Turn us again, O Lord God of Hosts: cause your face to shine, and we shall be saved. - Psalm 80:19
In the course of a workshop on “Spirituality and Church Growth” at our seminary recently, Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute brought up a theme that gets little attention in Swedenborgian circles—conversion. Our emphasis on regeneration as a lifelong process seems to entail a kind of spiritual gradualism, including sometimes a distinct mistrust of sudden, sweeping changes. We are suspicious of anything that might be a “quick fix,” and with good reason. The Lord gives us lifetimes because we need them.
A conversion, though, is not necessarily a quick fix at all. The Latin that it comes from simply means “to turn around,” and if we follow through with this image it is quite obvious that to turn around is not to stop moving. The word “conversion” asks us to consider seriously where we are headed. We are expending our energies toward certain ends, and we are changing ourselves in the process. Are we headed in the right direction?
Let us drop the word “conversion” for the moment, then, with its connotations of the emotional scenes of the revival tent and the sawdust trail, and try the less loaded phrase, “turning point.” Most of us can identify several of these in our lives—career decisions, bereavements, marriages, births—some voluntary, some forced upon us against our will. In every case, though, what had been working before was no longer adequate. Ready or not, we had to change, and it is almost inevitable that at such times we need help.
It also seems inevitable that we form a particular attachment, a particular loyalty, to whatever succeeds in helping us through a crisis. If it is simply hard work, we are convinced that hard work is the answer to life’s problems. If it is the insights of a Jungian therapist, we are convinced of the depth and truth of Jungian principles. If we are rescued by the message of the Gospels, we become Christian in a new way.
This is not entirely or even primarily an intellectual conviction. It is rather an experience of the power of this view or this path. It is noteworthy (and more than a little alarming sometimes) how often in self-transformational literature one finds techniques characterized as “powerful.” Power makes an impression that cannot be argued away. Even though we know that power can be dangerous, that power can be destructive, we find ourselves drawn toward it.
We might better understand the potential merits of our gradualism if we recognized that power is not necessarily dramatic or explosive. Physical power can take the form of stamina. I’m reminded of my college running days, of the radical difference between my 135 pounds and the 215 pounds of our world-record shot-putter. Neither of us was remotely capable of doing what the other could. On the spiritual level, fidelity requires strength of character, the kind of power that lasts.
Dramatic conversion and gradual regeneration, then, need not be seen as opposites. I suspect that when the sudden events are genuine, they are in fact the sudden surfacing of pressures that have been building gradually for a long time. There is a way people can feel rotten about themselves and can put an immense amount of energy into concealing this from themselves and others. If such people actually hear the Gospel message of forgiveness, the breakthrough can be both explosive and authentic. The desire to share this experience with everyone can be utterly sincere. “Are you saved?” is not necessarily a self-righteous question, not at all. We might hear it better if we translated it into, “Do you share my sense of inner joy?”
Our own church has perhaps been better at rescuing people from darkness than in rescuing them from sin. That is, it has appealed to people of manifest good will who, in the words of one of our clergy, did not want to check their brains at the door when then walked into church. They wanted to understand honestly. This can deteriorate into a kind of intellectualism, to be sure, but at its best it centers in an urgent need to understand ourselves and each other for the sake of loving and durable relationships. To take an example from the field of social action, the causes that issue in sexist thought and behavior are far from simple, and we may waste a tremendous amount of good will battling windmills if we are not willing to try our very best to understand.
All this, believe it or not, is groundwork for a fresh look at the imagery of our text. “Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts: cause your face to shine, and we shall be saved.” The Psalmist has set the scene. Israel has already been delivered from slavery in Egypt. That great turning point, that pivotal liberation, has happened once and for all. Israel has actually come into the Promised Land—but something has gone wrong. Everything is coming apart.
Here is the converted Christian, the person who has turned around, the person who has been delivered and is part of the community of those who are saved, rescued, liberated. Even the most fundamentalist denominations recognize that “being saved” may not mark the end of all difficulties. Something can happen that is often called “backsliding,” but that, I would suggest, is a misnomer. In the Biblical story, the people of the Psalmist’s time were not the ones who had followed Moses out of Egypt. The people who followed Moses out of Egypt never had to face the issues that confronted the Psalmist.
In our individual lives, then, rather than thinking of “backsliding,” we would do better to suspect that we are being challenged on a new and deeper level. In the words of one of our hymns, “Time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.” If we resist the pressure, it will build until something snaps. If we are sensitive to it, the process may be more gradual.
In our New Testament reading, we find both John the Baptist and Jesus issuing the same call, the call to repentance. In a way, it seems that John never got beyond that point. We can look at the whole ministry of Jesus, though, as responding to people’s responses to that call. In Mark in particular, the parable of the Sower stands out as a commentary on the two chapters that precede it. There we do find some people rejecting him out of hand, crowds of people superficially excited, people with vested interests feeling threatened, and a few disciples who would actually follow him through thick and thin.
The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, indicates a transformation of mind. Surely that transformation began for the disciples when they heeded Jesus’s call and followed him. Just as surely, that was only the beginning of the transformation. Immediately after the crucifixion, they could well have echoed the Psalmist. “You brought us out of our bondage, you nourished and guided us. Why have the wild boars of Rome and of the Sanhedrin laid everything waste?” The most dramatic metanoia came only with the resurrection, and we can scarcely imagine the joy and the confusion that overwhelmed the disciples when for the second time in a few days all their certainties were swept away.
In both Old and New Testaments, then, we find not just one turning point but a sequence of them, linked by times of gradual change. If the church is to be with us throughout our lives, surely it must be as open to the dramatic as to the gradual. There is a message in our theology that calls and keeps calling for conversion. “Those who are leading a life of faith perform repentance daily; for they reflect on their evils, admit them, take precautions against them, and ask the Lord for help” (Arcana Coelestia, n. 8391). This is not at all the same as “feeling rotten about ourselves.” It is trying to understand honestly and clearly what it is within ourselves that is getting in the way.
The goal is not to feel good about ourselves, and here again, the Psalmist comes to our rescue. “Turn us again, O Lord God of Hosts: cause your face to shine, and we shall be saved.” States of self-examination are not likely to be cheery ones, but again, their goal is not to add up some kind of score and come out on the plus side. Their goal is to see whatever our Lord is trying to show us—our loving Lord, our radiant Lord. When the disciples were with him on the mount of transfiguration, his face did shine like the sun. Our hope is not founded on our own virtue. Heaven forbid! Self-justification is one of the most hopeless of all human enterprises. Hope comes to life when we discover the shining face of deity.
“Sometimes,” one of the old Gospel hymns tells us, “Sometimes a light surprises” us. Sometimes the light does burst forth in our dark hours, and such times are turning points. But we also need the gentle light, the “kindly light” for the ordinary times, “the trivial round, the common task.” Not all turns are U-turns. We see in the world around us the strength of trees that have grown so slowly that we have never really seen the growth. We see in the world around us the friendships that have grown over the years. We see in the church around us the unspectacular strength of lifelong devotion.
Let us then have the faith to proclaim the good news that can be so explosive. But let us realize that in the frenetic world around us, there is a profound need for unspectacular reliability. The church has hung in there. It is still here for those who need it. Matthew’s Gospel closes with Jesus’s promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” That is important. We are finite mortals who cannot make such promises. But we can say, “We have been here for you, and we will be here for you just as long as we can.”