I once had a visit from a man who told me his wife was leaving him, but he didn’t know why.
I didn’t know why either. He was good-looking, successful, a regular churchgoer who appeared to be devoted to his wife and children.
But now she was leaving him, and he wanted to know why.
“Tell me more,” I said.
So he did, and as he talked it became clear to me that his wife was only one of the planets whirling around him in his personal solar system.
His faith, his career, his political ambitions, his new house on the lake, his Harley-Davidson motorcycle – all of these things were also important to him but only insofar as they made his life richer and better. He finally stopped talking and asked me what I thought.
I asked him if he had ever heard of Nicholas Copernicus.
Copernicus was a 16th-century Polish mathematician. He was the one who came up with the idea that the earth went around the sun instead of the other way around. He’d had the idea years before, but it was only after years of working out the mathematical proofs that he became convinced it was true.
I picture him working in his study, coming to the end of a long and complicated mathematical equation and writing down the result.
And then I picture him staggering out into the back yard, looking up at the sun and – almost literally – feeling the earth move under his feet, feeling the sky tumbling down, tumbling down as he imagined himself standing on the surface of a planet that was rotating at some 600 miles per hour while it hurtled through space around the sun.
It was such an earth-shaking idea that he didn’t publish the results of his investigation until the year of his death.
His book was immediately banned by the church. It was banned because the Bible made it clear that the sun went around the earth. It was banned because, if Copernicus was right, the earth wouldn’t be the center of the universe anymore, and neither would we.
What this man who came to see me that day had to come to terms with is that he was not the center of the universe, either.
I challenged him to put God in that place instead and take up his rightful orbit around God instead of the other way around. I promised him that if he would only do that, he would find that all the other things in his life would take up their proper orbits as well. It was a whole new way of thinking for him, and it wasn’t easy to imagine.
One of the Greek words for “conversion” is the word “epistrephein,” which means to turn around, but the other word is “metanoia,” which means to change your mind. I think it is this kind of thing the Greek word refers to: a change of mind so radical that it completely reorients you and your way of thinking.
The Copernican Revolution was so-named because it revolutionized the way people thought about the universe, the world and themselves. They were no longer at the center.
Conversion can be just that kind of displacing phenomenon. If you put God at the center of your personal universe, you can no longer occupy that place. You have to take up your proper orbit around God.
But I believe that if you do, everything else will fall into place in just the way it’s supposed to. You don’t have to take my word for it, though. You can try it for yourself.
Only then will you know if it’s true.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.