Some years before we met, my friend S- pastored a Baptist church in Paris. He invited another American preacher, also fluent in French, to cross the Atlantic and deliver a series of talks on the Christian life. The guest speaker’s first teaching focused on the importance of conversion.
He began his talk by saying, “If you look behind you, you’ll see that your life is divided into parts. Life before turning to Jesus and life after turning to Jesus.”
At least, that’s what he intended to say. But apparently his French had grown rusty. So instead, he led off his talk with this: “If you look at your behind, you’ll see that it is divided into parts.”
My Baptist friend S- might have been pulling my Episcopal leg. Besides, he knew how shaky my French was and that I would never catch on.
Still, I’m telling you this story because it offers a glimpse at a very common theory of conversion that contrasts sharply with my own. I’m an Anglican. We’re influenced by the Benedictine Tradition of spiritual formation. And while we too stress the importance of conversion, we have a different view of it.
You see, S-‘s guest speaker understood conversion as a one-time event. It marks a before-and-after turning point in a believer’s life story. If you’re like me, you’ve heard some of your friends recount their conversion experiences. Frequently their stories include precise details about dates, times, and places.
My friends relate their accounts with tender sincerity. It’s clearly one of the most important moments of their lives. And what I’m about to say is in no way aimed at dismissing or diminishing what my friends say about their conversion.
In fact, I have had several conversion experiences myself. That’s not because the earlier ones failed so utterly to take hold that I needed a reboot. No, I’m suggesting to you that conversion is not a one-time event. It’s a lifelong process. It occurs in all sorts of ordinary moments and daily routines.
As I mentioned above, I’m an Anglican. We are heavily influenced by the Benedictine view of the spiritual life. The monks make three basic vows. The first is obedience. The second is stability or sticking with a specific community, with a particular group of human beings in all their beauty and cussedness.
But the vow that concerns us in this context is conversatio morum. You’ll often see that phrase translated as “fidelity.” What it means is a promise to pursue a daily pattern of living that leads us closer and closer to God. To echo what I said above, the third vow is a commitment to lifelong conversion.
What I’m saying is that the Christian life is rooted in conversion. And yet I hesitate to say that it begins with conversion. My hesitation comes from how I suspect some will hear the word “begin.” It may sound to you like a before-and-after point in time. A sort of starting line or that moment when a switch has been forever switched.
Instead, I urge you to consider conversion the daily starting point to which we return and from which we emerge. You might say that the Christian way is always one day at a time. That’s not to say that we make no progress in the spiritual life. On the contrary, many talk about the Christian path as resembling a spiral staircase. We return again and again to the same place except from a new standpoint. When things are going well, that new place is a higher plane. Sometimes we’ve taken some steps back.
Sacramentally, the Christian life begins with Baptism. But look with me at the Baptismal Rite as we Episcopalians have it in our Book of Common Prayer. Whether they are infants or old enough to speak for themselves, baptismal candidates are presented by members of the community. This points to the crucial role of the community in conversion, but that discussion will have to wait for another essay.
What comes next—before moving to the Sacrament itself—is a recitation of the crucial moments in the conversion process. The candidates (or the godparents on behalf of infants) commit to do the following: to Renounce; to Turn; to Trust; to Promise. To be more precise, we Christians commit to repeat these spiritual movements one day at a time.
We renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces that rebel against God, the evil powers of this world, and our sinful desires. In turn away from them. Not just once. But day by day in mostly small but sometimes large ways.
Next, we turn to Jesus and accept him as our Savior. In our can-do, achievement-oriented world it’s no small thing to admit that we need a Savior. That we cannot accomplish on our own the most important, defining thing of our entire existence. The goal of human existence is union with our Creator. And this union comes to us always only as a gift. Never as our own accomplishment.
Once we’ve admitted our need for a Savior, we learn to trust. To trust that Jesus’ grace and his mercy and his love will accomplish for us what we cannot achieve by our moral rigor or our sincerest piety.
Finally, we promise to obey and follow Jesus as Lord. We admit that he knows what we do not know. He embodies the very wisdom of God. The insight and the understanding needed to navigate the complexities of life. To love God and to love neighbor in all the particular, messy circumstances of real life.
The Christian life is rooted in conversion. And conversion happens, with God’s help, one day at a time.
Lent begins on February 22 with Ash Wednesday. If you’re looking for a Lenten Study check out my book A Resurrection Shaped Life. Click here to learn more. Or you might prefer Looking for God in Messy Places (just click here for more info)