Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Discipleship: A Lifetime Journey of Transformation

Discipleship is more than turning over a new leaf.  It is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation.  Nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death will do.  William Willimon

Laurie and I sometimes watch the show Extreme Weight Loss with Chris Powell.  Each week Chris Powell invites someone to embark on the “transformation of a lifetime”.  As the name of the show implies, the surface goal is weight loss, but most of the time, the weight doesn't really come off—and stay off—until the participant deals with a “deeper” issue.  He or she has to face an “old wound” in their lives that is still holding power over the individual, which they compensate for with compulsive overeating. 
Extreme Weight Loss participants are offered
the "transformation of a lifetime".
Chris has to bring the participants to the breaking point (usually via a very difficult workout, particularly for individuals that are so badly out of shape).  It’s a moment of choosing between fight or flight.  This is an important part of the process of transformation because it forces the participant to face up to the fundamental question: Do you really want to change or are you just playing at this?  

Occasionally the participant answers, “No”, and Chris has to accept that.  He can’t force a person to transform if they aren’t ready to do so.  Not every weight loss story ends happily.  For every happy ending we see on TV I’m sure there are many more that fail.  Honestly, the average person would probably choose flight when pushed to the breaking point. (I sometimes wonder what I would do if pushed to that point.)  This level of change is more than most of us are willing to bear.

It’s the rare individual that can reach down and say, “Yes.  I want this!  I want this so much I will push past all my excuse-making and commit to doing whatever it takes to change—not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually as well.  I will push on toward total transformation of my life.” 

The final scenes of a typical Extreme Weight Loss episode are a celebration as the participant reveals their “new look” to astonished friends and family.  There is a level of joy that comes not just from shedding a significant amount of weight but also from shedding the “weight” of old habits and old wounds we have been carrying and replacing them with something better.

This is the kind of change we’re aiming for as individual followers of Jesus and as worshipping communities. Like Chris Powell, Jesus is all about total transformation of our lives. Our life in Christ will be a lifetime journey of transformation.

Jesus comes to us and says come follow me—100%.  Take up your cross—in other words, expect it to be demanding.  Leave behind the ways you once knew and I will show you a new Way that offers the potential to usher in a new world. 

Body and mind are usually the first things we change. The Extreme Weight Loss participants usually begin losing weight before they are ready to confront the “deeper” issues.  Ultimately, however, changing our body and even our mind is not enough.  These changes are external; change that endures (total transformation) comes only as we change internally—as we “renovate” our heart. Our heart is the control center of all that we are—Proverbs 4:23. Heart change is deep and fundamental—and worthy of our best effort.  If the heart changes, our mind and body generally follow suite.  

On the whole, change is hard for human beings.  Sometimes our motivation to “want to change” only comes when circumstances in our life conspire to make not changing more uncomfortable than changing. 

Sometimes it takes being desperate to see things with clarity.  We finally glimpse a vision of a “better” life that is compelling enough to (at least temporarily) overcome the strong inertia of excuse-making.  We are now willing to do whatever it takes to make our vision a reality—pursuing whatever means are necessary to make it so. 

Participants in Extreme Weight Loss often find themselves in such a place.  They reach out for help from Chris Powell because they have, frankly, run out of options.  They realize that if they don’t make a radical change—and soon—there are likely to be severe consequences to their health. 

Just as Extreme Weight Loss is about more than just shedding physical weight, spiritual transformation is about much more than “giving up something for Lent”. 

“What are you giving up for Lent?” It’s a question a lot of people will get these next few days. If you want to change your body, perhaps alcohol and candy is the way to go. But if you want to change your heart, a harder fast is needed. This narrow road is gritty, but it isn’t sterile. It will make room in ourselves to experience a love that can make us whole and set us free.  Time Magazine Article

A word cloud image for Lent and Holy Week
Image creditWhere the Wild Rose Grows.
This is not to say we shouldn't do the time-honored Lenten practice of self-denial as much as to suggest that the true work of Lent goes far deeper.  If we merely “give something up for Lent” (say, chocolate, soda, or social media) but then rush to pick it up again as soon as the season is done, we are kind of missing the point.  We are like the people on Extreme Weight Loss who lose the weight initially but never confront the deeper issues that they used food to cover up and caused them to gain weight in the first place—and thus struggle to keep the pounds off over the long haul.  Without a commitment to total transformation, the “old habit” we gave up is likely to come right back afterwards—maybe worse than before.

For the follower of Jesus, discipleship is not just a six-week exercise in self-denial but rather a commitment to a lifetime journey of transformation, following a spiraling path that leads ever closer to the heart of God.

If we sense God revealing an area that “weighs us down” and holds us back from taking the “next step” toward the deeper relationship with God we desire, Lent is certainly a good opportunity to begin to make a change.  We would be in the company of many saints that have walked the ancient Threefold Way of illumination, purgation, and contemplation (union) during this season.

If we are doing it right we make progress on our spiritual journey not just during Lent but at all times.  John Wesley would say we are always “moving on toward perfection”.  During Lent, however, we  intentionally focus on drawing closer to God in the days leading up to Holy Week.  The idea is that we arrive at Palm Sunday and "enter Jerusalem" with our soul less encumbered by the ”weight” of our “stuff”—our sin.  This should allow us to enter more fully into Jesus’ suffering and death during Holy Week—and then, precisely because of the 40-day intentional journey we took to the Cross before arriving at the Empty Tomb, our experience of the Resurrection should be all the more meaningful.

