Back in July, Jen and I had been given the opportunity to drive a group of students down to Knoxville for the Covenant denomination wide (North America) youth conference. Thousands of students from across North America all coming together for a single purpose.
And when you ask me to drive a group of students down to Knoxville you will end up stopping at every possible cheesy road side attraction I can find.
I have a picture of this with me and the students. You can note me looking like I am in Heaven (come on, it’s a real life Willy Wonka inside), while the kids have a look that says, why did I get in the car with this guy? By the time we made it to Col. Sanders birthplace and the original KFC restaurant, the students were, how can you say… miserable.
On the flip side, this is what happens when Jen is asked to drive a group of students down to Knoxville.
Actually, this is what happens after we drop the students off and we made a detour to the Smokey Mountains and Nashville while we waited to pick them up.
- The Jack Daniels Process
This was actually a really interesting tour. In fact, when we walked out of the tour the first thing Jen said to me was, that would make a great sermon illustration. And so here we are.By far the most interesting thing about the tour was seeing the process of how they make Jack Daniel. To make Jack Daniel (Jack Daniels is the Distillery, Jack “Daniel” is the drink… they were very clear about this distinction) they drip the Bourbon through, very slowly, ten feet of packed, sugar maple charcoal (this is called the mellowing process) and then put it into charred oak barrels for what they describe as the maturing process. This maturing process is defined by elevation. Barrels on the lower level get a certain label for a certain taste. Barrels on the higher level get another label for another particular taste.But what is most important to note, and what they emphasize on this tour is, what makes it Jack Daniel is this slow drip process. This is what sets it apart from the Kentucky Bourbon on one side and the Mountain Moonshine on the other.
- The Definition of Transformation and the Slow Drip Process of the Spirit’s work
Earlier on in this series I decided to look up the definition to transformation just to help me make sense of some of these stories of transformation we have been working through at our Church, namely how to make sense of those stories when my own life couldn’t appear to be further from that truth. Looking up the definition I found that it can be an instantaneous act or a process, a subtle or dramatic change, present or past tense. If it was a choose your own adventure, I would choose the instantaneous, the dramatic, the past tense. Or at least want to peek a few pages ahead to see if the decision and choice I am making now is leading to a dead end or my impending death.Far more often though transformation appears as the slow drip process of the spirits work in our everyday life. A process that is bringing us to maturity, but one that takes a life time, and if I am fully honest, that can be frustrating even on my best days. Because I want to see the difference in the here and now.
- The Apostle Paul and the Slow Drip Process
And then we come to the story of the Apostle Paul’s transformation, which is the story I will be looking at here. Perhaps the most recognizable, most dramatic, most instantaneous example of transformation that we find in scripture. Or at least that’s what I carried into his story. Rather, what I found as I dug into his story is that he was a man who shared a little bit more of my struggle than I realized. He wrestled with the idea of this slow drip process over the course of his life. He questioned what God was doing in his story and in the story of his people. He refers to an ambiguous thorn in his side, which however you choose to interpret it is something that he carried with him everywhere he went. He found himself wondering whether everything he was doing was worth the effort. Most significantly he wondered whether God could overlook his past and actually make something of his weakness, weaknesses that haunted him with the confessional question “why do I do the things I do not want to do.” And yet, this idea of being transformed as a “slow drip process” became the centerpiece of his ministry, a full expression of his reigning hope as we witness him struggling to work through all of this tension in his writings.
And it really is a privilege and a wonder that we can watch Paul being transformed and changed and matured through his writings over time. On this note, reengaging Paul’s story was timely for me. When I was asked to preach on Paul I had actually just started N.T. Wright’s (a spiritual hero of mine) new book, Paul: A Biography. So this welcome intersection seemed like a real opportunity to remain intentionally aware of what God needed to teach me or show me through Paul’s story. And my hope and prayer is that these learnings, as best as I can speak to them, will resonate with you as well.
- Paul’s Story as Context- 3 Things He Taught Me About Transformation
Wright suggests that to understand Paul we must take him in context: what we know of him before and after the event in question in order to see what transformation is doing in his present. And just as a disclosure, there is much scholarly debate to be had on which writings are actually Paul’s and which are not, and which can shed light on his personal story. I hold to the idea that some scholars do that Paul wrote all of his letters and wrote none of them at the same time. That is, regardless of how close or distant Paul is to the actual penning of these letters, behind all of it is the voice and influence and distinct ministry of Paul’s message, journey and story. So it is no more problematic to me to see his story in something as uncontested as Romans than it is to see him in something a bit more contested as Ephesians.
And before I get to that, a brief mention of some books I found helpful for exploring his context over the course of my journey, both in previous study and in my reengagement:The Apostle, A Life of Paul by John PollockBackgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett FergusonPaul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P SandersPaul in Fresh Perspective by N.T. WrightClimax of the Covenant by N.T. WrightPaul: A Biography by N.T. WrightPaul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee by Alan F. Segal
- 3 things that this context taught me about what transformation is and how it works in our lives that I want to look at this morning:
1. It begins with grace. It is grace that meets us where we are in that slow drip process. Galatians 1:15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called m by his grace…”And grace can come in any number of ways. Grace in the way of healing. Grace in the way of something in our lives that needs to change. Grace that we need to extend to others. Grace we need to extend to ourselves.
