Conversion: Changing with God – The Rev. Shannon Preston – Church Building and Communion Café

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In the Episcopal Church we do not have saints in the same manner as the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, nearly each day of the year, we remember and honor a “holy man or holy woman” according to a book put out by the Standing Committee on Liturgy, the national committee that discusses all things having to do with church services. [1] While all in this book are examples for us in faith, not all are saints as recognized in Catholicism.  To be canonized in the Catholic church a person must first be beatified—this comes with recognition of a first miracle performed by them, and then they are canonized when the Vatican recognizes a second miracle.

In the Anglican/Episcopal Church we recognize Cardinal John Henry Newman as a “holy man.”  John Henry Newman was a Priest in the Church of England.  After attending Oxford, he was an integral part of a 19th c. movement in Anglican church history known as the Oxford movement.  During the industrial revolution, this movement sought to reconnect people dragged down by the soot and dreariness of the time to a glimpse of the “beauty of holiness”.[2] This was done primarily through the return of candles, vestments, and what we colloquially today call a “higher” way of doing church but which was, at that time, regarded as a more “Catholic” approach to church.  As he explored these Catholic ways, over time, John Henry Newman converted to the Roman Catholic faith and then became a priest and cardinal in that tradition.

On Wednesday of this past week John Henry Newman’s second miracle was recognized by the Catholic Church—he is very close to becoming an “official” Saint in the Roman Catholic tradition.  (His first miracle was stopping uncontrollable bleeding in a pregnant woman, his first was curing a spinal disease…if you were wondering[3]).  Whether official saint or not, Roman catholic or Anglican, John Henry Newman was an extraordinary person, priest and person of deep faith.  He is respected by many and his wisdom covers a vast range of topics.  In his book Conscience, Consensus and the Development of Doctrine he wrote one of my favorite quotes: “To Live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.”[4]

Philosophers over the centuries, millennia even, have debated the concept of change. Some early philosophers didn’t want there to be change and tried to argue that it didn’t really happen.  Most, however, took and take a view more like Cardinal Newman that change is everywhere and is constant, happening all the time.  From the replacing and renewing of the cells in our own bodies, to changes in the world around us like the changing tides, to household moves, job changes, or to the constantly expanding universe, we are always experiencing change, around us and to us.  But despite the adage that “change is good” we all know it is not always good and usually not easy, but there are, throughout our lives, changes we desire deeply—changes we want more than anything and desire for this deepest kind of change can direct everything we do.

Our gospel passage to me is an example of the welcome change that leads us to and comes from following Jesus.  This passage may sound slightly familiar to you with its “Blessed are you” list. It sounds like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel, but ours today is from Luke.  It’s a parallel passage— referred to as the Sermon on the Plain.  It begins: “He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”[5]

“And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”  It’s extraordinary—the faith they had in Jesus as the one who could cure and heal all.  They expect –and receive – real change from meeting Jesus Christ, becoming healed in what we today would certainly deem a ‘miracle’.

This expectation of real change is one that, I think, can easily get lost in the midst of all the other “changes and chances of this life” as we pray in the Book of Common Prayer.[6] But the change that comes from meeting Jesus Christ is a change we want most to earnestly seek and hold on to.  And the kind of change the gospel refers to, the kind of change we seek from God, some classify as conversion—of heart, mind and/or body.

Often, like John Henry Newman, we think of conversion as a switch of religion or denominational fidelity or as some fabulous event—like Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, where a light brighter than the sun shines down on him, or like Pentecostals who become so filled with the spirit that they have physical reactions – they may fall to the floor and convulse or speak in tongues.  These kinds of conversions have a significant place in Christianity, but in the Episcopal Church I think we can be scared at times of the word conversion because of the seemingly extreme nature of these kinds of conversions.

