Sunday, April 10, 2016

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 9
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

I dropped first-year psychology.

This feels like one of those ‘full disclosure’ things since some of what I do here has a vaguely psychological element too it. You will be happy to know that I passed all my pastoral care classes.

And I think they wanted me to drop the class. There were 900 of us, which should have been the first clue. And they began with lots of biology, which hardly seemed like the exciting class I signed up for. And then there were all the early experiments described—obviously conducted before the invention of ethics—which caused some of my classmates to lean in while others looked for the door.

Lately, however, I’ve been reading a little more in the area, and I stumbled on a book called “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By” by Timothy Wilson. Wilson, of course, cannot resist the tried and true, and begins by describing an early experiment in psychology, this one involving food.

It seems that wartime planners discovered that they had a surplus of the least popular meats, kidneys and such, and they needed a way to promote them. They began in the standard way, lecturing people in the utility of these cuts, underlining why it was important to eat your liver. It didn’t work.

Then they tried another approach: having a conversation. They invited woman to discuss what it was like to serve these meats and some of the ways they might overcome the objections of family members. Just having the conversation increased the likelihood that the meat would be served. And a new psychological approach was born.

This approach, now called “story editing” begins with the assumption that we tend to live within a narrative framework, literally the stories we live by. Small edits to the story, or even retelling the story in a new way, can lead to lasting changes in how we see ourselves and others.

The process is also being used in the face of trauma—say being thrown to the ground in a flash of light—and has demonstrated greater success than the rival approach, called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD).

So let’s imagine a group of counselors are standing by on the road to Damascus, ready to apply the now discredited Critical Incident Stress Debriefing technique on poor Paul. Now, he’s not Paul yet, that will come later. At this moment, he is still Saul.

First the team will ask Saul to give a detailed description of falling to the ground, and what it was like from his perspective. He might say “I fell to the ground,” or maybe side with Caravaggio and say “I fell from my horse.” Then the team would ask him to describe his feelings and I expect he might say ‘embarrassed’ or ‘confused.’ And finally ask about a range of psychological symptoms he is experiencing. I’m not sure Saul would be one to open up on these matters.

Back to today, Wilson and others have demonstrated that this approach, having people relive a trauma immediately after the event, actually gets in the way of healing, and may serve to reinforce the trauma rather than relieve it. Good thing then that the road to Damascus team didn’t exist, but there were people standing by. Here’s what happened:

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

The passage said ‘they heard the sound’ which we can take to mean they heard the exchange between Saul and Jesus, but they didn’t see anyone and very likely didn’t understand. Nevertheless, they continue on the journey leaving Saul with his thoughts.

Meanwhile, the Spirit speaks to a man named Ananias and simply instructs him to seek out Saul when he arrives in Damascus. It will fall to him to lay hands on Saul and restore his sight. Ananias, of course, has heard about Saul and his hatred for the church, and objects. But the Spirit insists that he undertake this mission, calling Saul (soon to be Paul) “my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.”

But we’re jumping ahead. Back on the road to Damascus, without a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team standing by, Jesus takes a narrative approach, and begins the process of having Saul-Paul rewrite his story. Notice first how Jesus frames a question rather than giving a command. What was the question?

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

And notice too that Saul doesn’t attempt and answer, even though he knows very well why he has been persecuting the first followers of Jesus. Instead he reacts out of shock: “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Like the best teachers (or as the best teacher) Jesus asks an open-ended question, a why question, and clearly didn’t expect an immediate response. He gave him what we might call a ‘question for reflection,’ and he gave him three days to ponder it. And like Wilson’s ‘story editing’ technique, the very act of pondering is what sparks the transformation.

Perhaps he pondered the emerging story of the crucified one, who forgave his executioners from the cross.
Perhaps he pondered the rumour that the body was missing, that when the stone was rolled away, he wasn’t there.
Perhaps he reflected on the speech of Stephen, his summary of the story of Israel that concludes at the cross.
Perhaps he pondered Stephen’s penultimate word: “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” or his final word: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Whatever he pondered, and however he reframed his story, we know he was left with his thoughts and the urging of the Spirit. We know that by the time Ananias blessed him and the scales fell from his eyes he was transformed. The simple description for this story is the ‘conversion’ of Paul, but was really a complete transformation.

And this, of course, brings us to today. We don’t talk about conversion much, at least not in the United Church. When I was picking hymns for today I went first to the topical index in the back of the book and looked for the suggestions related to conversion. There were none, because the topic is not listed. John Wesley would not be amused, although he might be made to understand.

Recalling that he was a failed missionary to America before he has his own conversion experience, he might be the first to say you can’t bring people to this place, you have to let them arrive there on their own, at the Spirit’s bidding. So even he would understand the harm that occurred when we tried converting people, and maybe understand why the theme of conversion is absent from the index.

But he would be the first to agree with the idea of ‘story editing,’ changing the story we live by. The moment his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ he didn’t receive any new information, he simply thought about this situation in a new way. God revealed to him that he was trying to earn something that couldn’t be earned—the gift of salvation—and the rest is history. He already knew Paul’s letter to the Romans, but he needed to apply it to his story to make it true.

Throughout our life together we give each other prompts—cues and questions to rethink our story and imagine ourselves differently. Whenever we say “you are forgiven” or “you are a child of God” or “in Christ you are a new creation” we are amending the story we have in our heads, converting one narrative into another.

This then, is our conversion: changing the stories we live by to line them up with grace-filled stories of the Kingdom. To meet Jesus on the road and ponder whatever “why question” he poses to us. And to live with him and walk in his way. Amen.


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