May 2, 2021
Paul’s dramatic conversion has me feeling a certain way. It has become a trope. A cardboard cutout.
I was a 13-year-old leader-in-training at a YMCA summer camp. The L.I.T. program is a two week program designed to train future camp counselors. I was placed with a fellow L.I.T. in the Wolf Cabin, a bunch of 3rd graders, and a muscley counselor who just vibrated with energy. He was dynamic, never stopped moving.
On our second day, he sat the whole cabin down and told a story. It was a story of a young man who got in a bad way. Drugs. Alcohol. Doing anything his friends told him to do. He asked the cabin, “Does this sound like a good guy?” The cabin said, “NO!” I then muttered, “That guy was you.” The counselor gave me a look, then said, “What if I told you that that young man was me?”
The cabin gasped in shock. The counselor then proceeded to tell them how Jesus saved his life in a dramatic conversion story, that sounded a lot like Paul’s conversion on his way to Damascus. The counselor even called it his Damascus Moment. He saw the error of his ways, the scales fell from his eyes, and he immediately gave his life to Jesus. He asked if the cabin wanted to do that, and they all said yes.
Paul is struck blind. He hears Jesus ask him, “Why are you persecuting me?” We heard in last week’s scripture how Saul approved of and held the coats of those who stoned Stephen. Our scripture today begins with Saul still threatening the disciples and going to try to track some down in the synagogues in Damascus.
After the counselor told his story and sent our cabin to shower and get ready for bed, he told my fellow L.I.T. and me to stay behind. He asked, “Did you scoff at my testimony?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, it felt like you did,” he said. “You don’t believe my testimony. Do you hate Jesus?”
I proceeded to tell him how I go to church every Sunday. That I’ve never had such a dramatic conversion story. How I wondered what the moral of his story should be. Should I go do drugs and drink so Jesus could strike me blind and lead me back to the faith that I’m already engaged in? Yet here’s this guy who I’ve known for two days telling me I hate Jesus and asking me to convert to something I already believe in. How does he deal with folks raised in the church?. Did he know people who have already been baptized and raised from birth around Jesus?
To which he replied, “Ye must be born again.”
I don’t remember much about the rest of the week. I don’t remember even the counselor or the other L.I.T.’s names, but I’ve remembered that conversation. It was my first exposure to the dramatic conversion story genre that is valued in other traditions.
The set up goes like this: Person makes awful choices. No religion in their life. Then they have a come-to-Jesus moment. And now they are zealous Christians. Each one I have met calls this part of their journey of faith their “Damascus moment,” named after our scripture today.
I must confess, I’m cynical about these stories. I know. Judge not lest ye be judged and all that. I should celebrate any person who dedicates their life to Jesus. Maybe I’m jealous. Maybe I’m like the older brother standing outside the prodigal son’s party. God pleads with me to rejoice for the sibling who was lost and is now found.
The conversion of Saul to Paul is a dramatic one. Saul goes from persecuting the early church to becoming Paul whose letters to churches make up most of the New Testament. As I read it, I am struck by a few things.
Saul wasn’t anti-religious. He was very religious. He was zealous about his Jewish religion and rooting out these heretics threatening his tradition. He was literally working under the approval and authority of his religious tradition. He then is struck. He is led to Damascus and is without sight, food or water for three days. Then along comes Ananias.
Paul had a mentor. Ananias was called to serve Paul, and he heals him. Saul’s scales fall from his eyes, he’s baptized, and then he eats. He then spends several days with the disciples in Damascus. This could be days, weeks, months… I would like to know how that community treated Saul. What they talked about. The questions and answers and the general vibe.
I recap the story for us to show how it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a longer process. A Damascus moment is more like a Damascus Season. I’ve never had an event, I’ve had a Damascus Season. I get little reminders. Little nudges. There seems to be themes that start and build up and then resolve in a new understanding of faith. That seems to be my walk. Maybe it’s your walk, too. Maybe you’ve had a dramatic Damascus Moment and you feel like I’m trashing your walk of faith, I don’t mean to. I would love to hear it as I’ve never had such a moment.
Instead, my walk has been what Pastor Eugene Petersen calls, “A long discipline in the same direction.” I have been born again… And again… And again.
I love Jesus. Always have. I struggle with the institutional part of religion as I often see denominations acting counter to Jesus. I felt that way in college. Then Kate got us back looking for a church. When we found the UCC, and the rest is history.
I was always curious about religion. I have always felt the divine in my life, even when I stopped attending on Sunday. I somehow stumbled onto the UCC community, which had a different take on Jesus than the ones I was raised with or was exposed to. It was more open. More expansive. I wanted to pursue this with everything I had. I met Jesus again for the first time, and I wanted to see where the path led. That was my call, and it was enough for me.
Since then, I’ve had a whole slew of mentors. These Ananias’s have transformed my life. You and many others have converted me to the fruit of the spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I’m converting away from being a cynical, judgmental, snarky jerk who thinks he knows it all. Sometimes I’m still that person, and I need the scales to fall from my eyes.
My work of conversion is not a one-shot deal. And like Paul, I’m writing you, my church, weekly letters in the form of sermons. I’m giving dispatches from this journey of faith, learning from you. Listening to you. Trying to lead us both to Jesus. Not a presupposed Christ-figure that demands we believe a certain way, all have the same conversion stories, all vote the same way, that we’re in lock-step and have our ticket to heaven and everyone else is damned. I don’t read that Jesus anywhere in the Bible. Not even Paul. Paul gets that reputation thanks to a few lifted verses, but he has more to say about grace and its transformative effects on his life than any other disciple.
