Project Conversion

When I converted to Christianity at the age of 15, I assumed the faith with a passionate resolve. Despite the positive instruction from my pastor and others, I (for reasons I cannot explain) transformed into a fiery evangelist, launching Christianity at friends and strangers like salvos of religious artillery.

I believe that is partially why I grew so cold and bitter toward the faith once I discovered that my wife, Heather, became a Christian after the loss of our fourth unborn child.

It wasn’t fair how I treated her. It wasn’t fair how I projected my own fears, mistakes, regrets, and hatred upon her newly developed faith. I had become Saul of Tarsus, hunting down Christians wherever I could find them, and Heather would be my first spiritual martyr.

But Heather’s faith, despite my relentless assault, withstood and strengthened in the face of my siege.

This past with Christianity was part of the reason I recently developed a new immersion project called “The Disciple.” For one year, I wanted to slip into the mindset of a 1st century follower of Jesus and see this faith and lifestyle with fresh eyes.

However, when I asked for input from the Congregation on Facebook, I received a highly varied if not polarized reaction.

  • Just do it!
  • It feels phony.
  • Who cares what others think.
  • A year is too long.
  • I’m interested in what you’ll discover.
  • I can’t follow if you go on a Christian path.

These were just a few of the reactions…And I understand them all.

Project Conversion 2011 received a great deal of initial objection, doubt, and speculation, however most of the detractors were silenced once the journey began and I proved that not only could I pull off the concept, but that it could transform lives. I am walking proof of that outcome.

But now, in the face of these objections, I no longer have the same confidence I had in 2011. That isn’t to say I’m buckling to the opposition. What it means is that, as a result of Project Conversion itself, I have learned to value and consider multiple points of view and, when necessary, make a change of heart. That’s a hallmark of both leadership and maturity.

And so after some intense introspection following the input of the Congregation, and counsel from my wife, I’ve decided to cancel “The Disciple.”

What I discovered through this catharsis of inner debate was manifold and course-altering:

Project Conversion is Over:

Project Conversion was the greatest personal adventure of my life to date. It represents a complete 180 degree turn in my life and altered my entire sense of being. As one Congregation member pointed out, there was a personal purpose, one that involved a change of self, involved in that process. “The Disciple” does not bear those traits. I cannot nor will I live my life one year-long project after another. This isn’t a reality show.

Plotting a New Course:

When the Buddha left the Bodhi tree after having reached enlightenment, he graduated from the exclusive role of student/seeker to teacher/practitioner. In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, this is the stage of “Return with the Elixir.” Many of us will experience this stage in our lives. Graduation from school, completion of some training, returning from one’s travels. We endure the challenges of such tasks, obtain something of value, and return so society with a great boon.

Project Conversion was my great adventure and with it I gained two great boons: the art of immersion, and a deep love for the humanity behind all religions.

Now, I must return and share these boons with others, not find a new “great adventure” to occupy my time and resources.

The Student Becomes a Greater Student:

The closer we approach mastery, the more perfect a student we become. Only in the last few days did I truly understand what has happened. I caught glimpses of it in the early weeks of Project Conversion’s conclusion, but only now, under these new purifying flames, has the truth become clear. While I did not emerge from the baptismal pool of Project Conversion with a specific religion, I did walk away with a definite path.

I am an Immersionist.

But if you look at the blog since the beginning of the year, you see a random spattering of religious material with no rhyme, reason, or direction. I see now that what I am–at this moment–is a newborn on the Immersionist path.

I am again, a new convert.

This realization reminded me of my experience with Christianity, of how I took hold of the faith without regard for discipline or patience. What you are witnessing now is one who has discovered his own path, and one that he must pave with his own two hands through relatively uncharted territory.

A New Direction:

And so with that understanding, Project Conversion will take a new form. No more sporadic rambling, but a clear theme. Herein you will find posts on two distinct subjects:

  • My growth in and teaching of the Immersionist path
  • How this Immersionist path lends itself to the world of religion and interfaith peace

What this means is that every post will cover my day-to-day slip into the life and practice of the religious world around me in general, and the way of the Immersionist in particular. For example, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is approaching. As an Immersionist, I will slip into the role of a practicing Muslim and observe Ramadan. The posts you read, therefore, will cover those two aspects: experiencing Ramadan and the methods I use as an Immersionist.

Although I am leaving the role of exclusive student and adopting that of practitioner, the adventure does not truly end, but only changes form. I’m exchanging the headline-grabbing moment and entering the epic minutia of everyday life. I hope you’ll join me.

Thank you for stopping by. Today I’ll share the overall strategy for “The Disciple: A Year Living as a Follower of Jesus.” First off, let’s go ahead and review what this new immersion project is not.

“The Disciple” is not:

  • An endorsement for Christianity or Judaism.
  • An attempt to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus.
  • An exploration of Christianity or Judaism for my own personal consideration or conversion.
  • A polemic against Judaism or Christianity.
  • A subversive tactic for Christian evangelism.

