The New Year is an opportunity for conversion

hobbesThe New Year is an opportunity to make resolutions.  Perhaps for many of us, however, resolutions may not be enough; we may need an actual conversion experience.

There is a fourth-century story told of two monks in the Egyptian desert.  One monk came to the other for advice:

“Father Joseph,” the monk said, “According as I am able, I keep my rule, my fast, my prayer, meditation and silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?”

The other monk rose up and stretched out his hands in response.  His fingers, held toward heaven, became like ten lampstands, and he said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

This story reminds me of John the Baptist coming out of the desert to declare that God had come in the form of a messiah.  “I baptize with water,” John said, “But he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).

Fire in the ancient world was as destructive as it is now, but it was also a cleansing agent.  Fire was used to purify precious metals, shape iron, and cleanse chaff from wheat.  The Greek word for fire is the root word for the English word, “purity.”  It was, according to ancient philosophy, the precursor to God’s Word and the harbinger of Spirit.

For John the Baptist and, later, for Jesus who claimed that he came to separate wheat from chaff, fire was the symbol whereby one was cleansed from all impurities and made right with God.  It consisted of God’s action as well as one’s decision to “repent” and convert.

Whereas resolutions are commitments to do something, conversion transform our very nature just as fire can transform the properties of many metals at certain temperatures.

Conversion is more concerned about who we are than about what we do, assuming that who we are will eventually inform what we do.

For those who see conversion as an important step in their faith journey, repentance is considered a regular spiritual discipline.  It does not occur only once, let alone once a year, but, as Father Joseph implied, is occurs continually: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

The equation for repentance is straightforward, but we always need reminding of how it occurs. With the New Year upon us, it is a good time for a refresher.

Repentance happens when we realize that we are not perfect and fail to be who God wants us to be.  The Bible says that all of us are sinful, that we all “fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).  The first step in repentance and conversion is to acknowledge this simple fact.

This brings us to another fact: that because we “fall short,” we are disconnected from God and need salvation.  Unfortunately, we cannot save ourselves, and being a good person or doing a good deed for the day just does not cut it.  This is based on the premise that God is perfect and holy; and, since we are not holy, then we cannot justify our own actions before God.

This is where the Holy Spirit and “fire” come into play.  We recognize that Jesus, who died for our sins as a sinless human and bore the weight of our guilt upon him, is the mediator between us and God.  The Holy Spirit enlightens us to this truth as He draws us closer to God through the person of Jesus Christ.

Then, as we are set right in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ upon the admission of our sins, we are commissioned to live a life of obedience, sanctification, and discipleship.  This is where “fire” comes in, as the Spirit continually fashions us and molds us in the smelter of life experiences and lessons learned.  It’s fire that conforms us into the likeness of Christ.

I grew up in a faith tradition that saw conversion as a one-time event; but, as I grow older, I realize that it is a continual cycle with which God is never finished.  Just as each New Year brings with it inspiration for a fresh start, so does God’s Son, Spirit, and cleansing fire give us a fresh beginning every day.

John’s Unquenchable, Advent Fire

fireText: Matthew 3:1-12

I.

Christmas is a few weeks away, but it will be here before you know it.  What will happen when Christmas comes?  We know its Jesus’ birthday, and we will surely celebrate.  The children will wake us up once again way too early; the hustle and bustle of family dinners will dominate the greater part of our day.   But it is Jesus’ birthday—shouldn’t it be life-changing, shouldn’t it make a difference?

What difference will Christmas make in your life?

Some folks say that it is wrong to take Christ out of Christmas, but what if we took the mass out of Christmas?   Maybe we need to ask that question like this:  What difference will Christ make in your life on December 25th?

Advent is a time to reflect upon that question and to anticipate that Christmas—Christ!—will indeed make a difference come Christmas day.   We hope that it will be transformative, that we will see things in a new way; that we will wake up, and the breath that we take will be qualitatively different, that we will feel more alive.  We hope that it will bring about a new vision for our life, perhaps like the vision we talked about last week from Isaiah 2, in which we see the world as a brighter place simply because God is a part of it.

