When was the last time you changed your mind? Most of us like to think that we are fair-minded; that given all the right evidence, we would be able to make an informed decision, and maybe even flip our opinion on something. And even though political campaigns make hay on the idea that changing your mind is a sign of weakness, we know that this kind of manipulation is just politics as usual: nothing to do with substance, everything to do with image. The ability to change one’s mind is, in reality, a sign of strength, being “big” enough to say, “I was wrong; and now I see things differently.”
But when was the last time you changed your mind?
I’m not talking about small stuff, or the things that are just a natural consequence of aging. I don’t mean, “I used to hate country music, but then I discovered Hank Williams, Sr.” or “I never met a vegetable I liked until I married someone who knew how to cook them.” And I’m not talking about indecision, either, that trip down the cereal aisle where Cheerios is replaced by the generic brand and then again by bulk cereal. What I’m talking about is moving from one firmly held opinion to the opposite of that conviction.
For most of us, that kind of transformation takes years – decades, even. What we were once sure of takes a few dents in the armor, our defenses are weakened, and we begin to see the wisdom of what we once opposed; until one day, we awaken to find ourselves 180 degrees removed from where we once were.
Now that long-range scenario may, indeed, describe changing our minds, but that’s not how we would like to be, I don’t think. We tend to see flexibility and selflessness as strengths; and if we are truly flexible and without ego, we would be able to change our minds much more fluidly than we tend to. And if that were the case, then all of the important social transitions that seem to take decades would be dispensed with in a matter of weeks.
But that’s not how it works; and it’s not really how we are wired, either.
It’s in reading the story of Saul that raises all of these questions for me. Saul, who later becomes Paul, has been a zealous defender of the faith, of orthodoxy as he and the religious establishment see it. He was there at the trial of Stephen, when the early Christian convert was stoned to death. Those who carried out the sentence laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet, a clear sign of his approval of this brutal repression of this splinter movement.
In our lesson this morning, we find Sault taking papers with him from Jerusalem up to Damascus, so that the Diaspora in that great city can be warned about the dangerous radicals calling themselves followers of “the Way”, these Jesus freaks who are trying to split apart the ancient faith of the ancestors. It is then that the world changes for him in the blink of an eye.
A light shines on him, so powerful that it knocks him to the ground, bringing with it a voice asking why Saul is so brutal in his persecution. He walks away from the accident learning only that it was Jesus speaking, and that when he gets to Damascus, he will be told what to do. Oh, and by the way, he has been struck blind.
It is then that the story shifts scenes. We are now inside Damascus, at the home of a Christian named Ananias. Jesus arrives in a vision, telling Ananias that Saul of Tarsus is on his way into the city, that he is to show him hospitality and bring him healing. Saul’s reputation has preceded him, which leaves Ananias wondering if this really is a wise approach. But he takes a chance and carries out his mission despite any misgivings he might have.
As the two men meet, Ananias confirms what Saul heard on the road, that Jesus was behind this whole escapade. Saul is healed, baptized, and fed. Within a few chapters, Saul has become Paul, has met the church leaders in Jerusalem, and eventually ends up eclipsing them as the central character in the book of Acts. He is finally martyred in Rome after authoring what becomes the largest section of the New Testament.
In other words, the most passionate opponent of Christianity became its most passionate defender. If we are looking for the poster child for changing your mind, I think we have found him.
What would it be like to be more like Paul? What would it take for us to be as limber with our convictions as he was, so that we might be more open to the voice of Christ and the movement of the Spirit? Does it take a blinding light, literally, a miraculous healing that forever changes us? Is it a personal encounter with those whom we have despised where we discover that they are the ones who are far more faithful than we ever could be? And, if so, is that the kind of situation we can engineer, or are we subject to the whims of an unpredictable world to make them happen?
These are the themes that we seem to return to time and time again here. As we try to speak into and live in the world around us, as we recognize the challenges and barriers to faith as they really are, we recognize that our world has become one of ghettoes. We live in isolation booths designed not just by others, but by ourselves. I once heard it described in literary terms this way: we had anticipated the world to become 1984, with Big Brother watching and dictating our every move; instead, it has become Brave New World, where we both willingly and unwittingly participate in our own isolation.
To be fair, it is so much easier to surround ourselves with those with whom we agree. We self-select for Fox News or MSNBC, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. And even that is a superficial analysis, since we have self-selected less for content and more for contrivance. The truth is that it is exhausting to confront our own deeply-held assumptions about the way the world works, because these convictions are wired into us as survival techniques. Our lizard brains need to know that there is a difference between a kitten and a lion. But: when we have learned untruths and take them as truths necessary for our survival, how can we possibly unlearn them?
How often to we find ourselves in conversation, or in relationship, or in situations with those who are unlike us? Are our lives shaped so that we regularly spend time with people of different generations, faiths, incomes, educations? Or do we find ourselves mostly with those who are, for the most part, a lot like us?
It is when we end up with those who do not share our convictions that we are going to be challenged for those assumptions – including some falsehoods, admittedly – that we hold dear. These are the experiences that can be troubling and disorienting, to say the least.
But if our grounding is in the right place, that is, in the Maker of heaven and earth, then our foundation is sure, “even though the earth may change and the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.”
Friends, I’m convinced that the lesson of Paul for us is that God desires, more than anything, that we would be open to new possibilities. If that’s not true, then death wins and resurrection is nothing more than a fantasy that we tell the young so that they might be comforted in a discomfiting world.
God is the one who opens up those new possibilities to us! The truth is that, in so many ways, each of us is just as blind as Saul to the realities of the world around us. It is only when we meet Ananias that our eyes begin to be opened to the fact that hope, not despair, carries the day.
Where is your Damascus? Where is it that you need to go so that you might have your own transformative encounter with the Lord? How is it that we can let our lives be reshaped to meet those who can heal our blindness, drop the scales from our eyes? Are we willing to go?