2. Grace helps us to see things differently- in the context of God’s story Gal 1:15-16 … was pleased to reveal his Son to me…
3. And in seeing things differently, in context, it then gives us the courage and strength we need to step out (or back out) into the world as transformed people, trusting that God is using our circumstance for something good. Gal 1:24… in order that I might preach him among the gentiles.
1. GRACE MEETS US WHERE WE ARE
Back to that trip to Knoxville/Nashville. The closer we got to the trip the more I began to recognize that something was going on in me. Perhaps an indication that the spirit was trying to do its transforming work. And I knew that I needed to engage it, figure it out.
So I prayed, I reflected, and I journaled before, during… there’s a lot of road between here and Knoxville/Nashville… and after. You can see those reflections in this blog space under my from Winnipeg to Nashville entries.
And what kept coming to mind was a conversation from my past. It was a conversation that defined my transition out of music, once my life long dream, and into youth ministry. At the time of this conversation I was right on the precipice of seeing my dream to play music full time become a reality, and right before the band I had sunk all my time and investment in ended up moving to Nashville and becoming a success I started to reevaluate why I was doing what I was doing. And what the spirit revealed to me at that time was the life of 5 youth whom I had the privilege of sharing life with as a stand in youth leader at our newly planted Church from 12 years old to now nearing graduation. And music was taking me away from some important milestones in their life. So I used this conversation as a way of expressing and enacting this transition towards stepping out of the band, I stayed behind while they made it to the city of my dreams, eventually went to school to get my Youth Leadership Degree and did Youth Pastoring for a number of years.
Until the last position I held went very wrong and very badly, leaving us (Jen and I) feeling stranded and defeated and destroyed.
What I had felt had been an obedience to living into the promise of God and his call on my life ended up feeling like complete abandonment with my confidence in that promise and call seriously shaken. I was in need of a dramatic, instantaneous transformation encounter.
At that time we entered Faith Covenant, which has been an important part our healing journey over the last five years. But what this trip was bringing out in me was two things: Rather than something dramatic or instantaneous, God had been at work in a slow drip process way as I began to look back on where I had come from and where I am now. And secondly, in the spirit of that process it seemed there was still more healing that needed to happen. Here I was driving a group of students (yes, I know I was just a chaperone) to the place and symbol of my once lifelong and now failed dream (Nashville). This was telling me there were more steps I needed to take towards being freed from that destruction and despair and, as I came to realize, heavy cynicism. And as I like to believe as I was working through the story of Paul, this is where grace found me. On the road to Nashville. The same grace that found Paul on the road to Damascus “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. A grace that seemed to be calling me to reengage that slow drip process for what it needed to do in my life, my context, here today. And it is Paul’s story, Paul’s context that has been helping me make some sense of what that grace might look like for the next step in my healing process.
The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-19)
9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 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. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 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. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 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, 12 and he has seen in a vision[a] a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 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; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul[b] 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.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
This is what Grace does in Paul’s context- It reminds him (and us) that even when we can’t see where God is in our story (Lord, who are you?), He knows our story (Saul, Saul.. he calls him by name). It tells him that grace, and the transformed life that grace pushes us towards, is a gift. In Gal 1:11-16, Paul says, “For I would have you know that the Gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel, for I did not receive it from any man nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
- Sharing from Paul on Remembrance Day
This is the written form of a sermon I gave this past Remembrance day. Knowing that I was preaching on this day of remembering the stories and persons who gave their lives for our own freedom story here in Canada, I found myself thinking back to an old neighbor of ours. We often called him our very own Wilson from Home Improvement, as we would often find ourselves in our backyard gaining from his wisdom as we chatted through our chain link fence. As a retired war veteran (from injury), I remember him often reveling in the opportunity to share his stories from being overseas, not because he needed to be remembered as a hero, but because he cherished (and perhaps grieved) the opportunity to impart one of his most important learnings from his participation in that freedom story, which is that there are no winners in war. There is simply an awareness that things are not as they should be and a hope that some day things will be made whole again.This is what grace imparts to us. The present is messy. Frustrating. Incomplete. Rife with our (and the world’s) failures and fears and brokenness and struggle. And yet in grace we are offered hope that there is more to this present picture. That despite all our incomplete efforts to battle back or respond to the mess, in war and out of war, to find peace in the conflict, healing in the sickness, growth in the setbacks, a way out of the cycles that continue to bind us as a now modern society that looks much the same as it did in Paul’s day (issues of slavery, race, sex discrimination, fear of the other, hatefulness and violence), grace arrives as a gift, something that we can submit all of those things towards in our feelings of desperation. As theologian Johann Peter Lange puts it, there is “no fall so deep that grace cannot descend to it and no height so lofty that grace cannot life the sinner to it.”
