Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Only one conversion

People get ‘converted’ to many things over the course of their lives. ‘Converted’ means, of course, ‘changed,’ but ironically many conversions do not actually change the people who make them. In many cases, a convert is actually a revert. They were involved in projecting an identity that was never really theirs, maybe foisted on them in childhood or because of their social class, and they finally have the courage or the realization to abandon it, and be who they always knew they were, but couldn’t tell.

Many types of conversions don’t get the name, but they’re conversions of a sort anyway. They are deliberate choices to change from one state to another. No, I don’t mean ‘state’ as in changing states, moving from Oregon to Washington, for example—though it can be argued that moving across the river from Portland to Vancouver USA amounts to a case of real conversion. No, I mean changing from the state of being, say, a Republican to being a Democrat—possibly, but not always, just a label change.

In America, political affiliations can be very absolute, part of one’s family history, and so a political party conversion can be devastating to some of those who experience it. Much more devastating can be religious conversions, changing from, say, a Baptist to an Episcopalian, something that probably almost never happens, except through marriage, and it has to be a very lukewarm Baptist to sink so low—or was it the Episcopalian who was lukewarm or lack-a-daisical enough to be willing to lose their dignity?

Meaning no offense to either religious affiliation, I simply observe that most Baptists abhor the broadness of the Episcopalian, and the Episcopalian shrinks from contamination by associating with ‘bible-believing’ (which means, fundamentalist) Baptists. For one of each to fall in love and marry, and then sort out the religious affiliations successfully and without injury, must be regarded as a true miracle. It is truly a case of ‘Love wins,’ the slogan of the successful spreading of marriage to gays and lesbians.

But the religious conversions, that is what always bothers me. When it’s for marriage, for love, I don’t have a problem. We all know what’s going on. As an Orthodox Christian, I expect anyone who marries into my family to become (at least nominally) Orthodox. This is a function of maintaining a family in smooth running order. We don’t care what you really believe. Just come to church with us on occasion. Do your best. What you can’t, or won’t, do, don’t worry. God is merciful. He’ll do the rest.

But when people convert to Orthodoxy, I am always suspicious. What was so wrong with where they came from that made them choose ‘the better part’? Are they simply following Mary of Bethany’s example, sitting at the feet of Christ to listen to, and absorb, the Savior’s every word? Hardly. They think they have found the better way, and being ambitious to have the best, to be able to piously pity those not so enlightened as oneself to choose the secure haven of Orthodoxy, that is what is important.

No, not to all who convert, but perhaps, at least to the unthinking few. May Christ reduce their numbers! Because it is not Orthodoxy to which one converts, though people may talk that way. Conversion to Orthodoxy, if that’s all it is, is worthless, no better than converting from one political party to another, or even converting from being a carnivore to being a vegetarian. It’s only an ‘upgrade’ to one’s lifestyle. It’s part of the self-help and personal improvement movement. Have the best to be the best.

I’m actually not excused from this very same malady. I too want to have the best, and to be the best. What I admit to myself and to God every time I encounter Him is that ‘all my righteousness is filthy rags.’ That puts a sudden, if impertinent, end to all my fantasies of being better than you. I console myself by telling people, as I told a visitor to my parish today at coffee hour, that I did not ‘convert’ to Orthodoxy twenty-seven years ago because it was better than Episcopalianism, just because I was ‘sent’ here.

That is the truth, as far as I can see it. I was a High Church Episcopalian holding to a stricter orthodoxy than many canonical Orthodox, and so when the door opened for me and my family to ‘immigrate’ to the Greek Church, that’s what we did. Only in the course of the years that followed did we learn and accept the subtle differences between Western (that is, Episcopal, Catholic, and Lutheran) beliefs and practices, and those of the East. By then, I knew for sure what I know now: You don’t convert to Orthodoxy.

No, there is only one move in the human experience that can rightly be called ‘conversion.’ It is the migration from death to life. The Puritan author John Bunyan had it right when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. We move from the City of Destruction (the old, lost humanity) to the Celestial City (the new humanity, formed in the image of Jesus Christ). What it looks like or feels like to us when we undergo this change we may think is conversion from one religion (or religionlessness) to another, but it’s more.

There is only one true conversion offered to the human race in bulk or in fine, as a society or as an individual. That is conversion to Christ, the king-maker and savior of humankind. He has very little to do with ‘religion,’ and conversion to Him, though it may occur within religious structures, is not confined to them. Some pagans are reported in the book of the Acts of the Apostles to have received the Holy Spirit even without being baptized (that is, incorporated into the Church). Yes, they were then baptized.

But their conversion was to Christ, not to any church or religion, even though the Church already existed and was forced by the turn of events to hurriedly unite them to itself by the formal mysteries. There is something absolutely wild, that is, uncultivated and unexpected, in this. It is the wildness of God Himself who, though He tells us repeatedly that He is not a respecter of persons, we override by our traditions, making Him the accomplice to everything we do, good or bad, all in the name of serving Him.

I think I’ve made the point I wanted to make and which I’ve written about before in many different ways. There is only one real conversion, and that is to Christ. All of our other changes either lead up to this, or away from it. He made His apostles ‘fishers of men’ for no other purpose than to bring men to Him. Yes, they together constitute the Church, but no one can be brought to the Church without first being brought to Christ, regardless of what it looks like, or what sacramental acts have been performed.

I repeated myself to a new friend and brother today, meeting him after the Divine Liturgy. I told him, ‘I don’t witness for the Church. I witness for Christ, and He witnesses for the Church.’ I’m sure my new acquaintance was just as puzzled by this saying as I sometimes am, even though I came up with it. What does it mean to ‘witness for Christ’? And how is it that Christ witnesses for the Church? All I know is, I go where I am sent, speak to whomever He sends me, and what happens after that is all in His hands.

The Lord and Bridegroom of the Church knows how to entice His lovers, not with base self-gratifications, but by the beautiful gentleness and mercy of the Cross.

First He says, ‘Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28-30), and then, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me’ (Matthew 16:24). Conversion, yes, real, true conversion, is the only state in which we can hear, and rejoice to hear, these things.

There is only one conversion, and it is to Jesus Christ.

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