Religion has always performed two very important, but very different, functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self; two, religion has also served radical transformation . . . a transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but of the death of the believer. — Ken Wilber
I submit this as the key possibility of our lives: the shift, again and again, from our primary identity as separate self (small self) to our essential identity as beloved of God. This key unlocks the capacity to participate in God’s love that connects all that lives, a relating and reconciling compassion most visible in Jesus. This transcending of the separate self, while including the separate self, is the personal transformation at the heart of the Gospel that has gripped you and me for life.
Ken Wilber is a current philosopher, wisdom teacher and mystic who I began reading in 1992. I value his distinction between two important functions of religion noted in the heading of this reflection. I’m translating his insight for our purposes. I’m assuming that most congregants look to their Christian experience for meaning and purpose. They find in church a resource for coping with the challenges, often overwhelming, that come at them week after week. I call this “formation.” They expect from worship, community, and learning events sustenance for forming a strong sense of self as self-understanding and for courage, moral guidance and motivation for living.
Some congregants, likely a minority, long for more. For them the ideal of a strong separate self breaks at some point along the way. This break may be sudden or a gradual yearning for more. For whatever reason the person is cracked open for the possibility of trans-formation, that is, the transcending of separate, egoic self however well formed it may be. It’s waking up from the dream of separateness and discovering ourselves to be vitally connected with all that lives. This felt communion with God, other humans and all creation, once realized, will no longer let us rest in the illusion of being separate persons. The egoic self dies as the center of our lives through repeated practices of surrendering, self-emptying, self-giving. It’s what Wilber calls “the death of the believer.” This radical transformation, so foundational to our vocation, is the topic of this re-frame.
Both my personal faith and professional vocation began with finding a meaningful purpose for living — the first of the religious functions named by Wilber. This life-altering pivot in my life happened during university years. I’m indebted to some older students for pointing me in a new direction. Simply, conversations with these seekers opened a curiosity about Jesus. His radical vision grasped me. His “follow me” felt simple, direct, demanding, mysterious, adventurous and total.
At the time I was well along the path of fulfilling a family script for my life. Being the only son, it was assumed by everyone, including me, that I would “go into the family business.” It looked that way—first, working in the warehouse, then later as a salesperson and finally the dutiful “major” in business administration. The further I traveled down this expected path the less it seemed like me. It was not a path with heart. It was not a path with my heart.
I was ready. I was restless, yearning for a new way forward. The word was “purpose.” Just maybe, I thought, I had found a purpose that’s much larger, more challenging and exciting than the one scripted for me. Within months a fire was laid, then lit, that ignited a desire for learning that astounded anyone who knew me. Staying up late to study, until 11:00 and 12:00, even 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning was unprecedented. This fired-up interest soon took me to the seminary with no clarity at that point about vocation. It was enough at that time for the seminary to provide a container, community and Table where food was served to satisfy my hunger. In time, as described in the introduction, the pull to become a pastor took hold and I spent the next seven years becoming formed in our vocation.
When I was graduated I felt well formed in pastoral knowledge and skills. To a comfortable degree I had digested understanding of scripture, church history, pastoral care and congregational leadership. I enjoyed some practice-runs as pastor in a few small congregations. As I moved to more demanding challenges my work as pastoral leader continued to be purposeful, full of meaning. Each morning I would leave my bed excited about the day. In Richard Rohr’s words (with depth psychologist Carl Jung whispering in his ears), I was completing the work of the “first half of life.” I felt established in the role. I felt confident. I had formed a strong sense of self to offer to the world. That worked well until it didn’t work well.
This formation was not enough. I was not enough. My developed self was not enough. Likely a deeper, older, more primal sense of not being enough erupted through the surface of my everyday living. Regardless of its origin my work began to exhaust the love that gave birth to it. The struggle of institutional leadership nibbled at the meaning I had previously found so purposeful. “Burn-out” and “compassion fatigue” are clever labels that gloss over the desperation and humiliation beneath them. With growing dismay, plus the needs of our young family, I resigned. I left the role, finding another ministry for ten years, only to return fifteen years later to serve a congregation until my retirement. The return felt like a second marriage, a second attempt, a new chance to be what I most loved—a pastor.
During that in-between decade a re-frame began to emerge. I saw the contours of a movement from formation to transformation. I began exploring the second function of religion that Ken Wilber describes — “radical transformation . . . the transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but the death of the believer.”
