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The second of the threefold vow that we take in the Community of Celebration is a vow of conversion. Strictly, this refers to striving for the reformation of character, not to the phenomenon of religious conversion as such, but the latter is a useful starting point for discussion.

It is commonly assumed amongst Christians that conversion is the starting point of Christian faith. It is often thought of as a single event in time, and, because of its pivotal importance in defining who is a Christian and who is not, is also regarded almost as an end in itself. On this view, it is sometimes also referred to as a "decision". That does not mean a weighing up of arguments, necessarily, or even a considered judgement. It can be rather like saying "Let's go to the beach" - and going there; in other words, a simple act of will by the whole person, without analysing reasons and motives.

The great majority of Christians, who are brought up in their faith from babyhood, are often unable to point definitively to such conversion experiences. They regard conversion as more of a gradual process over a period of years. Yet, for all that, it is still often seen as the starting point. By the time one has been baptised and confirmed, or gone through whatever procedures are required in order to become a full adult member of the church, one is assumed to be "converted". Conversion is thus the foundation on which everything else is built - if one chooses to, that is. Whether we do so or not, the fundamental work is considered as done.

In community life, it quickly becomes clear that the path of Christian discipleship is far more than taking on board the teachings and religious attitudes and practices of the church; more, too, than discharging obligations towards those in need. Whatever stereotypes we may apply to the unconverted, it is abundantly evident that those same attributes continue to flourish within ourselves after conversion, more or less without let or hindrance. In consequence, Christian life is always a struggle with oneself. Paul spoke of this in athletic terms (1 Cor. 9.24 - "I pommel my body"), but however we think of it, intentional Christian living makes it a constant imperative.

But in community the mirror held before us is not hanging on the wall, where we can choose to go and look in it, as when we hear a sermon or read the scriptures. It is much more "in your face", in the person of every fellow member. Such immediacy very often does not allow us the luxury of reflection, or of making allowances for ourselves. One way or another, creatively or not, we cannot avoid responding to what confronts us.

Conversion, then, far from being a once for all decision, or even an apprenticeship in Christian faith, turns out to be a life-long process, the essence of Christian faith itself. We never stop needing to be converted. Paul speaks of this in terms of transformation: "Be not conformed....but transformed" (Rom. 12 .2). It involves the whole of our lives: our attitudes and habits, our relationships and our outlook on life. It is not confined to matters of personal or private morality, but is also concerned with issues of money and power. In fact, there is no area of human life which is not an appropriate area for conversion.

The word "convert" is possibly the most general one in our religious vocabulary: it simply means to change from one thing into another. As we have seen; it applies to morals, to our political outlook, to spiritual life, to theology and belief systems. Just as the Reformers believed that the correct theological procedure was reformation, so in spiritual life we make progress through conversion. We never arrive. We always need converting, but conversion in its Christian sense means not just change - any change - but change which brings us into conformity with Christ.

Perhaps the Reformers' undoing was in equating conformity to Christ with a certain intellectual or theological framework. The implication of Paul's comment above seems to be that conformity with Christ is always transformation, a much more dynamic and creative concept. Transformation means much the same thing as conversion, but it refers to a change in appearance, form and substance, whereas conversion is very often thought of only in one-dimensional terms, i.e. referring to a change of opinion or belief.

Interestingly enough, the mechanism of conversion is quite often the same, whether we embrace Christian faith for the first time or break through some barrier later in life. We may struggle with something beforehand or we may not, but often the breakthrough is similar to the beach trip analogy: nothing dramatic or spectacular, just an ordinary act of will to move in a certain direction - to forgive someone, to quit relating in a certain way, to accept a given necessity, to stop resistance or to be open to a different point of view. Christian life is made up of such small changes, which, when they happen, are often felt both by ourselves and others as a mini-transformation.

The opposite of this is the kind of conformity which involves just going with the flow. This happens in community as easily as it does in church. We simply learn how to be.

