Change Inspires Transformation

By Susan Snook

The famous 20th-century Christian author Henri Nouwen, in his book Spiritual Direction, writes about the Flying Rodleighs, a group of trapeze artists in a circus that Nouwen got to know. He writes:

I will never forget how enraptured I became when I first saw the Rodleighs move through the air, flying and catching each other as elegant dancers. … One day I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump. … The flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely up.” “You do nothing!” I said, surprised. “Nothing,” Rodleigh repeated. “The worst thing the flyer can do is try to catch the catcher. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”

I don’t know about you, but the thought of letting go of a perfectly good trapeze swing and flying through the air with arms outstretched, leaving it up to someone else to catch me, gives me what my dad used to call “the willies.” Very likely what bothers me is the idea that I would be flying through the air with no control, completely dependent on someone else to decide my fate. Terrifying!

And underlying all that terror is the fact that we human beings don’t like change. Change generally feels to human beings like we are flying uncontrolled from one place to another. We prefer safety! Which is why one of the major pieces of advice that seminarians always receive is, Don’t change things! People don’t like change!

Well, if you don’t like change, now might not be your favorite time in our church or our world. There’s a pandemic on, and our accustomed way of living has been diminished — we can’t go to our favorite places, we can’t dine at our preferred restaurants, many of us can’t go to work, we can’t go to church. Things have changed, our world has shrunk, and many of us are struggling to adapt, feeling that we can’t control our world events, nor even our own lives. And all of us probably hope someone will stretch out their arms and catch us very soon, and our lives will be safe and back to normal once more.

The thing is, Christian faith shows us that God has never been very patient with our desire not to change. Christian faith doesn’t come without huge changes, both negative and positive. Our Scriptures today include two giant changes in the Church. One bad thing happens: the beloved deacon Stephen is stoned to death. And one incredibly good thing happens: Jesus is inexplicably raised from the dead.

Those are important events — changes — but the reason they’re important, the reason they’re in our Bible and we’re reading about them 2,000 years later, is that those changes led to transformation. What’s the difference between change and transformation?

Change is imposed from the outside — all of us undergo change. We get older, our health changes, our jobs change, our relationships change, children grow up and move away, a pandemic happens — changes come from the outside, and we have to adjust. But transformation comes from the inside — transformation is a shift of fundamental beliefs and priorities. Transformation produces lasting differences in behavior.

Change happens to all of us. But transformation is our choice. Transformation happens because at the deep, interior, cellular level, people shift their beliefs, rethink their behaviors — and at our best, transformed people can inspire whole communities, whole churches, even whole nations to new ways of being.

So we have these two huge stories of change today: one death, one resurrection. But listen to how it’s not the change that transforms things; it’s how people respond to the change that makes a difference. In the reading from Acts 7, the deacon Stephen gets in trouble and is stoned to death. He dies like Jesus, forgiving his killers, God receiving his spirit, but that’s not the only transformation that happens in this story. The Church is transformed too.

In the very next chapter, Acts 8, we see enormous suffering as temple authorities begin persecuting the disciples in Jerusalem. The Church up till now was headquartered in the temple, preaching the gospel with great success, baptizing thousands of people. The leaders of the Church probably assumed things would go on like this forever. But suddenly they are thrown out of the temple they thought would always be their familiar, comfortable home. Quite possibly they thought the era of the Church was over.

Sound familiar? What do you do when everything is lost? Here’s what they do: The Holy Spirit flings them out into the countryside, where the apostles proclaim the good news of Christ in Samaria and to an Ethiopian eunuch, to people they probably thought weren’t even qualified to be Christians, and yet they hear and receive the good news with joy. From there the gospel moves out to all the nations. The stoning of Stephen, the persecution of Christians, was a change; how the apostles responded was transformation. They completely rethought their mission and their calling.

Even more striking is the transformation that follows the change in our gospel: the disciples have heard the good news of the empty tomb, they have seen the risen Jesus in person, they have touched the wounds in his hands. They know the great change that has happened — death has been defeated! Christ has been raised from the dead! — but it hasn’t transformed them yet. What do they do? They head home to Galilee and go fishing. These fishermen go right back to doing what they did before Jesus ever came along. Human beings are so incredibly resistant to change, we don’t know how to handle it. We return to old habits the first chance we get.

