Last 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.