28 June 2012

Why conversion?

Woodland Friends Church, Idaho
Greetings from Woodland, Idaho, USA. Earlier this week I was adding up the bank charges we'd paid over the last month. For this period, the biggest category was currency conversions. I didn't know conversion could be so costly!

A few weeks ago I was writing about the conditions for revival, and said,
What might be the catalytic element that decides the issue, that invites revival rather than decomposition? Maybe we need to ask for a new conversion, a new experience of crossing over into the risky territory of true faith, knowing that without the "protection" of violence and social status, we may lose our lives. I don't have the right to point at any individual and say that "you! to grow spiritually, you need a fresh experience of yielding, of conversion" (though I've said these words to myself) but I'm pretty sure that as a Friends Church, a Religious Society of Friends, that's what we need. And when even a small proportion of us pray our way into this riskier territory, and clear the path for our neighbors as well, there will be signs and wonders and growth.
What is this "crossing over," this "yielding"? I have to approach the subject of conversion with a lot of humility. It's so easy to universalize our own experience and assume it should be normative. If we've been presented with a model of conversion that looks like intellectual surrender to a series of propositions, or like emotional catharsis, and we've experienced neither one, we might conclude that as believers we're incomplete--or that the whole subject is just another example of the pathologies of religion. And William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience claimed that a certain percentage of us humans seem to have been created incapable of religious experience.

My own experience of conversion was very emotional--it provided resolution for several crises that were going on simultaneously. I'd lost faith in all outward authorities, from family to country, and badly wanted to know whom I could trust. To complicate the picture, I was feeling terribly guilty and incomplete owing to the violent death of my sister Ellen, who seemed to me to be more worthy of survival than I was. All this came to a head on a hot August evening in 1974. I had already been reading the New English Bible, but that evening I came to these words ...
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." [Matthew 5:43-45; context.]
At the moment I read those words, I decided to give myself to the One who was saying them (it seemed) directly to me as I read, who was telling me that I could trust him. And I've never looked back.

Given the burdens and anxieties I'd dragged with me into that evening, I'm sure a mental health specialist could come up with a secular explanation for the new sense of integration that came to me with this decision to cross over into belief. That doesn't bother me; I gained a new family (the Body of Christ) and new purpose; and even a brutally reductionist explanation just touches the mechanics, not the Mover or the Creator of the mechanism.

But is it true that conversion is really necessary, or is this just a conceit spread about by those who cherish their own experiences of conversion? Are we simply trying to describe and advocate a sort of ticket required to be acceptable in the evangelical church--thereby increasing motivation for self-deception or pretense in order to be accepted, and repelling others who fear or despise manipulation?

Additional questions--is conversion really possible for a group, even for the whole Friends church (as I had hoped in that previous post), or is it strictly a personal experience?

I take seriously the invitation of Jesus--"Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28--see context.) The "conversion" here seems to me neither dependent on intellectual agreement nor freighted with obligatory emotion--it's a decision, "Yes, I will come to you." Or Revelation 3:20, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." (My emphasis; context.) Am I right to believe that meaningful conversion can be this simple?

What about the element of surrender, of letting go? I think that so much depends on whether the person considering conversion is addicted to control, or on the other hand is a person who is subjected to others' control. The control addict must let go, but the oppressed person actually gains autonomy in partnership with God and with a trustworthy church. And there must be infinite variety in between these oversimplified extremes.

I do have a strong sense that Friends as a community must face our need for conversion. William Penn said of the earliest Friends, "They were changed [people] themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were ripped open as well as their garments changed, and they knew the power and work of God upon them." Was he only talking about a congregation of people who had individually experienced this and, as a result, gathered together, or was this change, this heart-experience, something they also knew as a community?

In any case, they were so ripped open that they quaked, earning the nickname by which we're still known. After 350 years of carrying this name, do we need to quake again? NO, not a demonstrative, compulsory, self-indulgent carrying on, but YES letting our hearts be opened as we meet the Holy Spirit together, and if unwilling to do so, dropping the name! I cherish the discipleship of Friends--every bit of it, including the extraordinary peace testimony that honors the Gospel verse that converted me--but sometimes I feel smothered by a cultish emphasis on quaker specialness. I have an intuition that, in a renewed conversion, we might be asked to let some of that stuff die...

... but not in favor of generic evangelicalism. I think we may be edging toward a whole new understanding of the Lamb's War. Look around and see how the social and economic structures around us are increasingly unsustainable, while unholy concentrations of wealth and power, armed to the teeth and devoid of ethical centers, stand ready to grab the spoils, oblivious to the dangers facing our planet. Secular protesters don't discern the ways even the wealthy are actually prisoners rather than villains in this system. Nor do they understand that replacing power-hungry oligarchs with power-hungry idealists isn't a solution. I can't pretend to see solutions, either, but I do know this piece: extending the invitation of Jesus to "come to me," to "open the door." And maybe it takes people and communities who have accepted the invitation to extend it credibly to others.

"Christ is within you ... what are you going to do about it?"

"A.W. Tozer on the Holy Spirit."

A view of Newberg Friends Church's "Five O'Clock Gathering."

"Vladimir Nabokov recites his early poem of transition, 'To My Youth'."

Friends Committee on National Legislation's Lena Garrettson on the Law of the Sea Treaty.


Jeremy Mott said...

Thank you, Johan, for this extra-
ordinary meditation on conversion and what that word means. My story would be more stretched out, since I was brought up as a Friend; but it would include the powerful influence of the Sermon on the Mount, just as yours does. Jeremy Mott

Unknown said...

I liked this a lot. I think we DO need a conversion, but I'm unsure how to bring that about . . .

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks to both of you. I'm as unsure as you are, Rosemary, but I promise not to stop thinking and asking.