Conversion and the New Year

The New Year is an opportunity to make resolutions. Perhaps for many of us, however, resolutions may not be enough; we may need an actual conversion experience.

There is a fourth-century story told of two monks in the Egyptian desert. One monk came to the other for advice:

“Father Joseph,” the monk said, “According as I am able, I keep my rule, my fast, my prayer, meditation and silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?”

The other monk rose up and stretched out his hands in response. His fingers, held toward heaven, became like ten lampstands, and he said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

This story reminds me of John the Baptist coming out of the desert to declare that God had come in the form of a messiah. “I baptize with water,” John said, “But he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).

Fire in the ancient world was as destructive as it is now, but it was also a cleansing agent. Fire was used to purify precious metals, shape iron, and cleanse chaff from wheat. The Greek word for fire is the root word for the English word, “purity.” It was, according to ancient philosophy, the precursor to God’s Word and the harbinger of Spirit.

For John the Baptist and, later, for Jesus who claimed that he came to separate wheat from chaff, fire was the symbol whereby one was cleansed from all impurities and made right with God.

Whereas resolutions are commitments to do something, conversion transform our very nature just as fire can transform the properties of many metals at certain temperatures.

Conversion is more concerned about who we are than about what we do, assuming that who we are will eventually inform what we do.

For those who see conversion as an important step in their faith journey, repentance is considered a regular spiritual discipline. It does not occur only once, let alone once a year, but, as Father Joseph implied, is occurs continually: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

The equation for repentance is straightforward, but we always need reminding of how it occurs. With the New Year upon us, it is a good time for a refresher.

Repentance happens when we “fall short” and feel disconnected from God.  We are in need of salvation. Unfortunately, we cannot save ourselves.

This is where the Holy Spirit and “fire” come into play. We recognize that Jesus is the mediator between us and God. The Holy Spirit enlightens us to this truth as He draws us closer to God through the person of Jesus Christ.

Then, as we are set right in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we are commissioned to live a life of obedience, sanctification, and discipleship.

This is where “fire” comes in, as the Spirit continually fashions us and molds us in the smelter of life experiences and lessons learned. It’s fire that conforms us into the likeness of Christ.

I grew up in a faith tradition that saw conversion as a one-time event; but, as I grow older, I realize that it is a continual cycle with which God is never finished. Just as each New Year brings with it inspiration for a fresh start, so does God’s Son, Spirit, and cleansing fire give us a fresh beginning every day.

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Surprised by the Spirit: A New Year reflection

holy-spirit

By Joe LaGuardia

When Paul laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6).

I remember the first time I got a taste of the charismatic movement inspired by the Brownsville and Toronto revivals of the mid-1990s.  I was walking into a family friend’s healthfood store when I interrupted the friend and another person in prayer. She looked up at me and said, “Hi, Joe, we’re glad you’re here.  Come and catch my friend as I pray for her.”

I was fifteen at the time, and I didn’t know why I had to “catch” someone during prayer.  Nor did I know why I had to catch a strange woman.  I was very uncomfortable.  Nevertheless, my friend prayed for the woman, she fainted in my arms and I obediently lowered her to the ground.  She was, according to my friend, “slain in the Spirit.”

Shortly after that time I started attending a charismatic Presbyterian church.  Slaying of the Spirit, speaking in tongues, and other gifts became commonplace in weekly worship.  Although I did not have these same experiences (“manifestations,” as some call the gifts) as others in the church, I appreciated the Spirit’s movement in the congregation.  I did not have the same prayer language, but it was that same Spirit that nurtured my faith and inspired my calling.

Charismatic gifts are the things of controversy, but the fruit of the Spirit’s mysterious presence is abundant despite what some may believe.  As a Baptist who has walked with two different camps–one in which charismatic gifts were a way of life, and the other in which “private prayer languages” were all but banned for denominational leaders and clergy (the Southern Baptist Convention had issues in 2007 on the subject)–I know that it is better to give the Spirit room to work than to quench the Spirit by denying Her power.

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian community encouraged readers to “not quench the Spirit” and to “test all things” (5:19-21).  Paul argued on behalf of moderation: To claim that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” as expressed by tongues and other manifestations was necessary for salvation was just as erroneous as denying that these same manifestations existed whatsoever.

One thing I learned in my home church is this: The Spirit works differently among Christians and Christian communities.  Only when we deem our own perspective as the “only way” that God works do we start to deny the Spirit’s power in God’s kingdom agenda for all creation.

The Bible also affirms the importance of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity.  The Spirit births creation and life itself according to Genesis.  It’s the Spirit that drove Jesus to the wilderness and anointed him for ministry to the poor, oppressed, captive, and blind (Luke 4).  It is the Paraclete (Greek for comforter) that consoled the disciples in a time of persecution and gave them the appropriate words to say to defend the Gospel.  It is the Spirit that motivated missions, inspired visions, and promoted the work of God in the early church.

The Holy Spirit continues to work in our life even when we forget to acknowledge the Spirit’s presence.  The Holy Spirit continues to impart gifts that grant us power for ministry and missions.

Catching that woman so long ago did not necessarily inspire me to become “slain in the Spirit,” but it did impress upon me a timeless, surprising truth: That my relationship with the Spirit is necessary for an effective life as a Christ-follower.

This year, as you make your New Year’s resolutions, I encourage you too to provide room for the Holy Spirit to work in your life, and to surprise you along the way.