Do Not Conform – Be Transformed

On Sunday morning I woke up with a racing heart and a sense of dread.  I had just come back to consciousness from a terrible dream – a nightmare, really.

In this dream I was seated in my vestments ready to take the pulpit as a visiting preacher in this huge downtown Presbyterian church.  Reflecting back, it looked like the huge sanctuary of Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles.  When I got to the pulpit, looking over the rows of pews, mostly filled, I realized that I didn’t have my sermon.

I looked around the surface of the pulpit desk but it was nowhere to be seen.  Not even on the floor.  Well, I thought to myself, I ought to be able to remember enough of it to get by.  After all, I had labored over it all week.  But, nothing.  I couldn’t remember what the scripture passage was.  I couldn’t even remember a single story. 

I began with a little patter about how honored I was to have been invited and told a lame joke (the kind my boys say I usually tell), hoping that something might come back to mind as I vamped.  The next thing I knew, there was a woman standing next to me with an offering plate.  This was the signal that I was done.   Yeah, really DONE.  At the same moment, the entire sermon came back to mind.  But it was too late.  Done.  Really Done, as in Toast.

At that moment another thing occurred.  I woke up.

I wonder if it is just Presbyterians that cause so much anxiety.  Starchy Calvinism can mess with the mind.  Or was something deeper going on?

The basic undercurrent of this dream is: Forney, you don’t measure up.  You’re a fraud.  Isn’t that the message we get from so much of society?  You’ve got to measure up.  We’ve got standards and, well…you’re out of your league.

Paul tells the church at Rome that the standards the world beats us over the head with are bogus hogwash.  “Do not conform yourselves to the standards of the world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your heart.”  Then you’ll be in alignment with God, the power that set the planets in their courses and also cares for even the tiny sparrow. 

The world said that, as a teenage boy, if I ever hoped to attract a girlfriend, I needed to have a souped up, chopped and customized Chevy.  Chrome exhaust pipes, metallic paint job with pin striping that gave off a deep throated VAROOOOM when I stomped on it.  I had a hand-me-down 1950 Studebaker.

I never measured up.  The problem with the “standards of this world” is that none of us can ever measure up.  And in just trying to do so, many of us will be ground to dust. Trying to earn your self-worth is futile.  There’s never enough.  You’ll never be good enough.  That’s just how it is with the world’s standards.

The world’s standards are spiritual death.  Sometimes actual, real, dead death.

Look at the COVID-19 wards across the country.  They’re full of so many of society’s discards.

You want to see the flotsam of the standards of this world?  Look at the recent economic indicators.

In the June business section, when the pandemic in the U.S. was just beginning to kick into high gear, I spied an article on bankruptcy.  Many companies, reeling from massive losses were heading to the  courts for relief.

I read that, while bankruptcy is usually devastating for workers and investors, it often works out just fine for CEOs. 

Here is the true skinny on corporate bankruptcy.  Companies get rid of debt; they stiff their investors and get relieved of burdensome union contracts and healthcare obligations to their workers.  They leave their suppliers and subcontractors high and dry.   AND, AND. The CEO’s walk away with full wallets. 

Whiting Petroleum sought protection from the courts, it’s CEO walked away with $6.4 million in bonuses and perks.  In closing 154 stores across the country, J.C. Penny managed to find enough pocket change to pay their outgoing CEO Jill Soltau $4.5 million.  I wonder how all the store clerks and the cleaning crew made out.  The standards of the world work out pretty well for some.

Chesapeake Energy paid out a raft of bonuses to senior employees right before filing for bankruptcy.  The same with Hertz.  These are the standards of the world.[1]  Do not conform yourselves to them.  They are the path of dehumanization and death.

Tuesday the S&P Dow Jones hit record highs.  And more and more wound up living on the streets.  Our friend in Charleston, WV, told me that city parks are overrun with the homeless and drug addicted.  But the top five percent are doing very well, thank you.  One analyst, looking at the disparity can’t believe the numbers, “This market is nuts,” said Howard Silverblatt.[2]  The “standards of this world,” they’re nuts.

This is the judgement of the world.  These standards are death to the aspirations and dreams of many.  Most of us can never measure up to them.  We will never be rich enough, thin enough, educated enough.  Most of us will not have the right car, the right trophy spouse, the right house or the right attitudes.  So, don’t conform yourself to these standards. They are death.

But be transformed.  Inwardly, by a complete change of your mind.

Transformation begins with opening our eyes, opening our hearts and minds to what is really real within ourselves and the world around us.  It begins with a real assessment.  That’s the beginning of the 12-step journey to recovery.  A moral inventory of who you are. 

