Our Life-Long Conversion – Br. Curtis Almquist
I’d like to ask you a question about summer fare. It’s a question about lobsters, something very familiar (and delightful!) to many of us here on the eastern seaboard. How can a lobster weighing one pound grow into a lobster weighing three pounds, even ten pounds when the lobster has such a hard shell? How can lobsters grow when they seem not only protected but also confined by their hard shell? When a lobster becomes crowded in its shell and cannot grow anymore, by instinct it travels out to some place in the sea, hoping for relative safety, and it begins to shed its shell. This is a dangerous process – the lobster has to risk its life, because once it loses its shell and becomes terribly vulnerable; it can be dashed against a reef or eaten by another lobster or fish. But that is the only way it can grow. Staying trapped in a tight shell would cause the lobster’s stagnation and premature death. And so for us. I’d like to say something today about both our risk and our need to change, lest we confuse our experience of God, or our thoughts about God as God. God is always More.
Someone has said that “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”i I know that I am much more faith-full today than I’ve ever been before in my life… in part because I am certain of much less than ever before in life. What about you? I’ll pose the question a bit differently. This may sound a little risky. What don’t you believe any more? Have you been spiritually weaned from anything you once held dear? I’m not in any way suggesting that, in the past, your belief in God or your experience of God was not real or true. Nor am I suggesting that God was not really present in the ways you once knew or sensed God, in the ways in which you came to depend on God, see God, love God, serve God. Quite to the contrary. It seems to me that in Jesus, we see how God is very prepared to stoop to us, to meet us on our own plane, to catch our attention and bid us follow in ways which are familiar and safe and inviting. Christ waits for us; Christ also waits on us… and yet, God is More. Always More, in ways beyond which we could have thought or imagined or experienced. If God is not ever greater, then we face the risk of reverencing only the archives of our experience of God, rather than worshiping the living God who is always More and who creates in us a life-longing for More. And I suspect that for many of us, God will leave us with less so that we have space and desire for More. T. S. Eliot writes in The Four Quartets:
I said to my soul be still, and let the darkness come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God…
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is a way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not
And what you do not know is the only thing you know.”ii
Another question for you, please: Is there something that would be helpful for you to let go this season, like plants and trees that let leave of their foliage in the coming autumn, to allow for that new growth to spring up after the winter? Is there something that would be helpful for you to let go of? Something of your spiritual formation that was quintessential in God’s getting you to where you are, but no longer completely fits? No longer holds together or works or teams with life, and is now mostly memory, if the truth be known? This late-summer season may be a very inviting time for you to do some spiritual house cleaning.iii Is there something that you cannot believe any more?
Consider the experience of Jesus, what we hear in the gospel lesson appointed for today. On first hearing it, I am shocked. How could Jesus possibly say what he did to this Canaanite woman who comes asking Jesus for his mercy? A mother, asking for help for her tormented child. The mother actually believes that Jesus could do what she is asking, if only he consented (which is true). Jesus essentially calls her a dog. He answers her plea by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It’s shocking. What is possibly going on with Jesus to respond to this woman in such an appalling way? I think what is going on… is a change, before our very eyes. This desperate, noble, Canaanite mother responds to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus is smitten with the truth of her words. Before our very eyes I think we see here a moment of conversion: of Jesus’ changing, awakening to the reality that God was choosing and desiring to love not just those of Jesus’ own background and experience – his fellow Jews – but also to love us, those of us who were born as Gentiles. The breadth of God’s love is dawning on Jesus before our very eyes. After all, Jesus was born into this world like we are, and he grew up undoubtedly with as many fits and starts and changes as we have known in our own lifetimes. I imagine that Jesus had been pandered with his own form of childhood narcissism (like the rest of us). He needed to know (like all children) that he belonged, that he mattered, that he was loved by his mother, Mary, and by Joseph… and that he was the apple of God’s eye.iv
We don’t know for sure, but I imagine that Jesus, like the rest of us, was probably indulged by a good many people (perhaps even by the God whom he called “Father”). Yet it seems to me that in this gospel story, which Matthew does not censor, Jesus is confronted by two (other) children of God: this mother and her very sick daughter. They do not fit Jesus’ theological framework, and probably don’t figure into his past experience. And what I sense we see here in this gospel story is Jesus’ having to let go of a kind of tight theology that was too small for his new awareness of the breadth of God’s love. Where Jesus ends up in this gospel story is not where he started. And probably so for you, also, and your own ongoing conversion. Conversion is about change, life-long change. The English word “conversion” is translated from one word in the New Testament (strepho), which denotes both a physical turning and a change of attitude towards God.
