Today we read the story of Paul on the road to Damascus. He is brought to his knees by a dramatic mystical experience that changed his way of seeing and behaving. It is called his “conversion” experience. Have you ever had such a dramatic experience, or does God work on you in a more slow and steady way. Come celebrate God’s great epiphanies and gentle nudges.
Reflection by Rev. Will Sparks
“It is a rainy Saturday,” writes Heidi Peterson in Christian Century Magazine, “I stood on the front porch of a Habitat for Humanity house with a man I had never met before. We were volunteers who had come to unroll sod, plant bushes, and sweep a driveway to make the front yard of a new house look more like a home than a construction site. As we waited out the weather under the shelter of the porch roof he began talking. He observed that, although its timing was inconvenient for the work we had planned, we sure needed the rain. Then, not bothering with a segue, he went directly into his main concern, and asked me if I was saved. When I told him that I believed I was, he asked for date, time and a description of my conversion. “
“It is for moments like these,” Heidi writes, “that I think about making up my own version of the Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus story.” The one we read this morning. “But it wouldn’t be true.” She goes on. “I was baptized as an infant, raised in a faith tradition I was taught to love and respect, and gradually grew into the theological convictions I strive to live. Every day, the conversion continues, as I am changed by human encounters, the natural world, and countless experiences that provide new insights into the nature of God.”
“My fellow Habitat volunteer was an outspoken pacifist, a good neighbor, and a self-avowed Christian who knew with certainty the moment Jesus called his name, and entered his heart. He was not impressed with my metaphor for the converted life. (If you consider a flower unfolding petal by petal over days, how can you mark the precise moment at which the bud “converts” to being a flower?) It is no match for the spectacular and unmistakable sound of the Lord’s voice from heaven. I doubted neither the man’s religious experience nor his claim that since that moment his life had been infused with meaning. It was his easy dismissal of a conversion of a different sort that bothered me.”
Can you relate with Heidi’s story? For years I have struggled with the public use of words like “conversion,” “born again,” repent, sin, salvation. These are common words in the bible and in Christian theology, but they are words that progressive Christians avoid like the plague, because we don’t want to be misunderstood. We don’t want our faith experience to be lumped in with a way of being Christian that could not be further from what we mean. Often we feel more affinity to progressive voices in other faiths than with other Christian voices. Unfortunately, that reticence has led to our silence. These words get so stuck in our throats that they get struck from our lexicon and we say nothing.
We are like the patient in the comedy sketch: on the operating table, under local anesthetic listening to the surgeon talk to the attending person: “Scalpel, scalpel. Clamp, clamp. Suction, suction. Opps!” The patient looks up. “Oops? Did you say oops? What do you mean, oops? I know what I mean when I say opps! What do you mean when you say oops?”
Well folks, the story for the day is the conversion of the apostle Paul in a blinding flash of light, and the word of the day is “conversion.” And I am guessing that if we broke up into groups of three and were asked to share our conversion stories with each other, there would be more than a few of us keeping quiet.
But friends, it has been a mistake to allow ourselves to fade into the background of the public discourse on faith and allow Christianity to be defined in the public sphere in more narrow conservative ways. Paul’s road to Damascus conversion was wild and dramatic because Paul was wild and dramatic, not because that is the only way God reaches us. God works in many ways in the human heart, and I dare say the majority of us have not had a blinding flash and a booming voice. But that does not mean that God has not taken hold in our lives and in our hearts in ways that turn us around and effect everything we do.
You see, for many Christians, coming to faith is not a big bang, but a gradual awakening. We look back and recognize that we have changed, but it is a long curve in the road, not a U turn. My year away from University after second year was like this. I worked hard, I travelled, I was by myself for long stretches, exploring communities of faith across Europe and the middle east, and I came back changed. No great epiphanies, not even on the road to Damascus, a road I lived beside for 7 weeks. But the change happened.
Conversion for most of us is also not clean. It certainly wasn’t for Paul. Part way through the process of conversion we can be downright confusing. Paul was brought to his knees, blinded, uncertain, scared. Change is like that. The way I look at conversion, it is a turning around, when the reality “out there” that I am perceiving no longer fits with the map of reality that I carry around in my heart and mind. And I need to resolve that dissonance. But while that dissonance is building, confusion reigns. My life is not the way it should be. Things need to change. Eventually, eventually we change, turn around, reach a new place in our own self and our relationship with God and the world. That process can be messy.
At the last annual meeting Highlands adopted a 5 Year Ministry Plan with 4 goals. One of those goals has to do with communication. In our research it became clear that people walking by the church can see it is a church but they may well have little idea what goes on inside, what kind of community lives here, and the kind of life that is possible here. I know the depth and breadth of Spiritual life and spiritual community that God stirs up around here. I know that doubts are welcome, questions are celebrated, people are accepted for who they are, children have an important place, that you don’t have to check your mind at the door but can puzzle through the hardest of puzzles together, and that when you come broken, we will see that you mend, and we won’t ever give up on that. I know that! But how public are we? How would the community know?
Our task is to learn to use the language of our faith in ways that we can own, even words like Christian, salvation, conversion, and learn to take the risk of being public, putting our way of living and expressing our faith out there. I believe that there are people longing to explore the spiritual realm and engage a life of faith and are just waiting to hear that you can be gay friendly, diverse, multi-faith, uncertain, and Christian at the same time, and there is a place for you.
In some ways, I believe the United Church needs to undergo a conversion of sorts. A Conversion in the way that we express ourselves. We need to repent of our sheepish, self-deprecating, apologetic ways, find our genuine Christian voice, and put it out there. Tell the story of the gentle ways of God that have slowly changed us and called us into life. Tell the story of injustices that we can no longer live with that call us into life. Tell the story of the bud within us that has slowly, petal by petal unfolded, pose the hard uncomfortable questions of our faith in the public sphere, tell the world that there is a community of people trying to embody radical love and that the Spirit is working away on us here, trying to turn us around.
God needs us to find our voice, and to use it to share the hope that has wildly, or gently turned us around, converted us, awakened us to Christ’s way of abundant life. Amen
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