Guides through Transformation

by | Jul 17, 2023

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.

Philemon v. 10

During the height of the COVID pandemic, we all felt like we were living the phrase “building the plane while flying it.” Because of the uncertainty and urgency of the situation, we didn’t have the time to think through what we were doing—and since so much was unprecedented, it didn’t matter because we couldn’t really know what we were doing anyway! We are now looking at what innovations (like Zoom meetings and working from home) will most likely become a permanent change in the way we do things, and what might be on-going impacts of the prolonged isolation suffered through the pandemic. We also learned some things, or were confirmed that we were indeed more resourceful and adaptive than we thought, and that it always helps to share with colleagues our experiences, learnings, and ideas as we move through unknown territory.

There are other radical changes impacting our lives and our world, some that don’t get as much attention as a worldwide pandemic. An issue that has been discussed for years is the demographic shift in the United States as it becomes a “minority majority” nation—that is, there will no longer be a particular race that holds a numeric majority of the population. There has also been a seeming shift away from the dominant position of men and the traditionally “masculine” way of doing things. These shifts (represented by, for instance, the predominant number of women in higher education) have been recognized with statements like the “feminization” of leadership, or charges of reverse racism or sexism. The growth of people who identify as non-binary or transgender adds to the complication of claiming male distinctiveness. And I can imagine that people who have never acknowledged the privilege of being White, male, and/or straight might feel disoriented and even threatened by these significant changes. I also fear that the violence in the United States will continue at a very high level, with groups daring to declare things like “Jews will not replace us” and guns and military assault rifles being ever more accessible.

Some of these issues were referenced in a recent column in the Washington Post by Christine Emba: “Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness.”

As someone who has advocated for the rights of people who live on the margins of society, I do not focus as much time on the situation of those who always lived in the center. But I do have some sense of the amount of disorientation experienced by people whose traditional strengths are now considered problematic. According to Emba, this disorientation can reach tragic consequences: men account for almost 3 of every 4 “deaths of despair,” either from a suicide, alcohol abuse or an overdose.

There are many ways we can experience this disorientation. Last year I was somewhat amused by the word of the year for evangelical Christians: deconstruction. On the other hand, I have been reluctant to advertise my pronouns (she/her), and I confess that I have a hard time keeping track of the myriad ways gender identity and sexual orientation are described. So we all have ways we need to keep up with the rapidly evolving ways we understand our individual and cultural identities.

Indeed, I have often felt that this is a great challenge for the Christian life. Our entry into the Christian life is expected to be disruptive: we convert to Christianity, we are transformed, we receive new life and let the old pass away. We reject the ways of the world and accept being called fools for Christ.

And truth be told, I think Jesus’ various parables and metaphors for God’s realm have been less than clarifying for many. When I was in seminary, I had a conversation with a rabbinical student who commented that the Jewish tradition was more logical than the life of a Christian. Since so many of our old ways are to be rejected, and the ways to live our faith are so countercultural, it can feel like we get transported to a new world, but we still have our old maps to try to help us navigate. And, of course, the old world is still right there, luring us back into the ways we’ve always done life.

So how do we live into this new, unprecedented life? How do we shed what we’ve known and were, to be transformed into a true follower of Christ?

In a discussion of Christine Emba’s article, a male pundit was asked what it would take to help the single young men who have become isolated, despondent, and possibly reactionary? The response ended with an appeal for more positive male role models: “If we want better men, we have to be better men.” If one’s father cannot be that role model, there may be a call for other men to fill that void.

I think this is the answer for Christians, for all young people from troubled families, and for people embarking on new ventures, especially if they come from marginalized communities. I’ve always felt that the church can provide positive role models, supportive healthy relationships, and hope in the face of uncertainty—if we are willing to welcome those who need that, which might mean welcoming those whose lives have already been negatively impacted. Like the apostle Paul, we might be called to be like a father (mother/parent) even for an escaped slave, a young homeless person, or a recent immigrant fleeing their country. And in such a relationship, we are not to erase the characteristics that God has given them, but to develop themselves to be the disciple God wants them to become, and advocate for them as Paul did for Onesimus.

At a shelter in Tijuana, one that receives “diverse families,” there was a poignant sign on a door: “You are safe here.” Can we become a refuge for so many people who have been knocked about by a loss of identity, and help them build back a new, positive self-identity as a beloved child of God?

May we find ways to offer redemption relationship in a world that seems to have forgotten how to be community. And may we share the love of Christ, especially to those who need it most. As the world keeps changing, we cannot have all the answers— but we can accompany each other through this strange time.