Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Darkness, fire, and a way to go

John 21: 1-19; Acts 9: 1-20
First Congregational Church of Stratford, CT
April 14, 2013

Paul on the road to Damascus
Saul on the road to Damascus

Conversion. Ironically we don’t speak much about conversion in church. Or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s something that happened to the disciples, to Paul and to others who came to know Jesus as the Christ. It’s what happens when someone decides to become Jewish or Roman Catholic or Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim. Maybe we had such an experience near or around our confirmation. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone formally converting to Protestantism in today’s world. This is where everyone lands when they’ve left something else. And it happens by default which denomination is chosen. Usually it’s not because of something doctrinal or some social justice issue or how the church is organized. It’s where we feel comfortable. Oddly enough, conversion is an uncomfortable event, when the reality of God enters into our lives in such a way that we cannot pay only lip service to it any more.

When C.S. Lewis wrote of his conversion from atheism to faith in his book Surprised by Joy, he said, “Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. ...The demand was not even “All or nothing.” I think that stage had been passed, on the bus stop when I unbuckled my armor and the snowman started to melt. Now, the demand was simply “All.” ...I gave in, and admitted God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. ...The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? …I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

And so C.S. Lewis speaks of his conversion as a “leap in the dark”. Darkness can take on many forms in our lives. For some it is an addiction or compulsive behavior. For some it is a lost and wandering feeling. For some it is fear, anger, rage, feeling out of control or violent. For others it is grief and loss, depression, a “dark night of the soul” that shadows our days as well. For others it can be a sense of being alone in this vast universe, lonely for the One, anyone who understands what it means to be us, a unique person. And for those of us here this morning, darkness can have its own meaning, as individual as we are.   

We’ve all had some experience with, as Melissa Etheridge puts it, that “blackness that has seeped into my chest”. The psalmist calls it “the valley of the shadow of death”. I have even heard it called “existential loneliness”, that knowing that we are alone inside our flesh, that no matter how much we try to communicate who we are, no one will know us the way we know ourselves. When it comes to conversion, it usually doesn’t happen in a crowd. And even if it did, no two people would experience a conversion the same way. It is as if we are in room with the all the lights out.

The disciples probably felt that way after Jesus died, even though they were with each other. Without Jesus, they didn’t know who they were, what they were supposed to be, what they were supposed to do. So, in John’s gospel, a few of the disciples went back to the thing they knew first: fish. They went fishing at night. They had seen Jesus, but Jesus was not with them the way he used to be. Everything was different and thus, to the disciples, uncertain. It was a long night, a long night of no fish and no idea of what was next.

Their fishing nets were empty when they first saw the Lord.
All night they had been fishing in the waters by the shore.
The Lord said, “Go to deep waters, cast your nets once more.”
And because they obeyed, they would never been the same.

Go to deep waters, deep waters, where only faith will let you go.
Go to deep waters, deep waters, harvests of faith will overflow. Go.

Ogunquit, ME.  Taken by Rick Barber, Innkeeper at Moon Over Maine.
Then the dawn comes. Jesus calls the disciples “children” and it sounds affectionate. He uses the word gently, not chidingly. And then he gives them a gift. Not just some small sign that it’s him, but a boatload of fish. The disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who seems to have perfect faith, instantly recognizes Jesus, but it was Peter who jumped into the water and swam to shore, perhaps his loneliness made sharper by his denial of Jesus, his joy at seeing him again now no longer bound by his guilt. Peter was like a man loosed from chains.  
Paul’s conversion is much more of a contrast given his past life of persecuting the disciples of the Lord. The scripture says he breathed threats and murder. Paul’s was a darkness of soul, of violence and hatred and fear. And when the light of God’s glory broke in, he was then blinded. The contrast of God’s glory with the darkness of Paul’s life was so vivid it was like stepping from a dark cave into full sunlight; it blinded him. He needed to adjust to the light of God that was now compelling him to live his life differently. As C.S. Lewis said, not just all or nothing, but all.  
What does it mean to surrender all? How are we to live when our lives are turned around 180 degrees? What happens after the night is over and morning comes, when our grief is turned into dancing, our sackcloth is taken off and God has clothed us with joy? For Peter and Paul and the rest of the disciples there comes the Holy Spirit, the fire of God. Sometimes we get all fired up.  

