Rev. Emily Wright-Magoon
April 2, 2017
Come into this space, where today we consider the surprise, the surrender, the gift… that is part of the process of transformation.
Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for an unknown God. – Swiss philosopher and poet Henri-Frederic Ariel
Once upon a time, a stream, from its course in far-off mountains, passing through every kind of countryside, at last reached the sands of the desert.
Just as it had crossed every other barrier, the stream tried to flow across the sand, yet as fast as it ran into the sand, its waters disappeared.
It was convinced its destiny was to cross the desert, and yet there appeared to be no way.
And then it heard a murmuring from the desert itself. A whisper: “The wind can cross the desert, and so can the stream.”
The stream replied that it was flowing into the sand, and only being swallowed: that the wind could fly, and this was why it could cross a desert.
“By trusting in your usual methods, you will never get across. You will either disappear or become a quagmire. You must allow the wind to carry you to your destination.”
“But how is this possible?” the stream asked…
“Ah…By allowing yourself to be absorbed in the wind” came the answer.
This idea was not acceptable to the stream. It had never been absorbed before. It did not want to lose its individuality because, if it lost it, would it be able to get it back?
“The wind,” said the sand, “performs this function. It takes up water, carries it over the desert, and then lets it fall again. Falling as rain, the water becomes a river once more.”
“But can I not remain the same stream I am today?”
“You cannot remain so,” the whisper said.
“Your essential part is carried away and forms a stream again. You only think you are what you are now because you have forgotten the essential part of yourself.”
When it heard this, certain echoes began to arise in the thoughts of the stream. It vaguely remembered a state in which it — or some part of it? — had been held in the arms of the wind. It also felt that somehow this was the right thing to do, even if it didn’t seem to make any sense at all.
So, with yet some hesitation, the stream raised itself into the welcoming arms of the wind, which gently and easily bore it upward and along, letting it fall softly on the roof of a mountain, many, many miles away.
And because it had such grave doubts, the stream was able to remember and record more strongly in its mind the details of the experience.
“Yes, of course,” it said as if waking from a dream… “now I know who I am.”
– A Sufi story
Transformation is in our church mission statement. We seek to transform lives.
Many religions would say they are about transformation.
But the Catholic priest and teacher Richard Rohr says that too often on the religious or spiritual path, we get stalled in what should just be the first phase. In this first phase, he says, we find stories, practices, and beliefs that give us meaning and a sense of identity as moral, enlightened, or whatever our preferred sense of worth may be. He says:
This [first phase] is good and needed. That’s how you get started. As psychology would say, you have to have an ego to let go of an ego. You have to have a self to move beyond the self. But most religion stops [there.]1
Religion of transformation isn’t just about saying the right things, or believing the most enlightened ideas, or being informed and articulate. We may just be going through the motions.
True: sometimes going through the motions can help us get there. “Fake it until you make it,” as they say. But we won’t make it if we do not allow those practices and beliefs to transform us.
Richard Rohr quotes the philosopher Ken Wilber:
Religion has also served — in a usually very, very small minority — the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it – …not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution — in short, … a radical transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself.2
Think of the analogy of starting an exercise regimen, or any new habit.
I know that, for me, in the early stages I am usually having to push myself into new behaviors – drag myself out the door, resisting at every step. But if I keep at it, and if I’ve chosen some kind of exercise that I might enjoy once my healthier lungs and strengthened muscles can support it
…I begin to enjoy it. I even crave it. I start to prioritize it.
That’s not just behavior change; that’s transformation.
And I don’t mean a transformation of our physical bodies into sculpted physiques, but a transformation of our desires and our will.
Similarly, I’ve heard of people who love sugar but then cut it out of their diet. At first it’s excruciatingly difficult, but then they say they don’t even like sugar anymore. Personally, I can’t imagine that for myself! But I trust that, for them, their transformation is real.
But leaving behind the metaphors of diet and exercise, let’s return to that deeper transformation.
Richard Rohr says:
The [transformative] experience occurs when God or life destabilizes your private ego, usually through some form of suffering. It will feel like dying because it is the death of the false self. …The True Self is all about right relationship, not requirements. It’s not about being correct; it’s about being connected, which you always were — you just didn’t realize it.3
This is what happens to the stream in the Sufi parable I told. The stream has to die to what it was. It must open itself to something beyond itself. It must trust and surrender.
…And then in the process of transformation, it discovers – it becomes – a fuller, realer self beyond the small self.
WAVING THE WHITE FLAG
Most of us only surrender – only finally wave that white flag – if and when we “hit bottom.”
My brother hit bottom two years ago. He had to drink while my dad drove him to rehab because the doctor said if he didn’t drink, his body would start to fail. When I showed up for family week, and in the months that followed, I saw someone who had surrendered in ways that at first felt jarring to me: uncomfortable. He had changed so much, I didn’t know where I fit.
But eventually, I, too, let go, stopped being the older sister trying to fix him, and surrendered to his process. In the many conversations that have followed, he’s told me that it’s not just about not drinking, it’s not just about doing the 12 steps and going to meetings – although all of those are necessary. It’s about a spiritual transformation – not once and for all, but daily. Over and over again.
Perhaps that sounds grueling…?
WE WORK SO HARD
But that’s where most of us get it wrong – me included! We make it grueling. We get perfectionistic; we work at it. But listen to these words by the theologian Frederick Buechner:
…to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst — is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.
We cannot transform on our own.
The stream needs the wind to cross the desert and return to the mountain. The caterpillar needs the workings of nature, and time, to transform into a butterfly. My brother needs what he understands as the love and power of God.
To what do you surrender in order to reach transformation?
A GREATER POWER, A DEEP YES
What greater power helps you do what you alone cannot?
If not God, is it the power of community and right relationship that demand we transcend our individual selves? Is it the power of Mystery to which you surrender, that gifts you with humility, an appreciation for doubt? Or is it the workings of nature and time to which you let go and come into alignment?
It may be more than one of these – or all of these. It may be some power I have not named. You may still be searching for it.
We are probably all still searching for it.
The truth is we do not cross our own deserts by continuing to trudge through in the same old ways that we are accustomed.
We need to find what Richard Rohr calls our own “deep yeses” to carry us through – something we absolutely believe in, something to which we can commit. Something in which we can trust, even when the process is painful or frightening, like when the stream lets itself be taken up…
May we find our own “deep yeses” to which we can surrender, so that we, too, can relax into the arms of the wind and transform time and again into our truest, freest forms.
May it be so.
– Rev. Emily Wright-Magoon