If you were to visit my desk at work, sooner or later you would notice a drawing of a phoenix I did a few years ago, clipped to my backboard. It’s one of many phoenix drawings I’ve done over the years. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the phoenix. There is something very attractive about the idea of instant transformation. You go through this intense, perhaps painful transformative event, and BOOM! come out the other side a whole new person.
I’m feeling frustrated lately. I’ve been looking back at some events that were supposed to be the “turning point” in my life. They were turning points in my thinking, feeling and behavior. But rather than having a single 180 degree turn, it’s been more like a series of 15 to 45 degree turns.
I wanted these events to be my own personal phoenix pyre. Burn away the stuff that’s not working, learn my painful lessons, and come through as a new, perfected self. That was supposed to be the redemption of those events. They were painful. They cost me things or people or relationships I valued. My transformation, becoming a better person, was supposed to be the reward I received in exchange for walking through those fires.
I’m only recently coming face-to-face with the idolatry inherent in that attitude. Not to mention how poorly it represents reality.
Transformation is a process, not a single moment. Repentance is similar. It is an event that we have to repeat continuously over the course of our lives. We practice repentance, meaning we do it over and over till we start to get it right. Then we keep repeating it because it’s become an integral part of our how we live.
As disciples of Christ and His way, we practice repentance. We practice patience. We practice grace. We practice forgiveness. We practice humility. We practice honesty.
We practice these things because they come about as naturally to human souls as self-powered flight comes to human bodies. We practice them because we’re horrible at them, frankly. Failure is a natural part of any practice. Which brings us to Truth.
Deep down, our failures frustrate us because they tell us we aren’t what we are meant to be. That nagging sense of “I’m not good enough” is called shame. Shame gets a bad rap, but shame serves an important purpose. It lets us see reality clearly.We’re not naturally selfless. Or wise, kind, forgiving, or generous. That’s Truth. That’s reality. Reality is that we’re all fallen.
“Fallen” is kind of a loaded, religious word with a lot of baggage, but it basically means that our view of reality is skewed. It’s so skewed that we continually damage ourselves and others. “Fallen” means we’re all Mr. Magoos, constantly hurting ourselves and everyone around us because we’re too proud to admit we need glasses. Shame breaks our denial and tells us we need corrective lenses, letting us see the damage we’re doing.
Which is a tough pill to swallow, so many of us reject it. We refuse to see the truth because we fear that admitting our debt means we’ll be expected to pay it back. And we know we don’t have enough goodness in our social capital account to cover it.
Which brings us back to Grace. Because grace says “Your debt is real, but it’s covered.” Without denying your flaws, or the cost, or the casualties–Grace simply gives you the permission and power to change.
But a drivers license and a V-8 engine don’t make a driver heading down the road, do they? Grace gives you permission to change (because you’re now allowed to look at the fact that you’re not already perfect or healthy. Can’t fix what you won’t let yourself see.) Grace gives you the power to change (because it grants you the power of the Holy Spirit alive within you). But what Grace won’t do is perform the change for you.
Which brings us right back where we started. The lure of automated transformation.
Honestly, “transformation” is a five dollar word for “change.” It means “changing into a new shape.” That new shape is the shape of your character, your behavior and your life. In a gospel context, it’s the shape of spiritual maturity in Christ.
It’s tempting to wish for an experience to do that work for you. We look to the moth and the butterfly, and think wistfully about curling up in a little cocoon and coming out a new being. We look to the sacraments (sacred, symbolic actions like communion or baptism) to perform the work of transformation. The sacraments aren’t meant to perform the work of changing our lives. They announce the work that Jesus already did to make that change possible, and they declare our commitment to responding to Jesus’ work.
Similarly, difficult events can be a reminder of our fallen existence and Jesus’ work to redeem us. They can remind us that earthly relationships and possessions are too easily lost to be where we put our hope. They can be a catalyst for change. They don’t accomplish change.
Lasting change comes from attending to the ways we practice that new form, day in and day out, powered by grace and motivated by truth.