Jane Rzepka, one of my preaching teachers from seminary, had the enviable/unenviable job of leading the opening worship for close to 400 Unitarian Universalist ministers at the CENTER Institute last week.  We worship with great enthusiasm and appreciate great preaching, but it also must have been a little like preaching to a congregation every member of which has their arms folded across their chest and a “let’s see what you’ve got” look on their face. Jane sailed right in, throwing down a gauntlet before all the promises of transformation (the slogan for the Institute was “be changed!”). She claimed that Transformation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Naturally this caught my attention, since my congregation’s mission is “to transform ourselves, each other, and the world,” and I am what you might call Big on Transformation. She said–I’ll have to paraphrase here–that we tell people they come to church to be changed, and we tell them that they are welcome just as they are, and we can’t have both.

I doubted this, but I kept my metaphorical arms unfolded and filed it away to think about afterwards, and just listened to the sermon. The turn she took was to urge us to let go of our wish for Transformation with a capital T and let ourselves experience the “small-t transformations” that the week could bring. That the small transformations matter.

That’s one way to bridge the paradoxical wishes to welcome people as they are and to change them. But what came to my mind was a purer one, which, though no less paradoxical than the problem as Jane posed it, seems somehow to offer a solution. After all, the Buddhists have been grappling with exactly this problem since the Buddha stood up from the place he’d been sitting under that tree.  If samsara is nirvana, why are we striving for nirvana? If we must give up striving, what are we doing meditating? Are we enlightened as we are or must we change?

And the Ch’an/Zen variety, of course, developed paradox to a high art.  What I thought of when Jane said “you can’t have it both ways” was this story from the Ch’an master Qingyuan:

Thirty years ago, before I practiced Ch’an, I saw that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. However, after having achieved intimate knowledge and having gotten a way in, I saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have found rest, as before I see mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.

If I could grasp that paradox, I’d be a Zen master too. Instead, it slips away and won’t be spotted except in the corner of my mind’s eye. But it seems intuitively right to me.  We are enlightened as we are and we are not yet enlightened. We need to be changed and we need to see that mountains are mountains.

In contrast, Jane’s advice to stick with small-t transformation sounded like a halfway measure. But I don’t think it was. I think that, like a skillful Zen master, she was guiding us away from the preoccupation with Transformation that itself can stand in the way. Stop trying to be changed! Just visit the ocean, talk with colleagues, sing a few songs. Chop wood and carry water. Let go of the desire for nirvana and live in samsara, and then (she didn’t say, because it would have spoiled it) you might find that samsara is the nirvana you’ve stopped looking for.

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