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

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What Do You See?

Dear Reader,

Amidst moving, starting a new job, and get settled into normal life, a writing break was bound to happen. If I resolved to write more this year, we’ll just ignore that small detail and move forward.

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The Northland is the most refreshing and tranquil refuge, and I can’t imagine a better place to refocus on what’s most important. Even up here, though, it’s sometimes hard to escape the endless barrage of indignation and negativity that’s clutching our world today. Whether as old as humanity or a quirk of our current times, it’s plain that controversy reigns as king of our world, and many (if not most) give him too much control over our daily lives. We can become nearly addicted to feelings of indignation, frustration, and anger, even when (or especially when) caused by issues completely out of our control. I think of all the cynical, mocking, and snarky articles that appear daily on social media—from all sides of the spectrum—and wonder at how much all of us are continually feeding ourselves a sickening diet of this tension and strife.

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What we choose to see affects our thoughts, behaviors, and reality. I’m not denouncing critical thinking, or suggesting that we turn a blind eye and give our silence to all injustice in the world. But I do think that life is ripe with a peace, contentedness, and grace we could be reaping that gets silenced under the never-ending noise of news, politics, and the Internet, even though we were created and redeemed for so much more than the squabblings of this world.

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For the last several years, my dad has had an idea or challenge to pick a word as the theme for your year. It can be anything, but usually reflects a value you want to live by for the coming year. There wasn’t a specific term that jumped to my mind this time as in years previously, but as I kept driving to work and noticing how the lake never looks the same each day, or how bright the stars shine above our house, or how the sunlight strikes the tops of the birch trees in the mornings, it came to my attention just how much there is in life to see.

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Growing up Orthodox, I learned to see all of life as a sacrament, or an interaction with the divine presence of God. Nothing happens apart from the presence of God, for he is everywhere, and in his creativity even the most mundane actions can be a means of relating to him. Watching the sunset is a chance to relate to God, for he created the light and clouds and beauty itself. Walking hand in hand with my husband is a chance to experience God and remember that he is the source of all love and relationship. Even breathing is relating to God, for it is in him that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

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This is a beautiful way to see life, really, but is hard to do when we choose not to look, or really don’t expect to see God everywhere. Even when his radiant, life-giving presence is right in front of our eyes, we spend so much time looking away from it and feeding the temptation to look to the issues and anger and frustration of this world. But the beauty of God and his kingdom isn’t something we have to wait to see once the dust settles; the presence of God is here and now.

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And so, born out of a desire to awaken to the nearness of God, my word for the year is see. See, because there is so much to be seen. See, because I want to remember where to direct my eyes. See, because seeing yields a rich, joy-filled gratitude I want my life to be full of (Luke 1:49). See, because in this stunning corner of the earth there is so much to drink in. See, because God wants to be seen.

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So begins the journey of this year. Perhaps you can pick out your own word for the year, or challenge yourself to a week of putting away social media and other sources of frustration and use the extra time to slow down and really notice and appreciate the gifts and presence of God around you.

What we choose to see is powerful. Choose well.

Love,

Rae

p.s. I’ve been getting folksy with Cloud Cult lately, one of my better decisions.

When Christmas Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas

Dear Reader,

It happened last week. I was sitting at home on an otherwise quiet day. Everything was mostly fine, and I, the unsuspecting person, wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen. A new and outlandish thought popped into my head: I hate Christmas.

Even writing that now seems weird. Was it really me who had that thought? Yes. As much as it pains me to admit it, I had the very real thought of hating Christmas this year. Multiple times.

Now I’m not saying I dislike what Christmas means, or am bothered by other people enjoying it to the full, as I hope people do. But I’m discovering that this season of celebration can be especially difficult when you’re feeling a whole lot less than merry and bright.

When we went to Nepal, I got quite sick. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. The parasite I had is known to cause anxiety and depression, and combining that with the stressful situation there and getting re-adjusted to life in America has not been pretty. And when life around you is filled with parties you just can’t find the energy to attend and festivity that you think should make you happy but doesn’t, Christmas becomes a foil to display your struggles more prominently.

Yesterday, one of my relatives shared a post encouraging those who had “life happen” this year. In her post, she shared a reminder that the first Christmas involved a few people far from home with nothing to show except their trust in God. For someone who’s felt disconnected to everything Christmas this year, that struck a chord with me. I went back to the story of the first Christmas, which I hadn’t really thought about in a long time, and began to ponder it some. And in doing so, I discovered the Christmas story for someone like me going through hard things.