May it be so for all of us...

Friday, February 5, 2016

Transfiguration: A Tease of How the Story Ends

Laurie and I sometimes watch the show Extreme Weight Loss with Chris Powell.  Each week Chris Powell invites someone to embark on the “transformation of a lifetime”.  In the middle of every two-hour episode there is a “tease” that advertises the final “reveal” that will come at the end of the show.  This is when the “transformed” participant reveals their new look to astonished friends and family.  The “tease” comes as the participant is smack-dab in the middle of his or her yearlong journey of transformation.  The TV audience does not yet know how the story will end but the “tease” is enough to makes us want to keep watching to see how it turns out. 

A participant on Extreme Weight Loss undergoes
the "transformation of a lifetime"
 The Transfiguration seemed like that kind of event for Jesus’ disciples.  It comes, if you will, in the middle of their “journey of transformation” with Jesus and was, in a sense, a “tease” of the final “episodes” of Jesus’ earthly life—the Resurrection and Ascension.  We see Jesus exalted and recognized for who he truly is, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God.

The story is kind of mysterious—and often overlooked in the Western Protestant Church.  The Catholic theology of the Rosary refers to the Transfiguration as one of the five luminous mysteries[1]. The bottom line is we don’t know exactly what happened up on that mountain but it was clearly significant enough that, even though Jesus clearly asked for what happened on that mountain to stay on that mountain, it eventually got talked about—and was later written down.  All three synoptic Gospels (Mark 9:2-8, Matthew 17:1-9, and Luke 9:28-36) record their own version of this event.  In addition, 2 Peter 1:16-18 refers to it.  Interestingly John (who was alleged to have been an eyewitness) doesn’t include the story of the Transfiguration in his Gospel, although John 1:14 may be an allusion to it. 

What seems evident is that on this night Peter, James, and John got a clearer vision of who Jesus was.  They may have suspected his identity before this night, but after this experience they know for sure that this is no ordinary Rabbi they are following. This doesn’t mean they won’t falter in their belief—clearly they do!  But in the end, after they are restored, they have this vision of Jesus in their memory and it helps them live out their call as Apostles, who were responsible for starting the Church and spreading the message of Jesus around the ancient world.

Mark, which most scholars consider to be the oldest account of the life of Jesus, places this event it right in the middle of his telling of the story—and I think that placement is intentional.  It serves as the “turning point” of Mark’s narrative.  Until now, Jesus and his followers have been in ministry in Galilee.  Just before this scene (Mark 8:31-34) Jesus gives the first of three warnings to the disciples about what lies ahead of them in Jerusalem. Peter, however, wants no part of it and Jesus rebukes him for his comments.  The same Peter who Jesus had just called “the Rock” on which he would build his church is now referred to as “Satan”, an impediment to Jesus fulfilling his calling.   Peter must have felt emotional whiplash after these conversations.  All of the disciples are no doubt confused at this moment about what is going on—about who this guy is they have invested so much in following.  After this event, Jesus and his followers will set their face toward Jerusalem and the mood will continue to darken as the rag-tad band moves ever closer to Jerusalem.

According to Mark, the Transfiguration takes place somewhere up in the mountains above Caesarea–Philippi.  (At least that is where the previous scene in Mark 8 occurs. Scholars actually debate which mountain this was.)  All the Gospels agree that the other nine disciples stayed behind wile Jesus took his three closest friends on this “camping trip”.  While they are there, Peter, James, and John are permitted a glimpse of Jesus that they had never seen before and they hear a voice say “This is my son the beloved.  Listen to him.”  Jesus is revealed in all his glory; the disciples see the fullness of who he was, is, and will always be standing before them. According to the story, Moses and Elijah, two great heroes of the Jewish faith, were also present for this event.   Peter, James, and John don’t really understand all that they see that night but the event clearly sticks with them for the rest of their lives.

I think the Church Fathers got it right when they placed this glimpse of the glory of God right before we head into Lent and Holy Week. The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is Transfiguration Sunday (in most Western Protestant churches) and we usually hear the story of Peter, James, and John’s magnificent “vision” of Jesus on the mountaintop.  The next time we gather the mood is much more somber.  The liturgical colors have shifted from white to gray/black and soaring visions of Jesus are replaced with warnings from the Old Testament prophet Joel that tell us to rend our hearts and not our clothes.  We have the imposition of the ashes as an outward sign of our desire for God to strip away layers of falsehood and bring to light and purge away those things that impede our relationship with God. This can be challenging work but the vision glimpsed on Transfiguration Sunday reminds us of the goal toward which we strive.  It inspires us to persevere toward the goal of total transformationinto our true self—revealing our glory, the fullness of who God has created us to be, to the world.

Perhaps Jesus’ message to Peter, James, and John—and to us during our Lenten journey—is “stay with me to the end”.  I know there are some dark and difficult days ahead but believe me, you want to see how this “episode” ends. 

[1] The others are the baptism of the Lord, the wedding at Cana, the proclamation of the kingdom, and the institution of the Eucharist.  The Rosary also includes five joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries.

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