If there's one buzzword that has captured the hearts and imaginations of Americans it's CHANGE! So much so that both political parties have claimed it for themselves. Of course, the change's they're promoting all have to do with changes in institutions like banks, the military, and the Congress (good luck!). But even when our society invites us to personal change, it's superficial - a call to change my weight, haircolor, tone my blotchy, wrinkled skin, and build my muscles. But Jesus is calling us to something much more profound. The Gospel this weekend got me thinking about conversion and all that's involved in it. I'll share some of my reflections, in the hope that it may generate some reflection on your part. Feel free to share in the comments box.
Jesus is clearly challenging the religious elites of his faith community to mend their ways. They hadn't after John's preaching, and their question, "By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?" makes it clear they haven't given him permission, either - and they don't approve. Seems like they're still unwilling to move towards repentance. This raises the question in my own mind - why didn't they change - and, more importantly, WHY DON’T I CHANGE?
Well, I can think of a few reasons for myself - I can't speak for the chief priests and the elders. Now before you think I'm being overly hard on myself, I decided to use the first person in writing this as a more direct challenge to myself. Perhaps it will challenge you, as well.
I. I don’t believe I need to. Not really.
Now, why might I believe this?
1) My understanding of God is wrong. I act as though God’s love song to me is (with apologies to Billy Joel):
Don't go changing, to try and please me
You never let me down before
Don't imagine you're too familiar
And I don't see you anymore
I wouldn't leave you in times of trouble
We never could have come this far
I took the good times, I'll take the bad times
I'll take you just the way you are.
As an old saying goes, God loves us just the way we are, but loves us too much to leave us this way.
2) I can always find someone worse than me, and I can approach my relationship to him as though judgment is based on a curve. As long as I can find people who are more evil than me, and believe that there aren't that many better than me, I must be doing o.k. Of course, there's a bit of Pelagianism hiding in these beliefs.
3) I must not be reading the scriptures very attentively, or taking them seriously, because they are chock full of various and sundry calls to repentance, stories of repentance (and the lack of it), and warnings of what happens to those who don't repent.
4) I don’t see anyone else changing, and I don’t hear anyone talking about their conversion. I'm not terribly original, and I need inspiration from the lived experiences of people around me. The lives of the saints are too easy to dismiss as hagiography or somehow too ideal.
II. I don’t know what conversion looks like.
This follows from number 4 above. In the Bible, conversion always leads to an experience of newness. Even in cases of the rediscovery of a lost faith or the revitalization of a dead faith, conversion leads to some form of rebirth. Paul’s language of “new creation” and John’s language of “born again (from above)” sum up this image best.
In some cases it’s a dramatic change, like St. Paul, other times conversion is gradual – but in either case, it’s sought (even if indirectly, as in Paul's case - he was zealous for God as he understood Him) and is intentional.
Conversion/Change affects the whole person in the scriptures. It involves the mind, the body, the heart, and the spirit. People's priorities change, their desires change, the people they associate with change. Again, St. Paul's a great example of this.
III. I'm afraid of what I'll become.
Our images of holiness are often not very attractive: the pale, rather effeminate Jesus; Saturday Night Live’s "church lady"; the passive church mouse; the cleancut televangelist with a permasmile or crocodile tears; or knocking on doors, “Have you accepted Jesus…”
But I admit that one prominenet effect of conversion must be the urge to give testimony to others and consequently to evangelize. It only makes sense. Because conversion is a profound change in life for the good, it is natural for someone who has undergone a conversion to have the urge to spread the “good news” of that change.
This is my fear – will conversion make me someone I don’t recognize or like? Yet I know that conversion, in reality, means turning from my ego-driven false self with it's drive to be successful, attractive, in control, and impressive – to my true self in Christ. Other ways of putting that would be to say to turn from myself to God; to die to myself so as to live in Christ; to become a new creation.
