by Jennifer Ochstein
When people ask about my conversion testimony, I cringe. My motivations for becoming a Christian were suspect. I wasn’t filled with joy at the moment of decision. I was rancorous.
I think of it more as the incident rather than a conversion. The actual conversion has taken years. The incident embarrasses me, even today. Maybe that’s why I’ve come to stubbornly insist that my conversion wasn’t a single moment in time but a transformation of years. A transformation of months. A transformation of days. A transformation of hours, minutes, moments. To borrow from Eugene Peterson, who suggested obedience, mine instead, has been a long transformation in the same direction.
Immediately leading up to the incident, I’d been asked by strangers whether I “knew Jesus.” Once by an elderly man bagging up my purchases at the grocery store checkout line. As he loaded my car with the bags, he popped the question. Later that week, a middle-aged woman ambushed me, ironically also at the grocery store, in the cereal aisle as I hunted for a sweet snack. She handed me a salvation tract and, as if she were trying to muster courage from some invisible realm, asked: did I know Jesus?
What is this? I thought to myself, irritated. I was twenty-five, recently divorced, dating a co-worker, and drowning in sorrow. This sorrow only made me more incredulous, more stiff-necked. The sorrow had filled me with fear, which, in turn, made me angry. After all, anger is the sledgehammer of control, an antidote to fear. My fear fed my anger. I used it to smashed my fear, which left me empty before fear filled me again. It was an endless cycle.
When these strangers asked in their meek voices if I knew Jesus, both times I smiled and answered that I did, grumbling about their nerve. I thanked them for their concern about whether I had heard of Jesus. It was the woman’s response that turned into an annoying splinter in the heel of my foot. No, no, the woman stammered on. You misunderstand, she said. She hadn’t asked if I’d heard of Jesus. She asked if I knew Jesus. There was a difference, she said.
Yes, yes, I responded, backing away from the woman and trying to find an exit strategy. My grandmother had been a pastor, I told her.
“I know all about Jesus,” I said.
I thanked her again and turned away.
Here’s what I knew about Jesus: he died a bloody death on a cross, came back to life three days later. He was now sitting on a throne in heaven beyond the confines of the space-time continuum and waiting for just the right moment to return to earth in order to condemn sinners to burn in a lake of fire. Forever. What else did I know? I wanted nothing to do with that God. I had long ago surrendered my fear of fire for obstinance. I couldn’t move past the dissonance of being told God was both merciful and angry. It seemed oxymoronic, and not in the good, literary way.
A few days later, the work colleague I was dating came back from his lunch break. He seemed different—somehow lighter—than when he’d left. I couldn’t quite pin down how he was different. He just was, and I asked why.
What do you mean, he responded, smiling.
I told him about my observation about his lightness and noted the smile on his face. I noted that he suddenly seemed, well, happier. Turned out that he’d felt compelled to turn his life over to God while he’d been away for lunch. I was shocked. I was also worried. More fear. More anger.
As he told me his story, I was having an internal conversation with myself: You know what this means, don’t you? If you don’t become a Christian, he’s going to leave you. You know the story: Christians can’t be yoked with non-Christians. They’re not allowed to mix with people like you.
I have come to see myself as a massive ocean liner, unable to come to an immediate full stop, unable to turn myself on a dime. I need to be moved in slow increments to correct my course otherwise my hull would break apart as I further settle into the depths of God. I know no other movement with God but slow and steady. The instruments of movement have been people, places, literature, and spiritual poverty. The work of the Holy Spirit. I feel as if I’m forever slowing, forever turning, increment by increment. The work never ends.
But in the moments when the man I was dating told me his conversion story, I could feel my gears grinding. I was full-speed ahead, but something was dragging at me. Later that night, sitting alone on my bed in my tiny one-room apartment, I prayed: Fine. Screw it. Take my life if you think you can do better with it, but don’t expect me to … don’t expect me to …
What? I wondered. Don’t expect me to what?
I knew God knew that the only reason I was praying to become a (I couldn’t even say the word “Christian”) person who followed Jesus was because I was really only trying to follow after the man I was dating. It made me angrier to look at my motivations because I had never known myself to be needy. Yet, here it was. A lock box pried open with a holy crowbar before I slammed it shut again.
I continued praying: Just take it.
Since then, I’ve come to understand my conversion experience as both momentous and monotonous. Momentous because it contained a brief moment of self-recognition and monotonous because that moment has repeated over and over and over until I could stand to look in the lockbox for more than a second. Slow and steady movement.
As an evangelical who has recently fallen in love with the Episcopal ethos and liturgy, I’ve come to see the monotonous as momentous. We, perhaps, assume that all conversion stories should be moments like the Transfiguration, shining examples of glory. But the transfiguration was a revelation of Christ’s glory, not mine. My conversion story is more a revelation of how small, mean, and fearful I’d become, the exact opposite of Christ in his glory. So, when I think about whether we desire the conversion of all people, I say of course. Now, as a hopeful Christian universalist, I’ve moved away from the evangelical notion that conversion is a ticket to heaven and more as a moment of recognition. A moment to begin more moments of recognition in seeing myself for who I really am. It is as momentous and as it is monotonous.
Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. She has also published book reviews with Brevity and the River Teeth blog. She is currently working on a memoir about her mother.