Born Again and Again and Again

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

We sang “Amazing Grace” earlier. I called it a hymn of transformation—“I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” There’s a story we often hear about the origins of this hymn. Its author, John Newtown, is the unbelieving captain of a slave ship on the middle passage from Africa to the Americas. During the journey a violent storm engulfs the ship and batters it for many hours. In prayer Newton tells God that if they are allowed to survive he will turn the ship around and set his human cargo free. The storm ends. The ship does not sink. Newton turns the ship around, converts to Christianity and immediately pens the words to “Amazing Grace.”

One might tell this story for any number of reasons. I draw your attention to it this morning because it offers an image of spiritual transformation which is widespread in our culture today: it happens quickly, in a flash, in a thunder clap, in response to some miraculous occurrence, in response to some evidence of life-saving divine intervention. The Holy Spirit enters you, lifts you up and sets you back down as a new person, a changed person, a transformed person on a new path, the right path, where just a moment ago you were on the wrong path. Boom! Born again.

By some accounts, the ship was called the Greyhound. Newton was on it. But Newton biographer, Christine Schaub, says he was “sailing as a passenger on a ship carrying ivory, gold, beeswax…and not a single slave.” It was March of 1748. The ship was caught in a storm. Newton may have prayed. The ship did not sink. It also did not reverse course. Some accounts say that given the damage to the boat they were lucky to make it to Ireland. It was a profound moment in Newtown’s life. He looked back on it as the moment of his conversion to Christianity, but his life did not change rapidly. Schaub says it was only after this experience that Newton started working in the slave trade, eventually becoming a slave ship captain. And she says he left slaving due to illness, not conscience. He was ordained as a priest in the Church of England in the mid-1760s. He wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” in the early 1770s. And it was not until the early 1780s that he became outspoken about the abolition of slavery, some 35 years after the storm.[1]

Let’s face it: the fiction about Newton is far more compelling than the historical account.  I don’t want to suggest that his decades-long transformation from slave-trader to abolitionist is insignificant. It’s not. But I think stories of radical, immediate spiritual transformation—from lost to found, from broken to whole, from aimless to purposeful, from sinful to saved, from imprisoned to free, from oppressor to ally—are, at least in the telling, far more powerful than stories of a gradual shift in one’s spiritual life. I also think it’s true that when we come to those pinnacle moments wherein we realize we’ve got to make a change, it’s normal to want that change to happen quickly. In her story, “Seagal Therapy,” Rev. Meg Barnhouse makes this very point. She writes: “I understand. I want fast transformation too. I would love it if there were twenty easy steps a person could do to become whole and joyful, hopeful and healthy. I would love it if the twenty steps could be done just once and—presto—it’s all fixed! And maybe the whole process could take about six weeks.”[2] Her point is that it’s rarely that easy. She says, “Maybe someone will come up with that. Meanwhile, transformation is usually painful.”[3] And, I would add, slow.

Our ministry theme for September is transformation. I think it’s fair to argue that spiritual transformation is one of the primary reasons people participate in religious communities of any kind. Certainly this is true in Unitarian Universalist congregations. We might not always call it transformation, but people seek out our congregations in order to bring change into their lives—to find community in the midst of loneliness, guidance in the midst of confusion, comfort in the midst of suffering, love in a world that can be so unloving, welcome in a world that can seem so unwelcoming. The list goes on. Even those of you who come because the community is familiar, stable, consistent—you’ve been here a long time—even you will still say you want church to help you grow. In fact, that’s part of our third Unitarian Universalist principle: encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. When we say we are spiritual seekers, we imply we’re looking for something we don’t yet have, something that will presumably bring change to our lives. When we say our lives our spiritual journeys, we suggest we are moving in some direction away from where we are now. So, I say we come for transformation.

But what of that prevalent image of instantaneous conversion, the “born again” moment, the lightening flash, the thunder clap, the Holy Spirit just taking over? What about the ancient stories of God speaking to Moses in the burning bush, Elijah on the mountain top, Jesus coming to Saul on the road to Damascus, the angel Gabriel coming to Muhammad in the cave of Hira commanding him to recite? What of the adult baptismal moment—being immersed in water and then emerging into a new life? What of those moments when one feels called down to the altar to testify, to say “I have seen the light;” to say “I am born again?” Boom.

