Christians commonly view Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as the quintessential conversion story. In the face of such drama, how could anyone else’s story measure up? As Vernon’s blog this week highlights, this mode of thinking creates trouble. Apart from gaining nothing in such comparisons, if you pare away the dramatic elements, our own stories are not so different from Paul’s. In exploring the transformation of a spiritual conversion, we find we cannot do it alone and that wide-open hearts and minds are necessary.
1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
The conversion of Paul has a dramatic and even a romantic quality about it. It has become the gold standard of conversion experiences. The popular understanding of this story, at least the one I grew up with, is that on the Road to Damascus, the enemy of the Way is confronted by Jesus, converted and in a few days time, becomes an evangelist for the faith. But such an understanding oversimplifies what happened to Paul and does little to illumine the complexity of conversion in real life.
Especially for those of us who are prone to making comparisons, if a theophany (a deity directly appearing) is not part of our story, our faith journeys are somehow lesser. How often have you heard the caveat, “I haven’t had a Road to Damascus experience, but…”. It is almost an apology. It suggests other conversion experiences don’t quite measure up. But if we give up our theophany-envy and look at the human process that Paul went through, I suggest that we share much more of Paul’s story than we would imagine.
Saul begins his journey to Damascus on a mission. It is not at all clear why, but Saul is fiercely opposed to the followers of Jesus. (He was ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.’) He was not a ‘crazy man’. He had the full backing of the religious authorities to imprison and kill the heretics of “The Way’. He was on a righteous crusade and he was a man who acted on his beliefs. But, even though his learning, education and conviction were formidable, certainty is the enemy of faith. Jesus challenged Saul to leave room for the unexpected. Jesus challenged Saul to open his heart and mind to leave room for God.
Because his certainty closed his mind and heart, Paul’s story is a cautionary tale for all of us. No matter how sure we are. No matter how convincing and well marshalled our arguments are, we must keep open to the possibility that there is more than we can see. Hospitality to God requires an open mind and heart.
For the longest time when I pulled into my garage, my wife would complain I was pulling to the right—making it harder for her to get out of the car. I was quite sure I was lined up properly and found her comments annoying. I did not need her commentary. But, much to my chagrin, when I got out of the car, it was obvious that the car was angled to the right. To this day, when I pull in, it seems to me I am going straight. But I was and am wrong. I could not know that until I could see outside of my own perception. I was literally blind to my own error.
In real life, It is frightening how often we forget that the way we see things may not be the whole story. Our certainty and lack of humility leads to strident discourse religiously, politically and most personally in our day to day relationships. We may be completely wrong—or even worse, we may be doing harm. It is hard to be curious, much less respectful when we are sure we are right. Only when we are confronted by something outside of ourselves can we realize that we can be blind.
Paul started toward Damascus with clear vision and purpose. He arrived disoriented, dependent and unable to see. He had yet to be converted but he had definitely been confronted. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He knew what didn’t work. He thought he was doing God’s will but now that was sharply called into question. He knew he had to stop what he had been doing—but it was not at all clear what he should do. This too is a rather ordinary experience in real life.
The first time you learn, and really experience, that the world is not as we think it ought to be, it is disconcerting and disorienting. Just yesterday, I had a woman complain, “Why should I keep trying if he is going to keep telling me he is disappointed and I’m not enough.” She was working hard at being a good wife but felt she was always swimming upstream. But the flaw in her thinking is that her being a good wife is not measured by her husband’s satisfaction. His discontent predated her and no amount of accommodation on her part would be sufficient. Neither of them knows this yet. They both are unhappy. Both feel like they’ve tried—and they have. And both know ‘it’s not working.’ For now, they are blind. They know what doesn’t work but have yet to find a new vision.
Spiritually, this dilemma usually occurs when we face our first tragedy, or the loss of someone dear. Our understanding of a just and loving God is challenged, if not shattered by loss. Instead of solace, we find loneliness and despair. We can not imagine going on with such loss. What we wanted and expected from our God is violated. This is a painful time but, as best as I can tell, it is unavoidable. It is a terrible thing to realize what we had counted on doesn’t always work. And most of us, like Paul, have significant periods of disorientation and depression where we neither eat, drink or sleep. Only if we are very fortunate, do such feelings last only three days.
Finding a new way of seeing can not be done alone. This is the part of Saul’s conversion that is not usually emphasized. Saul needed to be led and cared for while he was blind. God had to call Ananias to minister to him. And that was no small request. It required Ananias to demonstrate radical hospitality to a known enemy. Ananias was called to live the faith he professed. Contrary to what his own eyes told him and what common sense dictated, he was called to love a man dedicated to killing him. He was told to rely upon God and to trust God’s purposes. It is in that example and it was in that relationship that Saul found a new way of seeing. He was shown—and the scales fell from his eyes.
Saul’s conversion required that his worldview and the source of his confidence and identity be challenged. He had to endure disorientation and he needed the support of those around him. Finally he needed an example and a relationship to give him new direction. The drama of blinding light obscures the fact that Paul went through a process that every person of faith goes through. Our certainties must be challenged. We must learn that being blind and lost is part of what it means to become a Christian. And we must be shown a more excellent way by someone who will risk living it.
When you are lost, remember Saul. You can’t get to God without being lost and learning a new way to see. That part is always disorienting. And when you feel more secure, remember Ananias. We are called to remember and to live the faith so that others can see. Saul and Ananias are part of the same story. Both require a hospitable heart.
Grant us the courage to tolerate our doubts and uncertainty. And grant us the willingness to be living examples of God’s hospitality.