September 14, 2009

Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?
By Pastor Connie Larson DeVaughn

I have recently read a book in which a family of three is suddenly, irrevocably impacted by an act of violence which changes their lives forever. To their dismay, each one decompensates to their lowest, basest self, unleashing a beast within, as they respond with their own reciprocal acts of violence. Having done the unthinkable, they struggle to answer the question, “Who am I at the core, after all the outer layers are peeled away?”

This is a good question that bears scrutiny. The brutal honesty needed to answer it is not something most of us are comfortable with. We’d rather present ourselves to the world in a positive way, and hide the negative deep enough to avoid discovery. But there are times, usually in crisis or in stress, when some core characteristic surfaces even though we would like it to remain submerged. (As a pastor, I have often noticed that funerals—and weddings, surprisingly—bring out the worst in family dynamics. But any crisis or stress, especially long term, complicated ones, will do the same.)

When we are finally faced with the ugly side of ourselves that cannot be masked or avoided any longer, the next question that follows is, “Can I possibly change who I am at core? Can the worst part of me be transformed?”

The author of my novel answers with a resounding “no.” We are who we are, and we cannot leave behind our upbringing, or our negativity. We cannot change the most deeply entrenched aspects of our character. And while I agree that we cannot change ourselves, I find hope in another author, who writes based not on a fictional account, but on personal experience instead. The Apostle Paul struggled with the same violent core as our fictional family. He was a man with blood on his hands, who hated and pursued the followers of Jesus with a white hot, righteous anger. He was driven to violence by deeply held beliefs that were foundational to his thinking. To change his core would require a massive tectonic shift, a complete transformation of the way he thought, the values he held, the passion of his heart—in short, his very being.

Based on his encounter with Jesus Christ, Paul proclaims joyously that he truly is a changed man. He did not change himself, indeed, he could not change himself, but there is someone else who does have that power, and that is the person of Jesus Christ. Paul sometimes refers to this conversion of old to new: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy…and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (I Tim. 1:12-16). From blasphemy, persecution, violence and sin, to mercy, grace, faith and love—that is a trajectory that can only come about with outside help.

We live in a world of evil. And when we are confronted with it, we might just want to respond with some evil of our own. It’s a vicious circle which leaves little hope. I believe that cycle can only be broken with the help of Jesus. And I believe that true change begins internally.

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On a related note, I’m excited about our new Kid’s Club, beginning this Wednesday, at 5:45 PM for children K-5th grade. Peacemaking will be taught from the source, the Prince of Peace. And how better to encourage positive change from the ground up, than with kids who experience the need for peace everyday, in school, on the playground and at home. Can a leopard change its spots? Only if its Creator does the changing.