The Power to Transform

“You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17

As we end the Lenten season, I find myself thinking back to our church’s most recent Pastor, Ed Kelaher, who left us this past September to move to a new church closer to his family. I am thinking about Father Ed for a few reasons. First, because he left me a voicemail around the holidays (the Christmas holidays!) that I have, embarrassingly, yet to return. I need to get on that. Secondly, I am thinking about him because of something that he said a few years ago during one of his sermons that has stayed with me ever since. He said, “Lent is about transforming from who we are to who God wants us to be.”

Now, for such a short sentence, that is a really loaded sentiment. Not only do I need to know myself well enough to know who I am, and not only do I need to find the power to begin to transform myself, but I need to have such a strong relationship with God that I know what He wants me to transform into. So, where do I even begin?

Knowing what God wants for me? I’ve written on that before (link here) and will certainly again. There are a million possible blog posts to be written on that subject alone.

Knowing myself? Well, I know myself well enough to know that throughout much of my life I have mistaken transition for transformation.

Plenty of times in my life, when things have not been going the way that I wanted them to go, I would change jobs, change cities, change the person I was dating, etc. Most times, all this served to do was create an initial excitement that would energize me in the short term but wouldn’t really change me in the long term. I rarely stayed in one place or with one person long enough to deepen those relationships.

Finding the power to transform? That, I am learning, can come from friendships.

At the beginning of 2022, my new year’s resolution was not to get a bunch of new relationships, but to strengthen and deepen the ones that I already had. While I had hoped that this Lent would be an opportunity to build on that resolution, I fell back into transition instead. It’s time to re-commit to that effort.

One of the reasons that I re-started this writing pursuit was because a good friend of mine, and frankly someone who I never would have thought would have read and appreciated these posts, mentioned to me that he noticed that I hadn’t written one in a while and that he missed them. That made a world of difference to me and sparked my passion again.

Up to that point, I had let other things get in the way: work, a new house, everyday life that conspires to distract us from our joyful pursuits. But friends, they can be a huge powerful force for good in our lives.

A pastor here in DC, Joel Schmidgall, once talked to a group of us about the idea that our friends are like clouds, surrounding us during our times of happiness and sadness and “enveloping us.” We need true friends in our lives that allow us to shine and to whom we reveal our truest selves. There are times where our friends need to surround us with love and support, and other times where they are called on to part like the clouds and make way for our light to show through.

As in most things, however, we ourselves are not off the hook in that effort. We have to give of ourselves first and also be willing to receive and accept when the other side is trying to give love and support.

A similar idea to Pastor Schmidgall’s was expressed in a recent New York Times interview with Laurie Santos, who taught a course on happiness at Yale University. (link here)

Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

Interviewer: A lot of stuff that we know can have a positive effect on happiness — developing a sense of meaning, connection with other people, meditation and reflection — are commonplace religious practices. How helpful are they outside religion?

Laurie: There’s evidence that cultural structures, religious structures, even smaller groups like your CrossFit team can cause true behavior change. The question is what’s driving that? Take the religious case. You could mean two things by saying you need a cultural apparatus around the behavior change: One is you need a rich sense of beliefs; you need to buy into theological principles to get the benefits. Another is that it’s your commitment to these groups that does it, and it doesn’t have to come with a set of spiritual beliefs. There’s a lot of evidence that religious people, for example, are happier in a sense of life satisfaction and positive emotion in the moment. But is it the Christian who really believes in Jesus and reads the Bible? Or is it the Christian who goes to church, goes to the spaghetti suppers, donates to charity, participates in the volunteer stuff? Turns out, to the extent that you can disentangle those two, it seems to not be our beliefs but our actions that are driving the fact that religious people are happier. That’s critical because what it tells us is, if you can get yourself to do it — to meditate, to volunteer, to engage with social connection — you will be happier. It’s just much easier if you have a cultural apparatus around you.”

Ms. Santos goes on to say, “We’re not always making good use of the humans around us.”

I want to make good use of the humans around me to help me transform.

I have always been pretty good about making friends but nurturing and deepening those relationships has always been a challenge. The challenge has been geography, different phases of life, etc. But a huge part of it has just been effort on my part. It takes work and discipline to be a good friend. Sometimes it’s hard work and I fail, but most of the time it’s pretty easy work if you just take the time to do it. A quick call or text, a note, a quick drop in.

My goal is to get to a place in my relationships where it only takes small gestures to keep things going deeper. When I let my friendships languish, it seems the only way to get them going again is with a large gesture, or at least a gesture that feels large. The problem with going back and forth between large gestures and then nothing is that to restore a relationship with large gestures feels so daunting that it keeps me from taking that step, and then bond with that friend inevitably end up dying on the vine. Big relationships are the most rewarding, and they need time, energy, nurturing and focus. They are best nurtured with lots and lots of small gestures.

Often times we can’t always see the transformation that we are undergoing because we are purposefully blind to it or because it is an incremental change that we aren’t able to notice. That is why it is important to keep our friends and family close. They can see those changes and help us to course correct, to return to center if our center was a positive one for us; or re-center us if needed.

Now that I have been in the same job for eight years, the same woman for fifteen, and the same church for ten, what’s left? No more transition, just a commitment to transformation, and letting God do the rest.

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