Via Negativa: The Hunger Games / Hunger for Transformation

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. (Psalm 126)
All flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:1-6)
You transform all who are touched by you. (Rumi)

Our first song comes from a band that launched the careers of such big names as Neil Young and Stephen Stills. Buffalo Springfield was formed in 1966, but in-fighting led the band to split after just two years. This song was their biggest hit, released in 1967 and written by Stephen Stills. Despite only going to #7 on the Billboard charts, For What It’s Worth sold over a million copies and is listed as #63 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

There’s something happening here What it is ain’t exactly clear There’s a man with a gun over there Telling me I got to beware I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound Everybody look what’s going down There’s battle lines being drawn Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong Young people speaking their minds Getting so much resistance from behind It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound Everybody look what’s going down

If you could meet the person that I was just 10 or 15 years ago, I don’t think you would recognize her. She kinda looked like me, only younger, and actually heavier. She sounded like me, walked like me, but didn’t yet play the guitar as well as I do now, which may not be saying too much.

That person was an angry person, a deeply cynical and distrustful person. She worked in the deeply cynical and angry world of the media, and then in the deeply cynical, and truth-stretching world of public relations. Overall, she wasn’t all that happy. She was also very selfish and had to be hard pressed to go out of her way to help people. She didn’t eat well, she didn’t have many friends and she definitely was terribly shy and awkward in social situations.

Okay, some things may not have changed drastically – I’m still kind of shy and awkward in social situations, but the person you see before you today is much improved – a Candace 2.0, of sorts.

I’ll bet if you think about it, I’d bet that none of you are exactly like you were 10 or 15 years ago. We all grow, change and, hopefully, get better with age.

What happens? Transformation. It’s something that happens to all of us if we’ll allow it. The first step to transformation is to admit that things in our lives right now are not the way we want them to be.

For me, I recognized that anger and cynicism were ruining my life, keeping me from having happy relationships and prevented me from really being happy. I vowed to change those things – to find the root of my anger and cynicism and heal it. It took some time, some therapy, and a lot of patience from those who loved me at the time, and continue to love me.

I allowed transformation to take place because I got tired of the war within – the battle lines being drawn between my angry, selfish self and the self that wanted to let go of my anger and learn how to be a calm, loving and giving person.

That doesn’t mean that transformation is easy. The past 10 to 15 years have, at times, been excruciatingly painful. It’s not easy to give up the habits of anger and selfishness. They deeply embed themselves not just in your psyche, but in your soul, as well. They put up one hell of a fight when their primacy in your life is challenged. Make no mistake, these are not easy demons to slay.

My journey of transformation has been two steps forward and one step back. Transformation is not a neat, linear process. If you think about how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, it’s not a pretty process. What goes on in that cocoon is actually pretty gross, and pretty miraculous. The caterpillar must completely melt down into a slimy goo before it is reformed into the amazing creature that emerges from the cocoon. That melting down, that transforming from solid body to liquid goo into a beautiful butterfly is not an easy or painless process.

Our transformations are also painful, and some of us give up and simply remain that gelatinous goo – refusing to become who the Holy calls us to become, because, y’know, it’s just too hard.

But, our deepest hunger is for this kind of transformation – to come out of our selfish, self-absorbed place into a world where we can be aware that the Holy calls us to be our best self – that transformed self that speaks the truth in love, not in anger. That transformed self that can stop, take a look around this world and find that place where our deepest passion can satisfy the world’s deepest need. This is the place where transformation happens – when we stop fighting the war within and allow our debilitating emotions of anger and selfishness melt away and allow the Holy to reform us into a beautiful butterfly who can offer amazing gifts to a hurting and dying world.

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and they carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”

This morning’s psalm is a song about radical transformation. The misfortunes of the Hebrew people have been numerous throughout the years – wars, destruction of their city and temple, exile, oppression and occupation. These people have seen nothing but suffering and misery throughout their history – but this psalm sings of a complete and total transformation that brings peals of laughter and shouts of joy.

“The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced!”

How would it change the way you lived if you rejoiced in each moment of your transformation? How would it change the way you lived if, even in the toughest moments of life-changing events, you were able to laugh and shout with joy? How would it change the way you lived if you realized that even in those moments when our lives seemed to have melted down completely, that the Holy is at work transforming that gooey mess into a beautiful life?

