“I had a real ‘come to Jesus’ talk with this guy.”
You’ve probably heard this expression. It has nothing to do with Jesus. Someone is being read the riot act. But why would a confrontation be couched in the language of conversion? Confrontations are attempts to change someone, to turn them around. Conversion means to change or to turn around.
Conversion is a universal phenomenon. It extends beyond religion; it’s a process that sustains life.
Christianity’s signature conversion story involves St. Paul on his walk to Damascus. Paul was not a nice man. A cruel and an uncompromising zealot, Paul, then called Saul, was hateful and demeaning to his adversaries. He was an enforcer, like a Gestapo agent, seeking out his enemies; he didn’t bat an eye about the lives he destroyed. He had the authority of established religion to legitimize his actions. If you have an appetite for power, and like to abuse it, it doesn’t get better than what Saul had. Under those circumstances, the conversion he underwent was especially remarkable; the vitriol and virulent toxins that once drove him were transformed such that he would become a healer, mentor and unifier, and a brilliant inspiration to the fledgling Christian communities he once persecuted.
In religious circles, conversion might be referred to as ‘seeing the light,’ or in some instances, as being ‘born again.’
Conversion is critical to life, whether it’s our bodies, the slugs that leave their tiny glistening trails on my brick walk or the trees that grace my yard. It’s by conversion, we keep on going.
Most mornings, weather permitting, my wife and I sit on the porch eating breakfast. We overlook a creek where, along its banks, a stand of locust, black cherry and willow oaks grow.
Early sunlight strikes the locust leaves. The light makes them radiant. I’m mesmerized by the sight. I’m watching a conversion experience, of sorts, a universal process that turns things around.
With trees, this conversion, called photosynthesis, occurs as tree leaves are bathed in sunlight. As light strikes the leaves, a process is initiated that converts prevailing toxins ––carbon dioxide in this case –– into sugar and oxygen. As a result of conversion, the locust enjoys life and a healthy diet of fresh air and, as we might envy, all the carbs it wants.
For trees, conversion is not a once- and- for- all phenomenon. It’s ongoing, a serial event.
For people, too, the conversions that really change and turn individuals around are not once-and-for-all happenings; they’re serial events, often uneven in their path with plenty of fits and starts. Seeing the light is a popular way some sectarian Christians describe a religious conversion but it’s not as straight forward as we’ve been led to believe. Seeing the light is just for starters.
On the road to Damascus a bright light strikes Paul and he’s momentarily blinded. A voice asks,” Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
When his sight returns, Paul changes the course of his life to become Christianity’s iconic champion and apologist for fledgling churches struggling to survive. For Paul himself, however, it ain’t over yet. He continues to contend with himself.
It’s commonly assumed that Paul’s conversion turned him around so completely that he was a new man. Well, yes and no. Most conversions, even ones that make significant changes and that endure, are not necessarily as spectacular as Paul’s nor are they a once-and- for- all moment. Significant moments will launch a conversion experience that strongly impacts one’s life direction; however, the course corrections are not necessarily smooth –– they go slowly and often erratically. Conversion alters the direction in which we were going but it’s hardly a slam dunk. Even Paul, having as dramatic a conversion as imaginable –– including hearing God’s voice –– was still not a completely changed man. His writings are filled with the struggles he continues to have with himself. The toxins that once plagued his personality still linger and reappear to haunt him.
He refers to this part of his personality as the “old man” or, the “body of death” as he calls it. He describes struggling with his character flaws this way: “For what I am doing, I do not understand,” Paul goes on to say, “I do not do what I would wish, but what I would not do, those things I do.’ You and I know this kind of experience from the New Year’s resolutions boldly proclaimed on January 31st, to be abandoned roughly two weeks later. It’s a perverse comfort to know that even saints are weak and broken people just as we are but are able to see the light and keep trying to stay turned around.
Society experiences conversion. I hope ours is in process, today.
George Floyd was not a saint. He was, as we all are, broken. In the way of providence, his murder has the potential to become an instrument in initiating a social conversion, a turning around, a new direction for an entire America that’s lost its way.
Floyd’s tragic death may be the light that initially blinds a broken nation, a people who’ve been traveling the wrong way for so long they don’t realize it. When our collective sight returns, our society will hopefully begin a new direction. It may transform the prevailing social and spiritual toxins and make them into fresh air and oxygen –– so the country that for so long has been laboring to breathe, a country suffocating in moral pollutants, may begin taking deep breaths and feel deep down the goodness and freshness of truth and justice.
When a society enters a moment of conversion, a time when it sees the light as it never has before, that’s just for starters. Then, the task for that society is to remain in that light by intentionally following its lead. The course will be erratic and unsteady. But that’s when the hard work of social conversion begins.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.