Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 3 of 7: Moments of Grace before my Conversion

Four Episodes of Grace

Before I explain my conversion experience, I’d like to describe four episodes of grace that closely preceded my conversion.  I didn’t recognize them as moments of grace at the time since I didn’t believe in God. But looking back on it, I firmly believe and insist that its only because I responded favorably to these graces, and began to imperceptibly move toward God, that I was then given the grace of conversion.  I’d also like to recount these moments so that people might recognize how God is reaching out to them in their own life, and also give them hope that God is working and will continue to work in the lives of their loved ones and those they worry about.  After all, God never stops trying to draw us to him.

The first grace concerns how I acknowledged that devout believers in my doctoral program were much happier than non-believers.  Doctoral studies are stressful and tiring.  You work 60-70 hours per week as you teach, take classes, do research, write papers, and pass qualifying exams.  Now all of us secularists—those whose hope was in the world, and regardless of whether we were radicals, progressives or the rare conservative—we were often weary, joyless and walked around with strained faces.  But among the handful who put God at the center of their life and who lived moral lives according to the natural law, they had a peace and a joy that we secularists didn’t have.  

This is what peace looks like

This was true even if the believers had a defective understanding of God because they didn’t hold the faith passed down by Christ’s apostles and their successors.  So I recognized their peace and that was a real moment of grace.  I could have dismissed the serious believers as some of my colleagues did.  I could have snickered and rolled my eyes, and labeled them “happy fools”.  But I was honest and thought, “I know these people—I’ve had classes and conferences with them—they’re not fools and they have something I want.”  So the first grace was recognizing the fruits of devotion to God, and when you respond to God’s grace, He then leads you to another grace—often a greater grace.  It’s kind of like the fairytale notion of following a trail of bread crumbs: one crumb leads to the next and you can get all the way home that way, all the way to the kingdom of God.

The next episode of grace is more dramatic, and occurred while I was driving to work in Ann Arbor at nine am.  I’m not a morning person and so I was groggy and my mind was empty and simply focused on driving.  I came to a four way stop and paused before going forward.  There were no other cars, but a UPS truck was parked to my left and was partially blocking my view.  Just as I was about to proceed through the intersection, a calm but serious voice that came from outside of me said, “Don’t go”.  I was shocked and didn’t go forward, but not because I wanted to obey the voice, but because I was stunned that I’d heard a voice at all.  There was no one there; the streets were empty.  Just then a man in a red pick-up truck appeared from behind the UPS truck and barreled through the intersection at about 35-40 mph.  He ran the stop sign and I never would have had a chance.  He would have hit me flush on the driver side door, and he either would have killed me or hospitalized me.  I still remember the blank look on his face as he passed—I think he was drunk.

This event shook me out of my daze, and I immediately told everyone I knew about it.  In a way, I had an evangelical impulse.  My attitude was, “Look at this piece of evidence! There must be some unseen, intelligent beings around us that protect us—something like angels.”  I also briefly considered a science fiction-type explanation, but I thought kindly aliens and helpful UFOs were less plausible.  Once again I was intellectually honest even though I hadn’t believed in the divine or supernatural.  In this way I welcomed and responded to God’s grace.  I didn’t revert to the skeptical philosopher and chalk it all up to natural instinct or intuition.  I heard what I heard.  I don’t know if it was an interior or exterior voice, but it couldn’t be explained by our scientific means.  This episode didn’t lead me to a commitment to God or to any faith tradition because I didn’t know what to do with this evidence of the supernatural.  But I kept it in my heart and wondered.

The third moment of grace happened after an argument at a bar.  Some doctoral students and I were settling down to enjoy a night at a pub during the long winter.  One of my colleagues thought it was amusing to play the bully, and he would always belittle a dear friend because she was a large woman.  He would insult her behind her back and even when she was with us in company.  I had tried in the past to reason with him and tell him that it wasn’t funny, but he never listened.  So he started on her again, teasing and subtly mocking her.  I saw the pained look on her face and I exploded in rage.  I channeled my inner ex-convict: I abruptly rose and pounded the table with my fist.  I let out a string of expletives, and I belittled him and challenged him to a fight right there in the back room.  Fortunately he just stayed seated and looked very small.  Realizing the matter was done, I apologized to my friends at the table, left money for the bill, and stalked out into the night.

