You Can’t Manage Conversion

Kaleb reflects about expectations and conversion:

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said…He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.”    Matthew 28:5-7

I’ve thought a lot about expectations during the past several months. This summer, before I left for South Africa, I persistently told myself to abandon my expectations for the year ahead. As much as I longed to know what was coming on the other side of that plane flight, I also knew that if I arrived with too many expectations, I would be setting myself up for a rough transition. Even during in-country orientation when solid details seemed to be finally falling into place, we were warned that things can change, that we shouldn’t be too attached to any one image of our host communities. In the midst of a monumental transition, we sought to embrace the uncertainty and to see the value of remaining open to surprise every single day. We were fighting hard against our expectations.

I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at this whole no-expectations business. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve hopped in someone’s car with pretty much no idea where we were going or why we were going there, just that it would be a valuable learning experience in the end. Every morning when I wake up, I rarely know exactly how I’ll be spending my time for the rest of the day. It all depends on who asks for my help, who I bump into on the road, who invites me to their home, and even whether or not it happens to rain that afternoon. While it sometimes leaves me feeling totally out of control, that’s probably exactly what my control-freak self needs right now. Abandoning expectations can be terrifying, but it can also be liberating.

But during the past month or so, I’ve begun to realize that giving up control is more complex than just abandoning the daily planner. I’ve really been struggling to put words to this discomfort, this yearning, this unanswered question that has been churning in my mind. But during our first YAGM SA retreat, Pastor Philip Knutson, a long-time representative of the ELCA in South Africa, offered a framework that has helped me begin to sort through this lesson-in-progress.

Working from a lifetime of missionary experience, Philip had an enormous wealth of wisdom and insight to share with the YAGM crew. But the phrase that has stuck with me the most is this: You can’t manage conversion.

I believe that, in many ways, the YAGM year is a time of conversion. Although the word “conversion” certainly carries some baggage, and although every young adult’s experience is ultimately unique, I think we all hope to be changed by our experiences this year. I’ve had lots of conversations with other YAGM about changing our perspectives on power and privilege, changing our lifestyles to be more simple and less focused on consumerism, changing the way we engage those of different culture and background, and changing the ways in which we see God at work in the world. We hope to be changed, to be molded, to be shaped by our brothers and sisters around the world and by our God. We are certainly not here to convert other people, but I for one sure hope that I undergo some conversion this year. In many ways, I am here to be changed, and one of my deepest fears is that I will come out of this year unchanged. Spending a year of life as a YAGM is too much of a privilege to miss that opportunity.

And so I’ve spent a great deal of energy and worry these past months trying to make sure I don’t miss out on the conversion this year has to offer. Some days, this yearning for change is a positive thing…it helps me push outside my comfort zone, and it encourages me to stay open to the lessons each day offers. But then other times it has become a big source of frustration. That day when I made 3000 copies in the diocese office didn’t seem very much like the conversion I had envisioned. I get angry at myself when I feel like my incredibly slow progress with the Zulu language is keeping me from really getting to know people in my community. I feel guilty when I take a bath with running, heated water, and I think to myself, “Am I really living in solidarity with my community when I know that many people in this area live without running water?” I get frustrated when I feel like I’m not learning “enough” about the history of South Africa. I daily ask myself, “Am I trying hard enough? Am I putting myself out there enough? Am I changing enough?” And every day, I struggle with trying to figure out where God is in all of this.

And so here I am. Trying to abandon my expectations, striving to live into the unknown opportunities of each day…and all the while grasping tight to a vision of conversion that I must somehow achieve if this year is to be “successful.” Sure, I can deal with not having my day scheduled down to the minute. But it is another thing entirely to realize that I cannot, no matter how hard I try, make myself change on my own terms. Who am I to say that making 3000 copies isn’t a learning experience? Who am I to say that my imperfect Zulu is a barrier rather than an opportunity? Can I really dictate exactly which lessons of simple living I’m going to learn this year? Is it really in my power to make my friends and neighbors tell me about their experiences with apartheid?  Can I really be the one to decide whether I’m living intentionally enough, whether I’ve changed enough, whether I’ve been converted enough? And, for goodness sake, who am I to determine where God is at work in all of this?

I can’t manage my conversion. Just like the women at the tomb, I showed up here and expected to find Jesus right where I thought he should be. “Here I am, show me Jesus,” I said. But, thank goodness, there was a voice—or in my case, many voices—that reminded me, “He is not here…He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.” Jesus does not fit into the box of my expectations. And the road to Galilee—the road of my conversion—does not follow my well-mapped plan. As usual, God is messing with my expectations. Even the way I think about change is changing.

And I’m certainly not in Galilee yet. Every single day, I find in myself the impulse to hold on tightly to control, to somehow force the change I think I need out of every day and every interaction. I too often assume that I know where I’m supposed to end up at the end of this year’s journey, that I know the person I am supposed to become.

It is in these moments that Jesus meets me, reminding me that the path of conversion is far from tidy, comfortable, and predictable. It is a daily journey to the tomb, a daily reminder that “he is not here; he has risen,” and a daily willingness to travel the road toward Galilee, to trust the promise that Jesus goes ahead of us to meet us along the way. To share the companionship of brothers and sisters who will often point us in surprising but meaningful directions. To trust the call to abandon control. And, against all expectations, to trust deeply that this journey is one of abundant conversion.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s