I love Paul for that. And I love that camp counselor for that. He was trying to point to that using the words he knew in the tradition he stumbled upon. I wish we were all fired up about our faith enough to give our testimony of faith to a bunch of 3rd graders.
I used to treat that camp counselor as an antagonist. The bad guy of the story. Yet there has to be a place in faith for him. He saw the wide expanse of existence and made a lot of bad decisions. He found discipline through reduction and it changed his life for the better. Jesus has to be there. Whereas I started restricted and found joy in the wide expanse of existence. I found God waiting for me in the broad horizons. Jesus has to be there, too.
God is constantly giving us the opportunity to live our faith. To be transformed by our neighbor’s story. My conversion comes from listening to stories not my own. Thanks to the long discipline in the same direction, I see more of Jesus in our world. And maybe become more Christ-like in the process.
The jury is still out frankly. Because one story I heard recently had me feeling pretty unChristlike. It came from a Facebook page called Humans of New York. It’s a wonderful collection of stories from people in New York City and beyond.
The one from last week was about a sister and her old disabled brother. The sister, Tina, stated, “We knew he hadn’t always been disabled, because we had baby pictures lying around the house. There was no dent in his head. No shrunken arm. But my mother never really discussed what happened to him. Occasionally she’d mention ‘the accident,’ but we always assumed it was a car wreck. And we were living on an army base in Germany, so there was no family around to tell us differently. But I never pressed her on it. We were just kids, and Gene’s disabilities never bothered me. We spent our days getting into good mischief.”
Then the mom told the story of what happened to Gene. She was a single mom in the army. She needed a sitter and hired a nice older lady. The lady’s husband had a heart-attack so she had her daughter and her then boyfriend watch Gene and Tina as she rushed to the hospital. Tina was just a baby and she started crying. The boyfriend got really angry and started to beat Tina. He broke bones. Even though Gene was just three, he tried to stop it. The boyfriend threw him against the wall. Gene almost died. When he woke up from the coma, things just weren’t the same.
Gene was angry about this. He was difficult for a few years. But Tina never gave up. The Mormons stopped by and Gene was the perfect audience. They came back every week and took him out for coffee. Gene ended up joining the Methodist church but Tina credits the Mormons for introducing Gene to God. A God who loves Gene unconditionally and forgives him no matter what. Gene used to be angry, but he’s converted. The fruits of the spirit are apparent. Gene is back to the happy version of himself he was before he heard the story of what happened to him. Gene forgave his attacker, that boyfriend who left him disabled.
I wish I could say I was like Gene. When I first read that post, I felt like the sister. The sister who said, “Gene can forgive him, but not me. And I hope God doesn’t forgive him either. I hope he burns in hell. Because if the legal system forgives him, and Gene forgives him, and God forgives him– then what’s left? There has to be someplace in the universe where he’s still held accountable.”
That’s where I’m at. That makes sense to me. That seems to be a disciplined and appropriate response.
Then I read what Gene said. I read his words. This section is long, but I want you to hear this because this is where I want to be. This is what I want to convert to.
“When I was a little boy I protected my sister from that guy. So I think it’s a happy story and a sad story. The sadness that has happened to me, and the happy side of me. For a long time I thought that God wouldn’t love somebody like me, but I was also a caring person and I made an impact on the world. With the Special Olympics and everything like that, showing people I was just like them. At my job, people call me superman. I lift heavy boxes with my arm, and driving the forklift, and helping everybody. They say ‘Gene you’re a hero.’ Because of the things I can do. One day I’m going to get a new body in heaven, and I’ll be able to do all the things that other people can do. I hope the man who did this to me is there. In heaven. I believe he’ll be there. Because God says we should forgive people no matter what. And everyone deserves a second chance. So I hope he’s in heaven. And when I see him there I’d like to ask him some things. Like why did he do it to me? Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing. Maybe he was angry at the world, and he was angry at God. I know what that’s like because I was angry at God once. Maybe the man was really sorry about what he did. And maybe he lived with that pain for the rest of his life. So when I see him in heaven I’m going to tell him, face-to-face, that I forgive him and I love him. And then I’d like to talk to God. But not like he’s God– I want to talk to him like he’s my friend. I’m going to ask him for forgiveness. And I’m going to say: ‘Do you love me? No matter what?’ I hope he tells me ‘yes.’ And that he understands why I made the mistakes that I made. And that he forgives me no matter what. Then I’m going to ask him about the day I got hurt. Like why did it happen? Because I was just a baby, and I’m not sure why he would let somebody hurt a baby like that. And I think maybe he will start crying. He’ll tell me he saw me getting hurt that day, and he let it happen. But that it made him so sad. And he had tears running down his cheek. Seeing his son get hurt like that. And then he’ll probably tell me he’s so sorry. And I’ll tell him, face-to-face, that I still love him. And that I forgive him no matter what.”
That sounds like the Jesus I know. Jesus who forgives from the cross. Stephen who forgives before the last stone is thrown. That sounds like somebody I want to convert to, to transform into through the long discipline in the same direction. My direction is set and it’s Gene. But I am not there yet.
I have no question that God will forgive us, but I’m wondering if I can forgive God. The year that we have had. The loss. The deaths. The grief. The constant anxiety of the pressure cooker that was 2020 and this pandemic that is not over yet and will have a long tail… Can we forgive God? I hope one day to say “Yes.” After my Damascus season is over, I can say, “Yes.” Until then, I will look to my mentors who have done so much for me already. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Humans of New York Link: https://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork/photos/a.102107073196735/5829332857140766/