I know my fear is misplaced and irrational. Conversion doesn’t mean imitating anyone else, except Christ, and then, only by grace and in my own unique way. Conversion requires that we become humble, like Christ, who emptied himself and took on our form, the form of a slave who does only the will of his master (in this case his Father in heaven). Conversion would mean pursuing the Father’s will for me (and thus it will be not quite like anyone else's path to holiness), and trusting Him wherever that Will takes me; believing that God’s desires for me will always be for the best, even if it means being given my own cross by those who haven’t experienced conversion themselves.
I believe that the change that accompanies conversion will strengthen my good qualities, and, under the influence of grace, bear greater fruit. I believe the change that accompanies conversion will allow me to recognize and be repulsed by evil - first and foremost in myself; I will see through my ugliness and pettiness, even when it looks impressive and powerful. Conversion and holiness won’t make me less myself, but more myself – as God has made me to be.
IV. I don’t know how to prepare for conversion.
Conversion is an act of God, and occurs in God's time. As an activity of God it is a mystery. It is an experience of His grace. I interact with this grace and am called to respond to it, but I do not initiate it. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit who facilitates a change in my life. I trust that conversion happens at God’s instigation, but I also know it requires preparation. Just as the farmer prepares the soil for the seed with fertilizer and water in order for plants to be fruitful, so, too, with me. If I am going to seriously seek conversion in life, I need to be prepared for God’s grace.
The Bible singles out two main aspects of preparation.
The first is the recognition and explicit acknowledgment of sinfulness. I can only turn to God when I turn away from sin.
Recognizing sin in myself is hard. It's amazing how easy it is to spot in others, though! Here's a brief and incomplete little examination of conscience that is helping me recognize some of my less obvious sins.
What relationships are broken in my life? Whom can I not forgive?
When was the last time I went out of my way for a stranger?
When was the last time I went out of my way for a friend, without resentment?
How often do I pray for my enemies, or the declared enemies of my Church or nation?
What groups of people do I feel free to hate, mistrust, condemn, or write off?
What are my goals? Are those God’s goals?
Have I helped feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visited the sick or the prisoner, talked to someone about God?
What do I believe I can't live without - at least according to how I act?
Sins of the flesh are pretty easy to spot, but some more reclusive sins can be teased out with the questions above - including sins of omission - the good I've failed to do.
The second aspect to conversion in the Scriptures is the necessity of hearing the word of God.
Hearing is also an act of obedience (in Hebrew the word is the same! “Let him who has ears, hear” could also be understood as “Let him who has ears, obey!”) God knows me, and wants me to know Him, so he has revealed himself as completely as possible in Jesus. So much so, that Jesus can gently chide Philip, saying, "The Father and I are one.”
If I want to prepare for conversion, I must read the Bible more and believe it - and that means I must take Jesus at his word.
He wants to be in relationship with me; and the eternal life I hope for is a relationship with him that must begin here and now.
And so one way to prepare myself for conversion is to also pray for it, sincerely, fearlessly – not for any possible improvement to me life – that would be to use God; to say, “I want you in my life for the benefits you bring.”
No, I have to seek God simply because it means being closer to the One who loves me with a passion that "eye has not seen, or ear heard."
So, for example, as I immerse myself in the Word of God, I can begin asking throughout our day, “What would You have me do here, now? How would you have me treat this person who is bugging me? What would you have me say?" Sometimes I can seem to forget that I may ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit – and expect guidance. Not necessarily in signs from heaven, but in internal promptings to do what is good for others, not just myself. I need to be attentive to those promptings and believe they are the Holy Spirit by faith.
V. I can believe it’s too late.
I can despair thinking, "I'm too set in my ways, God's forgotten me, I've been so evil that no amount of good living can outweigh it (Pelagian thinking again - as if I "earn" my salvation by being good!) Ezekiel promises that God’s fairness dictates that a person is free at any time to turn from self-centered wickedness to righteousness and vice versa. In each case, that person will be judged by the new life to which she has turned, not by her previous life.?
I can find hope in that promise.
And hope is a catalyst that can lead to conversion.
And conversion is the change I can believe in.