Remember, I’m not a Christian, so I have no vested interest in the success of this experience other than sheer curiosity. “The Disciple” is a year-long experiment to answer one simple question: What would a follower of Jesus really be like from the 1st century point of view?

In 2011, I immersed myself in 12 distinct faith/philosophy systems and as a result, completely reoriented my perception of humanity. I, in effect, converted from hatred of religion (and its devotees) to a love of religion. Now, I want to explore the nature of what it means to be a follower of Jesus as he taught and commanded some 2,000 years ago. Will we recognize this “disciple,” will he look the same as most modern Christians today? I think it’s an important questions for Christians and non-Christians alike.

So let’s find out together.

For starters, I needed Mentors for guidance in this new immersion journey, and this time I sought out three. One is my old Catholic Mentor, another is a former pastor and church planter with a deep knowledge of early church history, and I’m currently seeking out a Jewish Mentor for expertise in 1st century Jewish culture and religiosity.

Together, these three Mentors will inform my social, political, familial, and religious outlook for the entire year. After discussing the project with my two existing Mentors, we agreed to break down the year in the following way. Pay close attention to the dates:

Stage One: Jewish Conversion:

Starting August 1st, 2012, I will address you via blog entry and very short weekly video logs (5 to 10 minutes) as a new convert to Orthodox (or at least very strong Conservative) Judaism. During this stage, I will share the experience of converting to my new faith and relate everyday events as a Jew. I will live as if Jesus has not yet entered history. This means I will have no concept of terms such as “church,” “Christianity,” “Trinity,” or any other Christian notions which exist today. The purpose here is to mold my perspective into one of a Jew living in tumultuous times, looking for the deliverance of the promised Messiah. In order to do this, I must live Stage One fully as a Jew.

Stage Two: Experiencing the Gospels:

Stage Two begins on December 1st, 2012. Notice that each stage takes four months. December 1st is also about a week into the Advent season when many Christians celebrate the coming of Christ. In the same way, I will begin experiencing Jesus in daily life as if he’d just shown up for the first time. Although I am still very much a Jew (as Jesus’ first disciples were), I will develop a growing curiosity for the man and his teachings. In docudrama fashion, my blog entries and video logs will catch “glimpses and sound bits” of characters such as Jesus and John the Baptist as I encounter them. In effect, I will recast the gospels and live them out as if they had never occurred. This means several others are involved in this project. Stage Two will culminate on March 31st, Easter Sunday, when Jesus is tried and executed. If all goes well, we have some pretty intense plans for that day.

Stage Three: The Birth of the Church:

Although I am a disciple of Jesus by the end of Stage Two, I will not have witnessed his death or resurrection. I will begin this stage terrified and doubting my intelligence to a man who had died a criminal only days prior. Another disciple, who reportedly witnessed the death and resurrected of Jesus, will have to convince me by faith of this notion. In this way, I will connect myself to the modern condition of a convert. From here, I will move outside the gospels and into the early development of the Jerusalem church. By this time there is no apparent rift between Christians and Jews. In fact, the earliest Christians were observant Jews. From here, you will witness weekly Shabbat services occurring in my home where we read Torah and, without the use of a New Testament, recall the teachings and events of Jesus as if we were witnesses. There is no printed gospel, no letters of Paul. The journey will end with Paul’s arrival, which inaugurated the full evangelism of the Gentiles and began the spread of Jesus’ teachings far outside the orbit of Judaism.

So there you have it, my life for one year. As you can see, this experience is quite structured, yet there is always room for surprise. I of course, will live in a small Southern town as an observant Jew who has no idea who Jesus or what a church is for much of the time. It is within these next 30 days then, that I must purge myself of this context–wipe the slate clean–as it were, and prepare myself for my new identity.

What are your thoughts? What do you think we’ll see and learn throughout the year? By the way, all blog posts going forward will be filed under the “The Disciple” category on the sidebar.

Oh no, not another immersion project!

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That’s what she said. No really, that’s what Heather said when the idea hit me like a punch in the gut on the way home from our family vacation earlier this month.


It’s early June and we just wrapped up our annual week-long vacation with my in-laws at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This was the first official piece of R & R we’d had since the end of Project Conversion, so we left the beach fresh and purged of all the stress pent up from 2011.

Heather is fan of contemporary Christian music, so she indulged while the kids and I took a nap on the drive home. Just as I emerged from the nap, a radio host comes on and starts talking about some 19-year-old kid dragging a 12-foot cross from Texas to Washington, D.C.  Heather wants to change stations, but I start geeking out over this kid and soon I’m completely enthralled in the program.

The radio host, Marty Minto, is asking his audience a fair question: Is this kid just showing off, or is this a bona fide expression of faith? Should Christians take Jesus literally when he commanded his followers in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16: 24 to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me [Jesus].”

Scene from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion”

No thanks, I’ll pass.

But Mr. Minto goes farther. He suggests in no uncertain terms that the teachings of Jesus–how his followers were to live and interact with others–were so much more radical than modern Christians live up to. Marty really pushed buttons when he suggested that if Christians today truly realized what Jesus was asking of them, that most would throw in the towel.