What about your own ongoing conversion? I’ll take the liberty here to name three areas of ongoing conversion in my own life, thinking that some of you may be able to identify your own story with mine.
a. I am now 53 years old. One of the things I can now see as I turn around to look back on life is that I have made a lot of mistakes. I haven’t committed felonies nor been the cause for terrible scandal. My mistakes mostly come out of my own character flaws. And my proclivity to still make mistakes gives me increasing pause in my relationships with others. A respectful pause, especially toward those who are different. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, says that our most profound and reverent posture toward another human being is “hesitation,” of pausing before we judge or exclude or feign we can fully understand another person v I hear the wisdom in the Letter of James’ saying, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”vi And so I am finding a need to listen a great deal more, rather than to presume that I am right and need to put others in the right. I realize more than ever that I have been born and raised and formed in a superpower nation, where I am a member of the majority race, with the benefit of some education, and that I am a male. I grew up thinking that Jesus looks and thinks and acts a lot like me. I don’t presume that any more. I want to grow up into the image of Christ, who consistently identifies with those who are most likely least or last or lost on me.
b. In my prayer, I am doing much more what I’ll call “abiding with Christ.” As I turn around and look back on my life, I can see how I have spent a great many years telling God what to do, informing God about what is going on in this world: who is sick, who is needy, who needs help, who needs to be changed. Not that God did not hear my prayer, respond to my prayer, be moved by my prayer. I think that God did hear my prayer. In the Incarnation, God stoops to us, as if we are a child, to meet us on the level we are. Then God raises us, raises us up. As I look back on my life, I would say that my prayer was mostly about me, my world, my needs, my concerns. I would say now, that prayer is about God. It’s all about God. So, for example, with intercessory prayer, it is God who is interceding with us. Looking for, longing for our attention, and then for our co-operation with what God is up to in this world. It’s all about God.
Someone came to see me not so long ago to talk about their beliefs as a Christian, actually, to talk mostly about what they could not believe any longer. They ticked off a whole list of “stuff” that they couldn’t “buy” any longer. I think I was supposed to challenge them, to counter them with otherwise-convincing evidence – I think that’s what they expected – but I just listened to the list (which many of you would probably find familiar), and I eventually said, “…So?” I told them that they probably did believe something about God, or they wouldn’t bother to tell me their doubts. I told them that the Something was probably God or was of God. Probably. And I would say that to you, too. If your former experience of “God” no longer has enough meaning for you, if it’s too small, too pedestrian, too local, then translate it. Find some new language to speak out of the depths of your life. Get in touch with the source of being which is your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously and without reservation.viii
Is there anything for you to let go of in your relationship to God. Some thought, some belief, some experience which you’ve hung on to from the past which is no longer the way? I would say that God comes to us from the future. God is always More. And if God, to you, is not something More – more, in ways beyond which you have thought or imagined or experienced – then God will likely be something less, probably something created in your own image. Conversion is about our ongoing invitation from God to change, to come to maturity in this life, “to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” who himself changed, his own heart of love broken wide for the whole world.ix
i Archbishop Richard Holloway in Dancing on the Edge; Faith in a Post-Christian Age (London: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 3.
ii T. S. Eliot, in East Coker (28).
iii Charles de Foucauld writes, “To receive the grace of God you must go to a desert place a while. There you can be emptied and unburdened of everything that does not pertain to God. There the house of your soul is swept clean to make room for God alone to dwell . . . We need this silence, this absence of every creature, so that God can build his hermitage within us.” Quoted by Robert Ellsberg in Charles de Foucauld, (Orbis Books, 1999), p. 24.
iv Psalm 17:8.
v Simone Weil (1909-1943), a French philosopher, activist, and religious searcher, died at the age of 34 of tuberculosis and self-neglect in Ashford on August 24, 1943. She refused food and medical treatment out of sympathy for the plight of the people of Occupied France.
vi James 1:19.
vii I am inspired by Joseph C. Hough, Jr., president of Union Theological Seminary, New York.
viii From Paul Tillich in a sermon “The Depth of Existence” in The Shaking of the Foundations,” (1949), pp. 63f.
ix Ephesians 4:13.
