Conversion Stories

I am thinking of conversion; how it happens that God moves in us so mysteriously. I want to see it happen more and more. How does it occur? For some well known people it happened like this.

There is C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s knowledge of mythology kept him from faith. He saw similarities between Jesus and myth and chalked Jesus up as another mythological figure until his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, told him Christianity was the true myth, the myth that really happened. Lewis got in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle to go the zoo.  He would later say that when he got in the sidecar he didn’t believe. When they arrived at the zoo he did, and that he was “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.”  But believe he did and we are all the beneficiaries of his faith.

There’s C. Everett Koop, Surgeon General in the Reagan years. He was a renowned pediatric surgeon and atheist. In his midlife he began to feel hollow and purposeless even though he was quite successful. He began to consider what made life worth living and started attending a church thinking he could examine what it offered, dismiss it, and cross Christianity off his list. After a few months of attending he said, “It dawned on me that I was no longer on the outside looking in, I was on the inside looking out, and I didn’t know when the miracle had happened.” Somehow being among the people of God had wooed his heart, quietly and subtly, into knowing Jesus.

There’s novelist and spiritual writer Frederick Buechner. He was young, already a successful novelist, and lonely living the solitary life of a writer. He began attending a church down the street to have something to do and to be around people. Elizabeth had just been crowned queen in England. The preacher was using that as a theme and said that Jesus was crowned as king in our hearts amid confession, tears, and great laughter.  Buechner later wrote, “at the phrase great laughter, for reasons I have never satisfactorily understood, the Great Wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face and I was a new creation.”

There’s Max Lucado. He was ten years old. A man was teaching Romans to a class of boys. Lucado says that “the jewel of grace was lifted and turned and it stole my breath.” He goes on to say he didn’t understand most of what the man was saying but that he loved Jesus. He said, “If you had told me Jesus was in hell I would have gone there.” And that brings tears to my eyes, too.

Do you know what real conversion is? It’s not our decision. It’s not our wanting to avoid hell or even our wanting to go to heaven. It’s the work of God in our hearts that brings us to the point where Jesus becomes to us our great love, our great joy, and our great truth. It’s a transformation that we don’t force and cannot make happen. It is falling in love whether we fall swiftly or whether love sneaks up on us and one day we realize that Jesus has won us. This is what being saved is.  I hope it has happened to you.

Starting Conversations

It’s Monday morning. Yesterday in church I talked about the woman Jesus spoke to who he met at a well in Samaria. I asked you to, like Jesus, cross barriers, to start conversations so people can cross the biggest barrier, the barrier between themselves and God. That’s already happening.

       I dropped in at McDonald’s for coffee and conversation. A well known, locally, person came and sat down across from me. The conversation began. He said churches were no different from politics. Church people were no different from anyone else. He said he grew up in a church. He learned there it’s all about being good. God wants to us to be good. I told him I didn’t grow up in church. That intrigued him. He wanted to hear the story of how I went from growing up outside church and ignorant of God and Scripture to be where I am today. I told him. I told him how after my sister became a believer my parents made the decision to get all of us into church. I told him how once there I became fascinated with Jesus. I told him I learned following Jesus wasn’t really about being good. It was about coming alive in a new way. It was about Jesus overcoming death. I told him we were inviting friends this Sunday and would like him to come. He told me he had no friends and he laughed as he said it.

I arrived at church. Not long after a woman came in, teary eyed. She needed gas money to get to Atlanta. Her granddaughter, she said, was having surgery and she wanted to get there. We can do that, I told her.  Then she asked a question she said her atheist husband asked her. Why would God judge you after you’d tried your whole life to be good? She said she’d never done anything wrong. She’d never stolen or done anything like that. I told her we were all a mix of good and bad, each of us. She insisted she was good. She’d never done anything wrong. Why would God judge her? I told her what mattered was this: everyone of us made the decision we could live our lives without God. We didn’t need him. I told her if we continued believing that when we stood before him God would give us exactly what we wanted, a forever without him. And she still insisted she was good and didn’t think God would judge her.

There are people around us, rich and poor, known and unknown who have not truly heard the Good News about Jesus but instead have heard twisted caricatures of it. That’s why we need to start conversations.

Eye Witnesses

I sat with a man in a coffee shop. It was Easter time. He was a skeptic but one with a bit of knowledge about Scripture and the Easter story.  He had experience with law. He was smart and intelligent. He believed what his five sense and his reason told him. He did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Part of the reason he did not believe was the gospel accounts themselves. 

Look at them. They do vary in details, especially the details surrounding the appearance of angels to the women who came to the tomb that Sunday morning. One says two women came.  One names three. Another names four. One says an angel rolled the stone away from the tomb and then sat upon the stone and told the women Jesus was not there. Another says the angel appeared inside the tomb after the women went into it.  A third says there were two angels who appeared inside the tomb.  All of this, with of course the fact that people just don’t rise from the dead, convinced my friend that the story of Jesus rising was a fiction.

