Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Story that Never Ends


In the epistle of James, the writer calls his readers, who are Christians, to conversion. He indicts them for their conflicts springing from their covetousness. He calls them friends of the world and instructs them: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:7–10).  

Conversion is no “one time-that settles it” experience. It is a process. It is also a spiral, not a straight line. It’s both forward and backward. There are starts and stops. One conversion experience is not sufficient. We need many conversion experiences.

Sometimes the conversion process is so subtle and gradual it’s hardly observable. It’s the result of many small decisions that set us on a trajectory of positive change.

It’s like the growth of a tree. You plant a small tree in the ground. You cannot see it grow from one day to the next. But one day you stop, pause, and take notice. The trunk has increased several inches. The branches are longer and fuller and the tree is several feet taller. It’s grown without you seeing it grow. This is how life works in God’s kingdom.

We set our course on the way of Jesus. We adopt some new disciplines and practices. We participate in the faith community—in worship, study, fellowship, and service. We become more conscious of being instruments of grace in the world. Then one day we realize that we are not the same persons we were two or five or ten years ago. We’ve become more aware, more grateful, more compassionate, more Christ-like. When did it happen? We can’t pinpoint one experience or one encounter or one decision. There have been many experiences, encounters, and decisions.

Perhaps a modern day parable of conversion is reflected in the movie Dances with Wolves. Lieutenant John Dunbar becomes a Sioux Indian. But it doesn’t happen all at once. Dunbar finds himself drawn to the lifestyle and customs of the tribe. He spends time with them, and after many experiences and encounters, he becomes one of them. There are some pivotal experiences in the story that shape him and move him in that direction, but no one single experience brings about his full conversion. 

Conversion is a life long project. I believe it is an eternal project. Personally, I don’t think we will ever arrive. To be human is to be on a journey. I believe there will always be ways to grow, evolve, mature, and become more. Our story is a never ending story. When we arrive at the end of one phase of our journey, a new one lies before us. 

Conversion is both the hardest thing in the world and the simplest thing in the world. It’s simple because there are no hoops to jump through, no merit badges to earn, no races to win. We simply come to God like a little child, in humility and trust. We make ourselves available to God and invite the Spirit to change us. Change, however, takes time. To employ the language used in the epistle of James, it’s difficult because we are so easily seduced and shaped by the world’s wisdom. This conventional wisdom, which James describes as “earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” rooted in “envy and selfish ambition” (see James 3:13–18) is entrapping. It can become ingrained in our thinking, reinforced by habitual attitudes and reactions. It is no easy task breaking free from its patterns and entanglements. 

Conversion is always contemporary. It’s always about what we do now. In the film, Unknown, Dr. Martin Harris and his wife Liz arrive in Berlin for a biotechnology summit. At the hotel, Martin realizes he has left his brief case at the airport. So he takes a taxicab back to the airport. The cab crashes off a bridge, and Gina, the taxi driver, an illegal immigrant from Bosnia, saves him from drowning. She then flees the scene to avoid the police. Martin is in a coma for four days. When he wakes up he has no memory of who he is. The movie is about Martin trying to recover his identity and all the twists and turns that journey takes.

He tracks down Gina, the taxi driver, and enlists her help. They become friends and she becomes his ally. Reluctant at first, she finds herself attracted to Martin. In a dramatic scene where people die, Martin discovers his identity. He realizes that he was in Berlin in order to kill a man.

After the incident, he and Gina are seated on a bench. She asks about the information in his passport. He says, “I made it up to kill a man I never met.” There is information about other people in his briefcase. She asks, “Who are these people? They can become anyone.” He says, “They? We are assassins.” He tells her that Prince Shada of Saudi Arabia is going to be assassinated that very night, that there is a bomb in his suit and that he is the one who put it there.

He then says to Gina, “You should have let me drowned.” Unflinching, she says, “Martin, what matters is what you do now.”

Conversion is always about what we do now. The decisions we make today. The attitudes we adopt today. The lives we live now. Conversion is about living in the eternal now. Today is the day of salvation, let us harden not our hearts. 

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