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...-- Rom 12.1-2
We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes
it has gone through to achieve that beauty.~Maya Angelou
This journal really came about through a series of events. One of those events happened on a Sunday about two weeks before Jeru had to declare what college she was going to attend. There were several schools on the table, and even though everything seemed to be pointing to St. Mary’s, for some reason Jeru hadn’t declared, and each time we brought it up she would just say, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I started pushing for a gap year pretty strong.
Julie and I talked offline and decided with a little over a week to go we needed to make the big push. That Sunday after service we went out to Spinnerie and got some rotisserie chicken for lunch. About halfway through lunch, I said, “So, Jeru have you decided what school you’re going to declare as your college?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Why are you guys stressing me out with this?”
I pulled the dad-for-18-year-card I had been saving for just such an occasion. “Jeru, we have fed, clothed, supported, loved…” (I droned on for about five minutes of this preachy guilt-driving nonsense) “I am not telling you where to go, or at this point, asking you where you are going, I just want to know how you are making this decision?!? I’m also trying to discern if we have given you the proper tools for making a decision.”
I asked out of my fears and insecurities as a parent. Bad move. Bad, bad, bad move. (Lesson about to be learned).
She put her head down and started crying.
“Why are you guys trying to get rid of me? Why are you pushing me out? I don’t want to leave? I love my family, my church, my home, can’t I be afraid?”
Julie gave me the look like now-you-have-really-done-it. Fix it! Now! I was up, jumped around the table and had my arm around Jeru, consoling her. I had completely misread her procrastination as disinterest, lack of ambition and drive, and laziness. And really I was just reading my fears into her behavior. She was dealing with a whole other set of fears and issues. She was in the middle of the biggest transition in her life; it was scary, foreboding, an unknown on every level.
Transitions. We all go through them. Some are fearful. Some exciting. Some dreadful. Job transitions. Housing transitions. Graduating from middle school. Moving to a new city. Theological shifts. Worldview changes. The move from one church to another. The transition from single to married, from married with no children to married with children. From married to divorced. First day on the job transitions. Death in the family transition. Promotions. Demotions.
All of these transitions no matter how big or how small mean we are changing, we are powerless to stop it. We begin to discover that the transition is changing the way we think about parenting, God, relationships, the world, work, the church and how we see ourselves in the context of all of that.
And really what is most important in all of these transitions is not so much what school you will land at, how you will be received on the new job, what the new neighborhood will be like, but, What kind of person are you becoming through this? Will this grow your character and develop the true you?
The first time I was given a professorship of a course at Western Seminary a significant change began in me. I had taught at another seminary but it was smaller and extremely familiar, easy, and I knew the culture. But Western was way outside of my comfort zone. I only knew one professor on the campus, no students. My stomach was in knots all the way to class. What if they didn't like me? What if I said something wrong? What if the reviews came back at the end of the semester and the students said, "He's not that smart, he's not qualified to teach this course, his Greek and Hebrew skills are elementary, this is the worst class we have had at the seminary."
There was a temptation for me to change my teaching style to fit in with the culture of the seminary, for me to find their voice, to be an academic. To be someone other than me.
I got there 3 hours early. Setup. Went into a small prayer chapel area knelt down and begged, literally begged and begged God to help me. I have done this enough, it comes pretty naturally. I confessed how lost I was. I cannot remember the exact words, but the spirit of my prayer was something like, "If you don't come through I am done." Moments like this I feel very close to the 17 year-old me, who sensed a call, but was scared to death. It's a vulnerably safe space. I feel secure in my begging and pleading. The more I begged the closer I felt to him. I felt courage to be just me. I found my voice, my rhythm, my passion and in this new context became confident in it.
Stop for a moment and reflect on the most significant transition you have been through in recent years.
What was it?_________
How did it change you?_________
It’s crazy when you stop and think about it, but transitions are spaces where we are going through changes. Transitions are like wildernesses, and will either function as a wilderness space that transforms us to our real selves, or conforms us to the fake selves, an image of what we think the world wants us to be.
Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology Notre Dame, in his groundbreaking sociological work on millennials, titled the book “Lost in Transition.” He says that between the years of 18-30 today's Millennials are in an unprecedented wave of transition and that they are finding it difficult to become, but wander in a state of lostness. The picture I have when he talks about this is Israel wandering in the wilderness transitioning from one camping spot to another, day after day, having left, but never having arrived. No significant character or spiritual formation and change taking root. Just surviving to eat another meal, find another camping spot, and live another day.
There is, however, a fitting metaphor for what I think describes the kind of work God seeks to do inside of us as we walk through seasons of transition: the metamorphosis of the caterpillar.
NPR’s Radiolab did a series on nature’s black boxes. Black boxes are places science has identified as mysteries—“those peculiar spaces where it’s clear what’s going in, we know what’s coming out, but what happens in-between is a mystery." The cocoon is the most notable black box of nature.
Radiolab entered into a butterfly lab where caterpillar, pupa, chrysalis, cocoon, were transitioning through metamorphosis.
I am not a scientist or biologists, so I have always assumed that the caterpillar enters into its cocoon state, goes on a diet and loses weight and then grows some wings out its back and what you see when you look at the body of a butterfly is just the trimmed down version of the caterpillar. I was way off!
Inside the cocoon, the caterpillar liquefies. Everything is turned into liquid. The crawler loses all form and shape and becomes a golden goo. The lumpy little fella melts. Then the golden goo gurgles around as molecules realign and morph, rebuild and reform into colorful wings and beautiful flight.
At this point I am thinking, well if it melts down to goo, then it probably has no sense of ever being a caterpillar. All it knows is the butterfly and the former existence is completely washed, forgotten. Wrong! I'm wrong again.
There were two studies this episode referred to that were fascinating. First, a Georgetown University biologist discovered how laboratory caterpillars, conditioned to dislike certain smells, were able to retain the memory of those smells into their metamorphosis state. The golden goo had not lost the memory in the caterpillar's liquidation. In other words, in one sense the caterpillar died, completely liquefied, but when it came out of that deadness of sorts it had retained its memories of its previous life, but not its limitations.
I'll let you make the connections.
The second study cited was by a Dutch microscopist, Jan Swammerdam, who dissected a caterpillar and placed it under a microscope revealing tiny thin microscopic wings, tiny antennae, and legs of the future adult butterfly inside the caterpillar. Swammerdam pointed out that the caterpillar is simply becoming what she has always had inside of her. It’s just that the internal leg, antennae, and wings are moving from this microscopic place in her inner self to an external place, for the whole world to see. Ghosted on her soul is the imprint of who she is to become, just waiting for a transition that will morph her into what she is about to become from the stuff of what she already was.
This is so cool!
Romans has this lengthy buildup from chapters 1-11 as it navigates through the work that God has done for us through faith, and our back-and-forth struggle with our real selves and our false selves, and the how this plays out in both individual and collectivistic settings. Then Paul swings the hinge into chapter 12 with a reflection on how to transform (literally, metamorphoó) this struggle. The words seem tethered to Jesus' metamorphosis in the wilderness with Satan and is the same word used for Jesus being "transfigured" in the wilderness. The idea of bodies-in-living-sacrifice and worship echo Jesus' words of "worship the Lord God and him only serve." The language of "be not conformed" (literally "identified with outward forms and patterns") reminds us of Satan's suggestion to Jesus that he identify with the world's forms of overpowering others=control, consumerism=happiness, and proving myself=honor, as a means fo both proving he is God's son and making his life relevant to the world.
Then Paul, who was three years in the wilderness (Gal1.15-18), reminds us of where the metamorphosis takes place. "But be transformed by the renewing of your mind" Paul calls us to transformation by engaging our mind in a renewal. This is transformational praying, this is the contemplative space where God's will is revealed and tested in our thought processes, our will centers, and our affection zones. We are being challenged to bring the mind into the ebb and flow of Christ. For it is in that space that we are in touch with who we really are inside and that we begin to experience the golden goo at work as it transforms our real being into our real doing.
Prayer. Pray a transformational prayer with Romans 12:1-2
Conversation. Have a conversation with Cleopas about a recent transition and how it changed you.
Reflection. What stuck out to you in the reading? Why do you think you were struck by this?