary is holy ground? Maybe. But for what it’s worth, my experience was more like the one Bruxy Cavey mentioned. You can talk about God all you like, and never experience him.
You can know God, and simultaneously not know him.
That’s a paradox all of us willingly ignore.
It’s a paradox all of us happily live.
I can know about God.
I can also not know God.
You and I do this every day of our lives.
We are walking paradoxes.
To willfully blind ourselves to the antagonisms within our being is disingenuous at best, and sin at worst. To be certain that we know God only to never know him is to abide in the darkest depths. It’s made alive in the flowery prayers filled with certainty, yet a life devoid of charity. It’s incarnated every time you belt out a psalm/hymn/song at the top of your lungs, only to turn around and denigrate your neighbour. It’s espousing the grace of God, all while working harder to achieve eternity. To know about God but to never know him is a valley of the shadow of death kind of place that Psalm 23 refers to. A valley of the shadow of death that has an all too visible but never reachable exit. Believe me, you and I can talk about something like it’s not there, and we miss it altogether. You can miss Jesus by talking about him.
But it’s not only a seminary thing. It’s not just a Jesus thing, either. You experience this separation between yourself and the object of your speech all the time. That’s part of the problem of language. It helps you talk about things, but it doesn’t necessarily help you experience them. In fact, it might actually cause you to miss them altogether.
I know a lot of people who work as clinicians of some kind or another. A lot of them work with small children, too. In their practices, many of them have similar experiences when it comes to the interaction between them (the practitioner), the child, and the parent who brings the child. Invariably, many of them say the same thing: they have experienced a parent talking about their child like the child isn’t in the room. Except that the child is. Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest burdens that these clinicians face. Why? Because for all of the talk surrounding that child, they never actually get to hear directly from the child themself. It’s always mediated. They are talked about and, if they do any talking themselves, their words are translated on their behalf. It’s as if the parent knows what they mean better than they do. And fair enough, they might. But here’s a terrible reality, if that child isn’t involved in that discussion, the parent is only engaging themself in the process. It’s not about the child anymore. It’s all about the parent. It was never about the experience of the child.
It can be like that with God. Even though he is present, we can talk about him like he’s not. And if we treat him as absent, we may never get to know him. And if a void seemingly opens between us and the Divine, we often reconcile the void by acting as though it doesn’t exist. And if we act as though it doesn’t exist, then we continue to speak on his behalf. We supply the words as we see fit. And if we supply the words, it’s all too easy to re-create him in our image in lieu of bearing his. And we may never know the difference.
We may discuss God to death, but if it is merely our voice supplying the words, the valley of the shadow of death may be the only reality left to us.
The old will linger. The new will never evolve. How could it?
And that’s a harsh reality.
Another Harsh Reality.
But there’s more. The other harsh reality we must face is this: we often don’t think about God beyond our assumptions. That is, we often talk about him in such a trite and platitudinal manner that the discourse occurs on the level of unconsciousness. That is, we don’t think, we just speak. We reflexively use the words God, Jesus, and Spirit and assume they convey everything necessary to experience them. And if that’s true, nothing will ever change.
Carl Jung was a brilliant man. Polarizing, sure. But incandescent in his giftedness. This thought, from him, has been critical in my ongoing metamorphosis: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Without ever thinking about something, it will never change. If we truly want to experience God, we need to think about him. But we need to think and speak about him in a different manner. If we continually talk about God as if it isn’t in the room, we’ll always miss him. We need to speak with him. We need to engage with him. We need to learn to know him.
Now, I know the knee jerk reflex many of us might have: but, Anthony, our church is baptizing people left, right, and centre. Lots of people are coming to Christ. That’s a great thing! And you would be right to think that. But let us be careful about what we are inferring when we talk about baptism. Baptism does not equal salvation. (Whatever we mean by that word. Let’s face it, salvation is another one of those greasy words we think we comprehend and, as such, don’t talk about at all.) Baptism does not equal perfection. In truth, baptism doesn’t mean we have experienced a substantive metamorphosis, either.
Yeah, but they were baptized!
