When the church needs transfiguration

 

neonbrand-265875Last week the Church celebrated Transfiguration. The miraculous event where Christ revealed his divine glory is considered a major feast day in the liturgical year. Historically, this event took place during the Jewish Festival of Booths, and the timing of the transfiguration illustrates the co-dwelling of the glory of God with humankind. In the Orthodox church today, Transfiguration is the day when the faithful bring fruits to church to be blessed, symbolizing the fruitfulness of a creation that has been transformed by Christ’s kingdom. It is a day where we look upon the magnificence of God, not as something other, but as something that has been revealed to us, dwells with us, and changes us.

This year, I think it’s my favorite holiday.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the need for transfiguration. This last year has been a year of faith struggle, of evolution and change, and I’m sure I’m not the only Christian who’s felt fed up with Christianity. It’s been painful, even sickening to witness the polarization, the fear, the cynicism, the lack of empathy, and did I mention fear?, and the American church’s love affair with political power all being committed in the name of Christ. I watch people my age (heck, of every age) finally throw in the towel and walk away from all the hypocrisy, indifference, religiosity, and exclusiveness that marks what is supposed to be the body of Christ, what is supposed to be the place of healing and respite in a world of division and fear and power struggle. And I get it. All too well I get it. Some days end in me wanting to walk away too. Some days all I can do is sink to my knees thinking Lord, have mercy.

I’ve seen what the church can be: people shouting “Christ is Risen!” at the top of their lungs at midnight, people welcoming travelers of all languages and cultures into their homes, a group of campers and volunteer staff pooling their spending money to raise thousands of dollars for a church across the ocean, for people they’ve never met and likely will never meet.

I’ve seen many, many beautiful things from this group of people we call the church.

But the ugly things?

The ugly things are hard to ignore. And as much as we try to, they still exist.

I’ve seen a kind of utilitarianism crop up in churches when issues are brought up. Someone raises a legitimate question only to have it quickly shut down by reminders of all the good things the church does for other people. For example, a recent discussion of church misogyny yielded responses like: Things Christian women hear: God loves you. As if one good ol’ patronizing fist bump is all it takes to wash away a lifetime of mistreatment. Like as long as the good outweighs the bad, then the bad doesn’t exist. But guess what?

Life doesn’t work like that.

Good outweighing bad isn’t the same as healing. Good outweighing bad isn’t the same as renewal. Good outweighing bad isn’t the same thing as transfiguration.

I recently finished Sarah Bessey’s book Out of Sorts, and I had a eureka moment when I read her section about spiritual development. She cites James Fowler’s stages of spiritual development, which an average person roughly follows during their journey of faith:

 

  • Stage One: Intuitive-Projective (the faith of young kids; fantasy and reality are intertwined).
  • Stage Two: Mythic-Literal (simplistic, cause-effect understanding of faith; may view God like a vending machine).
  • Stage Three: Synthetic-Conventional (adopting a systematic belief system; high level of conformity; deference to authority; feels fear or threat when exposed to alternative views).
  • Stage Four: Individuative-Reflective (questions, doubts, faith struggle, leaving the box of Stage Three).
  • Stage Five: Conjunctive Faith (making peace with mystery and paradox; uncommon to reach this before middle age).
  • Stage Six: Universalizing Faith (perfected love and empathy; very few ever reach this stage).

In her book, Bessey points out that most of our faith communities function on people arriving in and remaining in Stage Three for life. She writes, “It’s telling that our faith communities are often structured not only for people at this stage of faith development but, in fact, often unwittingly work to ensure we remain there”. Our faith communities are often structured to keep us in spiritual immaturity. To keep us in fear of others. To keep us from reaching perfect love and empathy.

I’ve heard a lot of theories about why people are leaving the faith, and I’m not here to add to the cacophony of how the world is going from bad to worse or “it’s our horrible culture” or anything like that. Rather, I think that we as a church need to look inward at what we can do better. We need to break free from this overarching adoration for adolescent spiritual maturity. We each need to be fully transformed by Christ so that we as a church can be a fully transformed body. I think that concerns about the church’s lack of love and empathy are genuine concerns. And I think that we, as Christians, need to grow up.

I’m no longer sure we’re good at loving.

