The church trafficks in stories of transformation. The guy who found Christ and turned from pills and jiggers. The woman who sorted out her relationships when Jesus showed up. We all hanker for a good transformation story with a novelistic twist. Dark to light. Evil to good. Saul’s murderous zeal catalyzed into the Paul’s fervent, Christic love. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2).
So when Christians–and especially Christian leaders–skid off the moral high road, it’s not just a disappointment. It’s an existential problem. How do people who have been baptized and consecrated, prayed over and called out, given sacred charges and placed in the care of the Shepherd of shepherds, do the things that we’ve discovered that they’ve done? I’m talking the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania and Willow Creek and creepy hugging at Aretha Franklin’s funeral. There’s more. Those are just the high profile cases de jour.
There’s a risk of becoming a gawker at tragedy and abuse, of turning someone else’s pain into my blog fodder, domesticating misconduct into armchair existential angst. But the problem really does run deep for those of us who profess to follow Christ. Does the gospel transform lives? Is the Holy Spirit at work within us?
The usual turn is to lob rocks across the denominational wall. That kind of thing wouldn’t happen in my (non)denomination. We have a better theology of Scripture or authority or the gifts of the Spirit or whatever.
And falling from grace doesn’t have to be criminal to shake us. No doubt we all know someone who was on fire, served the church with gusto and verve, raised a hand in hallelujah and amen. Preach it! And then dropped off the map, gone rogue or fugue or to the golf course.
Of course, this is nothing new. Paul lost people, folks he had mentored and inculcated with the gospel message: Demas “in love with this present world” and Alexander the coppersmith and even young John Mark who just got tired of life on the road (2 Timothy 4:10 and 14; Acts 13:13).
The problem was always there, pinched between the imperative and the passive in the precise Greek of Paul’s “be transformed.” Transformation happens at the paradox of intentionality and passivity, us choosing and God doing. Which means that the abyss runs right outside the New Jerusalem, and freefall is always an option.
In part, we have to be very sober about the human potential for doing wrong in the church. We call out abusive behavior, refusing to use grace as a reason to sweep things under the rug. We advocate for victims. We install windows in the Sunday School classrooms, train volunteers, and create safety policies. Check.
But still there’s some fleck of a conundrum: is transformation real if we can step away from it at any time? Maybe it has something to do with how God’s power and human freedom cross. Grace is by nature free and freely given. It can be rejected at any time. It’s a fearful kind of freedom, really.
So too, gospel transformation is not the ancient dream of alchemy, lead fissioning into static gold. The transformation Jesus works is a process. It’s always in motion. It’s not linear or uncomplex. It comes in stutters, shattering bursts of up-growth followed by staccato soul revisions, a tracing that marks epiphany in blips. Then the end, I suppose. Or mountains beyond mountains on the other side.
What do we do with that?
I’m not totally sure. It strikes me that this side of the grave, God’s transformation never effaces human freedom, and so we’ve got to see everyone always as a beginner in grace, capable of life anew yet limping from the same ancient wound we all carry. The call is not “transform yourself” but “be transformed.” The key’s in there somewhere. We hold out hope for all people but place our hope in the one whose cross and passion makes transformation possible.