There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times. Annie Dillard
Just before my freshman year in high school my rock solid fundamentalist grandparents drove me and Doug (my, at the time, slightly uncontrollable cousin) from Phoenix, Arizona to Branson, Missouri – 1,800 miles and 3 days in the back of a brown Cadillac Seville. To this day, I haven’t the foggiest idea how I passed the time. I do remember Doug trying to sneak out of a hotel to find cigars. (It will surprise no one that he is now a successful CEO). Our goal was Kanakuk, a Christian sports camp, tucked away in the dark green hills of Missouri. We arrived to 98% humidity, lots of testosterone, mosquitos the size of humming birds and the promise of horrific sunburns. The heart of the camp took place every evening after sunset when we were hustled into a brightly lit multi-purpose room with an air of great expectancy. Each presentation revolved around one storyline: the end was near and some would be ‘raptured’ (taken up, in the blink of an eye) while others would remain to suffer with those ‘left behind.’ Where did we want to be?
Most of this was new to me and seemed eminently plausible, in fact likely. I was shaken and wanted to avoid the cataclysmic events sure to come soon – and certainly didn’t want to be left with all the losers. So one night I prayed that Jesus would come into my heart, and I waited. Antsy and apprehensive by temperament, I couldn’t be sure something had happened and this troubled me. So I asked my counselor who reassured me that, in fact, I had been saved. I wonder if all conversion stories are so fraught with muddled understanding and self-serving expectations. Maybe not all, but perhaps many. And yet it would be easy and juvenile to remember only through cynical eyes or, worse, smirk at the simplicity of my fundamentalist forbears. Their forgotten genius is the belief that we are somehow lost and desperately need help ‘coming to ourselves.’ And so, at Kanakuk, I was told there was light and dark, and I was asked if I wanted to be part of the light. And in response I moved – infinitesimally, gropingly and fearfully – toward God.
It’s been over 30 years since I made that decision and it’s tempting to suggest that Kankuk got the substance right but missed the duration. It took the one absolutely essential piece of a biblical understanding of conversion – worship God instead of ourselves, our life, our little gods that can’t bear the weight of eternity – and suggested it could happen in a single breath. Maybe that happens. I’ve heard stories. I can only speak with any clarity about my own experience and it doesn’t have completion in it. Conversion seems to me more like that scene in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Aslan rips the dragon skin from Eustace with hard claws and then comforts him with a burning bath in the cool lake. Conversion is that tearing and healing spread out over the length of our days.
I would guess that most of us know and experience not-saved-ness far more frequently than we are comforted by intimations of eternal glory. Perhaps this is by design, a grace in this life to remind us of our dependence and finitude. To say with certainty that “I am saved” without in the same breath saying “and I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling” leads to all sorts of horrible spiritual hubris and misplaced confidence. If salvation exists in any form, it seems to me something we realize as a gift over time rather than grab with certainty in a moment. More often than not these days, I am Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes for whom Jesus moves ” . . . from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.” Conversion, if it is real, is scary and threatening or it is just a passing emotion.
And, at the same time, it would be hasty to dismiss entirely the idea that, no matter how imperfect the origin, salvation can be contained – inchoate, mustard seed like – in a single moment. Doestoevksy tells the story of a sinner pulled from hell by an onion given in charity. Dante suggests that a single tear of repentance (Buonconte Giovannia in Purgatorio V) is enough to save a soul from eternal torment. Augustine traces his conversion to a moment in the garden where he is told to “take and read;” he picks up the bible, reads from Romans and the words jolt him to a new reality. Sanctification takes a lifetime, but these moments reflect the idea that justification – making right between us and God – happens in a moment. Grace would be just like that of course.
In Get Low, Robert Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hermit who lives outside of town in self-exile, penance for a sin committed almost 40 years earlier. Something moves him to seek forgiveness and, oddly, he decides to do this at his own funeral.
Preacher: “What matters when you come to the end of your life, is that you’re ready for the next one. Have you made peace with God, sir?”
Felix Bush: “I paid”
Preacher: “Well, you can’t buy forgiveness, Mr. Bush. It’s free, but you gotta ask for it.”
That’s about as good a summary on conversion as I’ve heard. It’s free but you gotta ask for it. You gotta get low, penitent. At least it’s a start, perhaps the essential start. But it’s not enough. That we relinquish our life, in some way, to an end not of our own making is perhaps the great movement from despair to hope. But the insidious temptation is to believe that the renunciation, the act, is the important thing. It is not. The truly important thing is the object of our faith. If the object is false, then faith is mis-placed, vapid, mere sentimentality. Kanakuk may have presented the object, Jesus, in a way that today I find . . . troubling. But they did invite me into his story, one that grows larger and richer and more hope-full as I age.
“Welcome, child,” he said.
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”, asked Lucy.
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”