John Newton had, by any standard, a rough start in life. His mother died when he was only seven, and his father left him with a step-mother he hardly knew while away at sea, and then shipped him off to a boarding school where he was tormented. At age 11 he went to sea with his father, who was an English shipmaster in the Mediterranean. At age 18 Newton was taken pressed into service in the Royal Navy as a midshipman. When he tried to dessert he was whipped 8 dozen times in front of the crew, and demoted to common seaman. This experience was so mortifying and painful for him that he considered suicide. Then, while his ship was sailing to India Newton transferred to a new ship, the Pegasus, a ship that imported goods West Africa then took slaves on the return voyage. Apparently even on this new ship Newton was just not a team player, and so he was left with the slave dealer who “gave him” to an African duchess. Finally in 1748, when he was 23, his father asked a sea captain to search for him, and Newton was rescued.
It was on his trip back to England on a ship called the Greyhound that he had the conversion experience described in the song “Amazing Grace.” The ship came upon a storm so severe, that the ship began to fill with water. Newton “called out to God” to save them. A piece of Cargo drifted into a position which stopped up the hole and the ship was saved. On the rest of the trip Newton began to read the bible and other Christian tracts, and when he reached England he formally converted to evangelical Christianity. He gave up gambling and drinking, and eventually became a preacher.[i]
This is the quintessential conversion story, is it not? In a moment of despair a frightened soul reaches out for God, and his life is changed forever. And Newton had his conversion to an evangelical Christianity, like so many we hear about on the Family Life network, or from our friends and neighbors. But I would like to propose that it is possible to have a UU Conversion. The word “Conversion” comes from the Latin root Vertere- to turn.[ii] As a people who believe in spiritual growth, we know that being able to turn is important. We know that it is possible to grow up with one set of ideas, and then to realize in adulthood that those dearly held beliefs (the fancy word for this is “Theological Circle”) no longer fits your experience of life. Sometimes this happens because we are reading new books, or stretching ourselves to consider new ideas. Sometimes this happens when tragedy strikes and our old ideas cannot sustain us through these difficult times. Whether it comes to us through our own searching or through tragedy, almost always turning is painful. A turning of mind and heart is not easy but as the author Anais Nin wrote “the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Sometimes blossoming means rupturing that theological circle, so that a new circle can evolve, a larger circle that holds our next experiences, our new wisdom.
Change hardly ever happens all at once, though. So perhaps I should not have been surprised to find that even after this amazing conversion Newton did not give up working in the slave trade. Newton took a job on a slave ship called Brownlow in 1748 and on the first part of the voyage he came down with a horrible fever, which lead him to a second conversion experience where he “asked God to take control of his destiny.” It was at this time he said he “felt totally at peace with God.”
We like to think once we’ve had that conversion experience, once we’ve turned, we are finally set once and for all. But in point of fact no circle will be big enough to hold us all our lives. As we grow we need our wisdom to grow with us.
When I was installed at the Palo Alto church, I asked my mentor Geoff Rimositis to offer the “Charge to the minister” and with the charge he delivered that day he gave me a compass. Geoff was a backpacker, and one of the best things about the youth program at his church was that each summer he and the other minister would take all their Jr. high kids out on a week-long backpacking trip to start the new year together. So Geoff knew something about the importance of a compass and as an MRE of over 20 years he knew and still knows something about finding your way as a minster. He pointed out that there are two kinds of north on the compass, magnetic north and true north. And he advised that sometimes in our lives we lose track of true north. That really resonated for me- the truth that throughout our lives we are constantly turning and re-turning to find our way back to true north.
Another minister I look up to, Brian Jessup, said his mission in both life and ministry was the “Constant conversion of my heart to love and to justice” . This also has stuck with me now for over a decade because it reminds me that conversion is not a one-time deal, but something that is available to us every moment in which we choose true north. Every moment we can turn from whatever path we are on, toward love, toward Justice.
