Life-giving Transformation

Before Jesus begins his ministry, people from all over Judea go out to the wilderness to John the Baptist.  There they hear John’s message to “repent,” to turn toward a new direction, and receive a baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3: 1- 6, Mark 1: 2 -6, Luke 3: 1-6, John 1: 19-23).  John is pictured as a wild man wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, announcing to all who come that “there is one coming who is much greater than me.”   As scripture focuses on John’s role of being a herald of Jesus, it is easy to overlook that a multitude of people left the city and went away from the temple in order to have a spiritual experience with this wild man that they could no longer get through their religion.

They wanted something new–something to shake up their traditional ways.  Perhaps their experience of the temple had become too much like their experience of the world around them.  That some of the religious elite were in partnership with the Roman government to keep the peace is made clear from the battles Jesus would soon fight.

And, yet, the river Jordan is not a pictured as a place of a political rally, but rather as a place of transformation: a place of personal new beginnings, and a place where Jesus comes before he calls his disciples.

Transformation is at the very heart of Christianity.  Two ways scripture leads to it are through the ideas of repentance (to turn around) and forgiveness of sin (release from the past).  It is the releasing of what has kept us apart from God that allows God to move us in a new direction.  The multitude came to the river Jordan.  There they heard John the Baptist affirm their intuition—it is good to turn around and try a new way.  Enter the water, be cleansed of all that holds you to your past, that you may be free to go with God.

Let’s be clear that transformation is as crucial for those who have tried to live pious lives as it is for those who are doing the things their mothers would cry out against.  For all of us there are times when our lives have become too close to what the world expects and, in those times, we lose touch with God.

As a result, the life that once was ours seeps away.  Often, our religion, whatever it is, urges us to do the same old things that have become polluted by community expectations.  We go to church because “good wholesome people” go to church and it is good for our children.  Even spiritual practices meant to help us hear God’s voice can become too familiar, or a way to brag about our spiritual prowess, rather than allowing God the opening to take us on a new journey.

When our way of being which fed our strength and mission has run its course–and it will–to find a new way requires transformation.   Just as it is not easy for the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly, so it is not easy for us to choose to enter into the effort of change.

It takes God to move us.  God-given insight comes in innumerable ways.  After all, God is the Creator, and thus there is no limit to God’s creativity in engaging us.  It could be with a change in employment–or a word from a stranger.  It could be an opportunity that has come your way–or a remembered dream.  The call to take a new path on your journey with God happens more than once in a lifetime.

There were two doctors, one the head of family medicine at UCI, and the other the head of geriatrics in the Presbyterian hospital in New York, who spoke on the radio of the need to continue to keep the brain flexible as we grow older…stay engaged, try new things.  When I was in school they warned us our generation needed to be flexible because the work world would change as we grew older.  Expect to have more than one career, the experts told us.  Even the secular world understands: our ability to walk a new path keeps us alive.

Still, if you are anything like me, when you feel vulnerable (and the need to change yourself makes you feel vulnerable, indeed), your first reaction is to go back to the strengths you’ve developed over the years whether or not they are of God.

It often takes a “God movement” to lead us beyond insight into action–to help us let go, turn around, and walk a new path with our God.

The ministry of Jesus begins with a God movement.  Multitudes came to the river Jordan because there they received a baptism which sanctified, made holy, their need to let go of the familiar and to try a new way.  Jesus began his ministry in the same water.  The baptism in the river Jordan empowered people to turn and follow God’s voice into the wilderness and beyond.

Perhaps today you would like to join in with this God movement of transformation.  Knowing we all need to splash in the river Jordan every now and then, to prepare for what God wants to do with us next, use your imagination and washing time to prepare not just to meet the day, but to find a new mission with God.  Perhaps you can use your day off to find one of the many flowing rivers in the nearby mountains and touch the cold water to your forehead as a sign of your desire to turn around.    Or use the pastor you know or the church to which you belong to take a moment to confess what it is you want to let go, hear the words of forgiveness, and turn a new direction.  However you enter the waters, understand that you don’t go in alone, but in your action you join with the multitudes of the centuries who come to transform their ways,

You go with Jesus.


