radical transformation

Peace Covenant CoB

August 8, 2021

John 3:1-10

I think a lot about CP Ellis. In the 1960s, CP was the Exalted Cyclops of the local Durham branch of the Ku Klux Klan. You might know part of his life’s story from the book or movie, “The Best of Enemies.” CP got recruited, along with Black community activist, Ann Atwater, to lead the cooperative effort to de-segregate Durham’s public schools. Leaders organized a “charrette,” a series of nightly community conversations, where people from all across spectrum were invited to participate in the decision-making for integration.

CP and Ann ended up becoming friends through the course of their work together, and both of them underwent serious, powerful, radical transformation in the process of learning to love one another across immense distance, difference and prejudice. Telling the story like that makes it sound like a heart-warming, feel-good story of linear change. But radical transformation rarely happens in an instant, and it definitely didn’t happen that way for CP Ellis.

In his book, “The Best of Enemies,” Osha Gray Davidson says:

“The single unifying element in the history of transformations in the West, from Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus to Kafka’s cockroach, is the instantaneousness of the process – if the word ‘process’ can be used at all to describe the psychological equivalent of a lightning strike…This was not CP’s experience…”

CP’s work on the charrette and with Ann changed his heart, but it also resulted in being ostracized and cast out of his community. It wasn’t just the Klan that called his home phone late at night shouting insults and threatening his life; it was a huge swath of the white working class community of Durham, along with plenty of middle and upper class white people, too. That was a huge loss. Davidson writes: “Just because he had discovered a commonality of experience between himself and Ann Atwater didn’t mean that he would immediately leave the Klan and sign up with the NAACP…Perhaps the best way of putting it is to say that a door previously unknown to CP had been opened to him. But he had not walked through it. And he did not want to. For the vision he saw through that doorway was not of some peaceable kingdom where lions and lambs dozed together in sunlit meadows, but of a hellish landscape befouled by miscegenation.”

CP’s transformation wasn’t quick or easy, and it was not without real pain, grief, struggle and loss. In the aftermath of the work on the charrette, he lost all of his friends. He lost his community. He did not fit in back in his white, working class, East Durham neighborhood, and he did not fit in with Ann’s community, either. He started drinking even more heavily than he had before, and even attempted to kill himself two days before Christmas. He checked himself into a psychiatric ward, where the white doctor, who could not fathom the world-shifting transformation CP was undergoing, told him his problem was that he smoked too much and sent him home.

Finally, CP found a new, young, sympathetic therapist in Chapel Hill who, after hearing his story, said to him “Look, you haven’t committed any crime. Why don’t you just forgive yourself and get on with your life?” As he drove home from that session, CP was overcome. He pulled over on the side of the road and realized that the therapist was right. “What had he done that was so awful? He had changed. That was all. Was change a crime? Did it deserve a death sentence?…He put his head down on the steering wheel and cried, his tears a mixture of anger, forgiveness, anguish and exultation.”

But even that isn’t the end of CP’s story. He spent his life working for justice, yes, but it cost him friends, his marriage, and his community. His transformation was painful and it was costly.

I think about CP a lot, because I think his story is a much more accurate portrayal of what radical transformation looks like than many of the stories that we hear and tell. Radical transformation is not painless. It is not without loss. It requires sacrifice, dying to self, and giving up so much – from certainty to safety to relationship. It is a lot to ask of a person.

And it is exactly what Jesus asks of us. Nicodemus was a lot like CP: safely installed in the upper tiers of society, he enjoyed power, wealth and respect. His curiosity about this Jesus character threatened all that privilege – it’s why he snuck out under the cover of darkness to check Jesus out. When he heard Jesus say that he must be born entirely again – give up all that privilege and power and place in society that kept him so comfortable and safe – we don’t hear another peep out of him until he shows up after Jesus has been crucified.

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This week, we begin a series focused on the new “compelling vision” statement from the Church of the Brethren. The statement was officially adopted at this summer’s Annual Conference and is the result of several years of conversation, study, focus groups and prayer. Here’s the whole thing:

Together, as the Church of the Brethren, we will passionately live and share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ through relationship-based neighborhood engagement. To move us forward, we will develop a culture of calling and equipping disciples who are innovative, adaptable, and fearless.

I have a lot of reservations about the state of our church these days – and American Christianity, in general. Denominations aren’t long for this world, and institutional church structures are crumbling every day. But none of that means that the work of Jesus’ disciples isn’t still essential and immediate, and none of it means that God isn’t still present within and among us, working radical transformation in us even now. I like a lot about this statement. I think Peace Covenant is already well on our way to living out the vision presented here. I’m excited to dig deeper into the invitations it presents to us.

The statement starts out strong and doesn’t let up: together, as the Church of the Brethren, we will passionately live and share the radical transformation of Jesus Christ. Not just anticipate or prepare for or believe in or talk about…but passionately live and share radical transformation.

At first glance, that might sound easy breezy: we know Jesus, and we understand that life with Jesus changes us. We want everybody to have that! But living radical transformation – if we pay attention to the people in scripture and in life who have done that, lived through radical transformation – well, living radical transformation might just prove to be painful. Like Nicodemus and CP Ellis, when we see what’s on offer, we might turn our backs and opt out.

This week, on vacation in the mountains, I encountered SO MANY butterflies – orange and yellow and blue and green, flitting all over the valleys and on the mountaintops. Everybody knows the story of the radical transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. Like this:

It’s so cool! A worm curls up into a cocoon and emerges, days later, as a gorgeous, winged, flying thing! Amazing! But did you catch how that video explained the process? The caterpillar eats and eats and eats, then hangs upside down, curls into a pupa shape, and then DIGESTS ITSELF by SPLITTING ITS OWN SKIN OPEN to form a cocoon. A caterpillar’s transformation is not smooth or simple or easy: the creature digests itself. Inside that cocoon, it turns into a literal pile of goo. It isn’t kneaded or gently pushed into a slightly new shape; it is totally re-made, radically transformed. It takes digesting its own body and sitting in a liminal space as a literal pile of goo in order for the transformation to happen.

Living and sharing the radical transformation of Jesus Christ – which is where this new vision statement BEGINS – is intense. We are not playing around. We are coming right out of the starting gate saying that we fully expect to be spending some time as piles of goo while God works on our hearts and our minds, transforming them into something that we cannot even imagine. We START by saying that we are people who anticipate losing our power, our privilege, our safety, our security, even some of our relationships for the sake of divine transformation.

That’s how this vision statement BEGINS. Talk about setting a high bar.

But that is what our tradition has always proclaimed: that living lives faithful to Jesus’ call will always involve unexpected sacrifice. Alexander Mack, the first one to articulate the Brethren understanding of faith, wrote a hymn called “Count Well the Cost.” They lyrics go like this:

“Count well the cost,” Christ Jesus says,
“when you lay the foundation.”
Are you resolved, though all seem lost,
to risk your reputation,
your self, your wealth, for Christ the Lord,
as you now give your solemn word?

Are you resolved, though all seem lost, to risk your reputation, your self, your wealth for Christ?

Do we trust that Christ is worth it? Do we believe that beyond all that we could lose, there is another, more beautiful, more worthy way of living? What if that radical transformation involves losing our community? What if it drives us to want to die? What if we end up in a psych ward where no one can begin to understand what’s happening to us? What if we lose important relationships? What if we fall into poverty? What if we can’t do our jobs in good conscience any more? What if radical transformation means we lose all of what we thought was important?

This is where we START, in this vision for church together. This is the BEGINNING. Hoo boy. Hold on: we’re in for a wild ride.

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