I grew up Orthodox Christian (you probably already figured that out), and even though I live out in the sticks with the nearest Orthodox Church far on the other side of Border Patrol, I still consider it my faith identity. In college, I gained exposure to American evangelicalism, or more “mainstream” American Christianity. It was an exciting and confusing and ultimately troubling time. What was confusing and troubling to me was that I began to realize that to several people I met, I wasn’t viewed simply as another Christian. Nope. I was That Orthodox Girl. Which meant I was…scary. I guess. And I was disheartened at the level of fear that was spooned out to and against outsiders.

All those comments of “We have Jesus but ‘traditional’ denominations have religion” don’t go unnoticed.

All the sly, manipulative words meant to undermine things I think and believe don’t go unnoticed.

All the questions asked out of a desire to appear more spiritually “in the know” rather than out of genuine curiosity don’t go unnoticed.

All the unsolicited “advice” that is really just plain arrogance doesn’t go unnoticed.

People thought they were passing as being loving. Heck, maybe they thought they were being loving. But as an outsider, I could tell. I could smell the difference between love and fear a mile away. I knew the difference between having a real conversation and wanting to get your point across. I might not have acted like it in the moment, but I knew what was happening.

I knew if people were scared.

This experience left me with a new perspective, one that could no longer affirm the church as an always-kind, good-at-loving group of people. Suddenly, when others would comment about how Christians could be so judgmental, I found myself saying, “Yeah, I get it.” I may not be that far on the “outside,” but I do see how to many, many people, the Church is a hurtful, fearful, even abusive place. I don’t think this is limited to one denomination or “flavor” of church, but rather happens in all of Christendom when people are expected to adopt an all-encompassing belief system without question. This is not what Christ wanted for us, but is something we did to ourselves when we became afraid to grow up, and afraid of others around us really, truly growing up. And I think it’s turning so many people away from Jesus.

As a church, we need to love. We need to have empathy. And to do that, we need face our fears.

Transforming the church: Walking with Christ

After reading Sarah Bessey’s book, I fully believe that we all have the potential to be perfected in love. However, if we, as a church, are spiritually stuck in Stage Three, we cannot love people well. We aren’t loving people well. You cannot love someone well if you are afraid of them (1 John 4:18). You cannot truly, fully empathize with people you see as a threat to you and your beliefs. You have to learn to face your fears so that other people no longer bring you fears. The way to love comes not by shoving all of our questions, doubts, and deviations from the way we were raised under the rug. Rather, it comes by persevering with Christ through these very things.

The Apostle Peter describes the process of maturing spiritually in his second letter:

“But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (1:5-9, NKJV).

Peter portrays spiritual growth not as something that happens instantaneously, but as qualities building upon one another. Even though much of Christian culture is preoccupied with “knowing the faith” and “defending our views,” knowledge here is not the destination but is, in fact, rather far down in the process of growing up. The destination is love. Peter specifically notes that love comes after perseverance. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he states that perseverance is produced by “suffering” (5:3). Suffering. Struggle. Not safety, not living in a Christian bubble, not shoving away the hard things with easy answers. Not sleepwalking, but wrestling. Not remaining static, but transfiguration. The kind of transfiguration that happens when we decide we have no other choice but to commit to the hard work of maturing. That we need to be changed by the glory of Christ to effectively love and heal the world.

What we need in the Church, to be a place of love, is for people to persevere in boldly following Christ for themselves. To leave the fearful obsession with Stage Three and courageously walk with God. We need more people who are brave enough to grapple with the hard things and tough questions, who aren’t content with platitudes and easy answers. We need more people who wrestle with God, who let the Spirit drive them to the wilderness, who go to God with the mysteries and paradoxes and face their fears with him. We need more churches that embrace this stage of growing up and see it not as a problem but as an asset. We need more people who celebrate the different ways people relate to God and the wisdom found in different church traditions. We need more leaders who wish to inspire rather than to control. We need more people who will stand up and say fearlessly, “I know you are different, but I also know that is not a threat to me.” We need more people who believe it is only direct interaction with the Divine Presence that will eradicate our fears and grow us in love. Not this elaborate Christian culture that we’ve built around our faith communities. Not engagement in the culture wars. Not all the sermons on the worldwide web.

We need the presence of God as far as we can bear it.

