Acts 9:1-20 – Third Sunday of Easter – for April 10, 2016
“After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus…” (Acts 9:8)
Back* in 2009, The Blind Side made wheelbarrows of money and garnered Sandra Bullock an Oscar. I recently watched it again. The film’s title refers to a football team’s need to protect a quarterback’s blind side. Nasty things can happen when a quarterback focuses on a receiver while an unseen opponent approaches to thwart the play.
But it’s more than a football phrase.
There’s still Survivor, the ancient reality show. Contestants fret about blindsides. When—not if—will another player stab them in the proverbial back? Promises will be tossed under a bus . . . or the nearest coconut tree.
Years ago—yes, I recall the exact date—a United Methodist District Superintendent called to say I’d be moving to a different church. Nothing like answering the phone near bedtime to learn your whole world has been upended. He and I never got along. But he possessed the bureaucratic power to rearrange my future. Call me blindsided.
Have you been blindsided? Hasn’t everyone experienced a “bad” thing that unexpectedly caused havoc?
And yet blindsides can be good. My wife and I just celebrated anniversary #32! The first time I spotted my future bride was way, way back in the early 1980s. She sat on the left side of the chapel’s last row when I stood to preach at the early service. Who is she? Whoa! (If asked a few days before that sight for soaring eyes, I figured to never recover from my first marriage and lousy divorce.)
Saul of Tarsus was blindsided. On his sojourn to Damascus, Saul (not yet Paul) had an agenda . . . the Acts of the Apostles gleefully proclaimed he was “spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” Saul seemed a mean-hearted, butt-kicking, Jesus-hating dude. Then, God blindsided him. Conversion!
Literally, according to scripture, Paul lost his sight somewhere between blazing light, a heavenly voice, and smacking the ground. Or maybe he didn’t. Even a casual reader of the Bible will notice there’s a difference between Acts’ dramatic rendering of Paul’s conversion and places (like the opening of Galatians) where Paul personally wrote about his transformation. I view Acts as part history and part a zealous effort to make the rise of the followers of Christ look good. Really, really good.
Bad Saul became good Paul! As a kid in Sunday school I was inspired by the comic book-like renderings on Paul’s conversion. He was usually sprawled on the ground while his horse—the steed he’d been astride seconds before—appeared spooked. Nowadays I read Acts as a thoughtful adult and think . . . Geez, what horse?
I decided to search for one of those old-time illustrations and Googled “Paul,” “conversion” and “Damascus.” And what did I find? Not some saccharine Sunday school drawing, but the Conversion on the Way to Damascus from the brilliant, troubled Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610). Caravaggio’s brushstrokes were bold, his colors vivid.
And there’s a horse!
Acts never mentioned a horse. (The people with Paul “led him by the hand” after he was struck blind). But adding a horse added drama. Whether sketches in a Sunday school handout or a Renaissance masterpiece, we exaggerate.
Every conversion is different. Some are quiet; some spectacular like a rearing horse. Some, like good old John Wesley of my Methodist tribe, have hearts “strangely warmed.” The closest I’ve come to a conversion experience was my call to the ministry. It included a solitary walk and a view of the mountains. Unbidden words of encouragement flooded my mind, having little to do with my thoughts and more with God’s nudging and nurturing. Since that “call,” I’ve looked back and imagined the walk as longer or the nearby mountains more foreboding. All in all, though, being as honest as possible with memories, my call, my conversion, was mostly low-key.
Except that it transformed my life.
With Paul, he couldn’t see a thing. With me, I suddenly saw. Both ways work. How was your conversion? Dramatic? Not? Haven’t had one yet? Maybe tomorrow. Maybe you never will. Was my long-ago conversion as important as my next conversation? Will I choose to be honest . . . or not? Vulnerable . . . or not? Forgiving . . . or not?
The blind side of me knows I spend important time making important plans but frequently plop on my derrière. The blind side of me knows that some—including me—embellish events in the retelling. We paint a horse into the scene or foothills take on Everest-like proportions.
But I believe all of us are straight-armed by the unexpected and get bucked off the horse named I’m In Control.
We land on holy ground named My Conversion and have a new or renewed chance to see and hear as never before.
*And by the by, if you’re an astute reader of my blog with a remarkable memory, you may recall a version of this essay was published in 2010. Since I was writing around my wedding anniversary, I decided to take a break from the rigors of a first draft . . . and spend more time with my wife. A “re-run” to the rescue!