President’s speech: “Metamorphosis: Identity Transformed'”

by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College, on Friday, March 16, 2012 – Goshen College Chapel (as prepared for delivery)

Not so long ago, I watched with my son the latest of a series of movies called “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” based on a toy line of varying humanoid or robot creatures able to transform into everyday vehicles, electronic gadgets or space crafts and back again: the Autobots versus the Deceptions. No doubt some of you when you were kids had a transformer or two in your toy box.

It only dawned on me recently that some of the fascination with these identity shape shifters might have something to do with our deepest longings, the desire to be transformed in spirit, mind, and, perhaps, even in bodily.

In our Martin Luther King, Jr. convo this year, Dr. Vincent Harding tapped into this deep longing of ours when he responded to Yolo Lopez-Perez’s question about the relationship between our identity as a college (or as individuals) and our relationships with each other. He recommended that whoever we are, we should not grasp too tightly to our identity as if it were a stone pillar that needs to be preserved at all costs. Instead, he said we should see our identities more like that of caterpillars for whom change, radical structural change, is destiny.

This past weekend, I sat through three showings of the Goshen High School musical, The Wizard of Oz, and was reminded again of the possibility and power of identity transformation: The cowardly lion who gains courage; the witless scarecrow who discovers he has a brain, after all; the tin man who learns he, indeed, has a heart; and runaway Dorothy, realizes that there really is “no place like home.” A powerful story of identity transformation times four.

Sandwiched between these several experiences, two of you (students) came to my office and wondered aloud whether we at Goshen College really truly believe in the transforming power Christ to change for the world for the better or to transform us, each one of us, personally into becoming the people God wants us to become. I left that meeting — we left that meeting — determined to renew our commitment to speak about the power of God through Christ’s Spirit to transform us and others, to transform our individual lives and our campus life — body, soul, spirit — in order to experience God’s best intentions for each and every one of us.

I believe that one of the hallmarks of a good college education, and, certainly, the value added dimension of a Christian college education, is the possibility that each one of us might undergo a changeover, an identity transformation, a conversion should be, at least one good outcome of a good education.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says it this way, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2). Be transformed! (Greek, “be metamorphosized”). That is, be morphed into something greater than you presently are. Be “transfigured” (same Greek word, Matthew).

Transformation of our minds, transformation of our knowledge base, our professional skills, our social conscience and our spiritual lives must be the rule – not the exception – here at GC.

What I love about the analogy of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a beautiful monarch butterfly is that both bodily forms have the same exact DNA structure. The DNA structure of the organism encodes for both body forms. During metamorphosis, some new genes are turned on that modify the body shape of the organism and produce the final butterfly body shape. In addition, many of the same genes are expressed exactly the same in both body forms. In other words, the core or essence of the organism is the same even while the bodily form morphs into something far more spectacular than ever before and that offers a whole new life experience. The difference between a caterpillar and butterfly is simultaneously of little consequence genetically and of immense consequence experientially.

In terms of our identity as a college or as individuals, the analogy of metamorphosis, of being transformed or transfigured means it’s possible to be essentially and deeply connected with our past, to our history and spiritual DNA, and to also be radically transfigured — transformed into something far greater than we have yet imagined ourselves to be.

The kind of metamorphosis or transformation or transfiguration the Bible speaks of – isn’t simply a matter of lining up our highest ideals or restating our common confessions or making sure the rules or boundaries of our various identities are drawn ever more clearly and then setting out to achieve those goals, perfect our self-image, guard our boundaries. Such a life may at first glance seem admirable or ‘noble’ or safe, but it may also simply be a caterpillar life well lived.

By contrast, Parker Palmer, the great Quaker educator, suggests that true transformation happens best when you, “Let Your Life Speak” (the title of his book after an old Quaker adage). Metamorphosis happens when, in his words, “you live the life that wants to live in you.” You live the life that wants to live in you!

Metamorphosis happens when the Spirit turns on the spiritual genes that already lie in each one of us, while we are still in our caterpillar selves. In order for that kind of liberating metamorphosis to happen, Palmer invites us to create the kind of quiet, trusting conditions that allows our soul to speak its truth to us, that allows the Spirit to awaken our true selves to us. Such an awakening may involve identifying natural talents and limitations within us and helping them break free, instead of trying to live the life someone else wishes you to live or the life you are trying desperately to live and falling short.

Metamorphosis cannot transform caterpillars into Monarchs if caterpillars are absolutely secure in their status, safe in self-assumption, and sealed off from the challenge of others and the Spirit. If transformation happens by the renewing of our minds, then education that transforms or transfigures our minds and liberates our souls must not become a tool of indoctrination that fails to challenge our perfections or identity markers,- however noble or good or sincere.

Metamorphosis may be one of the hardest experiences we ever undertake as ordinary folk. The morphing of caterpillars into Monarch butterflies can feel heart and soul wrenching. The shape shifting that happens between crawl inching on a leaf and flying into the sun might be as terrifying as it is liberating. And yet, such a miracle lies dormant in each one of us at some time or another, maybe today, or again and again in the various cycles of our lives. Metamorphosis need not, must not, be a once in a lifetime experience. We should always be ready for the Holy Spirit to transform us from who we are to whom we are called to be.

Such transformation, if and when it happens, can be a reinvention of life, as we know it. Metamorphosis is a version of spiritual muscle pulling. Transformation requires a rewriting of our individual story into a whole new story: God’s story. Someone once described such a rewritten life as being like “yanking cruel drunken abusive foul-mouthed Pap out of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and putting him in a whole new story as the loving gentle dad who Huck always dreamed of.”

Metamorphosis can turn a cowardly vacillating Christ-denying fisherman into a great preacher, the rock upon which the church is built. Metamorphosis can change self-doubt into confidence; bitterness and anger and cynicism into forgiveness, joy and hopefulness.

Metamorphosis can transform a Christian young man, hooked on cigarettes with low self-esteem in order to shape-shift him someday into becoming President of Goshen College. And that feels to me as miraculous as a caterpillar turned Monarch! Or caterpillar turned President.

Metamorphosis can wrench sin from sinful people and feel like hell. But it can also convert hell into heaven, transform what is meant for evil into good, and transfigure sinners into saints.

If there are going to be among us now or in the future, Sojourner Truths or Dietrich Bonhoeffers or Fannie Lou Hammers or Albert Schweitzers or Severo Ochoas or Leymah Gebowees or Zoughbi Zoughbis — Spirit-led Monarchs, all — who each in his or her own way helped or are helping still transform the world for the good – then let us hope and pray and believe that such a transformation of our minds, such a transfiguration of our hearts, such a metamorphosis of our souls is among the primary outcomes of our education here at GC.

My prayer is that we will be such a community where the Spirit of God stirs up and turns on those spiritual genes within each one of us, no matter our need or lack thereof.  Would that Goshen College be that community that inspires such a vision of transformation. Let us be those sisters and brothers, that family of faith, that provides for each other the “transforming space” we all need to shape shift from caterpillars to Monarchs!