It’s apparently that revolutionary–and subversive, to our comfort levels.

So I thought out loud, “Well, what was a 1st century disciple of Jesus like? How did he live? How did he carry out his teacher’s commands?”

Deep in thought, I glanced at Heather. That’s when I got the feeling, that same pit in my stomach that set me on course for 2011’s Project Conversion.

“Damn,” I said. “I just asked a question I can actually answer…”

“What?” Heather said, trying not to swerve off the road.

“The question I just asked…I can answer it. But it would take, uh, it would take another year of immersion.”

“You mean, you’d have to live like a Christian?”

It took me a second to process that, and then I nodded slowly. “Yeah, like one of the first ones–when they were still Jews.”

Heather slouched in the seat. “Just tell me there’s no beard involved and I’m all for it.”

Come on Heather, you know you were hot for Sikhi Andrew.

Let me just say this: I don’t want to do this. I have a nasty history with Christianity. I once used it as a cruel weapon against unbelievers, and then when I lost the faith, became a staunch enemy of the entire system. There is some major baggage here that I haven’t faced entirely that will likely rear its ugly head during this process, but I cannot ignore the summons to do this. Let’s face it, I’m an Immersionist (yeah, I just coined that), maybe being an Immersionist is my proverbial cross.

But make no mistake, this isn’t about promoting/proving/spreading or disproving Christianity.

This isn’t about me looking into the faith for myself. This new immersion experience is for one purpose only: to answer the question of what Jesus’ first followers were like in their thoughts and actions, and then juxtapose that figure with modern Christianity.

So how am I pulling this off? What’s involved? Will I have mentors? Has Andrew lost his freaking mind? Will Heather break bad on him again?

Well, you’ll have to stick around for the next post on Monday, July 2nd. This should be interesting, folks…

And now, I think I need a drink.

Religion is an important, if not central, strand in many American families. We see the traditional set-up all over the place and now that I’m something of a spiritual nomad, I have the privilege of an objective witness to the show.

A Southern Baptists couple, dressed in their Sunday best and King James Bibles cupped in their hands, herding their kids toward the church doors on Sunday morning. Young boys and girls in a masjid during jumah (congregational prayers in Islam) awkwardly imitating the rhythm of prayers and prostrations of salaat. The curious stares of Hindu children at the line of murti (images or statues of the gods/goddesses) in their local Hindu temple during aarti and darshan. The display is identical all over the world.

We’ve all witnessed this phenomena: children are either coldly indifferent or passionately curious about the rituals and practices of their parents. My own daughters found my journey through Project Conversion a deep source of both learning and entertainment. Without appearing too irreverent, to a child, our various religious practices–even the ceremonial clothing we don–may be little more than a session of make-believe or dress-up, yet this doesn’t siphon value from the practice because imitation via imagination is how children learn.

I think the biggest mistake religious/spiritual-minded adults make is assuming that our children should be just as serious and spiritually mature as we are.

Which brings me to something I read in William James’ classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Note: if you are a student of psychology, philosophy, or religion in any capacity, this is required reading. As for the average believer, James says,

His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.“–William James

Keep in mind, James was no enemy of faith, just an objective observer. That said, I believe he hits the nail on the proverbial head in his assessment. Given the religious minutia of our daily lives, how much of our beliefs can we truly claim as our own?

According to a Pew Forum study conducted in 2009, %56 of American adults surveyed practice the faith of their childhood. I assume of course, that the faith of their youth is by extension, the religion of their parents. If pressed on the issue, I’m confident that if asked why they believe the way they do, these folks would reduce their religious convictions to, “Well, that’s what my parents taught me to believe.”

We’ve all inherited certain traits from our families. I, for example, have my mother’s eyes, but my father’s build. My wife swears our oldest daughter is my clone–personality and all–despite my fervent objections. On the other hand, my wife heavily favors her father in both appearance and character, which makes for interesting jokes while in the company of my father-in-law.

Our genetics are dictated by our parents, so is it the same with religion? Is spirituality and its specificity something we inherit? Are our parents, in effect, encoding our religious DNA by training us in their faith?

Of course, there is another side to this story. According to the same study, about %44 percent of those surveyed left the faith of their parents, thus ending the spiritual legacy.

And this rupture is growing–especially among younger generations–who claim no affiliation or abandon faith altogether.

If religion is a type of social genetics, are we currently witnessing a sort of evolution…a mutation?

So back to the question: Are you living out your parents’ religion? Why is this question important? Because if you are, it behooves you to examine why you are in the first place. Are you a spiritual genetic clone, going through the same motions as your parents? Perhaps you live in a small town and therefore feel social pressure to conform lest you become an outcast. Maybe you aren’t even sure why you pray or believe in anything at all. Do you believe in a divine being, or the god your parents projected to you?

Maybe you enjoy the spiritual genetic legacy passed on to you, or it could resemble the rat race: something you do because society says you should and because you aren’t privy to an alternative.

But the central question is, can you really say that your faith is your own? If you can honestly answer that question, you’ll be that much closer to “knowing thy self.”