The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Cong’l UCC, Fort Collins
Sometimes something happens within us that is so significant people can tell the difference just by looking at us. Has anyone ever said to you, “You’re just beaming!” And we don’t necessarily take that in a literal way, but we know what it looks like when something wonderful has happened to someone. We even use the word, “radiant,” to describe someone’s visage.
John O’Donohue, the late Irish priest and poet, comments on the outward reflection of what is going on inside us: “The face is the icon of the body, the place where the inner world of the person becomes manifest. The human face is the subtle yet visual autobiography of each person. Regardless of how concealed or hidden the inner story of your life is, you can never successfully hide from the world while you have a face. If we knew how to read the faces of others, we would be able to decipher the mysteries of their life stories. The face always reveals the soul; it is where the divinity of the inner life finds an echo and image. When you behold someone’s face, you are gazing deeply into that person’s life.” 
So, when the writer of Luke’s gospel says that “while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed,” you can imagine the ways that reflects a monumental internal transformation.
For me, this story of the transfiguration isn’t so much about what happened to Jesus up on that mountaintop so much as it begs the question: how does transformation happen to us – transformation so great as to change our visage…the way we project our face in the world.
Have you ever had such a moment? A time when something really shifted inside you? An occasion that moved you so deeply that people could see it on your face? I think for some women the experience of childbirth can be such a moment. I don’t know what those moments are for you, but I’d invite you to think about it for a just a minute: what are some of the deepest transformative moments in your life?
The old-fashioned word for religious transformation is “conversion.” In many New England Congregational churches in the 18th and early 19th centuries, at the time of the First and Second Great Awakenings, a visible sign of a conversion experience was a requirement for full membership in the church. That said, the Unitarian Congregationalists and middle-of-the-road Trinitarian Congregationalists didn’t take much stock in hyper-emotional experiences of the divine. (This was a serious controversy that divided Congregational churches across New England.) Yet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was ordained as a Congregational minister and eventually became a Unitarian talked much about “first-hand religion” or a direct experience of the divine, rather than the sometimes cool, intellectual apprehension of the faith that is still a hallmark of many of us in the Congregational strand of the UCC.
The word, “conversion,” can be alienating for some of us, just like the related term, “repentance.” Conversion, in its Latin roots, literally means to “turn with” and repentance means to “reposition” something. The Greek word, metanoia, can mean changing one’s way of thinking or conversion or repentance or transformation. Metanoia (and I’m going to translate it as “transformation”) is a wonderful and important action in our lives of faith. Metanoia keeps us from becoming stale and static and self-satisfied.
Valerie Schultz, a Roman Catholic writer had this to say: “Metanoia is a word I love. It sounds like a medical condition or a punk band. I can picture it on a prescription bottle or a T-shirt.... Metanoia is more lasting than a momentary epiphany, more active than an intellectual revelation. Metanoia is a radical change of heart, forcing one to dig deeply. It is a prayer answered, but it requires a further response.”  And that reflection invites us, using the words of Plymouth’s theme for this year, to Go Deeper into our faith and into our very lives.
For me, and I suspect for many of you, conversion or metanoia or transformation isn’t a one-off, lightning-bolt kind of experience. I have had times when I really felt in touch with God, moments when I felt as though God was with me and moving through me. But, if I look at my faith journey, I see many moments of transformation…like coming back to church in my 30s, becoming a parent to Cameron and Chris, going to divinity school, feeling called to be the minister of this church, when I met and married Jane Anne. And sometimes I think we see transformation better in retrospect than we do at the moment. Metanoia happens, too, in the unhappy occasions of our lives. When my parents died, when my marriage ended, when I was diagnosed with cancer: those are moments of transformation as well. For me, the big question is “Where do I find God in that experience?” What are those moments for you? And where do you find God in those moments?
In our church’s mission statement, we say: “It is our mission to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death and living presence of Jesus Christ.” We do this by…inviting, transforming, and sending.
How would you react if I said that we all need to experience spiritual transformation…not just once, but again and again? I think a fair number of us at Plymouth think that we are evolved and enlightened…in short, that we have arrived. I hate to be the one to break the news…but all of us are in need of further transformation, growth, renewal, even conversion. You and I are works in progress, not fully formed, and ready for growth.
Every day, we encounter some new situation or condition or challenge, and in the course of those new experiences, we are going to be changed. The question is not whether we will be transformed, but how. In what ways can we make the deep changes in our lives shape us in positive, faithful ways?
What are the tectonic forces in our lives and in our souls that with great heat and force shape the persons we are becoming? Are we being forced into a mold by the economic forces around us? What do the teachings of Jesus say about that? Are we succumbing to the prejudices of racism, homophobia, and sexism that underlie every aspect of our culture? What do the teaching of Jesus say about that? Are we falling prey to having enough income and leisure time so that we neglect enhancing lives of others? What do the teachings of Jesus say about that? Are we becoming complacent about caring for one another because we are “too busy?” What do the teachings of Jesus say about that?
We need to let our faith become the greatest tectonic force in our lives. If we can’t allow ourselves to be molded, shaped, and transformed by our faith, then frankly, it is meaningless. None of us wants to have a hollow faith, but rather one that is vibrant, resilient, and life-giving…and it is possible when we open ourselves to the possibility that God is at work in our lives.
I suggest that during the coming season of Lent, we look at ourselves and that we use the 40-day period to examine ourselves and in what ways we need to be transformed into the people God expects us to be. How do we do that? One way may be by adopting a small faith practice during Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday this week. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, like fasting during each day and eating only at night. And it doesn’t have to be “giving up” something like chocolate or booze or Fritos. I knew someone once who gave up his wristwatch for Lent, because he felt that he was being ruled by the pagan god, Chronos! You might try keeping a short journal, or spending five minutes in prayer each morning, or keeping track of where you saw the movement of the Spirit each day.
Soren Kierkegaard made a distinction between Christ’s admirers and Christ’s true followers, and a lot of it has to do with Going Deeper. Kierkegaard writes, “The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in word [s]he is inexhaustible about how highly [s]he prizes Christ, [s]he renounces nothing, will not reconstruct [her] life, and will not let her life express what it is [s]he supposedly admires.”  In short, the admirer won’t admit Christ into the process of transformation.
When we take seriously the words our membership covenant, “I give myself unreservedly to God’s service,” and try to live into that tall order, we open ourselves and our lives to Going Deeper, being changed, to being transformed, to be shaped by metanoia. As we journey together, may this band of pilgrim people walk as one, into a future that is marked by God’s promise of changed lives.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint.
1. John O’Donohue, Anam Cara. (NY: Harper Perennial, 1998), p. 39.
2. Valarie Schultz, “Metanoia,” in America, December 6, 2003.
3. Kierkegaard quoted in Bread and Wine (Farmington, NY: Plough, 2003), p. 60
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.