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Thinking Out Loud

The Vow of Ongoing Conversion

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 24, 2017

Ongoing ConversionThe first theological controversy I recall witnessing occurred over the backyard fence at my grandmother's house. She and Lilly Belle, her next-door neighbor, were having a discussion about the difference between Lilly Belle's church, the Redland Methodist Church, and my grandmother's church, the Redland Baptist Church. The two church buildings stood virtually back to back in our little East Texas village, and an outsider would have had a hard time telling them apart. I had often wondered myself why everybody didn't just go to one or the other of them. I had skin in this game because we had family in both.

"I just don't understand, Cecil, how you Baptists can believe that your salvation doesn't depend on what you do at all." said Lillie Belle.

"It does," said my grandmother, "but all we do is believe. God does the rest."

"But the book of James says, 'Faith without works is dead,'" countered Lillie Belle. (These were the days of biblical literacy.)

"Well, all I know is we believe that once you're saved, you're always saved," answered my grandmother.

Swinging of garden hoes re-commenced with added vigor. These were formidable women.

This conversation happened over weeding the garden. I was only a junior partner in the enterprise. And the conversation seemed a lot more interesting to me than the weeding.

Obviously I have approximated the dialogue, in case you're wondering, but this was the gist of the conversation. Later, over iced tea, I asked my grandmother what the fuss was all about. She told me that Methodists believe you can fall from grace, Baptists don't.

Several things have stuck with me from that conversation: Our faith is something that regular normal people can talk about. Neighbors can disagree about pretty big questions and still remain neighbors. And doing theology is a lot more fun than weeding the garden, at least it seemed that way to me then.

Later still, I would be exposed to the distinction between those Christians who believed that conversion is a matter of having a "born again" experience (folks like Billy Graham, whose correspondence course on making a profession of faith I took at twelve) and those who believe that being a Christian is a slow lifelong process of nurture and maturation (like Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, who had been brought up as a Presbyterian). Frankly, I can see a lot of wisdom in both perspectives and can't imagine why one has to exclude the other.

If I've learned anything in over sixty years of being a Protestant it is that they are wrong who say that "only good wood splits," and Protestants have become expert rail splitters. I wish we were as good at coming together as we are at going our own way. I truly am concerned that we will reach the point sociologist Robert Bellah once predicted when every single Protestant Christian will be a denomination to himself or herself.

It was much later still in my life since the conversation between my grandmother and her neighbor that I came across another perspective on conversion that I've found to be very helpful. While it is perhaps less familiar to those of us who were brought up as Protestants (and may be unfamiliar to a lot of Catholics too), it is a cornerstone of the Benedictine and Cistercian monastic orders: the vow of the "ongoing conversion of manners" ("conversatio morum"). Thomas Merton has said that this is "the most mysterious of the three vows" monks take.

Whereas the monastic "vow of stability" binds the monk to live and die in the particular monastery they enter, the "vow of ongoing conversion" is a promise that the monk will submit himself to a continuing process of change in light of God's grace, what Esther de Waal describes as "a commitment to total inner transformation." As she explains further: "Ultimately this is nothing more and nothing less than commitment to Christ's call to follow him, whatever that may mean." [Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 1984), p. 70.]

More than merely a recognition of the inevitability of change in our lives, and more even than promising not to resist change when it comes, this vow represents a personal, individual devotion to change and to keep on changing as God keeps increasing our understanding of God, of others, and (perhaps most importantly) of ourselves. It reflects St. Paul's commitment to die daily so that he might continue to rise to new life in Christ.

I find at least three things especially remarkable about this vow.

First, it assumes that none of us has arrived.

Second, it assumes that changing and growing is not unlike dying, which none of us really want to do.

And third, it assumes that it is so hard to stay with this course of action it requires our taking a vow in the presence of the whole community to make us stick with it.

I think the first point is pretty easy to recognize. None of us has arrived. Our redemption is wholly God's business, into which God invites us to participate. And we all know we've got a long way to go.

One afternoon over drinks in a pub, an old friend, who was trying to make a point about sanctification, said to me, "I KNOW I'M A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH!" We both were probably on our second pint of Old Peculiar because I blurted out, "No. You're not a diamond in the rough, Bruce. You're a chunk of coal, and God's got a long way to go with a lot of heat and pressure before you're a diamond." We stayed good friends, but I seem to remember having to buy the next round.

The image of the refiner's fire in scripture is disturbing, perhaps. Maybe we resist imagining that God will burn away the dross to render us pure. But, as someone has said, "Aren't there things about you that you long for God to burn away?" As a Protestant I may not recognize Purgatory as a place, but I surely recognize purgation as necessary to my ongoing conversion.

This image reminds us that change, conversion, transformation are not painless. Transformation can hurt, sometimes a great deal. Conversion means turning from one thing into another. The humanity to which we are called lies on the other side of a multitude of daily deaths and a multitude of resurrections. New life lies on the other side of the holy fire of God's love.

I remember sitting with my grandmother as she lay dying. This was the same grandmother who long before argued theology with Lilly Belle. My grandmother possessed a simple but deep and abiding faith in God. At one point, she said, "Oh honey, I just hate this dying. Being dead will be fine. I know I'll get to be with your granddaddy again. But, oh, this dying is awfully hard."

So it is. The apostle knew this. When he inserts the reality of dying into the middle of Christian living, he takes seriously what he says. Dying is hard. It is frequently painful. It can be frightening.

This often comes to mind when I meet our newest students in the seminary. They are almost always eager and excited. Usually their greatest apprehensions are about learning the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. But the real trepidation ought to be: To what shall I be asked to die in order to live more fully in Christ? As C.S. Lewis once observed, we all know that God will do the very best for us; we're just worried about how much the very best for us will hurt. The whole Christian life is like this, and not just once or twice. It is every day.

Finally, the seriousness of this whole business requires that we take the most solemn, sacred vows imaginable and stick with them.

I often think of something said in that marvelous play, "A Man for All Seasons." In the play, Sir Thomas More is pitted against King Henry VIII who is splitting with the Roman Catholic Church because they won't let him divorce and remarry. The king desperately wants More to go along with him, because More is known for his integrity. But More's conscience won't allow him to discard the vow he has previously made to satisfy the king's wishes.

More is being badgered by his friends and family to go back on his vow in order to save his life. But More tells them, when you make a vow, you are making a promise to God. It is as though you hold your immortal soul in your hand. Can we expect a person to hold this lightly, casually? Vows aren't just pretty words you say on special occasions, they have eternal consequences.

I can understand why we would have to be bound by sacred promises to submit our lives to continuing, costly, ongoing conversion, to "total inner transformation." Every day, what courage it will take to rise from our beds knowing that God will place in our paths opportunities to be changed forever; knowing, every evening when we lie down, that God will be ready again tomorrow morning to lead us to face we know not what. Surrendering ourselves not just to a single moment when our ticket is forever stamped, agreeing not just to try to be a better person, but vowing to die in Christ and arise anew each day.

Of course, this vow which Benedictines and Cistercians take is already embedded in the vows we all take in our baptism. Baptism is an enactment of this vow.

The next time we attend a baptism, just notice in the midst of the joyful celebration of the family, the beauty of the newborn baby and the pride of his or her family, just notice amid the lace and the water and the music, what is said in the vows. The promise to follow Jesus is there. So is death. So, also, resurrection. We promise God never to stop being changed by him.

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