We pray: This is another day, oh Lord. I don’t know what it will bring but make me ready for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me do it bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen
(This prayer is adapted from The Book of Common Prayer, Ministration to the Sick)
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 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.
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
The Dusty Road to Damascus
The first thing that occurred to me when reading the scripture assigned to the third Sunday of Easter was, “What happened to the rest of the story?” You know it. After the conversation between Saul and Jesus, Saul was able to stand up, but was blind. His friends took him to the home of Judas in Damascus. After three days, not eating or drinking and still blind, he was visited by Ananias. Now Ananias was not thrilled to drop in on Saul. Saul’s reputation preceded him. But in a vision, Ananias was told to go anyway. He did, and once there, laid hands on Saul, prayed over him and Saul’s sight was restored. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, baptized, and took off to the Synagogue to proclaim Jesus as the son of God.
It’s a great conversion story, so why stop before getting to the good part?
Rather than stew over it, I read the truncated version again, this time out loud. Then like Saul, the scales fell from my eyes. It was so clear. The first six verses were all that was needed to drive home a point that anyone in the second half of life would understand. If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve had that moment, perhaps on your way to work, or to the grocery store, or to wherever was your destination, your Damascus. In that moment, something happened that changed everything, and forever altered your life. Just like that moment in Saul’s life.
Here we see him, most assuredly the captain of his ship, a man in control, a man of action, a take charge kind of guy. He was a Pharisee, at the top of his game. He had a deep commitment to his church and to protecting it at all costs. When he saw a threat, he took action. He had Stephen, a follower of Jesus arrested and stoned to death. When he heard that Damascus was a hotbed of religious fervor and a gathering place of men and women of the Way, he set out to take control of the situation. He had his paperwork in order and was authorized to arrest anyone spreading and perpetuating rumors that Jesus was raised from the dead and was the resurrected Lord. When he finds these people, he will bind them, and march them to Jerusalem where they will be incarcerated. He is in charge.
Until . . .
He is struck down, helpless, blind, lying in the dusty road to Damascus.
And then, he hears the voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Let me step in here. I must admit that this question makes me cringe. I wouldn’t have wanted to be Saul at that moment, and I certainly would not want to be on the receiving end of questions Jesus might have for me, lying flat on my back in the middle of the road. “Why do you spend so little time in prayer and meditation in your day? Why do you put me at the bottom of your list of priorities when it comes to important decisions in your life? Why do you let your mind wander during worship?” It is an interesting if unsettling exploration, putting oneself into these situations. You might try it. Take a moment to consider what questions Jesus would have for you. Now, try it. Hmmm . . . . See what I mean? Makes you cringe, too?
Oh well, back to our scripture.
To Paul, Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?”
We know that a Why question is not a true question. It is typically asked to make a statement, to express criticism, or disapproval; therefore no answer will be adequate. It is no surprise then that Saul does not attempt to answer. That would have been foolish and Paul was not a foolish man. Instead, he asked a foolish question, to which he already knew the answer, “Who are you, Lord?”
Jesus identified himself to eliminate any doubt as to his living presence. He was not dead; he was alive; and he gives the orders. Which is what he does next. The tables have turned and Saul is no longer in charge. Now, he will be told what to do.
I imagine most of us are familiar with this turning of tables. As I said earlier, it has probably happened to every one of us. Here we are, walking our own dusty road to Damascus, thinking we are in control of our destiny, the captain of our ship, when suddenly, our world is turned upside down. The rug is pulled out from under us. Our life is profoundly altered and forever changed. It may come with a phone call in the middle of the night. An accident. A deadly diagnosis. The violent or unexpected death of a friend, a child, a sibling, a parent, a spouse. A sudden loss of function like Saul’s blindness. The loss of health, or mobility or fertility. Maybe a devastating financial downturn and its resulting loss of means, security, and safety. A devastating fire, flood, hurricane, tornado. Or the words seemingly out of nowhere, saying, “I don’t love you anymore.”
Prior to that moment, we may have thought, as did Saul that we were in control, but in Damascus others will tell us what to do. For Paul, it was Ananias. Our Damascus may be Hospice, a hospital, rehab, a shelter, or a court, where suddenly someone else is in charge, and we are being told what to do.
Because we are a society that believes we should be in control at all times, we will either blame others for our adversity; or we will search for a way that makes ourselves responsible. Paradoxically, we understand that if we caused the problem then we can fix it. We will assume guilt gladly if it means that it allows us the control to make the problem vanish. There may be folks ready to agree with you. Check out Job! He was surrounded by friends and family who urged him to confess sins that caused God to pour down punishment on him
Even more discouraging words come from those who tell you that you can change the outcome of your problems if your faith is strong enough. The implication is loud and clear that it is your fault you are dying. Add insult to injury, there are others who insist we can control the course of life simply by focusing on a goal to make it a reality. Really? Focus, and your child will magically recover from leukemia? Focus, and your son killed in Afghanistan will return unharmed? Focus, and your home that burned to the ground with all your possessions will be restored? Focus, and a million dollars will show up in your checking account?” I don’t think so.
Don’t misunderstand, the ability to focus on the content of a goal is necessary to make some goals a possibility. Only, some goals. For example, you need to focus to finish studies and graduate with a diploma. You need to focus to run daily to prepare for a 10K. There is a place for those concepts in life, – understanding that they still do not guarantee outcomes. They are a way of planning and preparing and hoping for the best. That is what we do because we are not in control of our trip to Damascus. We can pack wisely. We can eat healthy and exercise daily. We can attend church every time the doors open. We can strive to be good parents, good employees, good bosses, good neighbors, good children, good citizens and that is all good. It doesn’t take away the reality that in a heartbeat, there may come a flash of light that changes everything.
At that moment, we like Saul find ourselves flat on our back on the dusty road to Damascus, blind as to what happened and helpless to see what will happen next. All we can do is speak and we hear ourselves ask, “Lord, who are you?” It is Jesus, he reassures us and speaks gently, “I know that accidents happen. That circumstances beyond your control interrupt lives every day. I know that it is God’s will that his children would never suffer, but that is not the way of the world in which you live. It is why I offer you strength that you like Saul, can get back up on your feet and somehow move again, and with time come to see what you need to do to go on. I offer you wisdom and perseverance to discern anew your purpose in life, and the courage to love once again. I offer you my Spirit.”
This is how Jesus operates and this is what we need, because “Oh Lord, it is a new day, and we don’t know what it will bring.” Amen