The First Christmas Didn’t Feel Like Christmas

To be honest, it’s hard to relate to the story of Mary and Joseph’s travels when you’re sitting in a cozy living room stuffed with cookies and surrounded by a pile of presents. When hardship is miles away from you, the story of Christ’s birth becomes one of those traditions you listen to for a few minutes a year and then promptly forget about in the fog of busy December. But when you’re feeling down and or like everything is different, you begin to see some familiar themes that you can relate to.

Mary and Joseph weren’t the golden couple of Nazareth.

In fact, they were probably the center of the town’s gossip. In the time when Christ was born, to be pregnant outside of marriage was not only a scandal, but something worthy of capital punishment. Mary knew she was putting her life in danger and making herself an outcast by agreeing to have Jesus. When Joseph decided to not break off the relationship he knew he was signing up to be at the center of controversy.

If you’re someone like me who has ever felt like you’re living under a microscope and having every decision questioned, or feel shut out and not accepted, or have been at the center of gossip, take heart. Jesus’s parents weren’t perfect, well-loved people. They were outcasts dealing with drama and experiencing all those feelings too as they followed what they knew was right.

The first Christmas was tough.

Mary and Joseph were far from home. There were no trees or lights or presents (the wise men probably didn’t arrive until a year later). There were no family or friends to wish Mary and Joseph well (if they still had friends and family who wanted to speak to them). There was nobody to help them or give them encouragement as they faced such a major life change as having a child. Their journey together might have been awkward—dating and marrying your best friend wasn’t the norm back then, and Mary and Joseph may not have really known each other as they began their journey. Not to mention that after the birth they would have to run away to a foreign country because the king wanted to kill their new son.

I don’t think anyone would describe these circumstances as the ideal Christmas. We picture Christmas as this golden time where everything falls together in perfect joy and synchronization. We can see it through almost a fairy-tale lens of childhood memories and laughter. So when things change and “life happens” and Christmas is less than magical, it can hit hard.

As someone who’s going through some tough things and big changes this Christmas, it helps me to remember that the first Christmas—the most important one—was no rosy fairy tale. Rather, it was a grueling, rough time of change. But it was during that time that joy was found, not the joy of having the best presents or party, but the joy of finding a ray of hope in the darkness.

The first Christmas was hopeful.

It was in a smelly cave where two uncertain people were journeying that God appeared in the flesh. It was in the midst of darkness and loneliness that God first showed his face. It was on that first difficult Christmas that hope truly appeared.

Perhaps this Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas to you. Maybe you’ve moved to a new place that doesn’t feel like home yet. Or you’re working in a police station or emergency room while your family is celebrating together. Maybe a family member passed away this year and this will be the first Christmas without them. Perhaps you will spend your Christmas in a hospital visiting a loved one, or you yourself are too sick to fully enjoy this time of year like you’d want to.

Whatever it is, you are not alone. If you’re facing challenging times, then Christmas is for you. It doesn’t have to look like it did before. You don’t have to scramble to get your act together by the 25th because life happened to you. Christmas isn’t so much about conjuring a certain mood or atmosphere or keeping alive a tradition as it is about embracing hope in our darkest times, and knowing that even in the wild turns of life, we might find a sliver of Light.

Merry Christmas.

Love,

Rae

Candles

Dear Reader,

Every spring in a little brick building in northern Wisconsin, a faithful group of believers comes together to celebrate the most joyous moment in history: the resurrection of Christ, which in the Orthodox church is called Pascha. We gather as a church to declare that Christ has risen and has destroyed the power of death. In the Orthodox church, the beginning of Pascha coincides with the church beginning to read the book of Acts together. Historically, new believers during this time were instructed not only to enjoy their faith but to share their newfound hope with others. God gave the miracle of abundant life and the ability to become partakers of the divine nature. At the same time, He commands us to go and make disciples of all nations, and thereby spread these gifts to the farthest reaches of the world. I see this pictured in the Pascha service, where everyone present is given an unlit candle. From just one flame the fire slowly spreads from person to person until the entire church is illuminated. We each receive and then pass it on. Through the efforts of the whole church, we take what was once dark and fill it with light.

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Almost a year ago, my husband and I set out to travel Europe for five months. Hand in hand, with nothing but two backpacks, we embarked on what would become the most formative part of our lives. We began our marriage outside of the myopia that obscures daily life in a comfortable, familiar setting. There could not have been a better way for the two of us to begin this new part of our relationship than by travelling as we did. Not only did it benefit our lives back then, but it gave us a vision for helping travelers and the physically and spiritually poor, a path we wish to hike for many miles to come. While traveling, Stephen and I have begun to see and understand the full broadness of humanity that escapes our daily thoughts. All across this vast globe, billions of people are waking up, working, laughing, mourning, and living out stories not too different from our own. Our world is filled with real people just as important as you or me, whether or not we act like that’s true. It’s sometimes hard to remember all the things we’ve learned while travelling, and for a whole day to pass by with me forgetting that there are billions of others who are living and suffering and dying without hope.