I love those ancient stories about prophets hearing divine voices. And I do not discount the spiritual experiences of those who are born again or convert in a blinding flash. I think something real and precious happens in those moments. But in my experience the blinding flash is not enough to bring lasting transformation. Hearing that divine call—however you understand it—whether it’s from without or deep within—is not enough to bring lasting transformation. So often the ancient prophets hear the divine call but their first reaction is one of terror. Or, they think God must’ve made a mistake, must be speaking to the wrong person. They think they can’t possibly do what they’re being asked to do, so they do everything in their power not to do it. Their transformation comes, but it is rarely immediate.

Even when something wildly unexpected forces change upon our lives and we know things have to be different, there are inevitably deep-seeded patterns of behavior and thought, habits, addictions, long-standing physical and emotional attachments, relationships, commitments, loyalties, assumptions, financial arrangements, family dynamics, children—a dense constellation of everything that has brought us to where we are and has made us who we are—and it wants to stay exactly as it is! It does not want to come along for the ride no matter how blinding the flash, no matter how compelling the holy call. We resist change, even when we want to change.

Consider grief. A loved-one dies—a parent, a spouse, a child, even a pet. Their absence changes everything, except our bodies are still deeply attuned to them. Our love for them is no less intense on the day after they die. But now our love has nowhere to go. Our daily rituals, our habits, the things we do that we never actually think about, our self-understanding, our sense of humor, our priorities have all evolved in ongoing interaction with our loved-one. We can’t just turn it all off when our loved-one is gone. Our unconscious just keeps moving our bodies along in the same patterns as if our loved-one is still alive. So it’s as if we keep realizing over and over again that our loved-one is no longer with us, and the realization hurts. That’s what grief is. And when we say we are actively grieving, it means we are transforming from life with our loved-one to life without them, changing our routines, our behavior, out thinking, our identity, even our body chemistry. It takes years, if not decades; and, of course, for some it never ends.

Consider addiction. When an addict hits rock bottom and resolves to quit whatever substance they’re addicted to, it is a rare person who can just walk away, go ‘cold turkey.’ The body doesn’t allow it. Withdrawal hurts. The person who says, “one day I just quit,” more often than not is neglecting to say “after ten years of struggling.” I watched my dad slowly quit alcohol over the course of fifteen years, but becoming sober wasn’t the end. In some ways, it was just the beginning. Newly sober, the body still craves the substance. Certain social situations and feelings create a longing for it. One has to dig deeply into the reasons why the addiction began in the first place. One has to dig deeply into the behaviors that have accompanied the addiction, the relationships that have been damaged. Becoming sober is a process of transformation from living in intimate relationship with an addictive substance to living without it. It requires a slow, painful process of changing daily rituals, habits, self-understanding, sense of humor, priorities, and on and on. Such transformation takes years if not decades.

Here’s a less fraught example that has to do with transforming as a parent as children begin to grow up. My oldest son, Mason, started in a new school this year. New schools can be tough on kids, and I can tell you the anxiety level started rising in our home almost as soon as the last school year ended. We did all the things you’re supposed to do to help a child transition to a new school. We took our own tour of the building. We went to the student open-house. We have a number of family rituals we conduct every year before school begins, including having a lunch of fried clams at City Fish in Wethersfield. We did that. We really prepared Mason psychologically and emotionally to make this transition. The night before the first day of school I had trouble sleeping. My mind was racing over the details of what would happen in the morning—eating breakfast, preparing lunch, brushing teeth, combing hair, finding shoes, getting out the door on time.