Sure. And the rates of anxiety within your church are likely no different than the general population. The rate of infidelity within your church is, possibly, hovering at the same mark as the rate outside of the church. How about the divorce rate? How about the rate of abuse? (Extend it beyond sexual abuse and consider emotional and psychological abuse.) How about the track record of environmental care? What about the levels of obesity? Debt levels? How about the kindness quotient? Is your church filled with sour grapes that have been dunked beneath the cleansing waters? How many people experience peace from the Prince of Peace? Many? Few? Or are they just as worried as they were the moment before they plunged under the baptismal waters? What about love? Are they more or less loving than before?
Transformation and baptism aren’t synonymous. One may be symbolic of the potential for the other, sure. But let us not equate potential symbolism for causality.
But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Our unconscious dictates that there exists a causal relationship between these things. Baptism equals full transformation. Baptism equals a full God experience. Why? Not because that’s what we were taught, but because it’s easier to assume. It lets us off the hook. We are absolved of looking in the mirror. Personally, I’ve been baptized and if I’m fully transformed then I don’t think my baptism was fully effective. I sin. When I do that, I highlight the work that has yet to be done. And sometimes I’m ashamed of that. Other times I don’t even think about it, because it makes life easier.
It seems to me that our unconscious assumptions about God and transformation need to be made conscious. Why? Because, if we don’t do that, we’ll continue toward the same destination and call it fate. We will baptize people, assume they’re good, and move on to the next person we need to “transform” by drowning them in divine waters. But nothing will ever change. Matters such as anxiety, unkindness, worry, and abuse will still reign supreme, all because of our unconscious bias towards doing nothing. In Jung’s words, fate. And fate is a dastardly concept, isn’t it? It’s one of the most degrading constructs you or I could believe in. I say this because fate removes all human agency. That is, if all is left to fate, we cannot change anything. Any action we take is doomed from the start. Transformation? Forget it. Stagnation will be the order of the day. But in that kind of world, there is no emergence from the valley of the shadow of death. It’s just death.
And if this is true, then nothing ever changes.
But if we are to believe what the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth, then death, the last great enemy, has been defeated and everything changes. If we are to truly believe the closing words of the Scriptures, that a new heaven and new earth are on the horizon, then everything changes. And if that’s true, then our idea of transformation needs to change. And that requires conscious effort, not unshakeable certainty founded upon nothing but our own certitude in unquestioned assumptions.
And that brings us back to Romans 12.
#12 of our Top 25.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
~ The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans
I’ve taken a long while to get there, but we need to come full circle. Funny how the most circuitous and inefficient route may be the exact path we need to effect the most good.
There is a contrast that Romans 12 expresses that demands deep discussion. It’s the contrast between two words: conformed and transformed. I cannot state this clearly enough: much of our lived – much of our incarnated – faith hinges upon these two words.
In fact, so much of it hinges on these two words that I will be devoting an upcoming article to a deep discussion of them. In fact, I’m going to devote every one of my next articles to expounding upon Romans 12, and as much of the scriptures as possible, to help us understand and encounter genuine transformation. I’ve entitled this series of articles Metamorphosis because, well, it’s the best translation of the Greek word we read as “transformation”. But not only that, I think we need to challenge the assumptions we have, and to do that best I think a change of vocabulary is extremely useful.
But here’s something I would love to ask of you. Actually, there are three somethings I would ask of you:
First, join me for the experience. I’m will provide you with the best thoughts I have to offer. I will talk about metamorphosis and what that means, but I would love for you to also engage with it. If you want to be the first to know when the next article drops, you can subscribe to my mailing list. Everyone there will be the first to receive word that the new installment is live. You can subscribe to my mailing list right here.
Second, share this article with like-minded people. Let them know it exists, and get them involved in the conversation. It’s easy to do. As you were scrolling, there was a little box that popped up and said, “Who needs this?” You can click the link right there and share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social platform.
Third, you can comment on the articles. Scroll down a little further and leave a comment at the bottom of this page. I’d love to engage with your thoughts on transformation and create an even better experience. I’d much rather experience genuine transformation instead of leaving things to fate.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
We go back to a beginning. We look to an ending. And we fill in a few gaps in the middle.
And now, my friends, until the next entry in this series drops, grace and peace to you.