Does loving people and things as they are mean accepting them as they are? If so, what are we to do with the call to join the Spirit’s transformative work of making all people, places and things new?
The call to transformation certainly seems to contradict acceptance. It focusses on what is wrong in the world and motivates us to change it, not accept it. Without question, we are called to join God’s work of transforming the economic, social, political and religious systems and powers of our day, so that justice, freedom and dignity increase for all. The problem is, we are often more focussed on transforming others than experiencing transformation ourselves. Unless we are continually open to the transforming presence of Christ in our own lives, our passion for transforming others quickly turns into control rather than love.
As I attempt to navigate this paradoxical tension between acceptance and transformation, I find myself constantly praying the Serenity Prayer:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to his will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next.”
As a younger man, I had difficulty accepting anything that seemed wrong or unjust in my eyes. I was difficult to live with. I was hard on others because I was hard on myself. Then somewhere along the way I entered a season of erring on the side of acceptance.
It was a necessary season during which I learned about gentleness, patience and grace. I still have plenty to learn in these areas but I found myself increasingly tolerating and excusing that which fell short of God’s best. Not only in my own life, but in others, the church and the systems of power around me. My mantra became, “None of us are perfect. We’re all doing our best.”
But the truth is, I wasn’t doing my best. And when I accepted this truth, a desire for divine presence, purpose and progress started to intensify within me. My hunger for personal transformation became a holy fire within. I felt the Spirit calling me to higher standards in all areas of my life. The result was that 2017 became one of the most transformational years of my life.
I discovered true acceptance of self means accepting and honouring one’s desire and need to change. The same applies to our acceptance of others, the church and the world. I think this is key to integrating transformation and acceptance.
As I write this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I think of how he embodied this sacred integration of acceptance and transformation in a powerful way. He was able to accept things like imprisonment and suffering in light of their transformative power. The way he accepted the present moment made it transformative.
This was how he approached the church as well as the world. In his “Letter from a Birmingham jail,” he wrote about how he loved the church and was committed to her no matter what. He also wrote about how deeply disappointed he was with her. He then called the church to change—repentance—so she could be God’s instrument of transformation in the world again. His words are as relevant as ever:
“[T]he church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was . . . a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . . Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound . . . an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often vocal—sanction of things as they are. . . . If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity . . . and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century.”
Love must offer both acceptance and transformation because people and society need both. The church can only offer this love to others if we are continually open to the transformation and acceptance of God ourselves. This means we’ll be constantly changed.
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a pastor at Avon Mennonite Church.