But then again, it might just be another routine day, like any other.   It may come and go, and nothing out of the ordinary may happen.  We may wake up and be grouchy—There have been many Christmas mornings in which the kids come in yelling, “Wake up!  Wake up!  It’s Christmas!”, only to have me swat them with a half-dead, sleepy arm, “Get back to sleep—it’s too early!”

We say Advent is a time of anticipation and change, but what if it feels like we already arrived—what difference will Christmas make then?

The truth is, Advent and Christmas is more than merely celebrating Jesus’ birth, the coming of God Emmanuel—It is the anticipation that the truth, “God with us,” will indeed bring about a conversion for all of us who are still in need of a conversion experience now and then.  It’s as Paul said in his letter to the Philippians:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make salvation my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do…I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.”

II.

There’s a story out of the Egyptian desert from the fourth century.  This was a time in which people were going out into the wilderness in order to get away from the corruption and mass consumerism so blatant in their society, a time in which people were giving up wealth and pomp to seek simplicity and holiness.  It was the beginning of the monastic movement.

The story is of two monks who lived in community together, and one monk, frustrated with his Christian journey said to the other,

“Father Joseph, according as I am able, I keep my rule of life, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts : now what more should I do?’

“The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.  He said, ‘Why not be totally changed into fire?’”

Fire, a cleansing agent that both destroys and cleans; an agent that is destructive, but in many cases is necessary for new life, like in the forest when the chaff of dead vegetation needs to be cleared in order for new life to grow.  Even the word fire in Greek—pur—is the root word where we get the English word for purity.

It is the fire of conversion—in the words of one author, a “Furnace of transformation, where the old self dies and the new self is fashioned by God and born anew.”

That is the way that John the Baptist described the Advent of Jesus Christ.  In all four Gospels we find this mysterious, idiosyncratic figure—John—coming out of none other than the fiery, hot desert pleading with people to “Repent!  For the kingdom of heaven is near!” and letting them know that the Messiah is about to come not to sing Kumbaya, but to bring holy fire that will cleanse souls, burn chaff from hearty wheat, and clear the threshing floor of all sin for the very presence of God himself.

III.

John’s message and ministry was a peculiar one for sure, and we’re not sure where he came from.  It was not uncommon back then that prophets emerged from the wilderness of Palestine.  We may think, for instance, of the prophets and communities of, say, the Essenes, who were keepers over the library of scriptures popularly known as the Dead Sea scrolls, who preached that God would come with fire to cleanse Israel and judge the nations.

We think also a little farther back in history to the time of Elijah and Elisha, who brought down fire to consume sacrifices as a way to prove that God was boss over all creation.  Like them, John critized the powers that be, both in the Roman political hierarchy and in the Jewish religious realm where Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees assumed they knew what God was up to.

We also think of the passage in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy, in which Moses describes God as a “consuming fire.”

“You brood of vipers,” John says in our lesson today, “Do not assume you know it all; do not assume you have arrived—why do you think that you are exempt from having to repent?  And, even now, the ax is heading for every root in God’s forest.  Fire is coming, the Holy Spirit is coming—and it will burn with an unquenchable fire.

Jesus later affirmed John’s preaching in Matthew 13, when he told a parable about God separating wheat and chaff, as well as in Mark, where Jesus said that if something causes you to sin, its better that you cast it off and let it burn in that very unquenchable fire that John mentioned before (Mk. 9).

If you think you have arrived, why not be totally changed into fire.  And what is conversion but the very act of bringing every part of our being—heart, soul, mind and strength—under the authority and rule of God?

IV.

I have people ask me sometimes—it seems to be street preachers and Southern Baptists more often than not—when my conversion experience was.    Although I know I made a decision to follow Christ when I was twelve, I can’t answer that question so quickly.  I believe that my life is the sum of many conversion experiences.