The morning went smoothly. Mason was calm. And pretty soon it was time to go. “Am I coming with you to the bus stop?” I ask. “Nope,” he says, matter-of-factly. I’ve never not gone to the bus stop with Mason. “Are you sure?” “Yep.” So, we hug, and he runs down the street to the corner. He was completely fine. But not me. Tears start flowing down my face. It hits me: the anxiety, the tension, the sleeplessness—it’s all mine. And looking back it’s so clear to me: I’m used to parenting in a certain way based on assumptions about who my child is and what his needs are. My body, my emotions, my morning routine are all wrapped up in those assumptions. I know intellectually he’s getting older, but underneath the surface I’m fighting and resisting and grieving. Hence my anxiety and sleeplessness. I’ve got to let go of old ways and figure out new ones. I’ve got to transform as a parent, but it doesn’t happen in a flash. It takes time. Transforming well requires reflection, experimentation, practice.

 Now, imagine you have one of those compelling spiritual experiences, what we Unitarian Universalists often call a direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder. Imagine one of those mountain-top moments when you sense the oneness of everything, the inter-connectedness of all life; or an experience of being saved from disaster, like John Newton; or an experience of being held, embraced, loved deeply and without condition. It might be your blinding flash, your thunder clap, you still, small voice in the silence after the storm, or some Holy Spirit picking you up and putting you back down. Whatever that profound spiritual experience is, whatever language or imagery one uses, in the end I don’t think that is what transforms a person. At best such experiences open us up and allow us to look more closely at our lives, to recognize what matters most and what matters least, to recognize what is transient and can fall away, what is permanent and must be sustained; to recognize that perhaps we ought to dedicate our lives to a more noble purpose, to service, to caring, to loving our neighbor, the alien, the other, to living the life we feel called to live and not the life we may have fallen into through apathy or inaction.

But the spiritual experience itself doesn’t make any of this happen. It only has the power to show us new possibilities for our lives—and perhaps that’s what grace is. But if it’s going to happen, we need to make it happen. We need to do the work of transforming ourselves. And what inevitably gets in the way? That deep-seeded constellation of behaviors, thoughts, habits, addictions, long-standing relationships, commitments, loyalties, assumptions, financial arrangements, family dynamics, children’s needs, etc.—everything that has brought us to where we are now and has made us who we are now. None of it really wants to join us in this new life we’ve just envisioned—this more passionate existence, this more noble purpose. None of it wants to come along for the ride. So our efforts to transform ourselves are inevitably halting. We easily slide back into old, familiar ways, into bad—or at least unhelpful—habits, into apathy and inaction. We move forward, inspired, and then fall back, tired, out of energy, forgetful of what we had hoped to become. Forward and back, forward and back. Born again? I think it’s more likely we are born again and again and again before we achieve real transformation.

Do I sound pessimistic? I’m really not. Yes, we become settled in our ways, and like the prophets of old we resist the holy voices that prattle around the edges of our consciousness. But I also agree with the message implicit in the Rev. Angela Herrera’s meditation, “Doubting Thomas,” that there is always a new self—a more passionate self, a more authentic self, a wiser self, a more loving self—waiting and ready to emerge. No it’s not easy work. “If we would really live,” she writes, “we must be willing to die within the seasons of our lives.” [4] But it’s death either way, in her view, for “even the path of sameness leads to death by stagnation.” So the question is with us always. “Will you be reborn? Will you press through darkness and constraint, the danger of your remaking? And when you do, what will you bring forth?” What a wonderfully hopeful question! I commend it to you as we begin our congregational year. “What will you bring forth?”

And this is my prayer for us this morning: that each of us may envision the life we long to live and then support each other as we work to bring it forth. Knowing the work of transformation is hard, knowing we are up against that deep-seeded constellation of things in ourselves that hold us in place, may we be born again and again and again until our vision becomes reality.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Newton biographer, Christine Schaub, comments on what she calls “the pulpit story” at: debunks the myth of John Newton at

[2] Barnhouse, Meg, “Seagal Therapy” Did I Say That Out Loud: Musings from a Questioning Soul (Boston: Skinner House, 2006), p.93.

[3] Ibid., p. 93.

[4] Herrera, Angela, “Doubting Thomas,” Reaching for the Sun (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012) pp. 38.