I thought she had come to talk about her final paper for my theology class. Instead, she (I’ll call her Polly) began murmuring a series of epithets against her pastor, her church, and even God.
What provoked the outburst was her husband’s conversion — eleven years previously. I was eager to hear more.
All the years he fought me over religion, she said, I tried to be a faithful person like I was raised to be. But nobody — nobody — in my church ever prayed for me the way they did for him, or ever expressed any appreciation whatever for my being there.
And then, her husband — let’s call him Pete — became their church’s success story of the decade. A guy who thought that religion was for people who couldn’t manage to get through life on their own.
By Polly’s account, Pete’s conversion was a made-for-TV one. On a Sunday afternoon, watching cynically from a distance as his 13-year-old-son walked into a fast moving river to be baptized, Pete all of a sudden raced into the swirling waters himself and asked to be baptized too, then and there. He told the minister: God was standing there right beside me on the bank, telling me that he loved me and wanted me.
The story gets even more interesting. Pete’s conversion “took.” According to Polly, he has been a changed man ever since. But for her, it is still a source of annoyance that, as she put it, he draws crowds with his story and mine just doesn’t seem to matter.
The rest of my conversation with Polly focused on two major challenges to faith. She defined the first one herself, and almost immediately: keeping score of the accolades we don’t get for being steady and not dramatic in our faith.
And the second challenge: acknowledging the many and very different ways by which people come to faith. There isn’t just one way.
For people like Pete, it is being made a different person, in the twinkling of an eye. For people like Polly, it is making the way you were brought up your own way, but on your own terms. For people like me, it is eliminating everything that doesn’t make sense about God until something remains that does.
And there are so many more ways besides.