There were so many times when I was going about life, living through the routine, when God showed up and touched me or moved me or pierced me with Spirit and with fire.

There was, for instance, that time in high school I thought I felt a call to ministry and, on one youth retreat in North Carolina, God showed up with a fire that brought me into a new place of intimacy with him.

There was the fire of college, where I studied the Word of God in the company of professors and peers alike and felt the Spirit illuminating this biblical text like never before—it glowed like embers, ready to change my very being when I sought after it with my whole heart.

There was the fire of childbirth, when, upon having Haleigh, God hit me with the reality of being a father, of having the responsibility for another person.

And then there was the fire of untimely death that visited my family, a time of testing and trial in which I had to choose from utter despair to be a victim of gun violence or to have trust and hope that God has a purpose that defeats all forms of violence and heartbreak.

Thomas Merton said it best, “We are not converted only once in our lives, but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ.”  It is the way, he argues, to freedom.

V.

If anything, John’s words for us today and this Advent season is one that challenges us to seek conversion yet again, to see what chaff might be brought before God for cleansing and for growth and renewal.   It is a challenge to see conversion, in the words of Raymond Studzinski  as that which “requires a person to discern what is to be left behind and what is to come and be welcomed.”

So let me ask you again: What difference will Christmas make in your life?  And when Christ comes, will it be a call to convert…

  • Feelings of hostility or malice into feelings of compassion or patience?
  • Ideas and philosophies that are born from a worldly perspective into convictions born from God’s very mouth, God’s Word?
  • Positions of fear and anxiety into dispositions of grace and trust?
  • Destructive habits and behaviors into attitudes of life-giving and life-preserving avenues of hope and spiritual disciplines?
  • From addictions and lifestyles plagued with sin into pilgrimages of salvation in which Christ is Lord over all of who we are?

Where will conversion take place in your life, for Jesus is coming, folks!  And he is coming with that word that echoes Matthew 10:34:  “Do not think I have come to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”

It is a sword that divides bone from marrow, falsehood from truth, flesh from spirit, and sin from grace.  Jesus comes with Spirit and with an unquenchable fire!  Why not be totally changed into fire?!

Conversion is a Baptist’s cup of tea, fraught with diverse theologies

I.

I guess you can say that we Baptists have a love affair with conversions.  Audacious, Damascus-road conversions.  If someone comes up to you on the street and asks if you’re saved, I’ll bet my Bible he’s a Baptist.  To this day, despite the fact that I’m in the ministry, I still have Baptist pastors–“preacher men,” I call them–ask me if I’m saved.

You might think its offensive to ask a pastor that question; but, in these parts of the South, a conversion or salvation experience is what separates the Christians from everyone else.  You might also think that the answer is an easy yes.  Wrong again. For a guy like me, who grew up as a Christian mutt, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

II.

The Baptist love affair with conversions isn’t new.  Conversions became a litmus test for faith around the turn of the twentieth century, when tent revivals inspired believers to get right with God.

“If you were to die tonight,” the preacher man yelled, “Are you sure you’d go to heaven?”  It was a question that would make Jonathon Edwards proud.

The goal of revivalist preaching was to cast a shadow of doubt upon a person’s eternal security.  Only the people who reached “the age of accountability” can choose to follow Christ; church upbringing or infant baptism did not insure salvation.  “Walking the aisle,” writes Baptist historian Bill Leonard, “replaced baptism as public profession of faith.”*  Jesus must be one’s personal Savior.  Choose, or have that shadow darken your life forever.

Not everyone agreed with this line of thinking.  As revivalism spread, many theologians deemed the movement too sensational.  Mainline churches and liberals in particular argued that emotional conversion experiences were not adequate to raise a person in faith.  Salvation must accompany a process of baptism, discipleship, sanctification, and education.*

Furthermore, infants and children were saved and baptized because their parents raised them in the womb of the church.  After all, the Bible does say that Cornelius’ entire household got baptized when he believed in the Gospel, a household that likely included children of various ages (Acts 10).

