Romans 12:1-8 – The 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time â€“ for August 24, 2014
â€œDo not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mindsâ€¦â€ (Romans 12:2)
I so enjoyed these words when Garrison Keillor shared them in one of his Lake Wobegon tales . . .
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of Godâ€”what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Of course Paul wrote this encouragement to the Christian community in Rome. Indeed, long before I heard Keillorâ€™s tale, Roman 12:2 faithful challenge inspired and intimidated me. Nonetheless, whenever I read Paulâ€™s cautionary insights about conforming, I also revisit a fictional time in Minnesotaâ€™s Lake Wobegon . . .
In the yarn Keillor spun, every youth in the Lake Wobegon Lutheran Churchâ€™s confirmation class had to select a Bible verse that would be memorized and eventually read to the congregation. My fractured memory recalls that one boy chose John 11:35 . . . Jesus wept. Clever lad, since he only had to memorize two words. Another youth took Genesis 1:1, one of the most popular verses in the Bible: In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. Didnâ€™t everyone know the Bibleâ€™s opening line? A young woman named Lois was either less smart or more adventurous than her fellow students when she selected Romans 12:2.
After all, the apostle Paulâ€™s thirty-four verbs and adjectives and more would be a chore to memorize. A few words were multisyllabic stumbling blocks. And there was this added factor: not only were they reading aloud their â€œfavoriteâ€ verse, it would be written in frosting on a special confirmation cake baked for each youth.
Alas, Romans 12:2 wouldnâ€™t fit on Loisâ€™s cake. I donâ€™t recall how many words made the top, but letâ€™s try these two options:
Option #1 – Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of Godâ€”what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Option #2 – Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of Godâ€”what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Frankly, for Option #1, Iâ€™d willingly abandon perfect. I donâ€™t know about Lois, but Iâ€™m far from perfect. And good and acceptable donâ€™t feel like such a big loss either.
However, would Option #1 really fit on the cake?
Space-wise, Option #2 may be all thatâ€™s possible for Loisâ€™s confirmation confection.
Yikes! In #2, God is cut from the cake.
But isnâ€™t that what people of faith often do to each other? What if my discernment of Godâ€™s will is different than yours?
For example . . . in the current immigration controversy in the United States, my faith informs meâ€”indeed, it transforms meâ€”to despise placing walls on the border or turning children away from entry into this country. I discern that my Christian response leads me to emphasize welcoming others. The world may want to â€œconformâ€ me with borders, but in the Realm of God, borders and walls and separating people are all wrong.
But what if you disagree with my heartfelt, God-inspired, Christ-like perspective about immigration? When there are two sides (or for that matter, ten sides) to a divisive cultural/political issue, who is cutting Godâ€™s will out of the worldâ€™s needs? It must be “you.” It’s certainly not me!
Let me suggest another example of how God is â€œcut from the cake.â€ Rather than another cursory glance at a cultural or political issue that divides us, I harshly stare at myself. I am aging. My hair is thinning. My bones are more brittle. My skin wrinkles. This current summer season has included long stretches of inactivity because of bad ankles getting worse and old knee injuries literally slowing me to a crawl.
How dare I fall apart!
According to calculations on Social Securityâ€™s website, I can â€œexpectâ€ to live until a few months shy of my 84th birthday. That figure is based on my current age of 62. Ah, twenty-two more years! Seems like a long time . . . and yet it doesnâ€™t. I am vain. I still desire to do what I did at 20 or 30 or 50 . . . and I resent that I canâ€™t. I fret about time running out, or simply running past me.
But arenâ€™t I supposed to resent and resist aging? Arenâ€™t I being transformational when shouting Dylan Thomasâ€™s familiar lines of defiance?
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Or am I conforming when I rage against age? Paulâ€™s passage doesnâ€™t wonder about the renewing of the body, but the renewing of the mind. When I cling to physical youth, when I compare myself now to myself then, how much of discerning Godâ€™s will do I cut from my â€œcake?â€
Let me pause here, and consider reactions to where Iâ€™ve wandered with Paulâ€™s singular verse. I assume some readers will dismiss my musings as shallow. Who needs more whining about aging from a gray-bearded, white male Baby Boomer? Those a few years younger than me might scoff at my worries. Those a few years old will roll their eyes. Why not delve more into the immigration issue that was used earlier as an example? Thatâ€™s far more theologically (and topically) relevant for our societyâ€™s â€œconformingâ€ ways.
Iâ€™m sure it is.
But I live in my skin with my fears and my faults. Like Keillorâ€™s fictional Lois, I claim Paulâ€™s verse as a favorite. The verse may literally be too long to fit on a sweet cake, but it does fill my old salt of a soul. A faith that is honestly transformational demands that Iâ€™m careful with judging others in our diverse culture, and in our divisive politics. But a transformational faith also demands that Iâ€™m careful with how I judge myself. Yes, my body is â€œfalling apart,â€ but what can I do todayâ€”and tomorrowâ€”to transform my mind?
With respect to Dylan Thomas, I add to and transform his words: Please God, help me rage, rage against ignoring Your divine light of wisdom as I age.