For the past several columns, I have been suggesting that our mission and ministry as United Methodists would be enhanced by a re-appropriation of the language of conversion. This language, I believe, helps to put all we do in perspective. However this is not simply a matter of semantics, but rather a call to transformation that can remake our lives and our church.
The King James Version incorrectly translates John 3:16 as “everlasting life.” The RSV, NRSV and the Common English Bible translate the text correctly: “God so loved the word that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”
Casually we use the words “everlasting” and “eternal” interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. “Everlasting life” speaks of chronological infinity—incalculable time that goes on and on and on into a fathomless future. On the other hand, “eternal life” is a quality of life that can begin here and now.
That great Scottish preacher, Arthur John Gossip, in his exposition for this text in the original Interpreter’s Bible, points out out that eternal life “describes not so much the length of a life, but the kind of a life.” It is present and it is future. Here and now, we can experience God only “through a glass darkly,” but by-and-by our vision will clear and we shall experience the glory of God beyond any human comprehension. Dr. Gossip continues, “Look at him lifted up, keep looking at him and a power will come fro him that will enable you to rise up into a newness of life, to live in his way; most imperfectly here, but it will grow from less to more and from more to most.” Or as John the Elder puts it “the world will pass away but he who does the will of God abides forever.” Gossip says that eternal life is more in the “doing of God’s will” than in the “abiding forever.”
Christopher Fry in his Sleep of the Prisoners speaks of “affairs that are now soul size” and calls us to take “the longest stride of soul men (we) ever took.” “The enterprise,” he writes is, “exploration into God.”
Englishman Eric Routley is known mostly as a musicologist, but in his little book Conversion, he creates a very American parable in which he euphemistically calls Nashville “heaven” and Chicago the starting place of our life journey. People vary drastically in the route they take from their first birth to their “second birth.” In his parable, Routley describes the sojourner seeking fortune and life fulfillment. This traveler zigzags from coast to coast–Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and St. Louis. One night at a truck stop, he tells a story to a stranger who says, “I have hoped for a long time to run into you. Your father is in Nashville and has tried for years to get in touch with you.” The man is amazed because long ago he left his father’s house back in Chicago and vowed never to return. He responded, “He is in Nashville and is looking for me? I’ve been wrong all these years? I’ve wanted to be reconciled to him all these years but I did not know how to find him.”
The parable ends, but the reflection suggests that the stranger must now convince the wanderer that his father really is in Nashville, really is seeking him, and really will be thrilled t o see him. He has to convince the man that his image of his father has been wrong all these years. Instead of forgetting his rebellious son, he has grieved for him. If the stranger succeeds, the man then strikes out again, not aimlessly, but with Nashville as his destination. Upon arrival, he confirms what the stranger said — he is reconciled with his father who has missed him, pined for him, and loved him in absentia all these years.
Dr. Routley ends his imaginary parable with these words: “You can now call the traveler a converted man.” Once he leaves St. Louis on the “right track” to reconcile with his father, the man will still have bad weather, his shoes will still be worn thin, and he will have recurring temptations to give up his quest. The old ominous cloud is gone. Now “he and the father are one.” Now he knows what it really means to be his father’s son, or, in the words of St. Paul, “an heir of God and a fellow heir with Christ.” (Romans 8:17) Now he is what many evangelicals call “saved.” Indeed, after reconciliation with is father, the new convert will still have troubles, trials, and temptations, but now he has the confidence of his father’s love.
Conversion for many can be compared to that of the man in Routley’s parable. However, some of us who call ourselves “Christian” never were “prodigal” sons or daughters. Some of us never “left home.” Rather, we remained in the church, were confirmed, grew in grace, and have lived a life “that becomes the Gospel. We cannot identify a time and place of our conversion.
It is unrealistic to equate “being saved” with a spiritual fait accompli. Some Christians have managed their morals and ethics with at least a modicum of Christian spirit, but have only occasionally known flashes of divine presence. After all we “live by faith and not by sight” which means that we have some dark nights of the soul, some similarities to the confusion of Job, and some times when we have, quite candidly, “flown on auto-pilot.” As Paul described some Christians to Timothy, they “look like they are religious but deny God’s power. They love pleasure instead of loving God.” (II Timothy 3:4-5 CEB) Even preachers presenting the gospel every Sunday have “run on empty” spiritually.
We find it aggravating, but redemptive, when the voice on our GPS screams “recalculate.” She will then tell us either to “make a U t urn” or send us “around the block” to access the thoroughfare toward the correct point on the compass. We know that whatever immediate inconvenience this is, that message is coming from a satellite far above our perspective and to ignore it will mean arriving where we did not intend to be.
We have all heard t he little story about the radio operator on a battleship whose set began to crackle and the voice said, “Change your course 3 degrees starboard.” Presuming the message to be coming from a fishing boat, the young man radioed back, “Change your direction.” The radio came alive again with a warning, “Change your direction 3 degrees starboard to avoid a collision.” The enlisted man at the controls summonsed the captain who was incredulous. He radioed, “This is a battleship and I am the captain and I am a Vice Admiral in the United States Navy. Change your course .” From the radio came this message: “Sir, this is Seaman third class Jones and I am in the lighthouse.”
Jesus is the light in the lighthouse sending its beam across the treacherous sea, guiding us around the shoals, and keeping us from being shipwrecked. Perhaps we followed that gleam quite early in life when any life style change was minimal. Perhaps, on the other hand, we “were sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore when the Master of the sea heard our despairing cry, from the waters lifted us and now we can say, ‘Safe am I.’ Love lifted me.” Conversion is as variable as snowflakes! We are saved by God’s grace when/if/as we have faith.
Harry Emerson Fosdick once wrote that being converted is somewhat like crossing a river. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, I once “crossed the New River” with one small step. However, this second oldest river in the world eventually flows toward all four points of the compass. It becomes the Ohio; then the Mississippi! If we cross those same waters in New Orleans, we have quite a swim to reach the other shore! So it is in coming to Christ.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Glory to God who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us….” (Ephesians 3:20a) Professor Randy Maddox has dug out of Wesley’s works a term we use all too seldom. Wesley considered sin as “disease” and salvation as “taking the cure.” He used language of the clinic rather than language of the court! Instead of imagining ourselves as plaintiffs before the judge awaiting our sentence with Jesus as our defense attorney pleading for clemency, we should imagine ourselves as a sick patient whose caring doctor might treat us medicinally and might perform surgery, but, whatever the approach, the doctor would be working for our healing. Let us memorize words that Irish-American William Hunter wrote when he was professor of Hebrew at Allegheny College:
“The great Physician now is here, the sympathizing Jesus,
He speaks the drooping heart to cheer, ‘O hear the voice of Jesus.’
Your many sins are all forgiven, O hear the voice of Jesus.
I love the blessed Savior’s name, I love the name of Jesus.”
Len Sweet in his The Greatest Story Never Told writes, “You will have, someday, one last day as yourself. You will sing your own song on that last day. Yours only, and no one else’s. But you will know not only your song, but you will experience your song’s serving and blending with God’s symphony of life.”
Amen. Come Lord Jesus. (Revelation 2:20b CEB)
UMR Columnist Dr. Donald W. Haynes is a retired pastor, an adjunct instructor at Hood Theological Seminary, a Church staff “visitor,” and a follower of Jesus. He is also the author of “On the Threshold of Grace — Methodist Fundamentals.”