A few Sundays ago some friends sat around my table for a long dinner. There were many conversations going at once, but when this question was posed to myself and another pastor, everyone stopped to listen for the answer. We were asked what led us into a life of ministry. Most people when they ask that question are hoping for a dramatic answer, what we call a burning bush moment or like today's scripture, a Damascus road experience, that includes blinding light and the Holy Spirit. But the truth is, most of us don’t have a once and for all kind of experience. Most of us have small, little by little experiences that add up to a change of heart, a new way of life, a conversion from who we used to be to who we are today. We all have those experiences, whether we’ve entered the professional ministry or not.
At the dinner table, the other pastor answered the question first. He grew up in the church and went to the church multiple times a week for youth group. And the thing he named as most influential in his life were and are the biblical stories. The stories we read, the stories we hear, the ways in which we go deeper into a story and the ways in which we make sense of those stories allow to make better sense of our own stories and lives.
Today’s story is a big one and like all the stories of the Bible, it’s only when we allow ourselves to enter into the story fully that we begin to understand how we too have that experience. The circumstances are vastly different, but the experience is universal.
But when the story is as big and as dramatic as today's that’s a little harder to do. So in case you missed it here’s the readers' digest version.
Saul (Who later becomes the apostle Paul, the guy who wrote all the famous letters and was instrumental in the formation of what we call Christianity today) is running around persecuting Jesus followers. He, like many other Jews, understand this new movement that’s now including gentiles and proclaiming a messiah that no-one has met as a threat to the ways we’ve always done our religion. ….Saul is, as we hear in the first verse;
is…still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,
When suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul doesn’t recognize who it is and asks for identification…. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul 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. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Three days without sight, without water or food is a kind of death, a kind of exile, it’s not lost on the reader that the number three is used here. On the third day, he rose again.
And then the story jumps to part two… but stay with me for a minute in part one. Let the story do the work… Saul is out preaching against a movement he was sure was wrong. He was convicted, doing what he believed to be right and just. There’s no mention of a horse in this story but in so many of the artist renditions of this story is a horse. Flannery O Connor once said; I reckon the Lord knew the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his high horse.
Which got me thinking about our own high horses. What are they? How do they present themselves in our own lives. They express themselves as judgment. That’s the easy part when we are so sure of something so convicted it’s easy to judge those who haven’t figured it out, don’t agree or aren’t living the way we believe to be right.
We judge especially when something has worked out for us and we think we did it, and we did it right. Because of my own experience, I’m especially aware of this around marriage for example. There was a time I believed with the most certain assuredness, even cockiness that my marriage would never end, and I was so sure that I was doing it right, that I judged those who marriages ended. They didn’t do it right. They didn’t work at it hard enough, they didn’t…they didn’t, but I did.
We see this with jobs too. I worked hard to get where I am, so if they’re not where they want to be it’s because they didn’t work hard enough, didn’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps, they didn’t but I did.
The view is great from on top of a high horse. And we can place ourselves there for any number of reasons when we think we’ve got it right. Until we don’t. Until something happens that shakes the ground we thought was so firm beneath us. Our closed minds which were so sure of whatever position we held is no longer so sure. And that’s the place, that’s the place on our own road that God enters the scene. That place where whatever assuredness, or close-mindedness, or blindness, led us to that moment where we fall, that’s when the light, the blinding light for Paul, brings us to the ground, shakes us to the core and if we’re open to it, will bring us to change. Not by our own doing, but by God’s, who is always working within us to bring us to humility, to open-mindedness, to compassion and finally to peace.
Emilie Griffin, an accomplished advertising executive, has written a series of reflections on the process of her own conversion to Catholicism.
In her book, Turning: she writes; It’s clear that conversion begins with a restlessness of the human heart which can find no resting place on the earth.” She observes that it’s most often our disenchantment comes not from failure but from success. Its success that disappoints us because we had so thoroughly expected it to be the crown of life.” In other words, we get what we want and we find it profoundly lacking.
We keep ourselves stuck in all the patterns that have worked for us until they no longer work for us. And that’s a wonderful time to allow God to do what God does. Saul spent three days in darkness, having been blinded by light. That’s a long time. Conversions don’t happen in an instance. Sometimes they take time, and they include a certain amount of suffering and extreme vulnerability as we allow God to reshape us, remold us and reprioritize our ways of living. Sometimes we come crashing down of our high horse, sometimes we fall off slowly, but either way, we enter into humility which is a beautiful place.
This story isn’t about turning from immorality to morality or from Judaism to Christianity. It's about God’s ability to turn us from our own blindness into seeing the light, and then using us to witness to the rest of the world just how much our lives change when that happens. It’s life changing when you’re brought to places of humility, realizing that the things you were so sure about don’t always work, can’t always work, and that God is now calling on you to share the good news, that the only truly reliable one is, God. That’s it.
That’s all we get to rely on. Not to protect us from all harm, but to walk us through it, to send healers like Ananias to us, to restore our sight and to fill us with a Holy spirit so big it changes not only our life- but the way we love others into changing their own.
As we give ourselves permission to live into being who God is calling us to be, we give others permission to come into their own through humility.
Jesus lived his life and suffered the cross that we might have life, not from high on a horse but from the ground up. Where the light is above us, leading us, and the only foundation we know is the example of Jesus of Nazareth who taught us the way and Jesus the Christ who leads us into a new way.
That’s a story worth living, not once and for all, not because of a burning bush or a one-time event on a road, but every step of our journey, as we decide again and again which way we want to go.
 Feasting on the Word