“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”-Romans 12:1-2
So, now that I’ve been blogging for a couple of weeks and we’ve gotten to know each other a little better, I feel like I can share one of the most humiliating and devastating moments of my entire life with you guys. Does that sound fun?
It all started at the beginning of my 8th grade year. We had this band instructor named Mrs. Cross. Everyone was terrified of her. I know now that she’s actually a pretty nice lady, but at the time I was terrified too. During our grueling practices as we were preparing for competition, she would always yell at us:
“No matter what happens, keep marching!”
At my small school the junior high band marched with high school band. We got fitted for our uniforms right before summer break my 7th grade year. I didn’t think at the time that this would end up being important, but I was wrong.
It ended up being an eventful summer for me. I got really sick and ended up losing 40lbs. Eventually, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Between that, growing a few inches, and working on a farm all summer, my body going into my eighth grade year was drastically different than the one I’d had at the end of the year before.
But being a teenage boy, I failed to grasp that these changes could impact my life in other ways.
A few weeks into the semester the day of the big marching competition came. I dressed myself in the uniform I had been fitted for the previous semester- cardinal red top with a fake sewn on sash, black pants with military piping, and a sweet black musketeer hat with a garish white feather sticking out of the top. I looked GOOD.
It was only as our band began marching onto the field that I began to realize there was a problem:
MY PANTS WERE BEGINNING TO FALL DOWN.
I had a few options at this point: I could stop, gather up my pants, and try to catch up with the band. I could run off of the field, screaming. Or, I could do what Mrs. Cross had constantly been telling us to do and trust that it was the right thing.
I KEPT MARCHING.
It was a surreal experience. In a weird way, I could almost hear Mrs. Cross’ voice saying “No matter what happens, keep marching!” Fear of her kept my feet moving forward, propelling me towards my doom. In fact, I feared her more in that moment than I had ever feared anything else in my life, and that’s saying something.
As we began our first song, my pants kept sliding further and further down my legs. A sidelong glance showed me that some of my bandmates had noticed my predicament and had begun laughing. Still, a part of me held out hope that at least the people in the audience wouldn’t be able to discern what was happening in the midst of all of gaudily clad musketeers and shining instruments. That was before the choreography of our march brought my section, the trombones, to the front and center of our group’s formation…where we would stay for the next three songs.
It didn’t take long for me to see that my fears had been fully realized. I saw hundreds of people in the stands pointing and laughing at me. Perhaps even more amazingly, in the midst of dozens of horns and drums, I could actually HEAR the people laughing at me.
In fact, even the VIDEOGRAPHER got in on my shame. If you watch the video tape (which has hopefully been destroyed by now) the camera pans past me halfway through the first song, then pans back to me, then zooms in on me, and stays on me for the rest of the set.
I was humiliated.
When our set was done and I was finally able to waddle off the field, I pulled up my pants, ran off, and immediately started CRYING.
We ended up getting the highest marks at the competition. On our evaluation forms, the judges said our band had great discipline- “no matter what happened, you KEPT MARCHING!” It was a happy ending, but that’s not really why I told you this story.
I didn’t tell you this story to talk about the triumph of the human spirit, or to talk about how you should never give up, or to talk about taking victory from the jaws of defeat, or about how God can use our mess ups to do big things- although each of those messages are somewhat inherent in the story.
INSTEAD, I told this story for two reasons:
- I didn’t realize that, over the course of that summer, something about me had fundamentally changed. My lack of understanding about the nature of change ended up having deep ramifications.
- By telling YOU this story, I have changed YOU. You probably didn’t realize that it was going on, but it happened. As you were reading, neurons began firing in your brain, creating distinctive memories of THIS moment in time, sparking images in your brain about the events that I was describing in the past.
In effect, I TRANSMITTED SOMETHING THAT WAS INSIDE OF MY BRAIN INTO YOUR BRAIN, AND YOU WERE CHANGED. Let that idea marinate for a minute: do you feel weird about that? Like I should have made you fill out a consent form or something?
We don’t always realize it, but we are changing ALL THE TIME.
In my case, the change that affected me was that I had lost 40lbs. That’s a big, noticeable change if it happens all at once, but less noticeable over the course of a few months.
Other changes are even more subtle.
For instance, did you know that you’re wearing different skin than you had on a month ago? Seriously, your skin cells replace themselves every 2-3 weeks. You don’t have the same skin.
And most of the blood inside your body wasn’t here last year, either. Red blood cells get replaced every 4 months, and white blood cells get replaced about every year.
Your brain cells last a lifetime, but even they’re in a constant state of flux as we learn new things, access old memories, or even listen to a preacher on a Sunday morning.
All of us have changed in some way in the last few years- we’ve grown taller or shorter, gained weight or lost weight, have a new hairstyle, or new clothes, or maybe we’ve developed different tastes in food or music or art.
WE ARE CONSTANTLY CHANGING.
But it’s not just that WE are constantly changing, but the Universe around us as well.
For instance, you might think you’re sitting in the exact same spot you sat at this exact same time last week. But that’s NOT the same spot. It might be the same chair, but it is scientifically impossible that it’s in the same LOCATION.
That’s because the Earth we live on is constantly in motion.
We’re never in the same spot, because as we move around the sun, we cease to occupy the same space we were in before.
I know what some of you guys are thinking: yes, we’re moving around the sun, but won’t my chair re-arrive in the space it’s at now this time next year? I mean, we orbit the sun every year, so things will be the same eventually, right?
WRONG. Because, while it’s true that we orbit the sun, and our orbit around it is cyclical, we forget that the sun is also constantly moving around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which, along with 100 to 200 BILLION OTHER galaxies is expanding away from the location of the Big Bang, or the center of Creation, or where God said “let there be light”, or whatever.