But I think those stories, especially with their little differences, are very believable. I think it’s precisely because of those differences the stories the gospels tell are believable. Those differences of detail show us  at least two facts. The first is the gospels are not a homogenized story. They are not the product of a back room meeting in which some people sat down and said, “Okay, if we’re going to get people to believe this resurrection thing we better get our story straight, so let’s get the details all ironed out.”  It’s obvious that the writers of the gospels are telling the story as they saw it. And that is the second fact. The stories the gospels tell are told exactly the way eyewitnesses tell stories. Any time an event happens, and people witness it, those witnesses tell the story the way it happened to them and that always includes some variety in details. The point I’m making is the gospels are reliable because they look very much like eye witness accounts rather than a synthesized, agreed upon story. We can trust they are telling us the truth. The ancient world trusted them. Within days Jerusalem was buzzing with the news. And in a world in which no story moved faster than the speed of a horse in a shockingly short period of time Rome itself was rocked with news of a resurrection.

The world is still rocked by it.  Jesus rose. Death’s reign is over. Life reigns. God reigns. The age of resurrection has come.  People are coming to life.  And one day, maybe soon, the world itself will be fully alive, too.

The End of All Our Babel-ing Tongues

Where will paradise be found? Who will be the one who because of wisdom beyond what we mere mortals possess will be the one who unlocks its gates for the rest of us to enter? Can such a place be found here? Does such a person exist? With all that goes on round us we ought to someday finally understand paradise cannot be found here and there is no guru who can lead us there.

Division plagues us, and I mean that word plagues. Plagues are what happened in Egypt when Pharaoh decided he was god enough for the world; who needed a puny Hebrew god. So God let pharaoh see what a world without him would look like and the world, bit by bit, began to deconstruct. Our modern plague is division. We, Americans, are falling apart. Our nation is falling apart. There are people, agree or disagree, who are openly questioning whether or not the nation, democracy, is in real peril for the first time since Aaron Burr wanted to carve off a piece of American territory to establish his own dictatorship. Events which ought to unite us at least in concern and compassion, events like yet another school shooting, don't. We become more angry. We point more fingers. We entrench more deeply into our opinions. What's more, over the last four presidential election cycles we have seen a disturbing political trend. We have always had "sides" in our two party system. In the past those on the other side were seen as rivals, the loyal opposition. No longer. Now they are seen as enemies, real enemies.

We, the church, must show a different way. We must abolish division. One way to read the Bible's story is to read it as how division and separation entered the world and how God ends it. Adam and Eve are one flesh, until sin comes, then they stand apart from each other pointing fingers and blame. The whole race, at Babel, pridefully believes it can make its own way to heaven and ends up divided. Then Jesus comes and he, alone, does not give in to sin, the me before you attitude that warps us. He lives love. He dies for it. And God raises him. We are his followers to live with his life, his Spirit, breathing within us. We are thus truly one body. And when his Spirit was given us at Pentecost, all the Babel of languages and division among us dissolved as with one voice and tongue we sing God's praises. We will stand together, a rainbow of colors, forever in heaven singing again the praise of God.

We need to do it now. And we need to invite the world to join in.

The Real Goal of Salvation

This past Sunday there was a phrase in the sermon's text, I Corinthians 12:7, that has stayed with me and has not let me move on. The manifestation of the Spirit. I love that phrase. We Baptists underplay the role of the Holy Spirit far too much. In fact, the chief promise of the gospel that is fulfilled through Jesus is the giving of the Holy Spirit to all people, all flesh, old men, young men, sons and daughters prophesying. The chief promise, we usually think, is forgiveness of sins, but it is not so. Forgiveness of sins is important. But forgiveness is not the ultimate and final goal. Forgiveness is the means to an end. The end forgiveness makes possible is the breath of God breathed into Adam at his creation being breathed again into our also earthen vessels so that we will become fully alive, empowered, real human beings. This is what the Gospel of John is moving towards. In that Gospel, after an enormous number of echoes of Genesis' creation story which start with the very first line of the Gospel, it virtually ends with Jesus pulling his disciples close and breathing on them as the Father did with Adam. They receive the Holy Spirit and for the first time since Adam there are real human beings alive in the world who can worship, rule, and speak like God and see things happen, real things, by mere words.

Even the Old Testament looks forward to the giving of the Spirit. When Moses is told that two of the elders of Israel are in the camp and are unexpectedly prophesying he replies, "I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would place his Spirit on them all." In the New Testament, that wish comes true. God's Spirit is given to old and young, to male and female. The fulfillment of prophecy and the goal of the ages has come. For the first time since creation there are real human beings in the world, people who are not just flesh and bone but are flesh, bone, and Spirit. We are fully alive.

That means God's restoration of the world, wrecked by sin and death, can go forward. That means the restoration has begun. Death has been banished. Life, real life in all its fullness, is back. It means you can manifest, make obvious, the Spirit of God. You can speak words that have power to teach, encourage, impart wisdom, even heal. It means you can touch, you can work, and see real effects, real change, instead of the shriveling that happens under sin's curse. It means you can display the power and presence of God. And that is your only purpose in the world.