There was the time, in 2001, that I sat next to a field at a public school in Jamaica and shared the Wordless Book with like thirty kids and led them through a sinner’s prayer.
I had more than a few similar experiences sharing the Roman’s Road while doing weekly door-to-door evangelism jaunts with my youth group, growing up in Orlando—including a REALLY embarrassing story involving an over-eager German Shepherd while leading some kids through asking Jesus into their hearts (I’ll maybe tell you the story if you ask me sometime).
Paul, then going by Saul, was going about the business of trying to rid the region of what he believed was a dangerous cult that was undermining the authority and power of the Jewish religion and risking a provocation with the Romans with their whole “Jesus is Lord” talk. The Romans weren’t interested in recognizing distinctions among Jewish religious sects. As far as they were largely concerned, if one Jew said it then every Jew said it (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).
And it was then that Saul encountered Jesus, risen from the grave. And, for him, everything changed.
The fact that he is converted as this point is somewhat underscored by his calling Jesus “Lord.” I say “somewhat” because, in Greek, κυριος (“kurios,” where we get “Kyrie” in Latin) can mean something akin to “sir.” But the fact that Saul, after being blinded by the light, calls the holy figure “κυριος” suggests that he recognizes that he’s in the presence of someone Godly. He knew his own religion enough to assume that he might be having a vision of God—which he was, but in a way he did not expect.
However, I will never forget a conversion experience I once experienced while I was in seminary. It involved a member of my field education parish’s congregation. Not that it’s all that important, but to help perhaps underscore the emotion of the story, I will add that this individual was, let’s say, gender fluid. I will not share their actual name, so let’s call them “Shell” (which could be short for either Michele or Sheldon—again, not their name, but something to help you, the reader, grasp a bit of who this individual is). Shell, at the time, was of questionable housing status and was a regular worshipper at the early morning service. At this point, I’d known Shell for maybe two years and we’d talk a lot on Sunday mornings.
Shell was pretty clear that they were not Christian. They’d come to church in order to take advantage of the breakfast we offered after the early service. But Shell was more of a “spiritualist,” keeping in line with their grandmother, who’d been a major influence in their life.
On this particular morning I found Shell in deep thought before the service. So I took a seat in the pew and said hello. (I will use script-writing for the conversation in order to avoid the cumbersome qualities of trying to use gender-neutral language here)
Shell: Let me ask you a question.
Shell: So I’ve been coming to the church for a long time. And I listen to what you all are saying every week about God and I like it and I realize I’m starting to believe it. Does this make me a Christian?
Me: Just so I’m clear, you’re saying that you believe in God, specifically God revealed in Jesus?
Shell: Yes. I think so. Does this make me a Christian?
Me, after a couple of seconds of thought: Shell, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
Shell thought for a little while, and said: Can’t I be a goose who hangs out with ducks?
Me: It doesn’t really work that way.
Shell sat for nearly two minutes, looking at the ground and thinking. After that, Shell turns to me and says: Well, I guess I’m a duck.
What a great statement of confession, right?
I share this story because conversion often does not look like we think it ought. Maybe we think of altar calls at revival meetings, or the door-to-door evangelist armed with tracts and pocket-sized Bibles. Maybe we think of the subtle drama that comes with the phrase “bow your head and pray with me” as you being to say “Lord Jesus, I confess that I’m a sinner…”
Sometimes conversion involves Jesus slapping us off our horses.
Sometimes conversion involves comparing one’s self with a duck.
The one thing that all of these stories have in common is that they all involve metaphorical seeds coming to fruition.
Paul was armed with a lifetime of knowledge about the scriptures and commentaries of his religion. Shell had spent years sitting in a church pew as an observer.
“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” the Psalmist declares. In Romans, Paul will eventually cite this passage and say:
“How can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15 CEB)
Paul here is acknowledging all the moving parts involved in evangelism. Evangelism is, indeed, a process.
At the same time, we need to be equipped in order to give an answer. Because, who knows, maybe we’re the one who’s been sent? Maybe we’re the one from whom their ears hear the good news?
I’m not interested in suggesting that people’s eternal destinies are contingent on any one person’s abilities to do the work of evangelism. I heard enough of that growing up and, frankly, the implications are quite heretical.
Instead, I’d love for all of us to know the joy that comes with experiencing watching another person come to faith in Jesus Christ. To be like Ananias, who did the powerful (and, indeed, scary) work of shepherding Paul from religious extremist to faithful disciple.
I’d love for all of us to see people recognize that they are, indeed, a duck.