 

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Taking the Plunge

 

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I sat on the shore in the sunshine, haze finally lifted after a humid week, waves leaping, and nothing to do but soak. Soak it all in.

In the distance, I watched my siblings decked in their swimsuits, standing near the edge of the cold, splashing water. They waited, watched, and then leaped in, screaming and swimming to shore only to jump back in a few moments later. They braved the cold, the waves. They took the plunge.

It seems all around me that the winds are shifting. The wheel is turning, bringing us from a time of haze to a time of taking plunges. So many dear family members and friends seem in a place where life is moving up: new freedoms, new jobs, new life plans, new marriages, new education plans…it’s the time for courage, the time for jumps. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.

I also feel at a turning point, a trailhead. I’ve spent a while looking at where I came from, looking back at the road I no longer wanted to be on. No longer could be on. I looked back to see what went wrong, to know who I was not and what I did not believe, could not support. It’s a crucial step, but standing looking back forever is not the place to live. Living can only be done in the present. In the moving forward.

And so now I find myself at the trailhead, shoes on my feet, air in my lungs, heart prepared for the journey. It’s an exciting leap, a hopeful bound. I can walk as far as I want to, wherever I want to. I can choose what to add to my pack and what to throw out. Where to camp for the night and when to keep going. The feeling of possibility is as thick and sweet as the July air. Who knows the adventures ahead!

Stephen observed the other day that that it feels like we’re at the end of a long chapter. Yes, yes it does. And some things, some forms of ourselves are dying with the end of that chapter. And I think that’s as it should be. But with the new beginning we are being reborn for something better.

The winds have shifted over the sea, the haze has lifted, and into the waves we plunge.

Yes, love is important

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This week marks our second wedding anniversary. I’m not going to offer a long reflection since we have places to be (who wouldn’t want to celebrate your anniversary by running a five-mile race and watching Wonder Woman?), but one thing I did want to say for the occasion: love is important.

I know I’m getting no prize for such a well-worn idea. But guys, the importance of love can’t be stressed enough.

When I met Stephen, what stood out to me above all things was the way he cared about people, and the way that we loved me.

The way he wanted to know me for who I was and appreciated what he did know about me.

The way he loved (and loves) my introspective, independent self who gets fascinated by ideas and can write about them for hours.

The way he adored all those tendencies and quirks that made me me, and still encourages me to celebrate them and grow in them.

Except for my parents’ golden piece of advice I grew up with (find someone who loves you as much as Dad loves Mom), most of the advice I heard when it came to relationships was about compatibility. Find someone who shares the same thoughts and values as you, create this checklist with all your non-negotiables, etc. Perhaps there’s a place for a little bit of that, but no amount of compatibility can replace choosing to see and love someone for who they really are.

When Stephen and I met, I don’t know that we would have described ourselves as “compatible.” We had different views on things, different backgrounds, different opinions. But you know what? That was okay. And the truth we discovered is that no amount of shared beliefs can replace genuine love for one another. No number of checklists will prepare you for discovering how amazing, unique, and nuanced your partner is. No amount of living civilly with one another will replace going out of your way to see the best in each other and treat each other with ample love and respect.

No matter how compatible you hope to be with someone else, you’re guaranteed areas where you’ll differ. There will be things you disagree on, even bigger things. No matter how perfectly your partner fills all the ideals you were hoping for, there will be areas where they disappoint you.

Those things are inevitable. But love? Love isn’t inevitable. You have the choice to cultivate it, to commit to it. And you have the choice not to. At the end of the day, you’ll either decide that going out of your way to love is important or you won’t.

I don’t believe in a love that’s some whimsical, random force, coming and going without warning. If we’re commanded to love, which I believe we are, then it must be something we have some control over. It’s something we can practice. It’s something we can cultivate.

And so, I’m going to close off this little reflection with a thought: if you value someone in your life (not just a romantic partner), then go out of your way to love them this week. If there are things you admire about them, then tell them. If you haven’t been acting or speaking with utmost kindness and respect to someone around you, then apologize and change that. If there’s something you can do to make someone’s day, then do it.

Because love is important. So let’s reflect that.

On Leaving the Group

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Alone.

Let that word hang in the air for a moment, the concept filling your mind: who you are, just you, with nobody else to define or validate you.

What does it spark?

