Rector's Blog, Conversion
I remember my final year of seminary when I found out where my first job was going to be. I called up one of my mentors, a priest who had overseen my work at a local church, and I said, “I know where I’ll be working after graduation!” He asked the name of the parish. “St. Margaret’s in San Juan Capistrano,” I said. His reply came swiftly and joyfully: “Great! Pray for their conversion!” This might sound like a backhanded compliment toward that particular church – like he knew that they were a bunch of heathens in need of prayer. But that’s not what he meant. My friend believed that all churches were in need of constant conversion.
That word conversion is not used much in the Episcopal Church. Our tradition often shies away from this language. But conversion is an important concept for us as Christians, and I’d love to see us embrace it. Conversion is the transformation of the heart brought to bear by the Holy Spirit. That’s it. We believe that the Spirit of God is at work in our lives and is transforming our hearts in such a way that we are more fully able to live into the love for which we are made. Conversion.
Perhaps one of the reasons Episcopalians don’t talk much about conversion is that we’ve bought into the common narrative that conversion is about a moment in time. That moment perhaps when you were baptized. Or maybe the moment you realized you actually believed in God, or that time you decided to actually commit to identifying as a Christian. But what my mentor knew, and what I am beginning to understand myself, is that conversion is not a single moment in time: Conversion is a lifelong reality for Christians and for our churches.
“Pray for their conversion,” he said, because a church is a community of people who have gathered together in Jesus’ name, who are committed to following Jesus. To seek to follow Jesus is to be transformed. To dedicate ourselves to the love that creates and redeems and sustains the world is a dedication to transformation. That’s conversion. And it is ongoing. We don’t ever want to stop being converted. To pray for the conversion of a church is to pray that they keep following Jesus. It’s a prayer that we actively remain open to ongoing transformation.
Understanding that conversion is ongoing is a game changer. It undercuts any unspoken belief in an easy answer, a quick fix, instant solution. You and I were born to love and be loved. And at the same time, our lives are filled with obstacles and barriers – things that keep us from living into that beloved reality. So we yearn for a moment, an instant, a blink of an eye where the obstacles just disappear. Many Christians have been sold the snake oil that if we just believe the right thing, pray the right prayer, act the right way – if we just “convert” or “get saved” – the barriers to belovedness will be banished.
This is not real. And when we acknowledge that our conversion - the opening of our hearts to the presence saving love of God in the world – is a lifelong process, we begin to embrace the reality of Christianity as a practice rather than a set of magical escapist beliefs.
When I got to this church, there was an old man here named Chet. Many of you knew him well. He was a leader, a rabble rouser, a prayer warrior, a seeker, a smart-ass, and a true patriarch of our community. I loved him instantly, and I was not alone in that. One Sunday, when I walked into the room for our Adult Education hour, he barked, “Hey, there’s that guy who talks about love all the time!” I said, “That’s me!”
“When are you gonna talk about something else?” Chet asked, and I said, “When you all actually start believing that you’re loved no matter what, I will start talking about something else.” Chet nodded. This was an acceptable answer for him today. The trick, of course, is that I don’t think we’ll ever fully believe that we’re loved no matter what. I think we keep needing to be reminded. To be Christian doesn’t mean you always know you’re loved. To be Christian is to engage in trying to accept your belovedness a little more each day.
The last time I shared a meal with Chet before he died, he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it, and slid it across the table for my perusal. It was the Lord’s Prayer. Well, it was Chet’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. He had been working on his own translation for a while and he wanted my feedback on what he had so far. I say “so far” because this man who was well into his nineties, did not at all feel like he was done trying to get his arms around the enormity of the love that was found in that prayer. He had to keep working on it, had to keep trying to grasp at understanding what God was doing in his life, in this world. Chet was still working on his own conversion.
We are not done being transformed by God. We are not done following Jesus. We are not done learning how to believe in Love. Pray for your conversion. Pray for my conversion. Pray for the conversion of our church.
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