Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
A perennial question asked during ministerial formation was, ‘how were you called?’ Once, half a dozen of us at Mansfield responded and we shared our incredibly varied stories: from a dazzling light on a plane trip, a conversion in later life that became a rapid path to ordination, and others that were very ordinary.
My path to ordination was very ordinary. Church has always been a part of my life. From walking round to the other side of my home village to the Methodist chapel, going as a family to the URC in the next town, to going to URCs in Chelmsford and St. Ives after I moved away from home.
No blinding lights, no major changes in direction, nothing but a feeling that maybe there was something more to life than what I could sense. Something more than “might makes right”. Something more than “survival of the fittest”. We do ourselves no favours when we assume that the miraculous is the benchmark. When we place the bar so high for spiritual experiences that they become infrequent, unobtainable or a cause for guilt that we are doing it all wrong. When we expect burning bushes, mountaintops or Damascus roads and fail to respond to the many thoughts, images, coincidences or conversations in which God’s ‘still small voice’ may be discerned urging us towards the better path.
The encounter on the Damascus road transformed Saul from a violent persecutor into Paul, the proclaimer of the way of Jesus. This should be a source of inspiration to us, and not a cause of guilt. We are all still a work-in-progress, and even after his encounter Paul had not achieved perfection, and God seeks to come alongside us, as and where we are, so we might catch a glimpse of the Kingdom.
Make yourself comfortable. Breathe deeply. Concentrate as you breathe in and out. Know that God is present. Know that you are loved, accepted, and are called to follow Christ’s way. Continue to concentrate on your breathing. Close your eyes for a while. When you are ready, open them: ‘regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’ Amen
The Rev’d David Coaker serves with Grays URC in Essex