A couple of days ago, I preached about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus from Acts 9:1-9, which in world-historical terms couldn’t have been more consequential: we were in church on Sunday in part because the resurrected Lord appeared to this man who would begin the mission of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.
In this context, I talked about my own conversion experience—if that’s what you want to call it. I’ll post the sermon tomorrow, and you can read about it. My main point is that I had a moment when I was 13 when I, like Wesley, found my heart “strangely warmed” by a strong intuition that Jesus was with me, that Jesus loved me, and that Jesus accepted me. Something happened to me in that moment. It changed me. I prayed my first real prayer—one that was not of the “Now I lay me down to sleep” variety.
It was a first baby step of faith for me. I later made a public profession of faith on a youth retreat and was baptized (by immersion) several weeks later. Often, when I meet Baptists these days and explain that I’m a Methodist pastor, I’ll say, “It’s O.K. I was baptized by immersion… so I’m saved!” 😉
I realize that I’m probably writing and preaching to people who mostly didn’t experience a moment of conversion like this, and that’s perfectly O.K. I grew up Baptist, and for Baptists, conversion is much more heavily emphasized. Baptist churches don’t have confirmation class, after all. Rather than claim the Christian faith for yourself at the end of a formal, systematic process of instruction and formation, you’re supposed to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit at the end of a sermon—often as the 12th or 13th verse of “Just As I Am” is sung—walk down the aisle and make a profession of faith.
At least it’s supposed to be a spontaneous event. The truth is that there is a lot of peer pressure for kids around 11 or 12 years old (but often younger) to “walk the aisle.” And it was often a very emotional experience. When I was a kid, I watched people walk the aisle in tears. I remember thinking, “I do not want to cry in front of all these people!”—especially my Sunday school classmate Betty Jean, on whom I had a mad crush. Maybe that’s why I resisted making a public profession of faith a bit longer than all of my classmates. Still, when I did it, I was ready. It was real.
Regardless of how we become Christians—whether through a dramatic conversion experience or a more gradual and cerebral confirmation process—let’s please remember that this is only the beginning. As I can gladly attest, even the most intensely emotional experience isn’t enough to sustain faith for the long haul. (Remember the seed that fell on shallow soil in Jesus’ parable?) Being a Christian over the course of a lifetime means that we’re always in the process of being converted—continually recognizing and repenting of sin, continually saying “yes” to Jesus when he calls us, continually being transformed.
God accepts us “just as we are without one plea,” to be sure, but he doesn’t intend to leave us that way!
By the way, in my sermon I mentioned that my little Damascus Road experience took place as I was listening to Side 2 of a great early Genesis album called Trespass, featuring a 23-minute song suite called “Supper’s Ready.” Since most of you are unfamiliar with Genesis back when Peter Gabriel was the lead singer (and Phil Collins was merely a great drummer with long hair), you might enjoy listening the song—which comes to you via YouTube (in three parts).
I’m sure I’m not the only person who found God while listening to this amazing song!
My favorite part (of Part 2) begins around 1:31, the section of the song known as “Willow Farm.” It’s trippy, to say the least. “There’s Winston Churchill dressed in drag/ He used to be British flag/ Plastic bag/ WHAT A DRAG!” I don’t know what it means, but it’s awesome.