Within our Western culture we believe ourselves, our lives and our homelands to have certain rights when it comes to choosing how we are to live and what we are allowed to do with and within those lives. We often go to great lengths to argue or stand up for or against issues that may be keeping us from those appointed freedoms. We even appoint ourselves gatekeepers for those whom we feel are being kept from those rights. Borders, relationships and law become our battle ground.
The depth of passions and sometimes the depth of indifference to any current social, political or religious topic are as various today as they have been throughout the history of civilization. We may even find ourselves on different sides of a debate at different points of our lives. Events and relationships will often offer a different perspective for us to consider as we encounter ourselves in each issue.
Paul was considered a gatekeeper. Or at least history has made him out to be one. I don't think he meant for it to be that way. In his letters he evokes how much he wanted to tear down fences, not build them. I don't believe he meant to be an architect of "The Great Divide." All He wanted was for people to open up and experience "The Great Divine," to offer a path to God's love for all who wanted to receive it.
Sometimes history and intention can get lost in translation. And God's love is lost with it. What is needed is an understanding of love in transformation.
Paul's letter to the Galatians has been used throughout the ages by both Christians and Jews alike to draw boundaries. It has even created division within the Christian faith itself. We like to demonstrate our depth of love for God and God's love for us by sometimes comparing our faith commitment and personal conversion experiences to Paul's.
It's not our fault really. The story of Paul's transformation in the Book of Acts had already given dramatic license to establish new details and timelines of his maturity in faith. Men, horses, lights flashing and divine voices heard calling out to the prosecutors would be enough for anyone to fall to their knees in amazement. Listening to the words of Paul himself may be key to a better understanding of his complete journey and ours. To hear Paul's own account of his life in and with Jesus is no less dramatic than the story in Acts, but so much more intimate.
And the most beautiful part of his journey is that he wants to be heard. He says, "For I want you to know brothers and sisters..." And then he goes on to share with us not the dramatic details of the event itself but the steps he took after realizing God's call to him through his newfound belief in Jesus the Christ.
What I love most about Paul at this time is his honesty in being human. He goes through a natural period of faith transformation that needs to separate itself in order to understand itself. He spent time alone with the Spirit. He spent a lot of time alone with the Spirit. He made sure he touched base with those who were more mature in the faith. But he also allowed his own mind and soul to be transformed by the deep and consistent work that only spiritual surrender and reconciliation can do. He was not perfect. He made mistakes and admits to them rightly. He was no less human than Jesus and certainly no more divine than Christ. He was guided into love by God's grace.
Paul never actually refers to his transformation as conversion. In those days conversion wasn't even a topic of conversation. Remaining a Jew, Paul believed the work he was being asked to do with the Gentiles was a fulfillment of his faith. A new understanding. A call to what God had set him apart to do. And once he understood his call...he was passionate about it, the kind of passion that only comes from a deep and organic belief in the love of God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
His work was clear: To proclaim to all the unlimited access we have to God through Jesus Christ and to do this for the simple purpose of glorifying God.
As Paul expresses to us through his response of Jesus in his life...We glorify God through our love of one another. We honor God through our faith expression to one another, and we offer ourselves to God in our surrender of grace to one another.
In my own faith journey I have found Paul to be a realistic representative of coming to faith in Christ. Although I grew up believing in God, I spent a good number of years thrashing about, angry with different faith traditions and believing my path for life was set.
My engagement with God was cultural and social. It provided me an undercurrent of a faith foundation but nothing more than that. Nightly prayers and associations with faith groups at least allowed me to keep a toe in the water. And thank God for that. For when I found myself at the crossroads of pain and the disillusionment of life, God's grace and the maturity of faith close at hand carried me into a well needed wilderness and provided for me the spiritual nourishment and patience I needed to discover God's fulfillment for my life.
My first journey on the road to Damascus came in my late twenties. After being heartbroken by miscarriage, I discovered that the realities of my marriage resembled the character of someone waking up from a ten-year coma, completely unaware of how life had played out in and around them while they were unconscious. My life was unrecognizable. It took time to recover and learn once again how to respond to life rather than react to it.
As I said earlier, I was fortunate to have people in my life who had a maturity of faith. But more important, I was smart enough to reach out to them and allow my vulnerability of faith to be discovered, encouraged and transformed. Boundaries needed to be pointed out. Fences needed to be mended and in some cases torn down. Laws needed to be reviewed. And my heart desperately needed to be rendered.
From Damascus to priesthood was completely unexpected. It came purely from a consistency of listening closely to the Spirit--and often fighting with the Spirit--as well as spending a lot of time in the wilderness. Like Paul, I have discovered that God does much more fulfilling of faith than He does of converting it. Everything from my past life is used practically every day. And I do mean everything. All the bumps, pain, bruises, potholes and fallen tree limbs discovered and experienced along the way have been put to good use in one way or another. As well as my gifts. Jesus really does mean it when He tells us, "To God be ALL the glory!"
In his book The Transforming Moment, author James Loder writes this with Paul's Damascus event in mind:
There can be no doubt that the transforming event must be felt as one's own. Saul was addressed and authorized in his own right by this moment; he was addressed in terms of the particular struggle in his own soul. Transformation does not validate experiences of Christ but one cannot know Christ apart from transformation.
What each of us is called to in our life of faith with Jesus Christ may not be as dramatic or historic as the books and theologies written about the Apostle Paul or as surprising as priesthood. But they are no less transformative. We learn directly from Paul that it takes time, honesty and commitment to transform a life of faith. Boundaries and fences are to be reflected upon. Possibly mended. Possibly taken down. And possibly even left in place. Relationships are to be reconciled. Possibly restored. Possibly brought to closure. And hearts are to be opened. And the love of God is to be proclaimed.
Let us pray. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path. Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outwards, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. Amen.
(Prayer from Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)