Conversion Stories

Well, today (Saturday, July 8) I did something a little different — I played some of my songs at Moses Lake Seventh Day Adventist Church. It was one of the better welcomes I’ve received. The congregation is fairly large, younger than I’ve seen outside the Catholic parish here, and more diverse than the other Protestant congregations I have visited (though not as reflective of the population as the Catholic parish is).

I met the pastor a couple of weeks ago while doing a story on a free, two-day long dental clinic they were hosting, and we talked a bit. He grilled me theologically, basically wanting to know if I believed in God’s grace. At least he didn’t assume.

We arranged to meet again, I played him and the associate pastor a few of my songs, and they invited me to come play for worship.

I enjoyed it. I will go play anywhere — I’ll come to your church if you’d like! — and the thanks I got has been the best I have ever received. I hope to go back, maybe even regularly, but that is not up to me.

I noticed something interesting, though.

The theology very much reflected the Adventists’ roots in mid-19th century America — individualistic and decision oriented. I am learning to respect this theology, even if I don’t share it, because it represents the experience not only of a lot of American believers, but probably a lot of Christians not just in the last two or three centuries, but probably throughout the history of this people called church.

(And we seemed to come on the Saturday the Adventists celebrate America, so there were patriotic hymns of an earnest, 19th century sort. I get the sense the Adventists, as an offshoot of the Millerites, don’t quite know what to do with America theologically, being a very American church yet also being a minority far out of the cultural mainstream.)

At any rate, something came to me in the midst of worship. And it struck me when the associate pastor said something.

One of the songs I played, “Follow Me,” tends to reflect my theology. Jesus doesn’t ask us softly and tenderly. He comes up to us — at least some of us — and smacks us across the side of the head, strikes us blind, and commands “follow me,” after which we leave everything and follow Jesus. There’s no please, no request, just a demand that we cannot say no to. And we leave everything to follow Jesus.

The Gospels, and Luke’s version of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, seem to reflect this irresistible Jesus. He does not knock gently on the door. He breaks it down, grabs us while we are trying to flee, and drags us kicking and screaming out of the house.

But I also see a lot, in the Gospels, people coming to find Jesus. To see him. Meet him. People who seek him out. The most intense stories are of those Jesus meets and calls. But the other stories … they seem to matter too.

For me, Jesus commands: “Follow me.” But the associate phrased it in a very different way, as a question: “Will you follow me?” Jesus is in charge in that first telling, we are in the second.

Which I think reflects the conversion experiences so many people have. Both the associate and the pastor told me a little of theirs, and they were very reflective of the wider American religious culture, some version of I was out of control until I grabbed hold of Jesus. From everything I have read on his blog, that seems to be Rod Dreher’s experience as well — until I put God at the center of my life, I was out of control, wallowing in sin, captive and unable to free myself, living a pointless and meaningless life.

Disorder to order. That’s what following Jesus does. It creates order and meaning where there was chaos and meaninglessness. It creates a break, a chasm, in a life, between a time of darkness and as time of light. It is a very typical conversion story, and very legitimate.

It has also become the dominant narrative. It is how we understand conversion.

But it is not what happened to me. I do not see myself as having made any real decision to follow Jesus. He just stepped into my life on a particularly terrible day and gave me no choice. There was no saying “no” to Jesus. I was not in charge.

If anything, I’ve had a lot less control over my life since Jesus claimed me than I did before. And meaning … well, that wavers. I have good days and bad ones.

As I said, I am learning to respect the dominant conversion narrative. It reflects a real, lived experience, and there is scriptural support. It may be that many Christians, perhaps most, have found themselves facing a moment when they understood Jesus to ask, “will you follow me?” And they decided to follow. And good for them.

I, however, was never asked. Never given a choice. This too is scriptural. In fact, this is what makes our most compelling encounters with Jesus. That is, in part, what has made all that has happened since that beautiful Tuesday in early September, 2001, so difficult and perplexing — I followed, and all I seem to have gotten for it is grief, rejection, despair, and loneliness. I don’t understand why God’s people are so frightened, so cruel, so tribal, so unwelcoming.

I don’t understand why God would drag me to be with such people.

Still, I got to play music today. For people who thanked me, and said they appreciated it. It felt good, and it has been too long. I hope I can again. Soon.

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