Did you know that there is a support group for survivors of lightning strikes? It was founded by a man named Steve Marshburn. Steve was working his job as a bank teller one day when a bolt of lightning from a storm several miles away came through the bank’s drive-through window and hit him. Like ninety percent of persons struck by lightning, he survived. And like many, he has suffered mental, physical, and emotional aftershocks ever since. He said recently, “My life, my body, my soul; everything changed at that moment.”
Lightning strikes resulted in multiple deaths here in Colorado last summer and a strike on Mt. Beirstadt injured sixteen hikers and killed a dog. Of the fifty U.S states, Colorado is number three in terms of the likelihood of being struck by lightning. Reading the story of Steve Marshburn and others survivors in his support group, I can’t imagine that anyone’s life could not be changed by such a traumatic event.
The Scripture reading today is about a man named Saul who was later referred to as Paul and is credited with several of the letters included in the New Testament. Saul appears in this passage to be an unfortunate lightning strike victim and a fortunate lightning strike survivor. Prior to this incident, there are only two references to Saul in the book of Acts. One is the account of his approval of the fatal stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. The other is a description of how he went from house to house looking for Christians and dragging both men and women off to prison. His enthusiasm for persecuting followers of Jesus was so great, that he took his bounty hunting on the road to distant Damascus.
Damascus is located today in Syria. I imagine you have heard of it since it is the capital city and because Syria is so frequently in our news cycle. Damascus was already three thousand years old when Saul approached the city on a dusty desert road. Like Jerusalem, it had been claimed by the Roman Empire. Today many of the historic landmarks of the city are from that era. Although it is almost entirely a Muslim city today, when Saul was there the religious scene was dominated by Jewish synagogues. As he traveled, Saul held a permission slip in his hand from the high priests from the temple in Jerusalem. The note empowered him to round up and carry back to Jerusalem any followers of the Way, which is how early Christians referred to their faith.
Saul didn’t make it. Just short of his goal, he was struck down by a powerful force of light that came down from the sky and knocked him off his feet. He heard a voice that identified itself as the voice of Jesus, and he discovered when he was able to stand up that he was completely blind. His traveling companions guided him the rest of the way to the city where he remained so traumatized that he was unable to eat or drink for three days.
You may know the rest of the story: Saul recovered his eyesight, came to believe that Jesus was God’s divine son, and was transformed into Paul the Apostle. As Paul, he made three remarkable missionary journeys in which he established churches in Asia and Europe. His writings, or at least writings credited to him, have formed much of the basic theology of the Christian Church. It was a pretty amazing turnaround for someone so determined to wipe out the Christian faith.
What causes people to change? I’ve been thinking about that this week in light of Saul’s journey to Damascus. I asked that question at Men’s Group on Friday and I was reminded by one member that Saul had little or nothing to do with the circumstances that changed his life. God’s stated intervention in the form of a lightning strike was nothing that he could take credit for. I guess we could assume that absent such divine intervention, Saul would have continued his attacks on Christians.
It causes me to wonder how much anyone changes without the intrusion of forces beyond our control? I’m sure it must happen; that people give serious consideration to their lives and make choices that result in needed change. I’m thinking more of radical conversion to a different worldview, and I’m not sure that often happens apart from circumstances that disrupt and shake us from a place of comfortable certainty.
It might be easier to ask what keeps people from changing. After all, personal growth is inextricably attached to the concept of change. I wonder sometimes how people can go through their entire lives and not experience some form of conversion.
I shared early in my pastorate here the story of growing up in a conservative religious environment and not deviating in any way from that worldview until I was past forty years old. It was the unasked for but necessary experience of coming out as a gay man that shook me from my certainty about what I had always believed about God and myself. Once that happened, I found myself unmoored from all I had clung to for safety, which was a scary experience. But it also meant that I was able to think deeply about what is true apart from anyone else’s expectations or assumptions.
I think clergy, in particular, find it difficult to grow and change through the course of their lives. When your employer expects you to speak confidently on doctrinal matters, there is not much latitude for free thinking if you want to keep your job. I’m deeply grateful at this point in my life to be at here among others who ask sincere questions and are not afraid to change and grow
Sometimes people become stuck in ways of thinking and believing because they are attached to a whole community of people who believe the same. The pressure to confirm is massive. Who wants to be separated from their community? Some religious groups actually practice shunning as a means of controlling what people believe and warning those within of what can happen if they don’t toe the line. A few years ago, a popular speaker and leader among evangelical Christians name Rob Bell started to make folks nervous when he began questioning some of the basic tenets of his peers. He challenged their assumptions about who might be included in the faith and who is kept out based on who they are. A full-scale attack on Bell began when he wrote a book suggesting that God’s love and mercy are so all-encompassing that ultimately love with win and few if any souls will inhabit a place called hell.
Speaking of hell, I don’t think we can underestimate the influence that the traditional doctrine of hell has had on controlling behaviors and beliefs. If I believe that my eternal destiny is placed in jeopardy by questioning what I’ve been taught, then I will likely limit my spiritual exploration to what is understood as acceptable and safe. Jesus himself said, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear,” and yet fear has been a favored tool by many within the Christian Church to keep trusting followers in line.
The longer I live and love and preach and pastor, the more comfortable I become with uncertainty. Part of that is rooted in a growing confidence that God is not limited by human dogma and is also not bent out of shape by my desire to discover truth wherever it can be found in this world. I cannot believe that curiosity coupled with a growing love for those who have different experiences is something that will be punished. Fear of punishment is a tragic reason to hold to a narrowly defined worldview.
Having said that, a challenge for me is to remember that even progressives can be absolutists. During this Easter season we’ve acknowledged that many if not most progressive believers find value in a spiritual but not a literal understanding of the resurrection. While that perspective was liberating to me when I rediscovered faith years ago, I don’t want to become dogmatic about even that. There are many things that are too mysterious for me to understand. For me, being open to the supernatural is consistent with a progressive faith. And welcoming and affirming those for who traditional Christian belief is important is part of being an inclusive church.
Saul’s life changed on the road to Damascus. Maybe it wasn’t so much his own choice, but ultimately he embraced the message of Jesus for himself. I’m guessing that any positive change, whether it is a radical conversion or a slow movement in a new direction, does not require a lightning bolt. It probably just requires being open to new possibilities and being willing to evaluate what is presumed to be true.
May you experience a holy discomfort that prompts you in new directions so that you may embrace needed change and know the life and love and joy that God intends for you. Amen.