Monday, May 17, 2010

My Conversion Story

Over the past six Sundays, the sermons in our church have been about conversions: Peter, Paul, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius the centurion, Lydia the dye maker, and the Philippian jailer. Before each sermon, a co-religionist has gotten up and spoken about their conversion experience. None of the witnesses I have heard has been able to identify a precise moment of conversion. For them, it has been a process, in some cases lifelong. So far, not one witness has claimed to have come to Jesus at a certain moment of a certain day by praying a prayer from the Four Spiritual Laws tract or some version of a the formulaic prayer of acceptance I was taught as being required.

We don't have any choice as followers of Jesus. We cannot reject Him or accept Him. He chooses us, and we don't always realize it right away.

There was a time in my youth when I would have told you the very moment I had been saved when I had officially asked Jesus to be my "personal" Lord and Savior. I was fifteen years old in the family room of my friend at a weekly Bible study. I now know that I was not converted or "saved" at that moment. Rather, I was chosen from before time and the world began. I was a troubled young Christian struggling to believe, to accept, to embrace a whole religion so much of which was unbelievable, unacceptable and unembraceable. I had the idea that I had to go all in, to take it all hook, line and sinker or be damned. And I just couldn't do it. I could not make myself believe in the whole fundamentalist program.

I gradually became an "unchurched", "lapsed" apostate and dabbled in Unitarianism (which I still respect and admire). When I was forty two, I discovered the Congregationalist denomination and began to attend a tiny church in Bronxville, New York. There I was exposed to a more liberal form of Christianity with a diversity of theological views and a commitment to tolerance and coexistence. I met Christians who did not feel led to accept the Bible as the literal Word of God; rather, they undertook to read the Bible in the light of when, how, why and by whom it had been written. I began to study the Bible in this light and to read books by critical Biblical scholars.

I met Christians who were more interested in how you treated other people than in your theological opinions, and I began to realize that a lot of theology does not translate meaningfully into action as a loving disciple of Jesus. What possible difference could divergent views on the nature of the Trinity or the afterlife or other mysteries for which many women and men have been put to the stake make in how we treat each other? So what if we hear hats/don't wear hats, dress up for church or go casual, sing old hymns or praise songs? All that matters is loving God and loving one another with all our faculties.

Then I discovered Calvin and learned that belief is involuntary (the Pragmatists were also a big help) and began to realize that it was OK to acknowledge that my beliefs about the supernatural are irrational and not susceptible to proof. I believe what I believe because I believe it, and my belief system has it that belief in Jesus is a gift, not something you can attain or choose. And I don't believe what I don't believe about the supernatural because I don't believe it. I am not answerable to anyone for my beliefs or unbelief. I am happy to discuss them but I know there's no use arguing with anyone about them.

I have been led by the Spirit to focus on how we live in the here and now so as to manifest love and advance the Kingdom rather than on sin and legalism and mysteries we can neither solve nor understand.

I am the least of all Christians but grateful for the gift of belief and hopeful of advancing in some small way the work of the Kingdom even if only as a cautionary example.

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