The Christian Century has had an occasional series over the last decades in which it asks theologians to write essays entitled “How My Mind Has Changed.” The ones I’ve read have always been interesting, some of them quite moving.
One (“The Way to Justice,” published December 1, 2009) was written by Nicholas Wolsterstorff. In it he discussed how his mind was changed regarding social justice. He’d always felt strongly about issues regarding race and poverty, but came to believe that the voices of the poor and oppressed had not been sufficiently considered with regards to justice. Charity wasn’t enough in dealing with poverty and racism; it was important to engage justice in order to recognize and begin to overcome the roots and tendrils of injustice and poverty. How was Wolsterstorff’s mind changed? By encountering and hearing Palestinians and black South Africans. By being quiet in his soul and listening to those for whom poverty and oppression were a part of daily existence.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me. [from Galatians 1]
A few weeks ago the lectionary took us to Acts 9, the dramatic story of Saul/Paul being knocked to the ground and blinded in order to recognize the Lord. We tend to read that story as a dividing line in his life: before it he was a mean hater of the Jesus people; after it he was God’s apostle. Though we don’t have tons of information about his conversion (change of mind and heart) we have enough to let us know that it’s more lengthy and complicated than a simple, single event.
Isn’t it always?
Today’s text tells us that Paul didn’t immediately turn from one way of life to another. He spent three years in preparation, study, prayer, conversation. Three years. During that time he was not only learning new ways of thinking, acting, and relating, he was unlearning old ways. He was surely meeting with people (though not the apostles) and listening to their stories. That is, the people who were brave enough to meet with him. They all knew—he knew—what he used to be and do, and they were understandably leery. He’d been an evangelist for the old faith, threatened by the new, and was instrumental in persecuting those who followed Jesus.
I’d like to think that Paul’s conversion started much earlier than that event on the road to Damascus. In Acts 7, we’re told that he stood by while Stephen, a deacon in the church, was stoned to death. He was minding the coats of witnesses. What if, on that day (and maybe on others like it), he began to see how his movement had gone wrong? What if the suffering and prayers of Stephen dug a new furrow into his soul? What if, at that moment, he began to listen to the voices of those he’d objectified for so long as “different,” “wrong”?
Then came the on-the-way-to-Damascus event, followed by three years of more observing. More learning. More praying. More encounters.
Paul didn’t emerge from these experiences as a perfect person, but he did emerge as a changed person.
What about us? When have our minds and hearts been changed—through experiences, listening to people who are very different from us? People of another race or religion, a different social class or generation or national origin, refugees and immigrants, LGBT people, those with mental illness or physical disability? When we think and talk about other people and groups, we can, even with great intentions, objectify and stereotype them. We may think (or be certain) we know what is best for them. When we meet people, build relationships, stop talking long enough to hear and absorb their stories, we are changed.
With changed hearts and minds, we, like Paul, are ready to re-enter the world with deeper understanding, wiser spirits, and renewed vision.
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier