On Being Converted

find-a-business-mentorToday I sat down for a coffee at the midway stop between the office and the hospital.  It’s become my midway stop mostly because I can take a minute to read there without being too disrupted.

I collect coffee shops like some people collect cars: the one they choose depends on their mood.

If I’m open to being interrupted, I’ll go to the ones near the office.  Rarely do I not see someone I know there, and the inevitable conversation becomes an important moment.

And then there’s this one.  It’s very public, and therefore, very private.  There I can get outside to get inside: inside my thoughts, inside my heart, inside the places where I store all the crap from work and unpack it.  Sort it.  Discard some. Cherish some.

Everyone should have such a place, by the way.

But here I was, sitting and having a coffee and reading what needs to be read to keep up on this work, and across from me two men, probably just over middle-age, were chatting about the Torah, with a large study edition of it open in front of them.  They were lay scholars, obviously, and their conversation was winding through the intricacies of orthodox Judaism and evolution.  Not Orthodox Judaism, mind you…not the strand of Judaism that is labeled as “Orthodox”…but rather orthodox in the sense of “what is in the norm.”

I found them being surprisingly frank with each other, willing to wrap their faith around the scholarship and science, embracing evolution.  It was apparently the topic at hand.  I was heartened.

I had my earbuds in, but I wasn’t playing any music, because I was engrossed in their conversation.

And then a third man walks up and stands there with his coffee in one hand and an excuse in the other.

His coffee?  Nondescript.  His excuse? I’m all too familiar with it…

“I couldn’t help but overhear you,” he said, “and I’d like to offer you my thoughts on your conversation.  See, I believe in Jesus Christ.  And the questions you’re discussing are all found in the new revelation called the New Testament.  We are all imperfect, and our understanding is imperfect, but God’s understanding is perfect, and…”

On and on.  I remember it well because it was kind of like witnessing a theological and philosophical car wreck in real time as he interjected himself into their conversation that, until that point, had been open and full of questions and honest responses.  The whole scene is seared into my brain.

I looked over at the seated gentlemen content with their Torah.  They were obliging but expressionless.  I couldn’t tell if they’d heard it all before or not.

The man with an excuse went on with something like:

“I just had to come over here because God invited me into the conversation.  I felt like I had to tell you these things.  You can put your trust in him.”

At this point one of the gentlemen said, “I do put my trust in God.”  Then the man with the coffee and the excuse to interrupt the conversation said, “Jesus is God.”

And then he walked away.

And the men sat there almost as if they had been assaulted.  Saying nothing. Just looking down at their open Torah, sipping their coffee.

And I thought to myself that, in that conversation, the one who needed to be converted was the one doing the converting.  He had interrupted an open and honest journey with his stock answers and intruding presence.

I understand that he had something to say.

But what if…?

What if listening is more important than saying in these days?

What if the real place of conversion is the place where the answers are so rigid they’re brittle?  And rough?  And used to assault more than affirm?

What if the saved need saving just as much as everyone else?

After all, the Jesus the scriptures point to started with converting the believers.  And believe me when I say: we need to take down that “Mission Accomplished” banner on that front…

I’m not sure how the silence at the table broke because I felt the pressure of the clock and had to move on to the next thing in the day.  I don’t know if either of those men’s hearts were moved.  It didn’t look like it.  They looked more annoyed than anything.  And I have no idea if the man with his coffee and excuse to interrupt their day felt anything from the exchange, either.

But one thing I do know: my heart was changed, just a bit.

I resolved not to replay that scene.  Ever.

I mean, not that I was in danger of doing it.  But sometimes I need to be reminded.

Re-converted, even.

Spiritual Lessons from NECCO and Bad Cake Bakers and the Pruning Hooks of Life

Oh, NECCO wafers…necco-wafers

I’m not sure I know any NECCO enthusiasts.  To me they taste kind of like a benign version of TUMS.  Just as chalky, but not as…well…nasty.

But at the news that NECCO was going out of business, people started buying the rolls of “great flavors!” candy like they were going out of style.

Because they were.

Each little quarter-sized wafer became a bitcoin all of a sudden.

And the panic was not without warrant.  NECCO is America’s oldest candy company, and not unlike Meister Brau and Toys ‘R’ Us, the potential loss of the icon was not so much the loss of a great product, but the loss of a great past in the eyes of many.

And then the bidding war started.  Candy moguls (there is such a thing) lined up to bid on the waffling wafers, with the Metropolous family winning out in the end.

You probably haven’t heard of the Metropolous family, but if you’re at all familiar with the incredible come-backs of Pabst Blue Ribbon (once the working class coozy filler and now a “trendy American lager”), Utz, and Twinkie, you’re familiar with the fruits of the family labor.

It’s not pretty, mind you.

If the Metropolous family were farmers, they’d be known as judicious pruners.  Their trees would we short but full of harvest.  They basically take whatever a company is best at and works only on that, stripping away everything that is no longer producing.

It’s a ruthless practice in many ways, and I don’t mean to romanticize it at all.  When making a comparison between the spiritual life and the actual lives that are behind a business, we run the risk of forgetting the spirit behind the stocks.

But we can learn something here, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Because NECCO was about to go belly-up, wholesale.  A total loss.

And I talk to people all the time who are quitting the faith wholesale all the time.  In their eyes, though the faith may be the longest single anchor in their lives, it has just become untenable anymore.  They feel they have to cut anchor altogether.

But what if, instead of doing that, they “sold it” in some form or fashion?

Not for profit, but for pruning.

Prune away the beliefs and ideas that are no longer life-giving.  Prune away the dead-end answers and the non-sensical moralisms.  Prune away the ideas that “defending Jesus” might mean not baking a cake for a gay couple because, God forbid, they might have something sweet on their wedding day.

I mean, c’mon. Let’s be real here.  If your religion asks you to be a jerk, it’s not worth following.  That can’t be right…prune it away.

Sometimes religion is just a cover to reinforce people’s xenophobia.  And not just the Christian religion, but any religion.  That, too, needs to be exposed and pruned away for the dead-end life that it is.

And for those of you ready to abandon the faith because some Colorado bakers are idiots: don’t.  Stay with it.  Don’t sell it wholesale, but understand that some people just can’t be made to love, no matter how much Jesus spoke about it, modeled it, commanded it even.

If Jesus were a baker, I bet he’d bake for anyone who showed up.  And every cake would rainbow-cake-finishedt-today-160621_86a1445147f5a7eda43a54f6e86033f4.today-inline-largehave a rainbow, regardless of the sexual orientation of the customer.  Because rainbows are pretty.

Allow some beliefs to be pruned away by the knife of life, which, when lived outside a bubble, will surely present you with some situations that will expose some faith ideas as inadequate for the demands of living in a world as diverse as this one.

But, and here’s the thing, I think a wholesale abandonment of the faith will prove to be inadequate, too.

Faith does not make sense of life; it helps life make some sense.  And, when it’s at its best, it keeps us from being jerks, it doesn’t encourage us to be one.

So, don’t sell off the faith wholesale, friend. Don’t lose the great past of your faith without fighting for it a bit.  You can lose parts of the faith of your past and still retain the best.

Focus on what is working best, and foster that spiritual muscle above all else.

Allow some good pruning to happen…and bake some cakes.