I have been asked many times why I am a Christian. What people are asking for is “my conversion story,” which is both wacky and typical. It involved growing up Jewish; and then came a dream in which a Jesus who looked like Daniel Day-Lewis rescued me from the clutches of the mermaids who had kidnapped me; and then I got hooked on (and by) Jan Karon’s Mitford novels, with their depiction of characters whose lives were infused by faith in a way I yearned for; and then there was a Book of Common Prayer; and so forth.
That is the story people think they are asking for when they ask why I am a Christian—they think they are asking for things God used to get me to the Cross, to Jesus, to my knees. But now, 14 years after I was baptized, the Mitford novels and the mermaid dreams have very little to do with why I am a Christian this week, this month. They have some genealogical relationship, but it is at best woefully incomplete to say “I’m a Christian today because of a dream I had in 1995.” And I think, as interesting as the stories of our Christian beginnings are, it would be grand and fabulous if the Church would more fully develop the skill of telling—as passionately—the stories of the middle of our faith lives.
So, why are you a Christian today?
Some of our most compelling contemporary literature explores those questions, or variations on them. To wit, Heather King’s recent Shirt of Flame, in which King, a convert to Catholicism, describes a year in which she comes to understand her own spiritual and personal struggles through the life and writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Similarly, the many essays Anne Lamott has collected over the years plunge us into the thick of life after the conversion. Lamott tells, at the outset of Traveling Mercies, about the day Jesus came to her as a cat and she finally invited him in. But most of the rest of her essays are moments of living after conversion—living into faith. Or take Henri Nouwen’s journals, which plunge us deeply into the middle of Nouwen’s life with God. It doesn’t much matter to the reader why Nouwen became a Catholic priest; what matters is what sense he is making of that vocation 10 years later, 20 years later, 30.
As for me, I am only in very small part a Christian this Tuesday morning because of that mermaid dream.
Beyond the dream, I am a Christian because a group of faithful people—some known to me and some, I suspect, still unknown—prayed for me, consistently and constantly, during a year when I could not pray.
I am a Christian because on the many Sundays when I sat in church and woolgathered, when I have sat mostly spaced out or bored, indifferent to or in rebellion against the sermon and the prayers—the Eucharist still somehow feeds my hungry self—the Eucharist being that piece of bread in which, as St. Francis noted, Jesus hides for our salvation.
Here’s a less-than-sexy, less-than-po-mo response: I am a Christian because of doctrine. Really, I mean this. In particular, I am a Christian because of the doctrine of sin—because the Christian story includes an account of everything I see when I look in the mirror and when I look out the window. It includes an account of the beauty and goodness I see—created and redeemed goodness—and also an account of the corroded, corrupt things I see. Indeed, it is Christian doctrine that not only explains those things but that allows me to see them in the first place. So, I am a Christian because of the ways the Christian story teaches me to see reality for what it is.
I am a Christian because the self-hiding God of Isaiah 45 holds me even when I am in hiding, too.
I am a Christian because Matthew 25 has been the only thing that has gotten me to interrupt my own career advancement, social life, housework and more and go to a prison—or in some other way do something other than advance my own interests. I know many a secular humanist is motivated by something other than Matthew 25 to do good things, to participate in the in-breaking of justice, but nothing else has ever actually gotten me up and out of my house. But Matthew 25 has.
I am a Christian because when I sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” the words always tell the truth.
I could go on, but you get the point.
Our conversion stories can be revealing. How we first came to know God shows much about ourselves, about God, about grace, about mystery and happenstance. But perhaps even more is revealed when we ask one another the question: Why are you a Christian this week? Why are you still a Christian? Why are you a Christian today?