Able to Forgive

Jesus said to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.  I’ve come to understand this to mean that if you are seeking to live with God, you will have many opportunities to forgive.

My friend Susan suggested that forgiveness is an English word that really should be two different words.  Perhaps she is right.

There’s the type of forgiveness that we can offer when there is a chance for reconciliation, when there is an “I’m sorry,” and an attempt to make amends.  We forgive by allowing another chance.  Then there is the more difficult type of forgiveness.  The type where we forgive without any sign that our being hurt has changed or will change anything.  It is the forgiveness unattached to the action of another.  We forgive to be free.

Over the years I have heard people say, “I need to be able to forgive,” or “I struggle with anger.” Each one I speak to understands that if they could forgive they would be free of that ungodly feeling which keeps them in its grip.  But how do you get from wanting to forgive to being able to forgive?

A pair of Biblical images come to mind, both from the gospel of John.  In John 4, Jesus sits with a woman at a well, speaking to her of “all she had ever done.”  Despite the narrative not describing her deeds in detail (all we are told is she has had many husbands and the one she is currently with is not her husband), it is clear that she felt Jesus heard her, knew her, and understood her.  Then, at the close of the gospel, the resurrected Jesus meets Peter.  Remember, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard as Jesus was being questioned by the authorities who would have Jesus crucified.  Peter was scared.  However, after all is done, the resurrected Jesus comes to Peter and gives him the chance to speak three times of his love for him.

“Peter,” Jesus says, “do you love me?”

Peter responds, “Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus commands, “Then feed my sheep,” referring to the people Jesus led.

Both the woman at the well and Peter have plenty to be angry about.  I suspect anyone who has had many husbands is not without culpability, but still has been, in one way or another, betrayed.  And the woman would feel the guilt of having not lived rightly.  Further, the Jerusalem temple priest’s insistence that only in Jerusalem could worship of God be properly performed would have set up a divide between one such as her and others who could afford to go to Jerusalem to worship the right way.

Similarly, Peter has experienced a great betrayal, as he watched his teacher, friend, and Lord die.  The powers of this world won.  Jesus didn’t save him.  In fact, Jesus set him up.  He, like the woman, feels guilty.  He didn’t respond rightly when the time came for him to take a stand.

John’s gospel has a great injustice in the background of both stories.  Yet, scripture moves away from righteous anger, choosing instead to emphasize the need for both to be forgiven by Jesus.  In this way, John makes an important link. When anger has a hold on us, what we really need to be able to forgive, is to be forgiven.

While there may be a few in the history of Christianity who have been able to go directly to God to be forgiven, most of us require a friend, someone who will sit with us at the well, or find us when we are lost and give us a chance to speak.  Note Jesus didn’t say to Peter or the woman, “what you need to do is to forgive.”  He didn’t make the ability to forgive a prerequisite to experiencing what it is to be forgiven.  He didn’t ask them to make lists of all their wrongs.  Just as important, but slightly different, he didn’t allow what they were angry about to define the conversation.  Instead, Jesus showed the way to forgiveness by listening and responding with compassion.

So, if you are seeking to forgive, seek out a compassionate friend, one who, like Jesus, will listen long enough and deeply enough that you are once again conscious of God’s love of you. If you are seeking to help someone who is stuck in anger, who knows she wants to forgive but cannot, follow Jesus.  Be a compassionate friend—listen and love.

Then go one step further.  One more guidepost is given by Jesus in these two encounters.  He gets both the woman and Peter back to work.   The woman didn’t need a clear directive.  After her conversation with Jesus she went home and told everyone about the one she had met at the well.  She preached. Peter, however, needed a last little push.   So when Jesus visited him, he said, “If you love me, feed my sheep,” which meant “get to work caring for the people who follow me.”  The goal is not simply for us to forgive, the goal is to get back to God’s work.

We help each other forgive when, whatever the difficulty, we remind one another that we have not been fired from God’s work in this world.  In fact, whatever has happened has likely made us more able to follow Jesus.

And so, people of God, listen, love and help one other see our respective places in God’s work. With Jesus as our guide, despite the best efforts of our anger and shame, we will forgive–and we will carry the light that makes us free.

In Christ,