Discover more from Contents and Containers
Opening myself to the creation opened my eyes to so much more
The pandemic (which is not over despite what Tony Fauci says) has changed us in many ways, but one of the notable ways it changed me was learning to observe and take note of the things around me, specifically around creation. A few years ago when I was still studying to earn my Master of Divinity at Palmer Theological Seminary, Eastern University’s seminary, my friend noted that there was a beautiful cascade of red leaves on a blossoming tree. I remarked to her “who cares about trees?” And then I headed into the library to get back into my head.
In general, I like living inside of my head, it keeps me from my feelings, my desires, and other painful things. But the pandemic brought me out of my mind and took me outside. In the Please Touch Museum Parking Lot, I heard birds sing for what felt like the first time. I noticed cherry blossoms. I developed an affinity for the red-breasted robin, the American robin, as a sign that spring is coming. I developed a love for the robin in contrast to the arrogant cardinal or the obnoxious blue jay. I started checking the weather, taking long walks with friends, instead of sitting in a coffee shop.
I’m noticing things outside of me. Paying attention to new things. The other day I heard a woodpecker and immediately spotted it. I saw a praying mantis on a path at Fernhill Park recently. My eyes are opened up. I’m seeing things in a new way. I’m seeing God around me, after only seeing God in the books I was reading and in my writing. Something new is happening.
I opened myself to new desires and experiences. I learned more about my body and how it works. I learned about the pain I've endured and the harm I've been with (as well as the harm that I've caused).
That newness, that experience of scales falling from my eyes, seems similar to what Saul experienced on Damascus Road before becoming Paul. This is often told as a story of conversion, but I think it’s a story about seeing what is really before us instead. It’s a story of Paul learning of how he brought oppression and death and repenting. What if that was what conversion meant to us? What if conversion meant divesting from what has oppressed us and others and moving into something else?
The writer of Acts depicts Saul as a brutal person, ready to capture and bind Christians who belong to the Way. He heads toward Damascus and is struck down by a blinding flash of light. And he sees Jesus, and Jesus asks him why he is persecuting him? He sends Saul on a mission to Damascus. His eyes are open but he can’t see. The others with him don’t see Jesus (they hear Jesus). God reveals Godself to us when we are ready to see him, God reveals Godself according to God’s own will.
The Lord calls Ananias to go visit Saul to lay hands on him and heal him. Ananias tells him that Saul is a terrible person, that he’s done evil things. Doesn’t Jesus know what harm Saul has done to Jesus followers?
The Lord wants to use Saul as an instrument though, one that helps people follow him. He specifically wants to use him with Gentiles too. Ananias obeys him. When he greets him, he immediately calls him “brother Saul,” already he is in the fold. He overcomes his prejudice and listens to the Lord, despite very good reason not to. He heals Saul, and scales fall from his eyes, and his journey as Saul begins. Following that, he started proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God.
Ananias is like Jonah being sent to Ninevah, the heart of the oppressive Assyrian Empire to do God’s work. Often God sends us into hostile territory to do God’s work. Ananias’s obedience shouldn’t be taken lightly, this is not fun or easy work. And if I were him, I would be very reluctant to do it.
It’s hard enough to approach someone who wants you imprisoned, but to imagine them as a possible liberator is even harder. I pray that God gives us this imagination for possibility. I admit I have been so disappointed by people who can’t make the choice to follow the Spirit and instead leave that I am not sure I’d think that Saul could change. My experience is so often that people don’t change, so I understand that I may need to have my eyes opened to that possibility.
Will people accept me for who I am? Will people understand me when I’m fully myself? My experience suggests otherwise, but how can I change the pattern? How can I put myself out there and risk being rejected, or oppressed? This is the question. I have often expressed my own experience of racism in the world and the church, of homophobia in the world or church, and been met with pain and rejection. Who can be saved?
For me, the key isn’t that Ananias convinced Saul to convert, but rather, Ananias gave meaning to Saul’s encounter on Damascus Road. The Spirit did the heavy lifting to opening Saul’s eyes. We are looking for people who have had a meaningful experience and we can be Ananias to them. We are looking for people who have seen a flashing light and need help understanding it.
On our road to becoming an antioppressive church, what are the experiences that we need to have to “convert?” How does someone who is suspicious of antiracism become antiracist? How does someone with a prejudice against queer folks become LGBTQIA affirming? We hope they have an experience that helps them change.
Saul was ambushed by Jesus, fell down, and met God. His life changed after that. We are hopeful to create those life-changing experiences. For many Americans, it was witnessing Daryl Chauvin killing George Floyd. Or it could be having an LGBTQIA family member. It could be simply listening to the experience of those we harm.
For me the pandemic made me pay attention to trees, blossoms, and birds. It helped me understand my own experience of racism in the church and moved me to do something. It shed away systems of power that kept me from knowing myself, intimately. It changed me as I became acquainted with my pain, my suffering. I learned new things about myself, and that came with anguish and freedom. It can be easy to look back at all the times we didn’t see the world clearly, or we can move forward into what is next for us as we see it now. Pray for those Damascus Road moments so you can get into what God has next for you.