It became clearer to me that personal transformation was at the core message of the New Testament. The awareness was gradual like a photo print revealing itself in a darkroom. From Jesus: lose your life to find it; take up your cross and follow (Luke 17:33, Matthew 16:25); a grain of wheat falling into the ground, dying, husks broken open, yielding a rich harvest (John 12:24); not my will but Thine be done (Mark 14:36); love as I have loved you (John 13:34). And from Paul the same themes of transformation—in baptism a dying to rise in newness of life (Romans 5:3-4); not I, but Christ the one living in me (Galatians 2:20); being transformed by degrees into the likeness of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18); taking on the mind or consciousness of Christ as kenosis, a self-emptying, non-clinging, self-giving love no matter what (Philippians 2:4-11).
Perhaps a clever parable can scrape away the glaze from these overly familiar passages and reveal just how breathtaking this change really is. This parable devised by Maurice Nicoll in the 1950’s has been then revised by Jacob Needleman, next by Cynthia Bourgeault in Wisdom Way of Knowing, and now slightly by me.
Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy. They were busy developing their human potential, taking advantage of books and conferences that enhanced self-actualization. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.” There were wounded-ness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.
One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the sky” by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward toward the tree, he said, “We . . . are . . . that!”
Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground . . . and cracking open the shell.”
“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns any more.”
This we know about acorns. They are seeds. Their nature and destiny are to become oak trees. Acorns, to be true to what they are, must fall into the ground and die as acorns, allowing their shells to be cracked open, thus taking into themselves the nourishment of soil, water and sun. In time they become oak trees.
Let’s place this parable alongside of Jesus’ words and note the parallel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” (John 12: 24)
Could this be true? Are we made for a transformation as amazing as the acorn becoming an oak tree or a grain becoming wheat or losing one self for a fuller, more authentic one? Is that magnificent possibility coiled within us? Is there an identity in us that is beyond a strong, polished personality (acorn)? The gospel narrative says “yes,” a resounding “yes!”
Martin Laird offers two metaphors of transcending this separate self while including our egoic self. A sponge in the ocean, like the egoic self, is immersed in the transcendent water that flows through it. Or, our core identity is like a mountain that we picture as being centered, firm while witnessing the unruly weather of thoughts, feelings, reactions that come and go. “We are the mountain, not the weather,” Laird imagines.
This core, transformed identity goes by a variety of names that include Beloved, Spirit, Kingdom or Realm of God within, child of God, Christ-ness, Christlikeness, Christ living in us, True Self, or image of God.
In Thomas Merton’s conciseness:
“To say we are made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence. Being Love is my true identity.”
This means falling into divine Love. Falling in love, we know from experience, changes our consciousness. It changes everything. This love is joyful but also unsettling. You never know where it will take you. The cost is your ego as your center. Transformation is waking up to and falling into this reality, a gift already given but seldom recognized. This awareness is a secure starting point, a different foundation from which we can interrogate and change the lies we tell ourselves about earning our worth. From this deeper center we find both the freedom to let go of binding attachments and the freedom to risk extravagant self-giving.
This transformation occurs always in relationship. Love is a relational word. A focus on the individual alone simply mirrors our cultural flaw of individualism—the illusion that you and I are separate individuals. Reality is relational. We are part of an interconnected web, an “entangled universe,” as quantum physicists name it. We live and move within mutual relationships with God, with nature and one another. Only within caring relationships can we differentiate as unique individual persons who in turn can offer their unique ways of giving. Relationships provide the context for transformation. To be is to be with.
This shift to our primary identity changes the way we carry ourselves in the world. A few examples:
You have a ministry but you are not primarily your ministry. At the core you are beloved, Love.
You have a personality but you are not primarily your personality. At the core you are beloved, Love.
You have weaknesses and failures but you are not primarily your weaknesses and failures. At the core you are beloved, Love.
You have racism (and other “isms”) as a wound to be healed, but you are not primarily a racist. At the core you are beloved, Love.
You have successful achievements but you are not primarily your accomplishments. At the core you are beloved, Love.
Let’s take my racism as an illustration. If my identity is primarily Mahan (my ego, personality, gifts/abilities, etc.) and you call me a racist, I’m defensive, unable to hear the full truth. But if I am grounded in my God-given identity as Beloved then I am freer to acknowledge the truth of my racism. From that inner grace-full place I am more able to admit my white privilege and work to minimize its destructive force in relationships.
The same goes with other obstacles. To be rooted and grounded in Love (our True Self) is to be freer to work on changes in our personal selves. This core identity gives us leverage, a place to stand while participating fully in God’s transforming energy, both within us and within the world.
This movement—from formation to transformation—is the overarching re-frame that has mattered. The next re-frame addresses the critical place of practice in our inner, personal transformation. Then a third re-frame unveils our work, pastoral leadership, as the prime context for our own transformation. These three re-frames provide the foundation for all the other re-frames.