In the film Schindler's List, there is a scene in which the Jewish slave-girl who keeps house for the commander of Auschwitz tells Oscar Schindler that the worst part of it is that there are no rules. Nothing is predictable; there is no way to avoid punishment or to gain commendation. We all have a need to know what is acceptable and unacceptable, so we can learn how to fit in and become acceptable ourselves. But in the kingdom of God, the starting point is that we are accepted in the beloved. Here too, like Auschwitz, there are no rules - but from a totally opposite point of view. There is no need for conformity in order to be acceptable. Being an essentially defensive posture, conformity may make our lives a little more comfortable, but it blocks the flow of the transforming Spirit. It might seem, especially in a church or community, that the good and right thing is to conform to what is expected. But the upward call (as Paul described it) is not to conform, but to be transformed.

I think this is important both from a social point of view and in view of the fact that we all live by a rule. Whether we live in community or not, we all have a rule of thumb by which we customarily live our lives, and in church circles there is a broad consensus of social and religious rules which govern social intercourse and define Christian behaviour. The calling of God does not require us to be mavericks, bucking these rules, but does invite us not to take refuge in them. Taking refuge, in fact, is one of the areas in which we need to be converted. Conversion - transformation - is the energising power which gives social and religious rules their dynamism. Without that, there is no energy flowing (or perhaps even a negative energy), and the difference is palpable.

Thus a vow of conversion, though part of a "Rule", is not the kind of rule that will tell you that you are OK so long as you toe this particular line. In one sense, it is a vow not to live by the rules! The reason we make it a vow is because it is so difficult to to keep ourselves focused without a continual reminder. In the face of the never ending upward call of God in Christ Jesus, we easily slip into adopting one of two strategies: conformity or rejection. Rejection is often a repudiation of the strategy of conformity rather than of God himself, but the effect is usually the same: to leave us in a kind of spiritual no man's land, in which we conform to our own personal rules rather than those of the church at large.

In the Community's Rule, there is a reference to 1 Peter 1.22, which in the King James version concludes with the phrase "let us love one another with a pure heart, fervently". The word "fervently", which is replaced with less graphic translations in more modern versions, conveys the idea of both abandonment and emotional warmth.

If community is about anything, it is about this - learning to love without holding back. In practice, of course, love may well be quenched by our own internal pain or bitterness of spirit, which causes us to shut others out and perpetually confronts us with our need for conversion. Yet it may not be our feelings of hurt which smother love most effectively. Love is demanding, and the easiest thing is to retreat from it into activities and commitments which are undoubtedly very necessary. We easily forget Paul's warning that all the activity in the world amounts to nothing, without love.

Obviously, it helps greatly in this process of learning to love if there is a stable environment in which trust and openness are possible. That is what community is for. But for all of us, the call of God in Christ Jesus is to an undivided heart with which we love not only those we are attracted to and feel at home with, but every individual who needs a place of dignity, identity and belonging. And who is there who does not need that?

I would like to be able to say that after a certain length of time in Christian living we cease to need converting. In my experience, that's a place to which we never arrive. We may experience some remarkable changes in our lives when we first start out in faith, but some things do not change easily. Deep seated habits, feelings and patterns of thinking can take years to shift. But there are some areas of our souls which do not even come to light until we are later on in life, or dealing with unfamiliar circumstances. And the fact that we had a "conversion" experience once does not, unfortunately, guarantee that we remain converted. It can be quite shocking to realise that things we thought we had dealt with years ago have suddenly returned with a vengeance.

Outside certain circles, we don't often talk about being converted. Perhaps we should. We tend to use other, less religiously loaded, language like "pushing through barriers". Such terminology makes it seem as if Christian discipleship is a self improvement course rather than a journey in which we are dependent on, yet always have available to us, the grace of the Holy Spirit. I do not deny that there is much to be gained from techniques in self understanding not available to earlier generations. But we should not lose sight of the fact that Christian faith is, fundamentally, a matter of the spirit. It is at that level that true conversion takes place.

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