Transformation is really about salvation – saving us from a world of despair into hope, from darkness into light. Our hunger for transformation springs from the tears we have sown in our own lives and in this world. But, the Holy promises a transformation that bring shouts of joy – a true salvation from the fears and tears that have kept us mired in the pits of selfishness and hopelessness.

But, transformation takes time. The butterfly does not emerge immediately, there is as lot of waiting involved. That’s what Advent is all about – waiting. In this third Sunday in Advent, we have lit the candle of joy, and we wait, in the darkness of our cocoons, for the shouts of joy that will come with the transformation the Holy promises.

During this time of waiting, we must dissolve our old self, our old habits and beliefs. We must dissolve the tears and the fears of our past and prepare for the day when true salvation bursts forth from its cocoon.

Stop, children, what’s that sound? That is the sound of laughter and shouts of joy!

“The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”

Paranoia strikes deep Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
You better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
You better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
You better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

“You come to us from another world, From beyond the stars and void of space,” writes the poet Rumi. “Transcendent, Pure, of unimaginable beauty, Bringing with you the essence of love – You transform all who are touched by you. Mundane concerns, troubles, and sorrows, dissolve in your presence, bringing joy to ruler and ruled.”

“You transform all who are touched by you,” this mystic Muslim wordsmith writes, and he is writing about how the Holy, who comes to us from beyond the stars and void of space changes us – in profound and unimaginable ways. But, it’s true about us, as well. We transform everything we touch – like King Midas, we can turn the world around us into gold, into something of precious beauty. Or, we can turn our world into a place of anger, selfishness and greed.

The choice is ours.

“Through your love, existence and nonexistence merge.

All opposites unite.

All that is profane becomes sacred again.”

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from singer Dobie Gray, who had the biggest hit of his career with this song, Drift Away. It hit #5 on the Billboard charts in 1973 and has been covered by other artists like Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart and others. Let’s try it.

Day after day I’m more confused
Yet I look for the light through the pouring rain
You know, that’s a game, that I hate to lose
And I’m feeling the strain,
Ah ain’t it a shame
Chorus: Give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
Give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

In our Jesus story, we find the evangelist Luke proclaiming the beginning of the John the Baptist’s ministry before Jesus even comes on the scene. John is an agent of transformation – and the writer of this gospel doesn’t let us forget how transformation really works in this world.

He begins this chapter by recounting the mighty leadership that was in place in the time of John and Jesus. Tiberius is the emperor, Pilate is the governor of Judea, and his brother Philip and another guy named Lysanius are in charge elsewhere. Luke also mentions the high priests of the day Annas and Caiaphas.

During the reign of all these men over government and the church, Luke tells us “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”

This is how God goes about transforming the world. Instead of speaking to the reigning emperor, or the powerful governor, or even the most high and popular priests of the time, God speaks to John – a guy who lives in the woods, wears hair shirts and eats locusts and wild honey. God has no interest in top-down transformation. Instead, God speaks to this crazy wild man John – this marginalized preacher who dunks people in the water to symbolize their rebirth into God’s realm – not into the realm of the world’s power and prestige.

This is the rhythm of the Holy, Jubilants. The Holy does not sing its song of liberation and transformation to the powerful. Their ears and hearts are already closed to the hypnotic beat of the Holy’s music of transformation. Instead, God still sings her sweet song of transformation to those of us at the bottom of the social pile. As John knew, the realm of God breaks into the world like a soulful spiritual that invites us to join in and drift away – to be carried by the Spirit of the Holy.

Luke proclaims that transformation, like a song, starts small, in small children like John and Jesus. The great “powers that be” cannot ultimately silence these transformational figures.

They can persecute and kill them, but their song of transformation and liberation only grows stronger through the stories of their lives.

So, the question is Jubilants: Will we recognize the song of the Holy and live lives of transformation or will we remain small? Will we invite others to join in the song of transformation, to see the changes going on and join in, or will we ignore the transformational power of the Holy in favor of the status quo?