Theologians also questioned how revivalists read the Bible. Saul’s Damascus road experience (Acts 9:1-15), which became the model for revivalist conversion theology, is not about conversion at all.  When he met Christ in a blinding light, Saul did not convert from one religion to another.  He was Jewish before and after the event; the only difference was his new-found conviction that Jesus was God’s messiah.

The schism between revivalists and mainline theologians created confusion over the nature of conversion and, eventually, the substance of salvation.  Is salvation a one-time event or a process?  Jesus told his followers to enter the narrow door and walk the narrow road (Matthew 7:13-14).  So what is it: a door or a road?

Thankfully, this schism has evolved over time, and many Christians have a more nuanced approach to conversion.  My own journey of faith attests to the confusion that results from this evolution, as well as the way people see conversion differently these days.  If anything, my life’s story sheds light on the importance of holding both views–conversion as a process and as a one-time event–together in a balanced, creative tension.

III.

I grew up in a Christian household.  My parents were reared in the Catholic church, but they insisted on “getting saved” at a conservative evangelical church in New York shortly after I was born.  When I was young, I just assumed that I was a Christian too.

As I was entering middle school–a very important time of religious discovery in a person’s life–we moved to Florida and started attending a Southern Baptist Church.  There, I heard the Gospel call of the preacher man for the first time:

“Little Brother,” he said, “Did you ask Jesus into your heart, because if you don’t you won’t be saved.”

“I grew up going to church, Sir,” I said, shifting uncomfortably in my seat, “My parents are Christian.”

“Makes no difference where you grew up if you haven’t asked Jesus in your heart.”  The preacher man bent down and leaned on one knee, his breathing labored from carrying his weight that low to the ground. “Do you want Jesus in your heart today?”

I was not sure how to answer, and the preacher man was quite convincing.  I walked the aisle and said a “sinner’s prayer” to make sure my destiny was sealed in heaven.

Despite this decision, I still had my doubts.  I kept a tract in my bedroom so that when those doubts arose or I had sinned in some way, I would simply flip to the last page and say the prayer all over again.  This was a confusing time.  I thought I had been a Christian all of my life; now I wasn’t so sure.

This confusion created an acute guilt that haunted me throughout adolescence.  I resisted baptism when asked because I still wasn’t sure whether I was a child of God.

In high school and college, I moved my membership to a Presbyterian church that provided a more positive picture of the Christian life.  The youth group was affirming and encouraged participation in missions, ministry, and social justice.  While there, I decided to go into ministry, and I couldn’t be a minister if I hadn’t been baptized.  So, finally, my youth pastor baptized me in the lake behind the church building.  It was an emotional event although we did it on some random day of the week without my parents present.   Witnesses consisted of only a half-dozen close friends.

I entered seminary immediately after college and pursued ministry in Baptist life.  I decided to go Baptist because they championed soul competency.  That, and I never understood Reformed theology anyway, so how could I make for a good Presbyterian preacher man?

IV.

Going back to Baptist life was not easy.  My inner spiritual war, with all of its guilt and doubt, reared its ugly head once again.  I became anxious; my wife became annoyed.  Things were uncertain.  I asked a lot of questions: Was I really “saved” since I never had a Damascus road experience?  Did I love Jesus as much as those preacher men did if I didn’t insist on telling everyone I met about Him?

Fortunately, the seminary was progressive enough to welcome a more nuanced definition of conversion.  Salvation, it seemed, can indeed happen via a one-time event or as a process over a long period of time.  In fact, there was such a nonchalant attitude about conversion at the seminary, I started to wonder whether salvation was even necessary to get into heaven in the first place.  When I posed this to my wife, she said I was going too far.  She was right.

V.