So Jesus appears to them one more time, and he points out that what they are doing is futile. Fish on the other side of the boat, he says, change your habits, transform yourselves. They try it and they catch so many fish that the net can’t hold them — scarcity is transformed into abundance — and in the light of that abundance, they suddenly recognize who is standing among them. It is the Lord! They go and greet him with joy and he feeds them. They have a barbecue on the beach! He feeds them right before asking them to return the favor by feeding others, in the gospel you will hear next week — a mission that will result in the good news of the resurrection and of new life in Christ being preached to the ends of the earth.

It seems that the resurrection was only a change. They had to respond to that change, they had to change their behaviors, rethink their mission, be transformed. And because they were transformed, because they agreed to fish on the other side of the boat, because they learned to do things differently than they ever had before, because they accepted the gift Jesus had to offer and then they realized they had to do more than accept, they had to give that gift to others — because of that transformation, we are Christians today, we know the good news of Christ, we know that death no longer has dominion over us, we know that God’s love wins, God’s love always wins, and we too can be transformed. Alleluia.

But you know, for us just as for those original disciples, transformation doesn’t come without a cost — transformation doesn’t just happen on the inside, transformation always has to be manifested in how we are changed on the outside, changed in our behaviors, changed in the things we are passionate about, changed even in our willingness to accept change. Sometimes you have to learn to fish on the other side of the boat.

And so how, in this pandemic, in this quarantine, in this isolation, in these changes that we are experiencing now, how might God be calling us to be transformed?

Well, it’s my opinion that the Church has been called to transformation for at least 20 years now, maybe 40. In-person attendance at churches has declined, congregations have gotten older, there is a big vast world of fish in our communities who may not have ever heard the good news of Christ, or if they’ve heard it, have no idea why it should make any difference to them, why it’s life-transforming good news. People’s ways of communicating and gathering have changed. The world is different.

And maybe we’ve grown too attached to our buildings, concentrated too hard on Sunday morning as the focus of our mission. Much as I love our buildings and our Sunday worship, I think God has been calling us not to settle in our temples, not to content ourselves only with fishing in our familiar Galilees, for quite a while now. And while I don’t believe God brings horrible events like a pandemic in order to bring about transformation, I do believe, you might say, God is an opportunist. Terrible things happen, but God can find an opportunity in every negative event to transform God’s church.

So how is our church being called to transformation? I think there’s a danger in our beautiful Sunday in-person celebrations that we can get the idea that worship is at the center of our mission. Worship is vitally important, as we glorify God together, but worship is also how Christ feeds us and sends us out to do the mission he has given us. The mission of followers of Christ has always focused on discipleship, evangelism, and service.

Discipleship is how we learn to follow Jesus more closely. So this time of quiet and isolation can actually become a time to deepen your prayer life; study the Bible; join with your community of faith in exploring Christian truths. Get to know Jesus better. Come to love him even more deeply. What a great time this time of trouble is to do those things.

Evangelism is how we share the good news of Christ with others. So who do you know who in a time of pandemic, loneliness, fear and death needs to hear a message of life, love, joy, peace, and hope? Share that message with them — that God brings love into places of fear and life into places of death.

Service is how we care for the other people God loves. So who do you know who needs a helping hand? A call, a word of care, a trip to the grocery store, some food or an act of kindness to relieve economic suffering? A new ministry, a way of feeding the hungry, caring for those who have lost jobs? This is the time to offer that care.

The pandemic, the shelter-in-place order, the fact that we can’t worship in our church — that’s the change. How we adapt to the change  — that’s the transformation. And I believe that as we allow our hearts to be transformed, we can learn how to let go of the way we have always done things in church and experience Christian life anew. Because we know that when we stretch out our arms, no matter how much the world has changed around us, the resurrection of Jesus Christ tells us that the God of love will be right there to catch us and lead us to abundant life.

The Rt. Rev. Susan Snook is Bishop of San Diego.


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