Thursday, October 01, 2009

Some Personal and Pastoral Reflections on Conversion

One of the intents of the Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture is for scholarship to be put to bear on concerns of the church, of pastors and laity. I overheard a student of the seminary heatedly complain that the first presentation on whether and the nature of Paul's conversion had nothing he could take back with him into his pastoral ministry. I found the complaint odd. First because was he really saying that no one in his context looked to Paul's conversion as a model for their understanding of their conversion or the conversion of others? This could be, though McKnight made clear that in part his investigation came out of his own ecclesial background where conversion was modeled on Paul and his own conversion was articulated in ways he was lead to believe were Pauline. Could this student not take the way in which McKnight questioned not only the scripture texts around the nature of Paul's turning but also the ways in which a certain interpretation of Paul's conversion had lead to a narrowing of the sense of conversion? Or was there nothing that he could find that might lead him to in the least gain a new perspective on conversion?

I will admit that few at Reconciler are troubled by the question of whether or not Paul was a convert. However, more important than whether or not any issue presented and discussed at the symposium was a burning issue for anyone in the pew, the presentations from McKnight's presentation to the last presentation on what the effect of Zacheus' conversion had on him and what it should have had, all lead me to reflect on and question my own take on conversion. I was baptized as infant both sides of my family have deep spiritual heritages. Christian faith was something I have grown into and matured in. For much of my life I have resisted Sunday School Teachers to Youth leaders to random people trying to witness to me who tried to get me to tell a story in which there was a time before I was a Christian and a time when I wasn't a Christian. Many who are raised in the church do even as children have something of a conversion story a before and after, this was not my experience. thus I thought before this symposium, that I was not a convert, there were not points of turning simply a more or less gradual growing into the faith and my baptism, punctuated by experiences that confirmed my faith and baptism.

However, as I sat through the various presentations I noticed a resistance to the idea of conversion as being more or less central to Christian faith. And thanks to Frank Macchia's paper realized this contradicted my appropriation of the Benedictine sense of the need for continual conversion. I had resisted the idea of conversion in part due to the narrowing of the idea into some extremely stark before and after. A dramatic and radical shift, but what was emerging from the various presentations and the conversation of the symposium was that while such stark turning is part of what conversion can be, it does not tell the whole truth about conversion, and leaves an inadequate account of what turning and transformation mean Biblically and theologically. I then began to question those punctuated experiences as possible points of turning again toward God. Still not sure if any of them would be conversions but the possibility was there.

As this thought lingered over the sessions, another question that was raised more than once was the difference and/or relationship between call and conversion. Modern scholarship has tended to see them as separate even mutually exclusive. Yet the investigations of both Paul's and Peter's conversions seem to indicate that call and conversion are not easily separable (at least in these to persons). Also at some point someone pointed out that Paul seems to describe his conversion/call in terms that echo the call of prophets we find in the prophetic books. Slowly it dawned on me that it was precisely around my sense of call to ministry and then call into intentional community and the Ecumenical work of Reconciler where I did have in my own autobiography radical shifts in my story, before and after and this turning also was one in which I had more than one moment where I could turn and "go down" (as Boaz Johnson noted was the opposite of conversion) or "arise". When I first felt the call to be a pastor, it was a moment of dramatic conversion, the moment before I sensed the call I was firm in my resolution that pastoral ministry was not for me, after I simply knew this was what I was called to do. As I left seminary and was a chaplain, I found my desire for pursuing a Ph.D. dissolve in the face of regular pastoral ministry. Then while I was thinking about the role intentional community's could play in the local church, and thinking of what a protestant "monasticism" might look like I was quite certain I was not called to intentional community, only to find that I was not only called to community but called to found an intentional Christian Community. And finally I was resistant to the idea of church planting and even when I was first approached about an ecumenical church start I was going to listen to the idea, but I didn't think I would feel much draw, but was intrigued. By the middle of Tripp's and my first conversation not only was I sure of the possibility of a good friendship with Tripp, but the idea of an ecumenical church plant seemed to be what i was called to do. It was in the arena of call that I have found myself converted or needing to convert. Points of turning in which there are in my story a before and and after. I even recently wrote to Tripp in a private e-mail that I felt that Reconciler had changed me, I realized that I was trying to articulate then how both community and church have been journeys of continual conversion for me.

For me then at least I think the symposium was fruitful in the way it intends to be since even if the papers aren't of interest to the members of Reconciler (though some may find them of interest), the whole symposium challenged and broadened and deepened my understanding of conversion as a pastor, both personally and generally. This will then effect my pastoral ministry and in the end the life of the church. I would venture to say that I am probably not alone