Recovery with Romans (I): The Great Turning

[special_heading title=”Recovery with Romans (I): The Great Turning” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]Almost every conversation I’ve had in the past three months has reflected on how the pandemic is changing us. Changing our relationships (socially distanced), changing our work (remotely), changing our routines, much of what we took for granted; changing our perception of others; changing our sense of community and belonging; changing our church; changing our future. Change. Life always equals change. But everything feels accelerated in this disorienting time, and we have very little control over the changes that are happening.

Now, as we move cautiously and thoughtfully from acute crisis into recovery, we have an unprecedented moment to hear God’s Word and consider how individually and as beloved community to shape the changing landscape into one that more closely aligns with God’s good intentions for us and all people.

…because not all change is the same. There is evolution and there is decay. Labor ushers in new life; death throes signal the end. The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a monarch butterfly is surely one of nature’s astounding miracles; climate “change” points to the destruction of earth’s natural processes through human action and inaction. Our Director of Faith Formation and Mission, Molly Brown, led the staff in devotions recently, centered around three questions about change: Can I grow without pain? Can God use loss to sharpen my sense of identity as God’s beloved child? Can the pandemic reorient my trust in the power of a good and loving God?  They provide a powerful lens through which to “consider” the morning Scripture text. Here, the apostle Paul describes the essential purpose of human life. And come to find out, it’s all about change. A reading from the letter to the Romans, in the 12th chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to us.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect. The Word of the Lord…thanks be to God!

I’m grateful once again for the group who explored this text during Friday Faith Break:  Freddy Groff, Heather Collins, Steve Davis, Ryan and Charis Smith, and Cheryl Fleetwood. Please join me on Zoom each Friday at noon for time to check in, pray, and explore a Scripture text for a summer sermon. Each session is complete in itself and there’s no homework (other than to practice what we preach!).

The group was intrigued by the opening metaphor:  present your bodies as a living sacrifice…Christian faith is holistic–it’s not simply concerned with our souls, but with our entire beings. The things we do with our bodies’ matter, as they represent an offering to God. We can meditate, do yoga, exercise, run or walk. The pandemic practices of social distancing and wearing masks to protect others from infection are a literal offering of our bodies. Someone else mentioned that it has helped her family to make a list of activities they can do rather than focusing on the disappointing losses of the time (thanks for sharing that list with our families, Charis!).  We experience change in our bodies–through acute or chronic illness, amorphous anxiety that hounds us often, over-eating or excessive drinking, even rage born of frustration and internalizing the loss of control. Can growth come by way of pain?

The apostle thought so. The transformation through the renewing of our minds will be embodied as well. Expressed in our actions, reflected in foundational understanding of who God is and how God is “for” us. Here the apostle suggests that this is a continuing process, not something we can do once and for all, and that really resonated.  I’m trying to do a 180 beyond the heaviness of this time, one participant noted, and finding I can do it only one step at a time.

But one step in the right direction makes the road to recovery possible. How we live our days is ultimately how we live our lives. And maybe the transformation of this time will take place step by step, as we do one small act of kindness each day…breathe a prayer of gratitude before an eye-roll or sigh of impatience…carve out time for reflection instead of reaction.

I’m struck by two potential areas of ripe for transformation. One is the effects of the pandemic on climate change. You’ve all seen the photographs of clear skies over Los Angeles and Kolkata, India. People are driving less and flying less. The pause has created space to focus on harnessing renewable energy sources and alternative investments in “green” technology. I can imagine a whole new business economy putting people to work installing electric charging stations, rooftop solar panels, better home insulation, and more efficient windows and boilers. Maybe the experience of this time will help shape a new normal that is more sustainable and earth-friendly. Maybe.[callout_box title=” Racism and racial injustice contradict the very heart of Christian faith and the conviction that every single person is created in the image of God and is beloved of God. Every single person on earth is our brother or sister, and to tolerate or ignore such systemic evil makes us complicit in the wrong. ” subtitle=””]George Floyd…Breonna Taylor…Michael Dean…Eric Reason…Christopher McCorvey…Atatiana Jefferson…I would have to recite 94 more names to memorialize every Black man, woman, and child who has died unnecessarily at the hands of police in the discharge of their duties to “protect and serve” since 2014.   The brutal image of a policeman’s knee on the neck of George Floyd and his weakening cries I can’t breathe have become a symbol of structural racism that not only literally chokes human beings, but chokes them out of economic opportunity and democracy itself. The national median income for Whites is $68,000, and for Blacks is $41,500; the home ownership gap is likewise a chasm: 75% versus 51% [from a Brookings Institution article by Andre Perry and Tawanna Black, May 29, 2020]. More than one of you has noted the disparity in Covid-19 infection rates and how communities of color have been hit hardest.  Racism and racial injustice contradict the very heart of Christian faith and the conviction that every single person is created in the image of God and is beloved of God. Every single person on earth is our brother or sister, and to tolerate or ignore such systemic evil makes us complicit in the wrong. Central’s Racial Healing Group continues to highlight these matters for us, and a lot of it is frankly uncomfortable, as we identify our white privilege and its toxic effects. Could this be the moment when our nation and church face the injustices baked into our life together and take concrete steps to transform perceptions and practices? To do justice that defines who we are?

No one pretends that not conforming to the standards and values of this world is easy. Maybe that’s why the text describes transformation as the ongoing work of the church, as we discern and discern again what God’s intention is for us and for the world God loves so well. Some social scientists have used the term “The Great Turning” to describe the possibility of deep and broad systemic change. It strikes me how very consistent this is with God’s call to repentance–the word literally means “turning.” A call to change from a life-destroying culture to one worthy of our God-given humanity and God’s dream for us.

God doesn’t break us, my friends, but God does use broken things to change and heal and reconcile us. We eat broken bread and drink from what has been poured out, representing Christ’s broken and bleeding body, to be nourished for whole, joyous, and connected lives. In this meal we know “communion” with God and find in our common need that we are one.

The saint and mystic Julian of Norwich is well-known for her saying that all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Okay, but it took a pandemic to teach me the second part of the saying, which is why the first part is true:  For there is a force of love, moving through the universe that holds us fast and will never let us go.