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In my childhood, conversions were set to the old Baptist hymns. Salvation had a soundtrack: promises made in the slow, sweet harmony of the organ, God’s people leaving the comfort of pews for the glory of the altar. Lives could be changed, we believed. We sang and waited.
Church was my third parent. It’s been seventeen years since I roamed the halls in that huge, red brick building in the middle of West Texas, and still at night, under sheets beside my sleeping husband, the soundtrack of San Francisco’s streets outside my window, I let my mind wander through the hallways of my childhood. Dusty blue shag carpet and a pastor’s bright voice leading us in a pledge that we “will not spill Kool-Aid on the brand new carpet.” That was 1987, the year I was saved.
How does a seven-year-old meet God?
Conversion is a strange word for what happened in my little girl soul that night in February. I was seven years old, tenderhearted, barely old enough to need salvation from anything. I wasn’t turning my life from wild living toward the straight and narrow. I wore pink overalls that evening when the revival preacher boomed ferocious words that ricocheted around the sanctuary. I don’t remember what he said, only the lonely invitation hymn I hummed while my hands gripped the dark stained wood of the pew before me. I stood alone, my father in the church choir behind the guest preacher, my mother interpreting the hymn for the small collection of hearing impaired congregants.
How does a seven-year-old meet God? All I knew was the tightness in my chest. Silent Spirit hands between my ribs, gathering the threads of my insides, weaving them into something beautiful. All I knew was the heat blowing against my face, beckoning me toward the aisle, inviting me to come.
Oh Lamb of God, I come, I come.
We sang those words week after week in my growing up years. We prayed for God to move among us and bring salvation. Conversions were loud and definitive. Conversions nailed themselves in place—one moment in time and forever—and there they remained.
I made other promises to God. I was thirteen when I sat on my bed in the quiet of a summer morning and read the Old Testament story of Isaac and Rebekah. Will you go wherever I send you? God asked. I said, “Maybe, God. Maybe.”
But that weak promise led to something bolder, a certainty that I would do great things with my life. I would suffer and live among the poorest: the orphans and the beaten down. I would belong to God.
I daydreamed about my future: I’d wear khaki shorts and live in a dirt hut, unmarried, childless. (That would be my truest sacrifice.) I’d make a life in a remote village without running water. I’d build a school and an orphanage. I’d bring in medicines and raise funds for a clinic. I’d learn to be a midwife and I’d care for the women and weave baskets or grind grains. My dreams were all romantic images topped-off with a heaping measure of savior-complex. I wanted to be special to God, to myself. I was an eighteen-year-old with plans to change the world.
I never thought God would ask me to be ordinary. Middle class. An American mom. When I made those childhood promises, I never saw myself becoming a grown woman who’d forgotten how to pray, a woman weak in faith.
We make a thousand small decisions that land us in our lives. Instead of the two-year mission stint in Kenya, I chose to study poetry. I did not become a rescuer of the oppressed in a far-flung culture. Eight years later, I was a thirty-year-old stay-at-home mom, struggling with anxiety, living in a strange city. My faith was not built of “bright hope” like the old hymn promised it would be. And still I sang “How Great Thou Art” at night to my baby in the rocking chair. I hummed and tried to pray. But I wondered: Had I undone my promises? Could God trust me again?
I discovered the liturgy in raising a child. The waking, the songs sung while teeth are brushed and bottoms wiped.
Conversion is a choice, isn’t it? My youth pastor explained it to us in tenth grade as a turning. One hundred-eighty degrees, he said. Repentance means we don’t turn back. We turn and walk forward. But what about when you don’t remember which way you turned when? What about when the world spins you blindfolded and God is the tail of the metaphorical donkey you hold in your dizzy, desperate hand? You push that tail into everything solid. But how can you be sure? When is faith ever certain?
I came to St. Benedict’s Rule as a woman frantic for prayer. I came because my soul was splintered, my faith too weak to whisper good words. I visited a monastery and discovered the simple, holy rhythm of monastic life. The monks pray in the morning, at noon, in the light of evening, before sleep. The monks work with their hands in the in-between. I began to notice that my life was small like the monks, full of motion and monotony, and also goodness. My life was valuable. And as I discovered its value, I began to believe I was known by a God who loves small things, a God who calls the daily repetition of my life sacred, despite my unimpressive spiritual resume. I began to believe that there are no “big” lives. Everyone is ordinary. Everyone is living the same minute, the same hour as I am. We all walk through our days as they’re given to us. We all choose, moment by moment, whom we will be and how we respond to the time we’re given.
I began to order my day around simple, weak-willed prayers. I discovered the liturgy in raising a child. The waking, the songs sung while teeth are brushed and bottoms wiped. The tender care of lifting the spoon of yogurt toward the wide mouth of the newly made. I sang to my son about patience. I pushed him in the squeaking swing over the sand-filled playground. I read books about trains and sharks. I sliced grilled cheese into bites. And somewhere in the quiet everyday of my ordinary life, I relearned prayer. I learned to come back to the God I was tethered to. Over and over, I learned to come back.
Perhaps there’s a rhythm to conversion as well. Perhaps there are many turns toward God. I turned that evening in 1987 when God pulled me toward himself. And still I turn. I am saved and I will be saved. I was lost and now I am found. This moment. And now. And tomorrow, I will be found again.
I am only a woman learning to believe that her life belongs to a God-already-here. I am not running an orphanage or standing up to the injustices of the world in any dramatic ways. Yet I am being found over and over, in the sacred reality of my ordinary life.
Our lives are circles of comings and goings. Our conversions are seeds planted, grown, and harvested. Planted again. Harvested again. “Return to me, even now . . .” God says through the Old Testament prophet Joel.
Perhaps that is the real work of conversion. The liturgy of a daily choice to believe, to return. I wake in the morning and walk the long hallway toward the quiet light of the kitchen. This is my invitation, the hymn I hum as I walk down the aisle. I stand in my pajamas, heat the water for the coffee, and return to God again: The salvation of one ordinary woman choosing the hard, hopeful, daily work of prayer.