Flashing Lights

Seth Patterson January 26, 2020

Scripture Acts 9:1–9

Every time I hear emergency sirens or see the flashing lights, I pause. What I am doing or where I am will influence the duration of the pause, but I have cultivated the habit of pausing. At the very least I try to pause just long enough to recognize that an event of significance is happening to someone. I don’t have to see the incident or know what is occurring to recognize that this might be the moment in which everything changes for someone, some family or some community. I know that these flashing lights and sirens often mean that something extraordinary is happening, and other human beings, people moving through their life the best that they can just like me, are going through something. Also, I know that emergency workers, trained and resilient as they may be, are very often affected by every burst of adrenaline, every spring into action, every moment rushing into the unknown. Every siren is the calling out of a significant moment, and I try to be cognizant of this reality even while I am constantly reminded of my powerlessness against the sickness, violence, unpredictability, fear and accidental nature of life. But pausing to notice it makes me feel connected and grateful.

We all have experienced these “flashing lights” moments in one way or another, in our own ways and in our own degrees. Oftentimes there were no actual flashing lights or sirens, but for the significance in our own experience, there might as well have been bursts of bright lights. These are the moments in which we later say things like:

  • It all changed in a flash.
  • Nothing has been the same since that moment.
  • The person that I was beforehand is not who I was afterwards.

These are the paradigm-shifting moments of our own lives. Perhaps we become somehow a different person in a familiar world. Or the world becomes unrecognizable around us, but we feel the same. These flashing lights moments do not need to be traumatic to be significant. The birth of my daughter (six years ago yesterday) was one such moment for me. The first moment I saw her, it was as if the world I had been part of before became something profound and new. Everything changed—this was now a world that she inhabited, and it was different than the day before. These flashing lights moments often coincide with these large life events: births, deaths, sickness, healing, violence, accidents, near-misses. These moments have the power to change everything; nothing can be the same since that moment; the person that you were beforehand is not who you are after the fact.

These flashing lights moments also come in less overt, dramatic or intense ways. It’s possible that these changes can come about in ways that may almost feel mundane. Someone once told me that they stopped eating meat because one day they looked at a piece of beef and couldn’t fathom eating something that was once alive. She said it felt like it was always there waiting for her to discover, and, once she did, she never looked back. There are stories of relationships ending because one person woke up and realized they had stopped being in love with the other. It can potentially feel as if this mundane and understated realization undercuts the significance of the moment. Yet, again, everything has changed, and nothing will be the same again.

Or the flashing light moment can be neither dramatic nor mundane. Or maybe they are both dramatic and mundane. These are the things that can sometimes happen that we cannot explain: when the flashing lights and screeching sirens are only encountered internally. I had an experience like this about a decade ago. While driving in a safe and normal way, I had an overwhelming realization of a new direction in my life. A direction that I had never before considered, and it felt as if a voice were speaking to me but not through my ears. Since that moment, my life has never been the same. Who I was before is different than who I became after. Yet outside of my head nothing dramatic transpired. It all happened while travelling 25 m.p.h. on a road in a city park. The flashing lights were all internal while I was doing something mundane.

Our scripture this morning seems to be a combination of all of these types of flashing lights. Saul’s nothing-will-be-the-same moment on the road to Damascus is simultaneously intensely dramatic, somewhat mundane and uniquely personal. Saul, as we might remember, was a member of the ruling religious class in this Jewish corner of the Roman Empire. He was a regular persecutor of the followers of Jesus, those following The Way. He was heading to Damascus on a hunting expedition, so to speak, and then everything changed. Nothing was the same ever again. The person Saul was before was not who he became afterwards. There wasn’t just a metaphorical flashing light, but “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” He heard a voice, identified as Jesus, telling him to go to the city (that he was already going to) and await further instructions. When he stood up, he realized he had been blinded, and his companions took him the rest of the way.

This fundamentally changed Saul. This dramatic event on an unremarkable walk in which only he saw the flashing lights was a paradigmatic shift for Saul. This man, who later became better known as Paul, not only stopped persecuting these Jewish followers of Jesus but became a ferocious teacher, preacher and leader in the work of following Jesus. He was instrumental in bringing the story of Jesus to both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. A few of his letters to churches that he later founded in culturally Greek nations are the oldest parts of our Bible, most likely predating even the oldest of the Gospels. This story is so important to the beginnings of what is now called Christianity that it is recounted two more times in the book of Acts. It is difficult to overstate how important Paul’s conversion is to our theological and historical understanding of what happened after Jesus died. The person that he was before the light was not who he was after the flash of light.

How amazing it is that we humans are capable of change like this! Saul, in a brief yet profound moment, becomes a completely different person. He looks the same, smells the same, sounds the same, has the same childhood, yet is now fundamentally oriented in a different direction. He did not stop being himself, but rather became a different version of the same person. And we each have done this ourselves in large and small ways. Think back to the ways in which, through dramatic, mundane or internal occurrences, you became a different person. How amazing is it that we are capable of responding to these flashing-light moments by changing.

But the change doesn’t just happen. We have to allow it to happen. Saul could have seen the light, heard the voice, been blinded and still forcefully approached Damascus and finished his work. My friend that I mentioned before could have seen beef in a new way and still decided that she wasn’t ready to give up cheeseburgers. There are people who have coronary events who subsequently change nothing about their life behaviors. I could have heard that voice in my head while driving and then dismissed it as a delusion or something weird or just plain something that I did not want to do. Change is inevitable and accepting it takes faith. It takes trust. It takes courage and hopefulness.

My friend, mentor and Chicago colleague Cynthia Lindner writes in our first reading for today (from Varieties of Gifts, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) that to serve “a living God means being open to the continual unfolding of God’s creation in the present moment. Being faithful . . . requires participating in change rather than resisting it.” Change is going to find us; it is going to appear to us; it is going to open wide something new whether we want it to or not. We have no choice in that. What we do have a choice in is what we do with that change. We can either participate in it or resist it. And to participate in it requires faith.

This faith can take a lot of forms. For some people and situations, faith is that God will see them through this change that has been handed to them, and that is enough. This faith is grounded in one’s spiritual foundation and experienced understanding of God in the world and in life. For others, faith takes the form of self-reliance and self-understanding. You can trust in your own determinations of what change is right or not for you. Others’ situations may require finding faith in other people. This is part of Saul’s situation because after he arrived in Damascus, he was welcomed and healed by Ananias, who then brought him to other disciples of Jesus. He did not make this profound change alone. Rarely do we accept these changes alone. I was only able to accept the change brought to me on the road in the park because people whom I loved and trusted backed up the voice in my head and gave me reasons to listen. I accepted the change but only because I knew I wasn’t alone.

We are all asked to change often. Change is sometimes painful, and it is almost always uncomfortable. Despite the flashing lights moments, we do not have to accept that change that is being asked of us. We have the ability and right to resist. Yet, as Lindner says, “If the writers of our gospels are to be believed, conversion, resurrection, and transformation are the heartbeat of the Christian life and the lifeblood of the Christian community.” Change and the acceptance of change is what God asks of us. Change and the acceptance of change may very well be where we experience God the most because it requires faith. It requires a letting go of our own sense of control. It requires a letting go of our assumptions about who we are, as if this is a static and inflexible definition. It requires a letting go of certainty, of answers, of knowing, and instead putting faith and trust into the questions, the unknown, the potential of something different. It requires allowing God in so that we may be shown who we really can become, how we can better serve God and our fellow humans in the world.