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I am reminded of a little ceremony that is often done this time of year, as we move closer to seeking the spirit world at All Saints Day, the baring of trees, the sleeping in the ground of the summer seeds and plant roots, and the cold of winter. On a past visit to Iona, and in talking with my Priest about her recent trip there, one takes a stone from Columba Bay, attaches one’s fears or something else, maybe unknown, that one needs to give up, and throws that stone into the ocean. Now, being washed clean, one takes a new, fresh stone from the Bay, and carries that away as a reminder of giving up the past and taking on the new life we seek in Christ. .
With Margaret Duncan & DLa Rue, & you, Curtis, it’s helpful to me that I’m not alone in needing to let go of much which had meaning during my 78 years living as a Christian. Thanks!
The idea that belief is in some part, like the changing seasons is interesting Summer must fall away to winter in order for growth to come in the Spring. Unlike Nature, humans often resist changing. Allowing aspects of their belief system that no longer fit for one reason or another to either fall away or mutate into something that feels more real and alive. We question our motives and chide ourself for giving up too easily when sometimes we need to rethink, and reengage with what we believe. I’m sure I know less than I did and still need to let go of other ideas I’m still quite sure of. The unmaking of ourself is a slow and uncertain process, but a necessary step in order to find our way
Last Sunday I preached on this text – Jesus and the Canaanite woman. (I am occasionally invited to preach.) I love what you did with this material. I too focused on the fact that this was an encounter with someone of a different faith tradition – a different religion.
Thank you Curtis for your friendship and for this encouraging, challenging, homily.
Someone asked me to pray with him today about this very subject! (“Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”) I printed out a copy and passed it on to him. Wonderful message. Answered prayer, I believe. Just what he needed to hear. Thank you.
Dear Br. Curtis,
I am feeling quite stunned that you have expressed in such depth exactly where I am at this point in my life. It is so confirming. I will shortly be 77, and just as you say my faith has never felt stronger evan as I can no longer accept certain aspects of my previous beliefs. I have recently decided to set asside a period of the best part of the day to embark on a relevant study of these questions and I am finding it fascinating. I am trying to make it fair not just seeking out those who confirm my opinions, something we were warned about in a previous “Word” I really hope that that I will be able at some, not too distant, time to come on a short visit for further guidance on this exciting journey. In the mean time I can’t thank you enough or even find the words to tell you how much your words have ment to me today.
Dear Curtis, this morning yet again I recognized your voice in the first words of the word for the day. Today, “source.” Usually I know it’s you by the first ten or fifteen words, and it gives me pleasure to predict that it’s you before I see the name of the writer. Ongoing thanks for giving of yourself. Your are in my prayer, Kit
Very helpful food for thought and beautifully written. Thank you.
Michner’s *Chesapeake* opens with a description of the vulnerability of sea crustaceans (I think he spoke of crayfish) molting; your reference called that to mind.
And your theme recalls J.B. Phillip’s work, of course, it seems you have taken it even deeper and further into the realm of the spirit’s biographical journey than he did.
It was an odd/funny juxtaposition since just this morning, in re-re-re-reading the prophecies of Isaiah, I was indeed saying to myself, “I don’t seem to be getting anything directive or in-formative from these passages on blood and gore and retribution and vultures flying off with their prey.”
It did work to think of the gestalt of the issues involved: to ask myself what are the “pain and fears and cruel slavery laid upon me” which God promises to see vanquished (Is.14:3-4), and to focus my prayer after reading on that. I may not be able to change the underlying issues I face, or overcome the larger forces that make things so difficult at times. But I can trust that “God will out” within it, and within me.
I so often find myself saying to others, “You can’t change situations and you can’t change the others in the situation; you can only change yourself and how you choose to deal with the others and the situation.”
Going inward to the place where that kind of transformation can happen would seem to be the next step. Thanks as always for encouragement along the path to that place.