For most of us, alone evokes an emotional response. For some it is peaceful, for some refreshing. But for many, this concept is less than positive at best, and downright fear-inducing at worst.

Every year around this time I grow nostalgic. Summer was when I began by journey of studying abroad in Scotland. You’ll find a lot about that on this blog, and if my pen continues to wander back to this subject it is only because of how much that time meant to me, then and now. I won’t forget the feeling of settling into the never-quite-comfortable chair at the Chippewa Valley airport, my family on the other side of the glass, and being overcome with one feeling: this was it. I was alone, truly, facing three months in a new continent with nobody that I knew and (at the beginning) only my thoughts to accompany me.

It was an intriguing moment, certainly not anything I had experienced before. Part of me felt compelled to seize my phone or laptop and gather some sense of all the people who were not beside me. Part of me knew not to do that but to soak in the moment for what it was. And yet another part of my mind began to replay echoes of concerns I had gathered from people before my journey:

It’s such a long time.

You won’t know anybody there.

What if you have no community?

What if there aren’t people you can trust?

What if you change?

You see, for the preceding few years I had belonged to a tight-knit group where people didn’t really do things on their own. Not the big things, anyway. Most people didn’t just pick up and leave the country unless it was to experience an international branch of the same organization; people didn’t just move after college to a city far away because they found a good job there, at least not to a city where there weren’t already friends, family, or a sister church. People didn’t just start a lifestyle that looked notably different than the rest of the other group members. And so when it came time for me to jet off for the summer by myself, the well-wishes I received before my journey were laced with a thread of fear: because acting alone was something to be feared.

It’s been three years since my alone-journey, and I came out unscathed. But I came out changed (though I guess for some that’s almost worse). It was the single most invigorating and growing time I had had in my life, and was the only time when I had serious opportunity to consider who I really was. Who was Rae? Outside of her hometown, community, family, group of friends, college…as an individual, who was she really?

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I had a great conversation with a friend where he shared a concept that greatly intrigued me: your greatest strength is usually also your greatest weakness. For example, the one who is passionate will encourage many and hurt many, the one who is kind will love greatly and be taken advantage of, etc. The key is to recognize your tendencies and handle them with wisdom. I’ve seen this strength-weakness pairing to be true not only in myself, on the individual level, but also on the broader scale of humanity. My personal theory (currently—personal theories are subject to change) is that the need to belong and experience love is both humanity’s greatest gift and greatest problem. At its best, this need forms the basis for friendships, marriages, communities, etc. Conversely, the need to belong and be loved is also at the root of terrorism, gang activity, cults, prejudice of all kinds, political polarization…I could go on.

The need for love and belonging is obviously crucial to the human experience. No matter how vulnerable it makes you feel to admit it, it is not something you can just shrug off as not applying to you. The need for love is indispensable to what it means to be human.

And people will do anything to get it.

When I really asked myself who I was, that need to belong was there. Having social connections is not the enemy; living without them would be vastly unhealthy. But elevating them to the status of ultimately defining who you are is also unhealthy, yet it is far too easy to do. The human need for a group of “people like me” is so deep-rooted that it changes who you perceive as being “like me.” Filling the need for love by throwing yourself into a prewritten lifestyle or ideology in order to surround yourself with people that think and speak and live exactly like you do is not the way to find belonging. Because once you get yourself into that kind of dynamic, getting out is harder than it seems.

In that kind of dynamic, your thoughts begin to change as they go through a filter of what your community thinks is right and what your community doesn’t agree with.

In that kind of dynamic, awakening to a desire to do something different with your life is extremely hard, as changing what makes you similar to those of your tribe can mean losing that tribe.

In that kind of dynamic, people feeling or acting “hurt” when you think and live differently than they have is expected manipulation.

In that kind of dynamic, vowing unconditional loyalty to a group means sacrificing your own unique personality, perspective, thoughts and dreams on the altar of the group.

And absolutely none of it is worth it. Because none of it is real love.

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I came to realize a lot of this while I was in Scotland, mostly due to my own experiences but also supplemented by a social psychology course I took (specifically it was on the psychology of terrorism and war – if you want a sample of the research and theories I would check out this dissertation, if not for the whole article then for chapter four’s discussion of basic social psychology theories). What I saw in my times of traveling alone, meeting new friends at school, researching questions I had, exploring in a new continent, was not the echoes of fear I heard while waiting in that airport. It was the affirmation that who I was as an individual, unique person was good, and that contrary to the previous three years, I did not need the involvement in that tight-knit group to be happy and connected. In fact, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, I was thriving.

