Several years ago, a friend gave me a book titled “Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt.” The chapter titles are quite provocative, including the one that asks, “Are you Saved or Are You Presbyterian?” As this suggests, while we Presbyterians take our faith seriously, we still try to maintain a sense of humor.
And that chapter title comes to mind occasionally when I encounter the term “being saved” that is common in this part of the world. It’s a term that for some religious groups has a fairly specific meaning. But Christian experience of the Divine can and does occur in different ways for different people.
The dramatic experience of Paul on the road to Damascus still remains for many the model of Christian conversion. It is indeed a powerful witness to how God’s love can affect a life. John Wesley had a similar instantaneous experience when he attended a worship service on Aldersgate Street and was so touched by God’s love for him that, as Wesley put it, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”
While Martin Luther’s initial commitment to God was occasioned by his almost being struck by a bolt of lightning, he continued to experience God’s love through his encounter with different religious truths.
The Christian apologist C.S. Lewis tells of his conversion by saying simply that he was riding in the sidecar of a motorcycle on the way to the London Zoo with his brother. When he left home he was an unbeliever but by the time he arrived at the zoo he was, in his words, “surprised by joy” and had come to believe.
Frederick Buechner’s encounter with the divine was more intellectual and happened when he gained a life-changing insight during a church sermon. Buechner wrote this about the experience: “To say that I was born again, to use that traditional phrase, is to say too much because I remained in most ways as self-centered and squeamish after the fact as I was before, and God knows remain so still. And in another way to say that I was born again is to say too little because there have been more than a few such moments since, times when from beyond time something too precious to tell has glinted in the dusk, always just out of reach, like fireflies.”
Christian experiences do come in many forms and varieties. For some people conversion is a highly emotional experience, while for others it is much more of an intellectual matter. The reality is that there is not a “one size that fits all.” As Jesus told Nicodemus in their discussion about being “born from above,” the wind “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Simply put, we do not all encounter the Divine in the same way, but that is good because the Christian church is enriched and empowered by this diversity of religious experience.