Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Either Deep Change or Slow Death

I'm teaching 28 African American seminary students at Payne Theological Seminary. What a beautiful group of students this is!

At the heart of my Spiritual Formation class is Galatians 4:19, where Paul states that he is in childbirth-like pain until Christ is formed in the hearts of the Galatian Jesus-followers. Romans 12:1-2 is crucial too, implying that one's heart has a "shape" - either of the world or of Christ. God wants to meta-morph the shape of our heart into Christlikeness. To have a heart-meta-morphing means: the shape of one's heart has changed (experiences a change of form).

For example, more than knowing we are to love our enemies, a Christ-formed heart does love its enemies. That's why Jesus never wore a "WWID" bracelet ("What Would I Do?"). He didn't wear one since he was the Christ.

When I sent the Payne students out for an hour of prayer today I also prayed. I was thinking of how God has changed me over the years. I was reminded of a denominational leadership retreat I was at two years ago. A colleague who had not seen me for over fifteen years told me, "You have really changed since I last saw you."    That made me feel good, since in the spiritual life (as in organic life) we're either green and growing or ripe and rotting. As U-Michigan professor Robert Quinn has written, it's either deep change or slow death.

A few months ago some film students from the University of Michigan interviewed me for a film they are making on our Monroe community. They asked me the question: "As one of this community's leaders, what is the number one problem you see that needs to be addressed?" I responded: "The number one problem I see is me." I am serious about this! If I change to be more like Christ our community will improve. I now think of the ancient hymn "It's me, it's me, it's me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer." I embrace that perspective.

I am changing as I write these words, just as the oak tree on my front yard is growing. How so?

  • Forty years ago I came to believe in a living, active God. That has not changed. But how I view God has changed, and it needed to change. 
  • Forty years ago I came to believe that Jesus is God incarnate on earth. I still believe this. But my understanding over the years has shifted and changed. Christological studies remain at the heart of what I do. I want to know Jesus. And by "Jesus" I mean the Real Jesus. I did Ph.D work in Christology - that was in the late 70s and early 80s. But after just finishing 5 years of preaching chronologically through the four Gospels my understanding of Jesus has changed into something more compelling and beautiful than it has ever been. I am thankful for this change.
  • I have experienced change as the further formation of a core belief, such as the nature of God, or the nature of Christ. Some of my earlier beliefs about Jesus have been tossed out, and what are to me more accurate understandings have taken their place. Honestly, during the recent 5 years of intense Jesus-studies it seemed as if every week involved the recognition, "I guess I was wrong about that one too." I see this as good. Surely it would be false and arrogant to claim that my Christology at age twenty-one adequately represented who Jesus really is.
A little child can understand Jesus as their Lord, and that Jesus loves them. A lifetime of loving and knowing and studying Jesus cannot fully grasp him. We don't need to feel threatened by this. If our limited cognitive faculties could contain all the reality and being of Jesus we would have cause for concern.