During the week I received an email from a parishioner who has decided to turn away from their old life, and wants to follow Jesus more fully. The question was, it is really difficult to move from the old way to the new way, so how is that done? This is a really great question, and an extremely important one for all of us to wrestle with.
In my former life I was in the Navy, in the submarine squadron. I spent 13 years in the Navy 12 of them in submarines. I was 17 when I joined and 30 when I left. In other words, I spent some of my most formative years in that military environment doing incredibly dangerous things, and having a fantastic time doing it, and making lifelong friends. Then, just after I had signed on to complete my 20 years I received a very strong call to ordained ministry. I thought I would do that after I had completed my 20 years when I was still in my 30s. God had other ideas. I entered theological college, was ordained, and completed a curacy, then appointed a Rector, and have been in ministry since 1995. Yet through all this time there has still been a part of me that has hankered for the past life I had in the Navy. It was certainly at its strongest in the first 10 years or so after I had left, and has diminished over the years so that I can now say that for the last 6 or so years I have had no desire for my former life as a submariner.
So what is my point? Simply this. Not everyone has a Damascus Road experience like St. Paul did when they become a Christian. Even those who have always been in the church often come to a point when they realise they have not been real about their relationship with God and want to become real. For many of us then, conversion, which is what the questioner is really on about is an ongoing process. It takes time.
When I look back on my Navy days, what did I experience? I had certainty, job security, I was told where I would sleep, where I would eat, when I would get paid. (Even when I got married!!!) There was security in what I had. It is what I knew, I literally left school and went into Recruit School and on into the Navy life. It set up patterns in my very being that are hard to shake. For many of us, our past is our security. It is what we know, and when we enter into new life with God in Christ Jesus all of a sudden that security is removed, because now we have to trust not in an institution like the Navy, or even in a structured way of life that we ourselves have developed, even a flawed one. What we are left with in our conversion is the uncertainty of what the future will hold, we have to step out in faith. It is a bit like the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indiana having gotten past 2 of the tests must now by faith take the leap from the lions head. There is no visible pathway before him only a terrifying plunges thousands of feet below him. It is only when he takes that step in faith that the path is made clear before him.
This is what is before us when we commit our lives to Jesus. It is only by taking the step of faith that the path becomes clear before us. Yet, even when we take this step of faith the past continues to try to draw us back. It is what we are most comfortable with, and when life gets difficult we tend to regress to what is most comfortable, and early on in our conversion the past is more comfortable than the new life with Jesus. Isn’t that really why we usually fail in our New Years Resolutions? The past is much more comfortable than present, we are more familiar with the past, and so it is easier to regress to comfort than to move forward in tension. Theologically this is seen as temptation. A bit like Jesus in the wilderness. There is no rejection of the path Jesus is on, simply putting doubt in his mind is all the tempter is trying to do. “If you are…..” For us the temptation to regress is subtle as well. “Ok, going down God’s path is more difficult, wouldn’t it be easier if you went back to some of your old ways, and just eased into this God thing?” The problem with that is, when we do it, we often abandon our path with God altogether for we step too far off it, and cant find our way back.
The reality is we will always fail in our relationship with God. That is the message of the bible as it conveys to us the story of God interacting with us his creation. However, the bible also encourages us to know and understand that just because we fail, all is not lost. We have the opportunity for a new start, a New Years Day each and every day, and sometimes multiple times a day if we need it. It is called repentance. It means recognising that we have failed in our relationship with God, and rather than despairing lifting our heads up, confessing to God, and taking the opportunity of forgiveness and that new slate, that new start, and getting on with our relationship with God. Its what I have to do each and every day.
My encouragement to the author of the email, and to everyone reading this blog is simply this. Conversion takes time. It will not necessarily be binary. There will be a gradual process because we have to, in the words of Yoda to Luke “unlearn what you have learned.” Conversion is therefore a process, do not lose heart, do not abandon it just because it is difficult, put God at the centre, confess where you muck up, and move on to the next challenge and the next failure, and so on and so forth. I promise you that while the early stages will be painful and difficult persevering will bring rewards that can only be imagined when we reach the fullness of a relationship with God in Christ Jesus.