Saying Good-bye to Old Friends and the Me I Used to Be

Conversion.

Three syllables. 

It’s not even a pretty-sounding word. Kun – vur – shun. 

But when the conversion in question is  a switch from an anti-god viewpoint to an allegiance to Jesus Christ, it has the power to sweep away everything in its path. Conversion means more than reciting a formulaic prayer. It isn’t about anything you do, at least not initially. In the beginning, conversion, at least as it was for me, is just a matter of saying yes.

I’ve tried many times to find the words to describe the feeling of that moment when I stepped from death to life. I have never found them. There may be no words.

I said, “Forgive me.” That’s all. Just “forgive me,” and I felt this Other, this ecstatic love and joy reach out to me. There was a physical sensation of love filling me. I believe now that what happened must have been the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” that I’ve heard about, but I had no idea of this at the time.

I also had no idea what to do. None. I just waited for the new Being who was with me to guide me.

I do remember, as I entered into the life of a practicing Christian, that I thought that I wouldn’t be like the other Christians. I wouldn’t lose the friends I had before I converted. I would be cool. Nothing was going to change. I was going to keep on being the same person I had always been, believing the same things I had always believed. I would be the cool Christian with all her anti-God friends.

I didn’t tell anyone about my conversion at first. I wasn’t hiding it. I was reveling in the joy. Also, I just didn’t know what to do or say. A month went by before it came into my head to go to a large Methodist Church here in Oklahoma City.

It was the perfect church for the cool Christian I was trying to be at that time. It was the sort of place where I could be as cafeteria about my faith as my coolness required and still be exposed to what I needed to grow in grace with time. I didn’t hide my new church-going ways.  But I didn’t advertise them, either. I didn’t hide the fact that I was now a Christian, but I didn’t push it on anyone or bring it up in conversations when no one else was talking about it.

For no reason that I could discern most of my anti-God acquaintances pulled away from me, anyway. Cool as I was, they didn’t want any part of me. I was ok with that. I was still cool and still hanging on to the people who really mattered to me.

I didn’t reckon with the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. God didn’t seem to mind if I wanted to begin my Christian life by being cool. He just didn’t pay much attention to it. At that stage, He didn’t seem to be trying to change what I did. He was changing what I wanted to do.

That’s something that you don’t realize when you’re a baby Christian bent on being cool. God doesn’t start demanding more from you than you can do. He begins by loving you and teaching you; by changing you at the core instead of on the periphery where all your coolness is focused.

I was a slow learner and a slow changer. I tried with all my heart to hold onto my old ways; my old friends. When I began to change, I even went so far as to try to hide the changes from them, to somehow slip by without talking to them about it because I loved them and I knew that if they understood that I was no longer who I had been, it would be the end of our friendship.

I still remember the way I cringed inside when an atheist friend of mine looked at me and said, “You’ve changed.” It was both a challenge and an accusation, harsher than if he’d caught me stealing the family silver.

What he was responding to, identifying against my will, was that he saw the spirit of Christ in me. There is nothing anyone should be prouder of than that, but I felt caught. Exposed. I had tried so hard to be cool.

“You’ve changed.” he accused, and in that accusation was his acknowledgement that we were no longer intellectual and moral twins. I had become what he despised. “Changed,” he said. And he was right.

He was the first real friend to fall away. And the least painful of the lot.

I should have learned then, but I didn’t. I was deeply tethered to Christ, and emotionally and intellectually immersed in the Holy Spirit, but even though I faithfully attended the large Methodist Church each Sunday,  I felt no connection with the people there. Odd as this sounds, they were too lukewarm in their commitment to Christ. I wanted — hungered — for someone else who loved Him as I did. I went to that church for nine years and never made a close friend.

Was that why I tried to hang on to the friends of my past life? Or was it something else? In truth, I still struggle to understand myself. I just couldn’t, wouldn’t, see that the friendships I’d had were based on externals and not the deep bonding I craved.

This was wrong. It was cowardly. But it is what I did.

You cannot continue to be who you were before you became a follower of Jesus Christ. There is no middle ground between His teachings and what He requires of you and the intimacy of true friendship with unbelievers. It’s taken me a long time and more than a few heartbreaks to accept this.

You cannot serve two masters. Jesus said that. I am thankful that my attempts at being cool never led me so far astray that I questioned who my Master truly was.

Jesus had me at hello. From the first moment of my conversion, I was totally and completely in love with My Savior. Even though I tried mightily to avoid the consequences of lost friendships, when a choice was forced on me, I always chose Christ. It was not even a decision. I am His. That’s what and who I am.

Abortion and same-sex marriage divide people more than any other issues. That was true of me and that old gang of mine as well. I tried to avoid confrontations with my former pro choice friends, but there’s no hiding such things long-term. God had changed me. I truly was a pro life Christian.

Same-sex marriage took an even deeper toll. My best friend was a gay man. I love him like a brother. He is family to me.

If there was any way that I could keep my friendship with him without going against the teachings of my Church and turning my back on Jesus, I would do it.

But I can’t. And he can’t.

I have no problem as a Christian advocating for human rights for gay people. None. I am convinced and my Church teaches that unjust discrimination against gay people is a sin. If it wasn’t for the battlefield same-sex marriage has become, I think they would find that the Catholic Church, which defends human rights for all people, was their best advocate.