Well, even after Newton’s second, true conversion, did he give up working in the slave trade? No. He made three more voyages, now as captain of slaving ships until 1754. And even after having a stroke that caused him to leave seafaring, he still invested in slave ships. Finally in 1757 he applied to become a minister, and it turned out to be something he was good at. He became known for his pastoral care, and as a compelling evangelical preacher. In 1779 he wrote the words to the famous song “Amazing Grace.”
It wasn’t until 1788, 24 years after leaving the slave trade, that Newton published a book called “Thoughts upon the slave trade” which described the horrible conditions of the Middle passage. He offered "a confession, which ... comes too late ... It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." He became a lobbyist for abolishing the slave trade, living to see the “Slave Trade Act of 1807” passed in parliament just before he died that very year.
American Buddhist Teacher Jack Kornfield puts this in a way that makes a lot of sense to me – he says “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry” After these moments of clarity and insight, there we are with our ordinary mundane lives. Laundry needs to be done, bills have to be paid. Just because your heart has been turned, doesn’t mean your partner has, or your friends, or your boss. The way forward can be confusing after a turn of heart. I had always heard the story of Amazing Grace told as if in one moment, during that storm at sea Newton had reached out in prayer, and in one moment -- “The hour I first believed” -- had been both converted in faith and turned to renounce the slave trade. In fact that turning took a lifetime. Says Wendell berry:
“whatever is foreseen in joyThat work Newton did in the pulpit, in parliament, in writing about his experiences of the slave trade. It took him some 40 years to fully live out that turning. Berry goes on to say:
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.”[iii]
“And yet no leaf or grain is filledGrace. Oh My. Now we’ve come to another one of those sticky words--Grace. In traditional Christianity Grace is a divine gift, given not because we have earned it or deserve it, but in an outpouring of generosity. There’s nothing in the story of Newton’s early life that show us he deserved special favor. He was a gambler, a drinker, a slave trader, and apparently kind of a jerk; he was so hard to deal with he was abandoned in Africa. And Yet…And yet when he cried out from the depth of his fear and pain, something happened for him. Something turned. This is especially important for us Universalists, the idea that salvation is available to anyone, that any one of us can convert our hearts to love and to justice, no matter what unprincipled jerks we’ve been in the past.
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap
Great work is done while we’re asleep”
AND- and here is the hard part- this idea of Grace suggests that help is available. This idea is found not just in Christianity, but in all the faith traditions I have studied- that when you have even had the thought “Could I turn?” that with the first thought “I WANT to turn” that is the divine calling to us, helping us find our way. The great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou believed that people would turn toward God because God called to us, wooed us, because divine goodness shines out to us. Berry helps us understand that Grace is there for atheists as well. “No leaf or grain is filled by work of ours” he writes. And anyone who has planted a garden knows this. It is hard work. We till the soil, we sow the seeds, we water, and then we wait. We hope. We leave it to grace, and so often those tiny seeds grow into a tomato plant, into a rambling zucchini vine that gives and gives, that feeds us and our families. That’s what my garden looks like right now- a bed of soil interrupted periodically by little seedlings waiting for grace.
Conversion is deciding to plant the seed. Those who tend their garden day by day, water those seeds, weed, are more likely to see this new life grow into something that will nourish them in time to come. That same grace, the grace that turned an unprincipled jerk into a reformer who worked to end the slave trade, the same grace that turns a tiny seed into a zucchini plant that rambles and gives and gives, that same grace is there for each of us each time we look deep into ourselves and ask “am I headed true north? Is there more that I can be?”
Life is confusing. It is easy to get lost among the many voices in the world calling to us to follow them—lost among the many voices in our own mind and heart pointing in different directions. Conversion, at its best, is finding true north and turning towards it; “I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.” And anyone who has sailed a ship or hiked an unmarked trail knows that it is not just one turning, but a turning again and again back to true north, a constant conversion of the heart to love and to justice. I want you to know this morning, that conversion is not just something that happens to our evangelical neighbors, it is there for us as well. That turning of the heart back toward true north is always available to us whenever we are lost.
[i] Most of this retelling comes from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Newton
[iii] A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 By Wendell Berry