Reflection by Anne Stewart
If you watched the Delight and Awe story earlier, I wonder what you made of the story
about the red crayon. Perhaps you could recall ‘red crayon’ moments in your lives.
Moments when you began to see that something you might have been struggling with
wasn’t actually right for you, after all. Or, maybe you had been trying to be this way or
that, and then were enabled to see that this just wasn’t letting you grow into who you were
created to be. You might have had an experience or two like this, or maybe you have
watched someone else struggle with this. Sometimes, the labels we put on people,
whether we mean to or not, tell a quite different story from the truth about who they really
are. We can be so quick to judge, or make assumptions, often based on little more than our
limited observations of others. But we can also be guilty of putting on a persona in order to
be liked. The truth is that none of us are great at being someone we are not. We really are
at our best when we are just being ourselves. Perhaps the most difficult area we can
struggle with, around this, is with our body image. Maybe you have got beyond this by
now, but you might still remember the voices in your head that said you were too short, too
tall, too thin, too wide, and so on. Has the church helped here when it has often treated
the body as of less value than soulful things or the things of the Spirit? Can our bodies be
enjoyed as they are as spiritual things? I think Paul attends to this well in his letter to the
Romans, when he speaks of the body as a living sacrifice – which is our spiritual worship.
Paul is quite clear here; the body is given spiritual significance. It is not split off as
something unholy, or not of God. God is in everything, everything is sacred. By everything
I mean everything, the good the imperfect, the annoying, the negative, the positive, etc.
Paul says do not be conformed to this world, which is helpful because this world works
quite hard to tell us that we are not good enough as we are.
We need to change things to conform to someone’s idea of what is acceptable and perfect.
Our bodies need to lose weight, gain weight, have images drawn permanently into the skin,
change the hair colour, wear this but not that. All of this sends the message that we should
hide our ‘imperfections’, or our differences, away where nobody sees or conform to some
nebulous shifting sand idea of perfection or even overly dramatize our bodies as if we
somehow have to prove something.
Some would argue that a concept of ‘perfect’ is useful if we are wanting to decide what is
acceptable and what is not. Does being human mean that we have an inherent need to
judge what is in and what is not? This aspect of our culture creeps into the church too. Far
too often the church sends its own messages about what is good and holy and what is not,
even deciding who we must exclude; who is in or who is out. It beats me how it got to this,
when almost all we read about Jesus, is about inclusion. Everyone is in, everything is
sacred, God is in everything. Paul pleads, do not be conformed to this world [of exclusion],
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. In this, being turned around, we will be
able to discern God’s will for us and be opened to how, and where, God is leading. By this
we will be given the wisdom needed to even let the crayon be the colour it was made to be;
and be who we were made to be. Paul takes inclusion further saying that, ‘we who are
many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another’. Members
one of another, that’s the powerful sense of connectedness Paul understands we have as
followers of Christ. Being turned away from exclusionary behaviour, we are made one in
Christ; members, coming in all shapes and sizes, all differently gifted, but intimately
I have observed, and you may have noticed this too, that sometimes we can get caught up
in what I would call ‘compartmentalising’ our lives. We are one way in one context, and
then we are expected to be quite another way in another context. All the groups we might
be part of have their own culture and we can get sucked into being who we need to be in
each of those contexts. Sometimes we even have friends that are exclusive to each context
and we might wonder what would happen if they all met! Before long, we can become a
little bit split. That’s not a criticism, it’s more of a concern about what this can do to us.
But we notice don’t we, when someone isn’t so compartmentalised. I know a few people
who I appreciate because they are always the same, wherever or whenever you meet
them. You know where you are with them, because you can trust that they will be the
same friendly, kind, cheeky, or straight-up character, wherever they are. I think they are
people with deep roots into some solid ground; they know who they are and they are
fearless and shameless and unapologetic in their identity.
But all too often we can place our spiritual life into a little compartment too. “It’s what we
do on Sunday.” But who are we to be on Monday? The goal, surely, is integration. To get
to integration we may need to be open to multiple experiences of being transformed,
turned inside out, by the renewing of our minds. We make the possibility of transformation
difficult, though, if we are conformed to this world. If our egos are left to determine our
course in life then it may take a very big sledge-hammer to get our attention so as to enable
any transformation. I had a job once where I was very well paid, doing something I quite
enjoyed. It was all pretty sweet. When things began to deteriorate, I held on because,
well, I needed to eat and pay the mortgage, and I couldn’t see why I should be the one to
leave and take my chances without any income. I held on, and on, until one day I found
myself turned around, with quite a thud, and I realised that, even if I was right, the only
person I was hurting was myself. I let go and moved on. It all turned out much better than
I could have ever envisaged from my ego-driven place of self-righteousness. But we seldom
turn around without some help; without being turned. And sometimes we have to hit a
very deep rock-bottom before we can let go of ourselves enough, to be turn-able.
What does it mean to have your mind renewed, not just changed but renewed? The Greek
term for this is metanoia. A literal translation is meta meaning – “after” or “beyond” and
nous meaning “mind”. It’s commonly understood as “a transformative change of heart;
especially: a spiritual conversion.” Some people use the word repentance, but I think there
are problems with that. Repentance is typically understood as something we do. And it’s
generally about some moralistic failure. We recognise our mistake or wrong path and we
say sorry and change things. Metanoia is more about being transformed, or turned around,
by something beyond us. In those moments when something stops us, light comes into the
dark and we see differently and we are different for it. We are changed, or transformed in
our thinking and then we live our lives differently. Some people might call this, as Jesus did,
being ‘born again’ or ‘from above’. Whatever way you look at it, it shows us that one birth
is not enough. We not only have to be born, but remade and remade, over and over again,
the same goes for being turned around. It is something that repeats.
We shouldn’t expect either, that our times of ‘being turned’ or transformed will be painless.
Just look at how difficult it has been for our systems, all the way from Governmental to
individual, to shift from pre-Covid to Covid. Changes like this don’t happen at the click of
the fingers. These journeys will usually bring with them disorder and chaos on the way to,
and through, the transformation. And its highly likely that there will be suffering as well. In
this world we are taught that suffering is always bad; if it hurts don’t do it, or find a way to
make it stop. I wonder sometimes how much painful but necessary growth is avoided by
masking it and therefore preventing it by the overuse of alcohol or drugs. Anything to avoid
the pain, rather than feeling it, addressing it, and growing from it.
Looking back, are you able to trace the growth in your faith life; where being turned around
has shaped you? If your awareness of this began in childhood then you probably started
with a child-like view of God. Some people never get beyond this and then find it cannot
sustain them through the pain of growing into adulthood. There are always ideas that we
have to let go of, along the way, in order to grow. If we resist, or run back to the old
comfortable ideas, then we will not grow. However, to stay stuck in the stage where
everything is being let go, without anything new forming, is equally dangerous.
Dismantling our old beliefs can be a useful thing as long as we are building something new.
If we don’t build the new then we are likely to become negative, or cynical and often angry
as we search for solid ground. It can make people very sure that nothing is right and leave
them stuck in a world of nothingness, despair and cynicism. Instead, if we are open to
being turned, we might begin to leave behind the expectations of others, the
compartmentalising of our lives, and begin growing into who we were created to be,
members one of another, fully integrated in Christ.