But to many gay people, same-sex marriage has become the sine qua non of their human rights. They see opposition to same-sex marriage as a repudiation of them as people. When their Christian friends come out against it, they feel betrayed and used. Friendship can not survive that kind of breach. So it was with my friend and me.

I found myself at the same pass over and over again. I tried to be cool and keep my old friends, but when I was forced to chose, I always, inevitably, chose Christ. The result of my many attempts to be cool, to hang onto my friendships from the past was hurt feelings and broken hearts all around.

If I have one piece of advice for a new convert, it would be to take the lick of lost relationships all at once and get it over with. Know that your old self is dying and a new self in Christ is being born. Turn your face to your future with Christ. I am not blaming anyone but myself for the mistakes I made, but I do wish I had had a Christian mentor to tell me that at the time. I might not have listened, but … I also might have.

Conversion is three syllables which mean “to change in character, form, or function.” That meaning is a good description of the long-term action of the Holy Spirit on a human soul. You change, not in a moment, but continuously, as God slowly “converts” you into what you were meant to be from the beginning.

Unfortunately, all change also means loss. In the case of a radical re-orientation of how you see yourself and all of creation, the loss will ultimately be everyone and everything that remains attached to your other life before Christ became your life. You can not serve two masters. You will, no matter how you try to avoid it, have to chose.

I think the fear of this is what drives so many Christians to hide their faith. The pain of loss when the people you’ve loved become your enemies is exquisite. This leads to a powerful temptation to go along to get along, to hide your faithfulness under a cloak of not saying much when you should be saying a lot. But you can’t hide forever. God won’t let you. At some point, you’ve got to come out, and when you do that, you will have to chose. Either you will chose to follow Christ and alienate those people who are against Him, or you will chose to follow them and lose Christ.

“Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asked.

He’s asking it of each of us today.

We live in a time when Christianity is being pushed to the corners of life, when our faith is challenged from all points of the compass in so many ways it’s difficult to enumerate them. Those of us who have walked the other side of the street are faced absolutely with the question, “Do you love me more than these?”

No matter how much we try to hide our light under a bushel, no matter the effort we make to be quiet and slide by when we are with old friends, we will, eventually, have to chose.

Despite all my weaknesses and many failings, my answer is and always has been, I chose Christ. 

 

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Penance, Meatless Fridays and True Conversion from the Heart

I’m a strong believer in penance, but not so much in assigned penances.

As a convert I think it’s highly likely that I just don’t “get” penance in the Catholic sense. Whatever the priest tells me to do as a penance in confession, I do. I don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. If the American Bishops decide that we should return to meatless Fridays all year round, I’ll do that, too.

But so far as I’m concerned, penance is an adjunct to conversion, not the cause of it. What I mean is that penance comes about almost naturally from a changed life, and a changed life is the inevitable result of genuine conversion from the heart. Is it a more signatory penance to eat a grilled cheese sandwich rather than a roast beef sandwich on Fridays or to give up your friends who cannot accept your stands on moral issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage?

I can tell you from personal experience that losing the people you love because they will not accept you as your conversion to Christ has made you is enduring and genuine grief. It hurts all the way through and the pain does not stop in a day or an hour or even, perhaps, a lifetime. The grilled cheese sandwich, on the other hand, does not even sting. It is, at most, a discipline.

If the bishops decide that such discipline is necessary and useful, I not only will follow it, I will trust that they know what they are doing and that it is, indeed, salutary. But it seems to me that such penances are only really effective if they lead to a deeper and more absolute conversion of the heart.

Jesus doesn’t just ask that we follow the rules, although He never abrogated following the rules. He asks that we live a life-giving Gospel of light, love and fidelity, and that we live it to the death, if need be.

Christians today must decide who they will follow. Will they follow the ever-expanding nihilism of the larger culture, or will they follow Christ? This is no longer a hypothetical for most Christians. It is the pressing reality of their walk of faith.  It can cut to the core of who you are. It asks you to follow Jesus even if your friends turn on you and become your enemies for doing so. It asks you to stay the course of true discipleship no matter where it leads you or what it costs.

It is my theory that following Jesus in this hostile world will send you enough penance to scour you clean if you can just accept it. The trouble is that these conversion-caused penances are painful almost beyond enduring. Everyone wants to run away from them. I certainly did and I certainly have. We all would like to slide by and live out a discipleship without cost.

But the devil will always make you choose. Those who do not follow Christ will turn on you and attack you and refuse to accept you. They will rip and tear at the fabric of friendships that have withstood decades, all in the name of pushing you to choose either them or Christ.

I’ve tried to find a way out of it, but I no longer believe there is one. You must, ultimately, decide who you will follow. And you must pay the penance that choosing Christ exacts of you.

To the extent that meatless Fridays prepares us for the greater penances we must pay for choosing Christ in this increasingly pagan world, it is a wonderful discipline. But if we do it mindlessly and resentfully, it will not build the strength in us that we will need to stand for Jesus in the coming days. Discipline of this type is always a practice for the real penances of life that can not be avoided and which, if we try to shoulder them alone, will break us.

On the other hand, if we are willing to accept the love and help God offers us in the face of the deep hurt of lost friendships, the pain and the isolation will make us stronger, more committed Christians. In time, it may allow God to fashion us into someone He can actually use to play a small part in His redemptive work in this world.

 

 

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