In the final days of preparing for our QVS year, today we explore transformation with a post from Portland Coordinator and Program Director, Rebecca Sumner.
Transformation is a funny thing. On a personal level, it’s one of the most intimate, individual, and unique-to-each-experience things we encounter. On an organizational, societal, or global level, it’s so intricate, collective, and unpredictable that we often feel paralyzed in our efforts to seek transformation. It’s this mysterious thing that we can invite but we cannot initiate or plan. And yet, it seems to have blessedly developed these grooves in time and experience that it cascades down like a long dried up river returning in an unexpectedly wet and dreary autumn.
As we talk about transformation, I want to look at those riverbed grooves that transformation loves to run down as it surprises the dry and waiting soul. Let’s look at four case studies of transformation and see the themes and rhythms that arise:
Marge Abbot, in writing about her experience of transformation, explains that she was in several places of pain and difficulty and darkness when transformation hit. She says “I became more and more vulnerable and in despair; a precondition to being open and broken.” Then she tells of a moment where transformation took hold. She cried for an hour in worship and says this of that hour: “In that hour, my life-long sense of worthlessness was consumed in all encompassing love as I sat, enfolded in God’s arms.” And it was from this experience of desolation confronted by consolation that her call to ministry came to her. Marge now writes prolifically and leads wonderful workshops and travels and speaks and…this started when she was vulnerable in despair as a precondition to being open and broken.
Marge, in discussing transformation, talks of many conceptual deaths followed by new life. She engages the concept of baptism – a descent into water or fire or or a death or a dark night of the soul – followed by an ascent into something new. Marge cites the death of a feeling of unworthiness and the ascent of Divine love flowing through her. She cites the death of the presumption that rationality was enough and that she could control her world to responding anf the ascent of the gentle though often inexplicable nudges of the Divine love within her.
Similarly – whether you hear it as a true story that happened historically or as something that may have happened or as a parable of how the Divine works in the world, consider the story of Jesus: At many points in the Gospel, someone is a dark night – as Marge might say, they are entirely vulnerable and in despair. And then some sort of denoument comes to them. Zaccheaus is isolated and despised by society and then layed spiritually naked in front of Jesus and in his despair and vulnerability, Jesus brings a baptism – a death and the beginning of something new. His isolation and shame are put down by Jesus’ investment in him and from that collision of desolation and consolation comes his calling.
The same with so many stories in the Gospels.
The central story is when the empire violently brings death to Jesus and he expresses a feeling of abandonment even by God as he dies. The ultimate in isolation. Followed by something entirely new: a story of new life. That isolation and death is met with resurrection and consolation and Jesus again walks about the earth breathing the word “Peace” to those he breaks bread with. And, in traditional Christian understandings of the world, this is THE moment of transformation in history and from it comes a calling for each and every person in history.
George Fox, similarly, spent years looking for something he did not find. He was morose. He spent Christmas sleeping in a haystack all alone. It wasn’t until he was deep in despair and utterly vulnerable that that feeling of isolation collided with consolation and he had his epiphany that the Divine can be in relationship to him without any intermediary. He says he knew this experimentally.
American Civil Rights Movement:
As Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus, it was a moment of darkness. It had been too much for too long and the despair was too great to sit idly by any longer. And when she took her stand, the end of her patience with chronic injustice resonated like a deep breath through a shofar and called others out of the dark night into the work of societal transformation. This is a terse treatment of one of the most intricate and important periods in American history – pardon me for that in an attempt at a brief introduction to themes of transformation. And, stop for a moment there and think of current affairs in Furguson, MO. Is this another dark dark night that is sounding the shofar calling the dried up wates of justice and inviting us to finally step up and welcome the new light of transformation?
Otto Scharmer writes about a thing he calls Theory U. Basically, it is a theory about how transformation comes about. The theory is named for the shape the journey of transformatin takes: a U. He suggests a pattern of descent > going down into confusion and despair, and assent > arising in a new way of being and knowing.
Essentially a person is walking through life just fine with all her assumptions about the world, how it works, and her role in it when – BAM! something happens. We’ve all experienced this. Maybe as a kid you believed your parents knew everything. Then one day, your mom gets a math problem wrong as she’s helping you with homework. And it’s no big deal, but it is. It changes your reality. Or on a deeper level, maybe you have an expectation of what Quaker community looks like and then you experience a monthly meeting where one person controls the meeting rather than engaging in the hard work of finding unity. This might send you reeling and into some level of depression. As scharmer might describe: you had one picture of reality and your place in it and then it changed suddenly.
This often tosses people into a time of turmoil or what some historic Christian mystics might call the dark night of the soul. You look for your old footing, but it’s gone. You struggle to create some new footing or to find the light in the dark and your attempts just frustrate you further. You might call out to God and feel that God is absent. This is that humus of despair that Marge, Zaccheus and George Fox endured.
And then, suddenly, something happens and the new terrain of your world clicks. Scharmer suggests – in the business world – that when you’ve seen someone be okay one day, then depressed for some time, and then – all of the sudden – they seem to have new energy and hope, you ought to just step back and facilitate whatever it is that they think ought to be done. He suggests that we emerge from this dark night with a deeper and truer understanding of reality and of our role in it. You might return to a monthly meeting that disappointed you and have the exact vocal ministry that is needed to redirect people to seeking unity. You may have lost your vision for your future. Maybe you always thought you’d be a teacher but an internship quickly spoiled that plan and you spent months in despair before – BAM! – you realize you have a leading to be an education reform activist. Maybe you will come into your site placement working with youth living outside and it will quickly hit you that you have none of the answers and nothing really to offer them. And you will spend months of your time at QVS sitting with a level of desperation about your work. Then, out of nowhere, you will realize that being willing to be in the despair with someone else is a gift and you have a passionate calling to simply listen and walk with people in the dark.
The point of all of this is to say that, in broad strokes and not in every circumstance, transformation travels through confusion and into despair. It is being present to those hard places that finally delivers us into personal and societal transformation. It is an intimate and unique experience to be transformed or to be a part of a transformation movement. But the contours and rhythms of transformation seem to travel through the dark to find the light.
As you embark on your journey with QVS, I hope you have boundless joy throughout! I hope it is fun! And I know it will be. And I also know it will be hard. And it will be those hard, dark, confusing places where transformation apprehends you and brings you that “experimental” knowing that George Fox, Marge Abbott, Zacchaeus, and so many others traversed the dark to find.
When have you experienced transformation before? How does that fit with Theory U?
What transformation do you hope for in the coming year?
What about transformation scares you?
What transformation in the world do you hope to participate in?
What will you do when you encounter the dark night? Who can you invite into that with you? Who can support you and what kind of support will you need in the dark?
What experience of darkness might be too much and time to find help for getting out of it?
How will you celebrate the light as you find: in yourself, at your site placement, in your QVS house?