Beyond our blinders

Acts 9:1-20

When I was a child and early teenager, my family lived just outside of a

small town in Virginia next to two old order Mennonite farms. Because of the

abundance of Amish in this area, we may not notice the old order Mennonites in

Allen County, but they are present here as well. There’s a lot of similarities

between the groups – both in terms of general style of their clothing, their

choices to disengage from the broader ‘English’ culture, as they call it, and their

choices to not use some variations of modern technology.

You may or may not know that there are also old order or German Baptist

Brethren, although a smaller number than the Mennonite and Amish. You may or

may not also know that there is no uniform set of rules for which modern

technology that all old order Amish or Mennonites use. It’s completely

determined by the bishop of their church. Some are allowed to use electricity, but

only as part of their business. Others can use cell phones, but not land lines. And

still others can drive, but their vehicles must have certain color exteriors or

interiors or bumpers. It’s complicated and confusing, but very, very interesting.

Growing up with Mennonite babysitters was great for my siblings and me.

Since they didn’t have TV’s, the babysitters were often distracted by whatever

show was on, which gave us free rein in the house while my parents were gone.

One other ‘perk’ of our neighbors was the occasional offer to take a horse and

buggy ride. That was always so much fun for my siblings and me. It was also

educational. Our neighbor would bring the horse and buggy down the road to our

house to pick us up, and then talk with us about the horse, the buggy, the

differences between driving a horse and a car, and the extra things they have to

watch out for while traveling.

I remember talking with our neighbor about the horse’s blinders. That was

fascinating for me, to see that the horse should only set its gaze and attention on

what was right in front of it. The driver could direct the horse to turn its head and

see what was happening to its left or right, but it could be dangerous for the

horse, and by extension, the riders in the buggy, if the horse used its peripheral

vision while out on the road. That’s not the case for a rider on horseback, just in a

buggy. A horse looking beyond its blinders increased the potential for harm.

For humans, looking beyond our blinders requires a different point of view.

Like the horse, there are times when we can only absorb so much information at

one time. Life can feel overwhelming. We cannot imagine trying to comprehend

all of the challenges, stressors, and general bad news that enter our lives at one

time. I worry about that for our children, quite frankly. We live in such an

interconnected world that it becomes difficult to filter out the news and

information that our children can wait to hear, learn and process when they are

more able to absorb it. One of the challenges of being with children is discerning

exactly what they can and cannot handle. And often, the news seems so

overwhelming for us that it is difficult to know the difference.

At the same time, looking beyond our blinders can also be a gift. Observing

a situation or life challenge from a different perspective can be a blessing.

Sometimes, when we have struggled with figuring out the answer to a long time

problem, just a brief moment of inspiration from a point of view we hadn’t

consider can help us overcome whatever obstacle is in our path. Those moments

of divine intervention or coincidence or discernment or prayed for wisdom or

whatever you wish where we are able to view life from beyond our typical

blinders can be life changing.

The story of Saul the Zealot is the classic biblical text for this subject. So

often the narrative surrounding this story is one of a conversion experience. This

is one of evangelical Christianity’s favorite scriptures, and with good reason. It is

filled with redemption, grace, and evangelism. And so often that’s where we leave

this text; as this familiar, yet unapproachably mystical moment where Saul

encounters Jesus and is left blinded by the experience before becoming known as

Paul – which incidentally doesn’t happen in this story – Saul just becomes known

without explanation in one ‘blink and you miss it verse’ in chapter 13.

Yet it is important to note three important, yet often overlooked elements

in this story. First, Saul decides to follow Jesus, but is not converted from one

religion to another. At this point, the followers of Jesus, which Acts references as

‘the Way,’ are still nominally Jewish. The missionary journeys of Paul to the

Gentile world will not commence for a year or more. These disciples generally

practice Jewish traditions, but follow the teachings of Jesus. Saul does not

repudiate his Jewish heritage, nor is he baptized by immersion in a river, nor does

he transfer his membership. He remains a pious Jew, but one that is guided and

influenced by Jesus.

Second, Saul is changed because of his encounter with the living Jesus – not

immediately but over time. He heads for Damascus with authority and purpose,

but is led into the city helpful and humbled. This one time enemy of the church

becomes its champion. The persecutor of Jesus’ followers becomes persecuted

himself for proclaiming him. None of that happened immediately. Saul himself

was extended forgiveness and grace and then taught more about Jesus by

Barnabas, Peter, and others, before he began to teach others about Jesus. He was

transformed, more than he was converted.

Third, Saul’s transformation is not intended to be an example for all of us to

embody in our own way, but instead the personal means for a specific call. The

fact that we observe Saul the Zealot’s personal transformation into Paul the

apostle happening not after this encounter with Jesus, but at the exact point

when he emerges as a teacher and missionary is no coincidence. His blinders are

off. He has learned the teachings and the essence of Jesus’ message and ministry.

It is only once he has grasped the fullness and depth of God’s love reflected in

Jesus that he becomes known as Paul and is ready to take his place in the story of

the young and growing church.

We also cannot overestimate the openness of Saul to having his worldview

radically changed. While I would suspect that having an encounter like the one in

this text might affect any of us similarly, it is important to note that this zealot

was not so rigid as to allow the presence of Christ to work within him. I wonder if

our modern church and culture could say the same thing. Often it seems that so

much of our American life is locked into belief structures that fit our worldview.

So many choices before us appear binary or either/or. Red or blue, White Sox or

Cubs, Catholic or Protestant, Christian or other, so often we link ourselves deeply

to the familiar, even if we believe ourselves to be open to the Spirit’s movement,

wisdom and insight.

Years ago, a Johns Hopkins professor gave a group of graduate students this

assignment: Go to the slums. Take 200 boys, between the ages of 12 and 16, and

investigate their background and environment. Then predict their chances for the

future. The students, after consulting social statistics, talking to the boys and

compiling much data, concluded that 90 percent of the boys would spend some

time in jail.

Twenty-five years later, another group of graduate students was given the

job of testing the prediction. They went back to the same area. Some of the boys -

by then men - were still there, a few had died, some had moved away, but they

got in touch with 180 of the original 200. They found that only four of the group

had ever been sent to jail. Why was it that these men, who had lived in a breeding

place of crime, had such a surprisingly good record? The researchers were

continually told: "Well, there was a teacher ..."

They pressed further and found that in 75 percent of the cases it was the

same woman. The researchers went to this teacher, now living in a home for

retired teachers. How had she exerted this remarkable influence over that group

of children? Could she give them any reason why these boys should have

remembered her? "No," she said, "no, I really couldn't." And then, thinking back 

over the years, she said musingly, more to herself than to her questioners: "I

loved those boys. And I tried to help them to see beyond what was right in front

of them. It may not have seemed like much, but maybe, that was enough."

What does it take for our worldviews to be opened just enough to allow

new insight to enter in? What are the blinders that you and I need to look

beyond? These are questions that are difficult to answer, but it seems to me that

the important thing is not figuring out the answer, but instead to ask the question

and to let ourselves be vulnerable, open and courageous enough for God to

reveal the path for us to explore. We may not have an encounter with Jesus like

Saul, but we can be open enough for the possibility for our own moments of

receiving wisdom and insight to happen. May it be so. Amen.