The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


Conversion of Paul

Conversion of St. Paul, by Roy Ruiz Clayton

Christianity, not unlike other religions, constitutes a lifestyle not just a weekend activity. We speak of Christian life as beginning at baptism, the sacrament of rebirth and of incorporation into the Body of Christ, the community of faith, the church. Just as babies don’t emerge fully developed from their mothers, so we are not fully formed when we emerge from the waters of baptism. That’s as true of adults as it is for infants. Baptized people are formed by their families and church environment, but all reach a point in their journey to spiritual adulthood when they’re called to make a decision about whether to aspire to let themselves to be formed into the “full stature of Christ.” Ephesians 4.11-18 connects this aspiration directly with one’s spiritual gifts, the fulfillment of which is one’s vocation, or calling, to service as a member of the church.

“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Christian formation, then, is a process that begins with a conscious decision to let one’s self be loved by God in Christ, which is Christian faith. Somewhere along the way, we are converted, changed by our experience of the living God in Christ in which we discover – or perhaps recover – our true selves. It’s as though we’ve been turned inside out. We seem to be looking at life from a different, clearer, perspective. It’s less of an ego-driven perspective than a Christ-driven perspective in which I see myself in Christ as God sees me and loves me. God has loved me all along, from the moment I came into being. I may have known this intellectually, in some abstract way, but conversion is a matter of the heart, not the mind, and it’s about the deepest love of all, love so deep that it penetrates the very meaning of death and brings out of it eternal life. (Note the phrase “God in Christ.” There are other ways to know God, not just the Christian way. Letting one’s self be loved by God in Christ is Christian faith. Letting one’s self be loved by God some other way is another kind of religious or spiritual faith. Just as we Anglicans acknowledge that there’s not just one way to be a Christian, so we understand that there’s not just one way to be religious or spiritual.)

John Wesley

John Wesley, founder of Methodism:
‘I felt my heart strangely warmed.’

Conversion usually takes us by surprise, and there’s not just one way of it. Talk to 100 people about their conversion experience, and you’ll hear 100 different stories. It’s usually surprising because it’s in God’s hands. It seems as though seeking conversion experience doesn’t work. We’re called to wait in hope, expectantly, but for God’s way with me not mine with God.

Some conversion stories are dramatic – John Wesley’s, for example, or St. Paul’s – but most are not. I knew a man in seminary who underwent a “foxhole conversion” in Hue, Vietnam. He promised that he would seek ordination if he survived the battle, and sure enough he did; undoubtedly, he was one of the happiest men I’ve ever known – glad to be alive in Christ.

Is conversion necessary to Christian formation? The short answer is no, because nothing is necessary in God’s way with us, but it is an element of Christian hope that we will be changed by God’s grace, made one with God in Christ Jesus and responsive to our calling to membership in the community of faith and sacrificial service to the world. Our prayer, after all, the prayer of Jesus, is that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Yes, we’re out to save the world; that is, we’re out to let God in Christ use us as instruments of peace in the world. If that doesn’t save it, nothing can – and Christian history seems to indicate that personal and community conversion are important steps toward that godly goal. Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic Franciscan and spiritual teacher, argues that meaningful Christian change in the world comes only from the converted prayerful or contemplative mind; otherwise, he says, social change is ego-driven.

Christian formation is not a linear process. There are no steps or stages. It does seem to begin with a decision at a discrete point in time, but even that’s open to question as to how God’s providence may have – almost certainly did! – operated in one’s life before any decision was made. Conversion is a piece of it, but it doesn’t come at a certain point. Vocation is a lifelong process of discovery based on one’s continuing relationship with God in Christ. I may be called to be X at age 25, Y at 40 and Z at 65. Vocations aren’t careers but opportunities to live out one’s faith – one’s willingness to be loved by God. Vocations have a lot to do with one’s gifts – but then, some have found their vocations in their zone of least comfort. St. Paul boasted of his weakness – the thorn in his flesh – “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me … for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (See 2 Corinthians 12.10.)

Spiritual discernment is part of the formation process and it’s a vital ministry of the church to help me discern my gifts, my calling and my path to action. The community helps me discern these things through regular worship, prayer, study and opportunities for service. The community gives me a safe place to grow into my gifts and to understand and appreciate them as ways of serving God in Christ. The community embraces me as a child of God, a sister or brother in Christ, loving me and letting me become who I am as I grow with the community into the full stature of Christ.

All of which forms my conscience, the sounding board of my soul before God. Community values such as justice and peace imbue my conscience with a sense of right and wrong, forming in my heart and mind an idea of and motive for righteousness, the righteousness of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Because our vocations are something to be acted upon, our spiritual obligation in pursuing our vocation is to act conscientiously while humbly acknowledging that we may err. Acknowledging mistakes and miscues is integral to Christian spiritual formation; it’s called self-examination and repentance, not in order to beat ourselves up but to put the matter “in God’s hands,” so to speak, either for blessing or redemption – which never fails. (Julian of Norwich, a 15th-century mystic, teaches that the problem with sin is that it keeps the glory of God from shining through one’s self to others. Most sin, in other words, is less a crippling disease than a smudge on the windshield.)


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