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The Need to Transform

I find it fascinating that an institution which at its very core is about transformation, does all it can to resist change. Ironically from its earliest manifestations, the Christian path has always been about transformation. The Jesus story is first and foremost about changing our perspective, our purpose and ultimately our lives. What else but transformation could the story of a poor peasant who becomes a respected rabbi, a teacher of a new way of living, mean? How else can we interpret the intent of Jesus’ actual teachings like breaking down social barriers, forgiving our enemies and loving abundantly without qualifications than with steps to an inner and social transformation? What could being spiritually born again mean other than transformation? What does the symbol of resurrection mean other than transformation?

Certainly most of us agree these assumptions are based in large part on Midrash and myth. But ancient stories always had and still have a purpose. They can be used to explain what otherwise would not be explainable. Ancient myth is often how our ancestors thought things were supposed to be, not necessarily the way it was. It is unfortunate so many Christians still want to make myth into history. They frequently miss the message and the wisdom available through these ancient stories.

In his book The Heart of Christianity Marcus Borg writes, Christian life should be relational and transformational. According to Borg, there are really two transformations needed and they are twins. He posits one is a personal and spiritual and the other is communal, social and political. In other words, if we are going to be effective change agents for a more compassionate and just world, we must come at this change with open minds and open hearts. But first we need to work on our own internal transformations. Only then can our effort to transform our society and our world have any impact. This is what the early followers of Yeshua, the people of The Way, believed. This was and still is the path of Yeshua.

It has been over a decade since C. Kirk Hadaway, a former executive with the United Church of Christ, wrote an insightful book, Behold I Do A New Thing. It is a book, I believe, which should have received more attention. He begins this book with the question, “What is the business of the church?” He then develops a convincing argument that the purpose has always been the same. He writes, “The purpose of the church is to transform people—to bring down their self-constructed walls, dissolve their delusions and help them see God.”

According to Hadaway, only when a congregation rediscovers its purpose, can it then find its mission. “That mission” he writes “is to be a church that actualizes [its] purpose…to form a transformational community.”

Over the years it has become clear to me the Yeshua, or the Jesus path, has always been a path toward metanoia, or a spiritual awakening. The term metanoia is often translated from the Bible as repentance. Unfortunately this word has been misinterpreted for centuries by Christians as confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness. This shift is an unfortunate result of the fourth century church codifying the false assumption of a dualistic universe. It places the church in between us and the divine and a resurrected Jesus as a necessary intermediary. Sadly this creates the idea that we can avoid our responsibility to do the work which would allow each of us to move from our egocentric blindness to a non-dualistic awareness. Metanoia is about waking up or more accurately going beyond the mind. It is about truly opening up and seeing or experiencing something we have been missing.

In her excellent book, Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault maps out a very different way for most of us to interpret the entire Jesus story. Based on her years of study and experience, she concludes the Jesus path to a true awakening must go through a process of kenosis, or self-emptying. For Jesus, she posits, the essential human task “is to grow beyond the survival instincts of the animal brain and egoic operating system onto a kenotic joy and generosity of full human personhood.”

But her primary point here is we must do the work if we want to experience this awakening. It is up to us, not a savior, if we want to experience the joy Jesus promised his followers. We need to take the risk of being different. It is up to us to let go of our cultures’ demands to conform and our natural instincts to survive at all costs. These instincts manifest themselves as the need to compete, to control, to waste and to hold on, for example.

Here we are talking about true transformation or change. But most of us resist change or we are completely clueless about what real change might mean. We go to church to seek comfort, community or entertainment. We want someone else to do the work for us. We want someone else to tell us we are OK just the way we are even if we are not happy or content. We want someone else to pay the price, to take the risk, to make the sacrifice. As a result little changes in our hearts or beyond our minds. So little changes in our materialistic, competitive, and often self-centered lives and therefore our societies.

The entire Jesus story is about taking the responsibility to look deeply into ourselves, our hearts, our minds and even our motivations. We are challenged to ask; “What is it I must change?” “What is it I must let go of?” “What is it I am not seeing?” These are only the beginning steps of kenosis. I suspect for most of us, none of this will make sense without a discipline of meditation and periods of real silence. However I do believe this is the path Jesus laid out and demonstrated with his life for his followers.

The question I believe we should be asking here is, how do our churches become transformational communities? It seems to me we need to transform the message to something which offers the opportunity—in fact, challenges us—to look more deeply into ourselves for a message which gets us out of our head and into our hearts. I believe we need a message that openly challenges us to look at where we are fooling ourselves, where we ignoring our insensitivities and what we are afraid of. In doing so we may ultimately free ourselves from our egocentric, protective and ultimately our divisive perspectives.

If this is the goal, our churches will have to start refocusing our message on the teachings of Jesus as opposed to the personhood of the man who lived 2000 years ago. It is time to let Jesus be the rabbi again and take him off the cross as an icon and object of worship. Churches will only become transformational communities when we make personal transformation a priority of its members. Initially this will only happen in faith communities with small groups who offer some accountability to each other. But the new purpose of the church will also have to be articulated from the pulpit. That shift can be scary.

Over the last twenty years this organization has been trying to provide whatever was needed for church communities to respond to these challenges. We have worked and continue to work to help existing churches become transformational communities. We hoped and continue to hope these transformational communities will be enabled to impact personal lives in new ways. In doing so our goal has always been to create agents of change which might begin to transform our hurting world. We have been swimming upstream for a long time. Always underfunded and working with a small staff, we have gone through many transformations ourselves.

But we know transformation of any kind is never easy. So when I suggest transformation—even radical transformation—is needed in our churches, I really do have some sense about what this means. I have experienced it firsthand. I have listened to the often painful stories across the country from others who have tried to make these changes in their communities. But without change with a transformative message, I believe more churches will be closed and the transformative message of Yeshua, our Jesus, may ultimately be lost. We would like to do our best to see this does not happen.

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