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“All Conversions are Approximate”
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
“I do not understand my own actions . . . I do not do the good I want, but the wrong I do not want is what I do.”
Bible scholars have long debated whether those words from this morning’s epistle passage describe Paul’s life before, or after, his baptism; some saying that it seems unlikely that, at the time of the writing of Romans, Paul would still be struggling to do the right thing, so long after his conversion and baptism.
But, what Paul describes here sounds, to me, like the life of every baptized person I have ever known; perpetually longing for a deeper goodness we do not yet have, reaching, day after day, for a deeper life with God.
My phrase for that lifelong struggle is holy discontentment; discontentment, not with what we have, but with who we are; not with where we live or what we drive, but with what we say and how we act; the kind of discontentment Paul describes when he says, “I do not understand my own self. I do not do what I want, and I do what I don’t want”; the biblical equivalent of the poet Mary Oliver’s powerful sentence, “Another morning, and I wake, with thirst, for the goodness I do not have.”
We keep striving for that deeper goodness we do not yet have, not because we think we must do better in order to be loved by God, and not because we think a more centered, thoughtful, prayerful life will win us a reward, or spare us a punishment. Rather, we, with Paul, long to live mindful, thoughtful, centered lives of goodness, kindness and righteousness because, as far as we know, this is the only life we are ever going to have, and we want to live it as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can.
If we were going to get to come back around, do this over and get it right next time, perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much how we live this life. But, as far as we know, this life is the one and only life we are ever going to have in this world, which is why we keep striving for a deeper life with God, because we don’t want to waste the one and only life we are ever going to have being reckless and careless, hard and harsh, narrow and graceless, glib and shallow, deceptive and manipulative, sarcastic and unkind.
No one wants to spend their one and only life that way. What we want is what Paul wanted in this morning’s epistle passage; to get on, and stay on, the path to depth; the path to a deeper life with God, a thoughtful, prayerful, mindful, gentle life of courage, compassion, theological depth and careful, truthful speech.
But, like Paul in today’s passage, our deep desire for genuine righteousness notwithstanding, we often fail. Like Paul, we want to live lives of unfailing goodness and truth, but we often end up doing what we don’t want to do, and failing to do what we do want to do, after which comes the inevitable self-loathing and self-doubt, until, in our frustration with our own selves we say, with Paul, “O wretched soul that I am, who will deliver me from this complex, complicated, contradiction of a life I am living?”
One answer to that holy discontentment is found in Evelyn Underhill’s memorable sentence, “We must reach for what we do not have by the faithful practice of what we do have.” We reach for the unfailingly thoughtful, mindful, prayerful, life we do not have by the faithful practice of our desire to be that way. And, the more we practice being thoughtful, mindful, prayerful, truthful, gentle, generous, agendaless and kind, the better we get at it until, eventually, we begin to become more that way than we once were.
It doesn’t happen all at once, or once and for all. But, little by little, step by step, we can actually go further and further on the path to depth; reaching for the unfailing goodness we do not have by the faithful practice of the spiritual longing we do have.
All of which calls to mind, for me, an article I once read about a minister in an Episcopal church in London, who, before entering the ministry, had served as an auctioneer at Sotheby’s. Near the end of the article, the reporter who was interviewing the auctioneer-turned-pastor asked if he had noticed any similarities between the auction house and the church, to which the minister replied, “Actually, there is one way in which they are the same: Back in the pre-computer days when I worked at Sotheby’s,” he said, “we would write, each day, on a big chalkboard, the currency exchange rates; British pounds to American dollars, and other conversion rates relevant to our customers. However, since those currency conversion rates would sometimes change during the day, we would always write across the bottom of the board, ALL CONVERSIONS ARE APPROXIMATE. Which,” he concluded, “I have found to be true, as well, in the church.”
Indeed, all conversions are approximate; never complete or perfect, a life-long journey of falling down and getting up, reaching for what we do not have by the faithful practice of the desire for true holiness that we do have; never satisfied with who we are, always longing for, and reaching for, a deeper life with God.