Often in this world of despair we feel like we are crying out in the wilderness. What can we small people do to transform this world? We transform the world when we transform ourselves. The Holy gives us the beat to free our souls and get lost in that cosmic rock and roll that is salvation – that transformation that comes only when we open our hearts to the grace of the Holy. Only when we break ourselves open can we become vulnerable. Only when we stop looking at our own navels can we see the holes in the lives of others. Only then can we begin to bring transformation to others.

The Holy invites us to stop, children, look around and hear that sound – that sound of transformation, that sound that calls us to become the people – and the community – of transformation.

John tells us that the arrival of the Christ that we await in this Advent season transforms the world in very literal ways : Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

When the Holy comes to us, John says, our world is changed. And it’s not just that God is promising to fix all the potholes, but God is promising to transform it all – all the valleys of our hearts, all the mountains we face in our lives, all the crooked paths we must take to achieve our spiritual goals, all the rough ways will be made smooth – and we shall see God’s salvation – that transformation that takes us out of our human ruts and puts us on the straight, Holy path.

Will our lives be trouble free? Not by any stretch of the imagination, but this kind of transformation promises us that if we listen to the cosmic rock and roll of the Holy, we can drift away.

The trials of this life are all transitory – we don’t have to get into the muck, we can rise above it, drift away from the frustrations, from the anger, the greed, the emotional trappings that keep us stuck. We can transform our thinking and our being, turning sadness into joy and filling our mouths with laughter.

Beginning to think that I’m wasting time
I don’t understand the things I do
The world outside looks so unkind I’m counting on you,
you can carry me through
Chorus Give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
Give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

Even though we may hunger for transformation, I don’t know many people who run as fast as they can toward it – because transformation means change. And we human beings resist change with all our might – even if that change will help us, or make us happier or healthier.

I resisted my transformation for as long as possible. Even though my anger and cynicism had hurt me and driven people away from me, I clung to them because I believed it was that anger and cynicism that made me who I was. I believed this was the source of my personality and creativity. I thought that if I gave them up I would never do another creative thing in my life – and I was right – I don’t create like I used to, because what I created back then were mean-spirited and harsh things.

But, transformation is scary, and we avoid it for as long as possible because we don’t know what we’ll gain for all the things that will be stripped away from us.

If I give up my anger and cynicism, will I become just a holly jolly Pollyanna who only sees rainbows and unicorns? Will I become one of those vapid, uncreative airheads who just sees the world as all joy and no pain?

The biggest fear that kept me from transformation, however, was not knowing what God might demand from me. Would I have to give up everything? Would I have to become vulnerable to the world? Would I have to feel not only my pain, but the pain of others that the Holy called me to minister to?

The answer to all these questions turned out to be, “Yes.” I did have to give up everything that made me angry, everything that made me selfish, everything that made me cynical. I had to become open and vulnerable, and willing to be compassionate, which literally means “to suffer with.” Transformation meant doing everything I was afraid that I would have to do – and all the pain, fear and trepidation that went with it.

And, y’know what? I’m not finished, and I never will be. God continually calls me – and all of us – to perpetually transform, to always be open to changing, to improving, to becoming more and more open, vulnerable and compassionate.

No wonder we hesitate when transformation is offered to us. Who wants to melt down to an ooey-gooey mush so that we can be transformed?

But, ultimately, transformation isn’t about becoming something new or different. Transformation is about becoming you – the you that the Holy has created. The you charged with the task of transforming others and the world into who and what the Holy has intended it to be. God speaks not from the highest places in this world, but from the lowest – from a wild man in the woods, from a baby in a manger, or from a tiny congregation in Columbia, SC. We can be transformed, and we can transform. We have been given that power, if only we’ll realize it and use it.

I invite you, Jubilants, groove to the melody of transformation that the Holy plays in our lives every day. Be willing to get lost in the rock and roll of the Holy and drift away. It is only when we free our minds and our hearts from fears that hold us down can we truly drift away into the transformation the Holy calls us to. In that moment all we’ll be able to do is laugh and dance to the Holy rhythm.

Jubilants, can you feel the beat?

And when my mind is free
You know your melody can move me
And when I’m feeling blue
The guitars coming through to soothe me
Thanks for the joy you’ve given me
I want you to know that I believe in your song
And rhythm, and rhyme, and harmony
You helped me along, you’re making me strong
Give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
Give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

Oh, Yeah!