“Conversion is a process, it is not a goal, not a product we consume. And it’s a bodily process, not only an emotional or intellectual one. The very cells in our body are busy changing, renewing themselves, every few days. Yet we remain recognizably ourselves. That is how conversion works, a paradox beautifully expressed in two vows that in two vows that are unique to Benedictine life. To join a monastic community, people promise stability, pledging to remain in that community for life. At the same time they also promise to remain always open to change, to what is loosely translated as a ‘conversion of life.’ …Maybe the real scariness of conversion lies in admitting that God can work in us however, whenever, and through whatever means God chooses. If the incarnation of Jesus Christ teaches us anything, it is that conversion is not one-size-fits-all. Christian conversion is, in fact, incarnational; it is worked out by each individual within the community of faith.”
-Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
I heard a sermon once preached on Saul/Paul’s conversion where the pastor invited us to think about the various ways we experience conversion through the “lesser” characters like Ananias, and even the man who had to provide hospitality to Saul. I liked the different pieces to the story as they related to the kinds of shifts God initiates in our lives so that we can experience God’s power and grace in new ways. These kinds of moments are somehow much more relate-able to a lot of people rather than the dramatic, born-again type experiences (although these are always compelling and interesting, too, but just rare…) Turning these thoughts of conversion over and over in my mind made me recall some of Kathleen Norris’ words on conversion, and how much I love the way she creates a whole language for faith through stories of her encounters with people. The terms that are standard to our faith become almost miraculous revelations when she mines them through a deep engagement of her own life.
What about the various conversion moments in my life? I remember the seemingly small but utterly important shifts within me – the first experiences of a strange, desperate thirst for God’s presence, an increasing consciousness about my racial identity, a desire to connect with those who suffer social/economic injustices, a growing discomfort with the institutional church, a sad realization at the inequities that are still present in faith communities. This is a bit rambly, because my emerging thoughts always take a while to take form. But, what is compelling to me is seeing similar things emerging in people around me.
It may happen in conversations with a youth who wants to find a deeper connection with God but he/she is struggling to find words to understand, much less question, how it is that God loves them…Or it may come up in discussions with millenials who want to experience worship that gets under their skin with music and prayers that move through them in meaningful ways…Or it may occur when I’m sharing with those in my season of life – those who are getting married or those with young children – those who worry about the world we live in and the world our children will have to inhabit in the future – will there be enough resources, will there still be racism, will there be too much running to and fro from commitment to commitment?What these conversations, stories, and glimpses reveal to me is that there is something bubbling beneath the surface of people’s crazy busy lives. At an Emergence Now Conference in 2008, Phillip Clayton encouraged us to embrace the reality that these shifts have to occur in us and around us; it is a part of the natural order of the world, and most importantly it indicates life. It is a sign of thriving, hungering, seeking life and maybe in even more concrete theological terms, as Norris suggests above, it’s a sign of God working in and through us.
To run from or to avoid the inevitability of these shifts and changes, these confrontations – it’s dangerous. I admit that in my own life the stories that give me fire are not always on the forefront of my mind, particularly those that have to do with lifting up marginalized communities, like the Asian American community and women’s community. That’s the other piece to this – listening to those “lesser” characters or those outliers or outsiders – the Other. What would it mean to give space to these voices – to center these voices and hear them instruct, teach, and lead us? What would it look like to even interrogate the notion of “conversion,” in terms of empire and colonialism, and accept the possibility of the ways it was but is still used as a tool to oppress and cause violence (emotional, spiritual, and yes, physical) to people, as evidenced today even within our churches?
I feel the negative consequences of not letting the work of those shifts do what is necessary in me. I continue to be newly convicted over and over to create a space for what is emerging in me and in people around me, and to be more intentional about these conversion moments – to be true to them. To lift them up. To make space. To share how the grace of God is present and at work here and now. It’s these conversions that that give me a glimpse of God’s bigger story, and the surprising way I’m a part of it, as well as the way those who are marginalized embody it. And so, I want to constantly be converted to something deeper and truer.
A modified version was posted here.