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This September, we are going to continue on the path we started and join some missionaries in a South Asian country. We plan to be there for three months, and to use our aptitude for traveling and learning about different ways of life while helping in one of the most impoverished nations of the world. Our time there will be spent fulfilling the Great Commission, Christ’s last commandment to His followers to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). We have the opportunity to share the hope that is within us with people across the world so that they might too know the true joy that is found in knowing Christ. It sounds nice when I write it like that, but the decision to go hasn’t been easy or glamorous. It’s been a hard battle, both internally and externally. We feel the weight of the stress that goes into preparing for a trip like this. We had money stolen from us the same week we planned to buy our plane tickets. Additionally, we haven’t had a lot of encouragement from others along the way; fear, reservation, and raised eyebrows seem more popular responses. We have wondered about this last part. Is there a fundamental dichotomy between what we have been told our whole lives and what we see in the church – between what Christians express in words and show through works?

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Many of us recognize on one level the importance of the Great Commission. But what we believe manifests itself in how we act. If our actions do not reflect a belief that sharing the Light of the World with the world is more important than any earthly goal (and a belief that doing so is within our means) then, at root, we really do not believe something about that. We need to honestly ask ourselves: “Do we really believe that what we believe is really real?”1

Do we really believe that Jesus left us with the commandment of sharing the Kingdom of Heaven?

Do we really believe He cares whether we take action or not?

Do we really believe that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven?

Do we really believe He will accompany us and fill us with His Spirit to make these things happen?

Do we really believe that unreached people are created in the image of God and are made to enjoy His presence?

Do we really believe that sharing Christ’s hope with people who are completely unaware of the True Life available to them – people for whom He died – is more important than catching the latest episode of our favorite show or manicuring that never-perfect lawn?

This is not just a nice (or “convicting”) thing to think about. I think if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that it can be hard to truly believe these things. Jesus died for the world and told us  it is our job to finish the work he began. We should consider it an honor to rise up and complete this task, but we don’t. So why don’t we believe these things? Why don’t we act on them?

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The most obvious answer, of course, is fear. I feel it in many different forms when considering the desire to help the people in Asia. It is not only the anxiety I feel when researching plane and bus crashes and rabid monkeys, but also the calmer logic that says “it will cost a lot, and I have a lot of other things going for me right here.” It is the doubt that says “I’m not gifted enough to be effective anyway.” It is the reasoning that says, “There’s plenty for me to help in America, God; why don’t you send someone else?” It is fear that encourages us to doubt the truths listed above that we say we believe. It is fear that convinces us that people won’t actually listen and respond to God’s transforming love. It is fear that tells us that our wealth and material goods are what we can truly trust for comfort and security. It is fear that whispers that the power of Pentecost is gone—that the Spirit that worked through Paul and others to reach all of Asia Minor just doesn’t have the same punch nowadays. Fear is of epidemic proportions, and it’s crippling us from really living.

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Interestingly, this fear and doubt seem to only be given credibility when considering our own intentions or those of people close to us; no follower of Christ fears when discussing the concept and importance of the Great Commission in a Bible Study or doubts that the world will be reached before Christ returns. But Christianity is not only a global, big-picture, conceptual religion. It is individual. It only works to the extent that individuals are actually living it. Christ has made claims on your life individually. Yes, it seems safer as a theoretical concept we can impersonalize and distance ourselves from. But it has no power that way.

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Living a real, loving, Christian life is hard. It’s a lot easier to complain to your friends about an issue than it is to try to change it. It’s easier to tell a homeless person to go find a shelter than it is to invite him or her into your house for a meal. It’s easier to point a finger at the sin in our world than it is to befriend someone who’s suffering because of it. But giving into fear is not what we’re made for. We have the power of the Spirit in us, and the gates of hell will not prevail against us.

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We each have a candle, we each have aptitudes and opportunities, and we each have someone standing by whose candle hasn’t been lit. Some of us  might be heartbroken over the number of orphans and children in foster care and the lack of families willing to adopt. Some of us are pained to know that hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry each night, or live in fear of being killed unjustly. Some of us just want to see joy on our neighbors’ faces. For Stephen and I, our travels have instilled in us a compassion for people all over the world from radically different backgrounds and cultures than our own. We can each do our own part. We can actually make changes, not just wish for them. And it will be powerful.

I have the candle in my hand. And I’m ready to share its light.

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Love,

Rae & Stephen

 

1http://www.thetruthproject.org/~/media/files/PDF/ttp_bulletin_insert.pdf