Have you ever met someone who converted from one brand of Christianity to another? Or someone who has converted to Christianity for the first time? Some folks call it being “born again”. Sometimes they can be as if on fire. They can’t stop talking about their experience. And they want you to have the same experience, too. They want you to know Jesus the way they know Jesus. They can’t help themselves. It’s as if there is a fountain inside them and it just keeps bubbling over, the joy spilling out of their hearts, over their lips and out into the world.  
Sometimes it is thrilling to be a part of this, other times it can be, well, quite obnoxious. And that has as much to do with us as it does with them. We can take it as obnoxious perhaps because there is a fear inside of us, a fear of becoming just like them, a fear of letting go. Becoming some “holy roller”, someone whom it appears doesn’t think about their faith, just feels it intensely. Becoming someone who has dived in with wild abandon, like Peter. And look where that got him: on a cross of his own. 
In the last century or so, conversion has taken a trip north to the head, leaving our emotions in the dust. When it comes to belief, we want to be able to quantify it in some way, to prove it, to somehow make someone else’s spiritual experience believable to the rest of us. In the church one of the ways we quantify belief is through membership. And we strut our success or hang our failure on whether the numbers go up or down.  
When it comes to church membership the traditional path has been “believe, behave, belong”, as in, folks come to a church because they believe similarly in God; they then behave in a similar fashion as the rest of the members, i.e., they go to Bible study, attend worship regularly, give to the offering, volunteer for Sunday school or choir or a committee; and then they make a solid commitment—they belong, they join the church. In this traditional model, we assume the faith conversion took place many years ago, once and for all.  
In the last 50 years or so another path of faith has become the way for many who are un-churched, non-churched, or de-churched, which is “belong, behave, believe”. The first conversion experience is one of belonging, of feeling not only comfortable but needed, necessary, and purposeful. And it is that feeling of being necessary that indeed helps us not only with the uncomfortable parts of our faith but also compels us to participate in them, like that part about ‘not just all or nothing, but all’. Most of us are not looking for common beliefs but people we belong to and who belong to us.  
At first, Peter and Paul didn’t follow Jesus because they believed but because Jesus said to them, “Follow me. I claim you. You belong with me. I need you. I have work for you, and you’re the one to do it.” So they behaved like disciples: they surrendered. And it was then that they had their second conversion experience: they believed. They took the plunge. “He is the Son of God”.  
So when our faith is feeling dry, if we’re wandering around in the dark, we need to ask ourselves, “Do I feel like I belong? Are my gifts being used? What am I resisting? To what do I need to surrender?” Belong, behave, believe.   
The church itself is going through a conversion, its own dark night of the soul. The mainline church, sometimes now called the ‘sideline’ church, now has to ask itself the same questions: Where do we belong? How can our gifts be used to make a difference in the lives of others? What are we resisting? To what does the church need to surrender? As the Body of Christ, we too follow the same path of belong, behave, and believe.  
This is the task that is now set before the church, as it always has been: to offer to others a community of people to belong to, to cast the doors off their hinges, to go out into the world and declare boldly that the church belongs to the world. Like the disciples, Jesus calls us to surrender truly everything we have been holding onto—fishing boats, nets, the number of fish, all the ways we use to measure success and failure—and get fired up, step out into deep water, and believe, trusting that Jesus will continue to lead the church where it needs to go.
The Stevedores in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890)

They cast their nets and almost before they could begin,
Their nets were overflowing and they had to pull them in.
And though this was their greatest catch their fishing days would end.
For they abandoned all when they heard the master’s call.

Go to deep waters, deep waters, where only faith will let you go.
Go to deep waters, deep waters, harvests of faith will overflow.
Harvests of faith will overflow. Go. *

*Deep Waters by Pepper Choplin, Beckenhorst Press, 2002.

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