Are our testimonies honoring to the whole landscape of the Christian journey? Not if they only speak of the “how-shocking-was-my-sin-before-I-met-the-Lord” story. (As though the sin I commit today is less shocking!). Not if they only share the safe feelings, rehearsed responses, and good “decisions” for which we give ourselves unearned credit.
This word—conversion—is simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreck that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God. I know of only one word to describe this time-released encounter: impact. Impact is, I believe, the space between the multiple car crash and the body count.
Those are two close quotes from this book by Rosaria Butterfield. I recommended the book to Sunday morning bible study this last week primarily on the strength of its depiction of coming to faith and the unflinching picture of the work of the Holy Spirit. (That is the answer to the post title’s question. Read Luther’s answer to what the 3rd article of the creed means.) As a picture of being called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified and what that might actually mean in real flesh and blood, the book is harrowing. And it is a spiritual classic.
Our Christian culture likes to tell prodigal son stories or sing Amazing Grace (I once was lost but now I am found.) We love the dramatic Damascus Road conversion. But what we miss is the years Paul spent in Arabia (Gal 1:17, Acts 9:23-25). We hear the story of the slaver John Newton, author of the Hymn, but we don’t notice the timeline. Conversion in 1748, but he didn’t quit slaving until 1754 and that only after he suffered a severe stroke. In 1757 he applied for ordination, but he was not ordained until 1764.
The conversions in the words of Mrs. Butterfield are “a train wreck”. We don’t get off so easy as “I once was blind and now I see”. At least not in how we understand that today.
I bring that up because the gospel text for this coming Sunday is probably one of the most offensive possible for our modern understanding. The 4th Sunday of Easter is usually “good shepherd Sunday”. All the pastoral metaphors come out – still waters, green valleys, protection, leading. But the gospel text in John where Jesus says he is the good shepherd (John 10:14) ends with the Jews saying Jesus has a demon or is possessed (John 10:19). The specific text for this Sunday has Jesus saying, “You do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me…no one will snatch them out of my hand.” We don’t get a choice. Like Mrs. Butterfield there are no pat on the back decisions, only an impact, a train wreck, a meeting of the living God.
The Holy Spirit calls us. Usually through common means like preaching and the word, but sometimes uncommon like bright lights. The only choice we really have is to turn it down, to not believe what we hear (or see). And we are called to a purpose or what feels like a process. We are gathered (baptism, church family). We are enlightened (bible study, prayer). All so that we become sanctified. All Christians are being lead by the shepherd’s voice in those paths. And those paths go right through the valley of the shadow of death. Because something does die along those paths – our old self. Leaving that body (of sin) behind can be traumatic. We like to sin. We are good at it. It creates deep roots.
It is also not our decision. The sheep follow the shepherd.