Emilie Griffin provides us another way to understand conversion: She identifies conversion rather than being an “outward change of allegiance” to be the inward change of heart.[7]  Conversion, with this understanding, can happen to anyone.  This inward change of heart can happen all at once or gradually.  St Augustine spent many years priming his intellect for his conversion.[8]  Conversion can happen in different parts of our lives—we can experience intellectual, moral, or faith conversions,[9] or a total conversion that affects all parts of our lives. However it occurs, any way we look at it, it involves an experience of God’s profound love.  Griffin defines conversion as “the discovery, made gradually or suddenly, that God is real.  It is the perception that this real God loves us personally and acts mercifully and justly towards each of us. Conversion is the direct experience of the saving power of God.  As such, it is not an event, not an action, not an occurrence.  Instead it is a continuing revelation and transforming force.”[10]  When we recognize conversion as an encounter of God’s reality and profound love, it is something we can all come to seek.

The people on the plain saw something in Jesus they wanted so badly—they all sought to touch him because power came out from him and healed them all. They recognized the reality of God in Jesus Christ. The gospel makes it sound so easy— to wish to touch Jesus, be with him and you will be healed—such a simple and pure faith.  But due to different happenings in our lives – those changes and chances in the mortal life, changes in history, and in the western world today, we can sometimes lose faith in the reality of God and God’s love.

Thankfully, scripture and the church call us back to God’s real and profound love.  This call back, can at times, require us to change.

But inward conversion, like an outward change, is not always easy.  Thomas Merton described the inner voice calling him to conversion as a quiet voice, a small voice saying: “What are you waiting for? He said “Why are you sitting here? Why do you still hesitate? You know what you ought to do. Why don’t you do it?”[11]  This change may be something we dread or most want, but because of the way we have built our lives, habits, thoughts, and intellect we build up barriers to this desire to touch Jesus, as the gospel passage puts it.  Thankfully, we have a God of love, who isn’t so bothered by the barriers we put between us and God.  We have lots of people who have gone before us who have walked the path of conversion—whether for the first time or the 1000th time turning back to God’s love and reality.  St Augustine, Thomas Merton, CS Lewis, the people in our gospel passage and so many others are just some examples.

CS Lewis writes in Mere Christianity: “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life you are slowly turning this central thing into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures and with itself”.[12]

All our life we are slowly turning into a creature that is in harmony with God.  And God, waits for us to reach out and move closer to this harmony–every thought, word and action is an invitation to greater harmony with God. “To live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.”

Along with so many who have gone before us, who sit next to us, we seek this harmony with God. And we can reach out for it.  Perhaps for you, the change you seek happens all at once or maybe it is helpful to begin by taking a couple of minutes each day to really listen to the soft voice Merton describes, to pray and crack open the door to God wider and wider or, like St Augustine, to really examine what keeps us from who we know we ought to be.  Just as those on the plain reached out to touch Jesus, we can do something to welcome God.  Each choice, in thought, word, and action is an opportunity for conversion– the inward chance to welcome, to change, and to move towards who we are in the reality of God.

While our conversions may not all be recognized as miracles by the Vatican like John Henry Newman—we can rest in the reality—the beauty of holiness–that God is the source of change, of every miracle –no matter how great or small– and let us ne

[1] Holy Women, Holy Men. New York: Church Publishing, 2010.
[2] Psalm 96:9
[3] “John Henry Newman: Second miracle approved as sainthood looms.” BBC News. Feb 13, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-birmingham-47228423
[4] Newman, John Henry. Conscience, Consensus and the Development of Doctrine. New York: Image, 1992.
[5] Luke 6:17-19
[6] See collects for compline, BCP p133
[7] Griffin, Emilie. Turning: Reflections on the Experience of Conversion. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1980.  21.
[8] Read St Augustine’s intellectual wrestling in his Confessions.
[9] Lonergan, Bernard. “Theology in Its New Context” in Conversion, edited by Walter E Conn. New York: Alba House, 1978.
[10] Griffin, 15.
[11] Merton, Thomas. Seven Storey Mountain. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1970. 262-263. As quoted in Griffin, 20.
[12] Lewis, CS. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 1943. 86. As quoted in Griffin 29-30.