The Baptist church I attended, the very one that eventually called me to be its pastor, also honored both views of conversion.  In theology and theory, one may be saved over a long period of time, even from very young.  In practice, the church insists on keeping an “invitation” in worship every Sunday to give people the chance to respond immediately to God’s call to repent and walk the aisle if necessary.

Studying the history of conversion is one thing, but to preach in a Baptist church that does an invitation week after week is another. I honed my theology of conversion in this precarious context.  After all, I needed some way to answer those preacher men in our community who insisted on questioning my salvation.

How do you explain to an enthusiastic preacher man that your conversion didn’t happen in one, tidy experience?  Do you make an appointment to take the time and explain the whole thing?

If anything, a true conversion is living (and, at times, surviving) through a series of cycles that include orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.  Those terms aren’t original to me, but they certainly sum up the narrative flow of my entire life.  Orientation occurs when you think you have it all together.  Then, all of a sudden, disorientation: Mystery interrupts your life.  A dark night of the soul may prevail for one evening, one season, or, in some cases, an entire year.

Reorientation happens when you start to put the pieces of your life back together again, and you realize that the thing you put together looks nothing like what it was before.  There is no going back.

In other words, conversion is more like being married than deciding to marry.  Asking my wife to marry me was the easy part; it’s the staying married part that requires daily commitment and sacrifice.

I could explain all of this, but it’s not as dramatic as some evangelists prefer.  Half-way through the conversation, they might start fidgeting and wondering where Jesus is in all of this.  Preachers love their Jesus, and they love it when people meet Jesus in one explosive encounter.  I am sorry to disappoint.

At best, my life is filled with not one but many conversion experiences.  There was my conversion from childhood to adulthood, when my faith became my own.  There was conversion from being somewhat of a culture-warrior bigot to inclusive advocate who befriends “misfits” who are socially marginalized.  There was my conversion from one political party to another when I found out that Jesus did care about how I voted.

I had a powerful conversion experience about seven years ago when my daughter was born and I realized my life was no longer my own.  Her birth and my son’s birth shortly thereafter gave a new meaning to some words we Baptists sing every now and then: “There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood…”*  Holding a newborn baby gives new meaning to being “baptized” by water and blood.

VI.

Recently, I was cleaning out a bookshelf when I found a small envelope my mother had given me about a year ago.  She said it was my dedication certificate, so I thought it was from that evangelical church of my childhood.  I put it aside to look at later, but it must have gotten misplaced over the months.

When I opened the envelope, I quickly realized that it wasn’t a dedication record.  It was a baptism certificate.  I got baptized in the Catholic church one month after I was born.

I called my mother and asked her about it.  Apparently, my parents were visiting the evangelical church while I was a baby, but still maintained ties to the Catholic church.   They baptized me Catholic just in case that whole “getting saved” stuff at the evangelical church was a fluke.

Here, in my hand, was the proof that God did indeed seal me as His child even before I could remember, or doubt for that matter.  My whole life’s faith journey flashed before my eyes.  Mine was a difficult road, but I had already decided long ago that I would turn this whole, harrowing wrestling match with conversion into something positive for other Christians.

As for me, I’m just glad I can answer those preachers once and for all:

“Are you saved, Brother?” the preacher man will ask.

“Yes,” I will say with boldness, “I was saved on April 16, 1978, when my Catholic brothers and sisters baptized me at The Church of the Holy Family, Staten Island, New York.”

It won’t take all day to explain that, and it will do just fine.  Just fine indeed.

Sources:

*(1) Bill Leonard, “Southern Baptists and Conversion: An Evangelical Sacramentalism,” in Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, ed. Gary Furr and Curtis Freeman (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1994), 17.

*(2) James Reed, “Horace Bushnell, Spiritual Formation, and Conversion,” in Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, ed. Gary Furr and Curtis Freeman (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1994), see pp. 49-55.

*(3) “There Is Power in the Blood.”  Words and music by Lewis E. Jones.