I was thriving because I had the freedom to grow as Rae, a one-of-a-kind creation, not an individual manifestation of a type.

I was thriving because I was surrounded by people who loved and accepted me for who I was, and saw my thoughts, opinions, and goals not as things to be amended but things to be celebrated.

I was thriving because no other human was trying to recreate me in their own image.

I was thriving because the need for belonging can really only be filled when you feel the fear of showing your true self and do it anyway.

Even though I had made some of my dearest friends and memories through that group, I knew I could be a lot truer to myself without it. And so, I drastically cut back my involvement when I came back to the U.S. And eventually I left.

I don’t regret the time and experiences I had before going to Scotland. Being spared the involvement would’ve meant being spared learning fathoms about myself and never encountering the training ground for the fight for freedom I want to engage my life in. But I am glad that my involvement was for a time and not a permanent lifestyle, and that hewn in the wild, independent, freedom-seeking land of Scotland was my own awakening to the liberation that so many hearts have yet to experience. I am glad I made my choice.

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You also have a choice in how you will choose to live. How you will choose to belong.

You have the choice to assimilate to what your group expects of you, and you have the choice not to.

You have the choice to build a future that matches what your friends are doing, and you have the choice not to.

You have the choice to make changes to your present to live the future you envision.

If you’re afraid of making changes, afraid of what others around you will think of you, then feel that fear. It’s normal.

But don’t let it stop you.

I’m not saying that things will work out perfectly—you run the risk of being scrutinized, rejected. That’s the cost you will have to weigh. The further you venture into the wilderness of discovery, the fewer people you may find beside you.* This is not a call to shove people away or be unkind, or assume people aren’t interested in your new journey and hide it. But know that even in your most heartfelt seeking of the right path for you, you can’t force or inspire everyone to come along with you.

That’s okay. And you will survive.

But through it all you may discover, as I did, that there are people who will love you for you. Who you can feel you really belong with, without having to change or disguise who you are. Who you can really bond with, even if they would have never fit into your former “in-group.” Who give you the freedom to be yourself, and thereby, the freedom to grow. Perhaps you don’t know them yet. Perhaps you do. But to feel really loved and known, not for who people think you are but for who you really are, you have to be that real you first. You have to take the chance.

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I miss a lot of things about my time abroad. Such an experience can’t be replicated, and the sadness of that specific journey’s finality still aches at times. But in a sense the journey I began in that vinyl chair hasn’t ended, because it was the start of a change in me that I am still living today.

I am happy to be in the place I am now, and more importantly, to be the person I am now.

Long live Scotland, the brave.

All my heart,

Rae

*Credit to David Hayward, The Liberation of Sophia

 

Have you ever left a group that was difficult to leave? What did you learn from the process? Have you found a new group that’s a better fit for you?

 

spark of hope

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every now and then and you’ll find yourself in the dark

whether it’s a flicker or a long-term night

and you’ll wonder

how moments ago you tended the sea’s beacon

and today you’re fumbling for a switch

and you’ll think

that you ought to try to keep lighting the sea

even when your fuel is gone

and you’ll hide it and pretend

that it’s all okay

because if it weren’t for you

the sea would sink into inky black

but harsh and true

you’re not the only one with kerosene

or a spark

and someone else can ignite the way

and it’s a hard lesson sometimes

that to best help you need to accept it too

and worse yet

that light won’t always come

from the source you expected

by the hands you expected

at the time you expected

but darling it’s still light

despite the size

despite the carrier

despite the timing

and if you ignore the candle to wait for the lamp

it may not come

for some things start small

but the faintest flicker is enough

to glimpse the foot of the stairs

leading up to the beacon

and you’ll find your way

through the smallest of sparks

if you take the time to notice

and when you reach the top

because i know you will

and light the sea once more

and remember the tiny candle at the bottom

of the long staircase

the ships many miles away

you’ve been trying your life to reach

will no longer seem

quite so far off

 

inspired by a trip to Split Rock Lighthouse, MN.