Even people who have never actually heard the Biblical story of Saul being knocked to his knees by a light from heaven know what it means to have a “Damascus road experience.” You were headed in one direction, or maybe without direction, a little lost, and then suddenly, you were going in a different direction, or moving along an unforeseen path. You didn’t intend to. You weren’t hoping to. You weren’t consciously working at it. It just happened. One day, driving down the road, or sitting on a park bench, or buying groceries, or taking a shower, you saw the light. In popular usage a “Damascus road experience” doesn’t have to be about God doing something that changed your life. It describes any sudden happening that altered your view of the world and of yourself in it. And it’s a permanent shift in perception. You can’t go back. You can’t see yourself or the world in the way that you did before. You get turned around for good. It’s always for good. Always positive.
In some Christian traditions it is expected that every person must have a kind of Damascus road experience like Saul’s. It is expected that you be able to pinpoint the day on which they were converted, turned around, awakened to God, or born again. If you can’t pinpoint that moment in your life, then some folks would say you have not yet met the living God. I’ve been asked more than once if I’ve been born again and exactly when that happened. My answer is always the same: I was born again on September 16, 1956, the day I was baptized. Even though I had no idea at three months old what was happening to me, I grew to trust the promises of my baptism—that God loved me with no conditions, that I was joined to Jesus, and filled with the Spirit. If you ask Luci about the day of her conversion or when she was born again, she will have a different answer. Like Saul, she was a grown up and was taken by surprise. She knows the day, the place, the time that she awakened to the love of God fully shown in Jesus. Luci wasn’t looking for it. Not hoping for it. Not searching. She was just doing her life. But out of that awakening, Luci came to a convictional knowing that God loves her without conditions, just as she is, despite the reality that for a good long time, while she was participating in another church, she was told that this wasn’t true. Since her Damascus road day, Luci has known something she can’t unknow. And the knowing is about her core identity, her very being as a beloved child of God.
The same is true for Saul, who is later renamed Paul. It is easy to think about his conversion experience as primarily a moral conversion. He goes from being a bad person to being a good one. Lots of conversion stories are told like that. I used to do x, y, and z—terrible things, but no longer. And it’s true and beautiful, people’s behavior, Paul’s behavior is changed after he sees the light. But the first change that goes on in Paul is that he comes awake to God’s unconditional acceptance of and love for him. Paul is a good and faithful Jew. He was persecuting, even participating in the killing of some who followed the way of Jesus, because he wanted to prove that he loved God. That he was zealous for God. He was defending God against these people who followed in the way of Jesus and believed that you didn’t have to do anything to earn God’s full, unconditional acceptance and love. They believed it was given. It was grace. It was free and it was liberating. It was poured out like rain through Jesus’ living, and dying, and his overcoming of the powers of sin and death because of God’s faithful love.
It is this story that is at the heart of Paul’s conversion. Through the Spirit of Jesus in him, and the love of the community that surrounds him when he becomes blind and loses control of his life, Paul discovers that he is God’s beloved and there is nothing he can do to make God love him more or love him less. He doesn’t have to defend God, or do the right thing in order to prove that he deserves to be loved. Following his Damascus road experience Paul discovers he can do good and he can do bad, and still God will love him like crazy. This is crazy good news. This is the reality that brings Paul to his knees in thanksgiving and propels him into the world to share this amazing news. His life and being are grounded and in the life and being of God. From this unconditional, total acceptance, this permanent, never-leaving love, Paul loves. Paul’s behavior is changed because he has stopped living scared and defended, knowing that his life and being are secure in God through Christ, forever.
I suppose it’s no surprise that the story of Paul’s Damascus road experience has become the model for conversion in some Christian traditions. Truth is, we all love these stories in which the orgre gets a heart, and the terrible scrooge becomes terribly gracious, and the slave trader sees the light and the scales fall from his eyes, and he writes a song called “Amazing Grace.” But there is another model of conversion evident in this story, somewhat less dramatic but a true picture of the converted life. It’s the story of Ananias, a person who lives close to the divine. His relationship with God is conversational. Unlike Saul who becomes Paul, Ananias has been growing in the knowledge of God over time, and when God calls his name he doesn’t need to ask, “Who are you?” The voice is a familiar one. Ananias responds like a child being called by a parent from another room. “Here I am.” Ananias talks back. “Ah, God, in case you haven’t noticed, this guy is bad news. He’s out to get us for following the way of Jesus. He’s a lost cause. I think I’ll pass.” And God says, in essence, “no person is a lost cause. Everybody can be cahnged. I have chosen Paul to be an instrument of my grace. And I am choosing you to be an instrument of my grace. Go to him in his confusion, lay your hands on him, welcome him, walk with him as he learns to see himself and the world through the lens of my love.” And through this conversation, Ananias’s heart is converted. He goes to Paul. His story shows us that conversion is a daily, life-long process. A work of Holy Spirit in us as we do our lives, one step at a time. One encounter at a time. One decision at a time. Paul’s Damascus road experience is just the beginning for him. It grounds him irrevocably in the life and love of God, and from there his journey continues, in struggle and in joy, a daily process of growing in grace and seeing himself, and the world, and others from God’s point of view.
God’s means for awakening us are tailor-made. The Spirit’s ways are suited to our personalities and circumstances. Not everyone needs to be bowled over and brought to their knees. Not everyone begins their conversion journey at the baptismal font as an infant. Each of our journeys is unique, full of twists and turns, marked by both resistance to and co-operation with what the Spirit is doing with us and in us. But they all have one thing in common. The Spirit of God is laboring to ground us and all of humanity in the life and unconditional love and acceptance of God. The Spirit cannot be stopped. She is restless and creative. She is in it for the long haul. Opening eyes. Converting hearts.
And the lasting evidence of conversion is not one date circled in red on the calendar, or held in memory, but the whole unfolding of each of our lives. In the end, the story of Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is worth telling because of who he becomes and what he does with his life. And it is worth telling because of who Ananias is and what he does in that moment when he goes to minister to Saul and discovers by the grace of God, no person is a lost cause. Every person is loved by God without conditions, and destined to awaken to this good news, through whatever means the Spirit chooses to make it known.