It’s like the mess I make in the kitchen.  I look at it and ask myself, now why should I expect someone else to clean this up?  Then I hunt for the sponge and soap.  Why would they have more fun doing it than I?

That’s the beginning of the journey of healing for our nation.  Transformation is listening — listening to those we have harmed and neglected.  Like a formerly enslaved woman, Isabella Gibbons, working as a cook at the University of Virginia.  This is the campus designed by Thomas Jefferson, author of those inspiring words in the Declaration of Independence, “all men equal.”

From this woman, who would later by 1867 become a teacher of a Black elementary school, “Can we forget  the crack of the whip, cowhide, whipping-post, the auction block, the handcuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness?  Have we forgotten that by these horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race have been killed?  No, we have not, or will.”[3]

God begins that inward transformation in the moment we acknowledge our brokenness.  As with an individual, so also with a nation or institution. In acknowledging untold pain and suffering, in acknowledging the black lives taken advantage of and shamefully used, the University of Virginia has embarked on the journey of inward transformation as an institution.  They are listening to the pain echoing down the centuries of broken black bodies and spirits.

Those who never feel the need for contrition, those who never experience the need to apologize – they will not be healed.  They will remain stuck in frozen attitudes.   All joy sucked out of life.

Transformation is real, but painful.  Like my friend Ed Bacon is fond of saying, “The TRUTH will set you free.  But first it will hurt like hell.”  In the fellowship of God’s Beloved Community, none of us has to take that journey alone.  Transformation is about having a heart big enough for others than just oneself, as a security guard said this week of Joe Biden.  Let “God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.”.  It will enlarge your heart.

Transformed by God – these are the healthy, life-giving people.  Folks you want to be around because they bring out the best in you.  They cheer you on rather than drag you down.  Don Thomas is one of those people. 

I recently received an e-mail from my friend Dr. Don Thomas who works in Malawi providing medical services and raising funds for schools and community organization.  He’s as old as I and yet still makes it back and forth from Pasadena to Africa. 

He shares the most marvelous, life-affirming stories of a village and it’s people.  One young African woman, Ida Puliwa, the founder of Othakarhaka Foundation, was the first female from her village to graduate college.  Her transformed soul has transformed her village.[4]

Even with COVID-19 shutting the school in her village, Ida has organized the older girls to tutor the younger students so their progress is not lost.  “The girls are fulfilling their commitment to “pass on the kindness”, carrying forth Ida’s unique, original goal for Othakarhaka.  Each village volunteer of every age gives of their time each week to ‘pass on the kindness.’”

My friend, Fr. Doug, had a dream one night – no not about forgetting his sermon.  This night visitation was surely an encounter with the divine.  The voice he heard said, “Go help my people in Africa.”  Over the years, he has done that indeed.  He even roped me into the effort.

His work funded through United Charity Endowment for Africa, has developed clean drinking water projects in coastal villages of Ghana and in the interior rain forest at the St. Anselm’s Anglican cathedral at Sunyani.  He, as of late has worked with Ghanaians to rescue young boys sold into slavery for the fishing industry.  Upon rescue the boys are provided social services and education.

From Doug’s transformed heart and mind has come transformation for many others.  That’s how it is with Spirit Transformation.  Can’t help itself. 

This work is the spiritual fruit of one whose life is evidence of inward transformation.  Out of it flows, peace, patience, kindness, forbearance, freedom, sobriety, generosity – all the rest of it.

The world doesn’t understand such.  By the standards of the powerful, such is “weakness, foolishness.”   Such things are beneath them.  The world shouts back, “Loser!”

“But let God transform you, inwardly by a complete change of your mind.  Then you will be able to do the will of God.”  And that will be your delight.

Mother Teresa’s poem, “Anyway,” makes it all so clear – what gives life and what reeks of death.  Her poem speaks to the depth of the transformed heart and mind.  And the freedom of being inner directed  “Let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.”

Mother Teresa’s Anyway Poem

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

Sister gets the “Last Word.”   Amen.

[1] Peter Eavis, “Bankruptcy?  For the C.E.O.s, It’s a Bonus,” New York Times, Business Section, June 24, 2020.

[2] Matt Phillips, “’This Market is Nuts’: Stocks Defy a Recession,” New York Times, August 19, 2020

[3] Quoted in Holland Cotter, “Where ‘Horrible Cruelties’ Can No Longer Hide,” New York Times, August 17, 2020.


August 23, 2020, Pentecost 12, Proper 16

The Rev. John C. Forney

Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

“Do Not Conform – Be Transformed”

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