I had only gotten about seventy-five yards when a man in a wheelchair with shattered legs—a paraplegic—approached me.  I could immediately tell he was angry and agitated, and so here we were, two unpleasant people on a cold biting night.  He wheeled in front of me to block my path and said, “Hey, can you help me with something.”  He was dressed like one of the panhandlers that live around the campus, and I could have just blown past him as people often did, but I stopped.  I made a decision to set aside my rage, and I ignored his anger and just listened to him.  He said that he was a research fellow on campus, and that he was shut out of his vehicle—a special van that he drives with his hands.  Someone had illegally parked next to him, and blocked the door that accessed his wheelchair lift.  He asked if I could back up the van so that he could use the lift and drive home.  I was happy to be of help, and as I was trying to figure out the van controls, I marveled that my anger had completely disappeared—as if the bar episode had never happened.

So what was God up to here?  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, God had set up a sharp contrast of events, a juxtaposition designed to show two ways of living.  The way of the old Scott: the fierce ex-convict who hated bullies and seethed over injustice, and who was willing to use whatever means—including force—to set things right.  But there was another path, another response to injustice: the way of Christ.  Christ’s way of patience, charity, and integrity of word and deed; the path of setting aside the self and the thirst for vengeance and accepting God’s designs and His peace.  It was a “Quo Vadis” moment: a Latin phrase from the early Church that means, “Where are you going?”  God was prompting me to consider who I was and what path I wanted to follow, and of course I wasn’t aware that he was calling me to follow His way, the way of truth and life.

St. Peter has a 'Quo Vadis' moment while fleeing Rome

In the days after the bar incident, several of my friends told me that they were glad that I humiliated the bully.  One said, “Boy, you were scary, but I’m sure glad you did that.”  Another simply shrugged and said, “He had it coming”.  My friend who was the target of the bully called it “awesome”, and said that it was the first time anyone had stood up for her like that.  But I knew they were wrong.  The right thing to do would have been to interrupt the conversation, and firmly but patiently tell him that it was unacceptable.  But instead I just used one cruelty to respond to another, and it was ugly, and I had been ugly, and I wanted no part of it.

The final episode of grace I’d like to talk about brings us right up to the time of my conversion.  I used to spend long hours in coffee shops grading papers and working on my dissertation.  Late one Saturday night, I was talking to one of the baristas, a young woman who worked at the shop, and she asked me if I wanted to go to church with her the next morning.  I was caught off guard, and so I paused for a moment until I realized that I didn’t have a good excuse to say ‘no’.  And I thought a church service seemed like a refreshing change, and besides, the young lady was cute.  The next morning I found myself at an evangelical Presbyterian Bible study followed by a worship service.

Ward Evangelical Presbyterian Church

I had always been curious about evangelicals, but it was more of an anthropological interest.  I wanted to observe them as a professor might study a "lost tribe" in the Amazon: to see what they did and what they were like.  I found it fascinating that they studied the Bible in an academic manner—as I might study Aristotle or Machiavelli.  They took the text very seriously and closely considered each paragraph with the help of historical and linguistic sources.  While some of my colleagues at the university would have immediately dismissed their scholarly efforts, I had the grace to see that they did it well and so they earned my respect.  I also found these evangelicals to be friendly and honest, and so it was easy for me to say ‘yes’ when the young lady asked if I wanted to accompany her the next week.  Since I didn’t feel the pull of faith or have any desire to become a Christian, I was open and honest with them about that.  I thought that my days of looking for God were long since past—a distant time when I still had a sense of romance and wonder.  But I enjoyed the company of these evangelicals because they were different, and I respected that.  The young woman at the coffee shop even described herself as a “born again virgin".  This was certainly a different crowd than I was used to, and that was God’s point.  Like the other episodes of grace, God was showing me that there was another way of seeing the world, another way of living.  I didn’t have to continue on the same path that had left me a shell of a person; there was an alternative, and I was on the cusp of seeing it.

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