SO, what we see is that not only are we constantly changing, but we ALSO LIVE IN A WORLD THAT IS CONSTANTLY CHANGING. And this world also changes you. Even right now, invisible forces of gravity and energy and light are changing you. You might not perceive it, but it is happening.
CHANGE IS A CONSTANT ASPECT OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE.
Isn’t it strange, then, that although we are constantly being transformed, that although we experience change routinely in almost every area of our physical lives, that most of us don’t have the same expectations for our SPIRITUAL LIVES?
In fact, I would argue that a lot of people who would identify themselves as Christians are uncomfortable with the idea that God might want to change something in their lives.
YOU KNOW WHO WASN’T UNCOMFORTABLE WITH CHANGE? JESUS. Think about it: when you read the New Testament, who encounters Jesus but doesn’t experience change?
Lepers are CLEANSED.
The blind CAN SEE.
The possessed have their demons cast out.
Poor, uneducated fishermen become spokespeople for the Messiah.
Prostitutes and tax collectors are restored to right relationship with God.
The dead are raised back to life.
In fact, I would argue that CHANGE IS AT THE HEART OF WHAT IT MEANS TO FOLLOW JESUS.
The apostle Paul tells us that “if anyone is in Christ, they are a NEW CREATION; the old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17). Being in Christ is directly connected with us becoming new beings.
I think part of the problem is that we mistake the start for the finish.
I think the popular understanding of grace nowadays is that once you say a magic prayer, you get “saved” and that’s the end of your journey with God. Take a closer look at our passage above, though: It says “do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the RENEWING of your mind.
It’s strange verbiage. Why does it say “RENEWING” of our minds and not “RENEWAL?”
BECAUSE RENEWING IS A PRESENT TENSE VERB- IT’S SOMETHING THAT NEEDS TO KEEP HAPPENING.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, had some pretty good ideas about how this kind of grace works. He believed that there was only one grace, which emanated from the saving work of Jesus on the cross and through the empty tomb, but that it worked itself out in a few different ways.
First of all, it was prevenient- that means what Jesus did on the cross makes it possible for us to choose to follow Christ or not to follow Christ.
Next, it is justifying. Because we have chosen to follow Jesus, we are no longer libel to the judgment that is due to us for our sins. Jesus’ goodness covers our depravity.
So far, I think a lot of us would say “yes, that’s how grace works.” But, the third way grace works is that it is sanctifying. Sanctifying is a fancy church word that means “makes you holy.”
For Wesley, the process of salvation wasn’t about avoiding judgment. It was about transformation. It was his opinion that the ultimate goal of grace isn’t just to save us from hell, but is to make US more like Jesus. That is, to TRANSFORM US.
But every step of the way, we have choices to make. Jesus is a gentleman, he’s not going to force himself on us. We get to cooperate with grace. Especially when it comes to sanctifying grace, we have the opportunity to listen the Spirit of God dwelling within us and allow it to transform us, or to cover it up and go our own way.
At this point, it would probably be good if I made something clear: Jesus isn’t just concerned with making you a moral person. Being a Christian is more than that. Being in a relationship with Christ means that your life has been absolutely and completely transformed, and that it is in the continuing process of being absolutely and completely transformed.
You might be thinking: “ I don’t lie, cheat or steal, why do I need to change?”
Here’s my response: are you filled with joy? Is your life dominated by fear? Do you care more about safety and security than about doing what Christ calls you to do? Then there is still room for God to continue to transform you.
But let’s say that you are someone that continues to allow God to change you. That’s it, right?
God doesn’t just want to transform YOU, God wants to transform your COMMUNITY.
God doesn’t just want to transform your COMMUNITY, but to transform the WORLD.
In the end, I can only speak to what I know, and that’s my own transformation. I am not the same person I was when I first began following Christ, and that’s a good thing. But anyone who spends almost any amount of time with me can tell you that I still have a LONG way to go.
When I finally finish seminary and seek ordination I will be asked a simple question:
“Do you expect to be made perfect in this life?”
It’s a question all United Methodist elders are asked, and if you want to be fully ordained your response has to be “yes.”
So that means all pastors are either egotists or liars, right? If I want to be ordained, I have to either deceive myself or deceive others? I mean, there’s no way you can rightly say “yes” to that question, is there?
The reasons this is so confusing is because most of us misunderstand the concept of Christian perfection. Usually when we think of the idea of perfection, we’re thinking of the Latin word “perfectus”, which means “without flaw.” Church scholars for centuries after Constantine built their theological concept of perfection off of their understanding of this word. But the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, not Latin. The word the New Testament uses to talk about perfection is the word “telios”, which means “complete.”
When I say that I expect to be made perfect in this life, what I’m really saying is that I expect God to complete the work that God has begun in me.
I expect that grace is on the move in my life, and that ultimately I will be made perfect in love for God and love for humanity.
I expect God to be who God is, and for God to make me more like Jesus is.
Change isn’t something to be feared in the life of the Christian- it is a thing to be hoped for. When we cling to the status quo, what we’re often saying is “God, this is as good as it gets for me. Don’t mess with it.” Trying to maintain the status quo can cause us to do all sorts of things that are contrary being who God is calling us to be.
If you think about it, “status quo” shouldn’t really even be a possibility in the life of the faithful Christian. If God is in the process of making us all new creations, and we’re cooperating with the grace that makes that possible, then how can it be that we will change but the world around us will not change?
the blind will see,
and the deaf will hear,
and the hurting will be without pain,
and the lost will be found,
and the selfish will become selfless,
and the hopeless will become hopeful…
THEN GOD CAN TRANSFORM US, TOO.