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.