2. HELPS US TO SEE THINGS DIFFERENTLY
And if transformation is a gift, it is primarily a gift of sight. For Paul, seeing begins with the mind, or this marriage of the mind and the heart that forms the Biblical (very Jewish) notion of belief. Not an intellectual exercise, but an exercise of spiritual knowing, the increased and imparted knowledge of who God is and who we are and the world. As Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”
And if it begins with the mind it ends in this passage with discernment, seeing things differently, rightly- “… so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Coming to see our story, our context, in fuller picture and clarity as a part of Gods story, of a part of what God is doing in our world still today.
- Blindness and Sight
The blindness that we read of in Paul’s story forms the emphasis of the three accounts of Paul’s Damascus Road experience in Acts. This blindness highlights the idea that the others with Paul “did not see” what Paul could not see himself. Eventually we get this dramatic instance of the scales falling off of his eyes and Paul’s sight returning, a powerful symbol of that slow drip process of the spirit’s work in transforming our lives. And here’s the truth that Paul came to embrace- the scales fall off in order for Paul to see Jesus, and the Way of Jesus, not as a conversion from his Jewishness to Christianity (an important distinction to note here), but as a way of seeing how God’s story intersects with his own context. An expression of the sacred Temple-Torah story that has shaped Paul’s covenant promise and Resurrection hope of God with us. A reminder that Paul is a child of God loved and marked by God’s grace in a messy, difficult world.
And here is what I think Paul can teach us about the process of allowing those scales to be peeled off of our own eyes. The blindness leading to sight. Our desperation, the inward struggle that our outward actions are often a symptom of, can either push us towards Jesus or away from Jesus as occupying that place in the center of the tension we have been talking about. The job of transformation is to reorient us back in His direction, to learn and relearn to embrace that existing tension and to allow Jesus to carry that tension for us in order to help us see the Way He desires us to move us in its midst towards the particular grace that we need. And in the context of the traditions of the fathers and the prophets that came before Paul, that anchor his tradition, to allow Paul (and us) to see what God is doing through Jesus in order to speak that sacred story that binds his zeal into a broken world. To breathe hope into the hopelessness.
So here is a question for us. Where can grace offer us a change in perspective? Where do we need a reorientation in our lives?
Jesus allows Paul to see that transformation is not about everything suddenly going right or becoming perfect. It is about submitting our context- the messiness, the tension, the not rightness about it all- to Him and allowing Him to do something with it. To carry it for us. To this end, Wright offers an interesting note that the one thing Annanias does not give Paul when he is imparting God’s prophecy for Paul’s life, is the prophecy that he “must suffer for my sake”. That was something Paul needed to figure out on his own in the way only the slow drip process could teach him. It is something we are asked to learn in our lives as well as we embrace the slow drip process of the spirit’s work in the light of the Cross, the full expression of that slow drip process way of life.
- Seeing Differently
And here is the great truth about seeing differently. We not only come to see differently (this is a mark of transformation), but Jesus frees us to participate in the process. No matter our baggage. No matter our past. No matter our frustrations and failures and weaknesses. And what is this process? Pastor and Theologian Greg Boyd puts it this way. Transformation is a process of “becoming who you already are.” And “the process of becoming who you already are in Christ is identical to the process of being healed from who you were.” This is the true freedom story. We are becoming who God already sees us to be. Forgiven, loved, sons and daughters of God. Which then frees us from having to fight and claw our way to become something other in order for God to see or respond to our story differently than we perceive it to be. This is the true beauty of the grace that meets us where we are. In our imperfect ways of seeing we are called to take one step forward into a fuller truth of who we are in Christ, and we do this while forever allowing the transformation process to push us towards trusting God with the rest. One step into grace, and one small step back into the world. And this is what met Paul exactly where he was on the road to Damascus in order to help him see and participate in this fuller truth by calling him to take one small step back out into the world as a transformed person. The sad truth is Paul never got to see what his ministry would become, the vast influence of his life on the wider story of God’s grace and story being made known to the world at large. But what he did come to see in his lifetime was Jesus and the difference Jesus made on how he learned to trust and live into God’s story. And that alone became enough to carry him through all of the tension.So here is another question for us this morning? What small steps can we take? Either towards grace or in response to that grace by stepping back into the world as grace filled people? And what is the rest that we need to learn to trust God with as we take that step? If Paul taught me anything, meditating on that is a way to stripping off the weight of those extremes and actually living towards freedom in a meaningful way.
3. The Courage and the Strength To Step Back Out Into the World
So if it begins with grace, and grace helps us to see things differently, more fully, the final truth of transformation that I found in Paul’s story is this. The movement of Paul’s transformation account is undeniably one that takes him back out into the world as a transformed person.
– The first is a 3rd person narrative that speaks to Paul’s circumstance. (Acts 9)
– The second is one that emphasize the Jewish foundation. (Acts 22)
– The third, ultimately shapes where Paul is headed as a transformed person- out to a world that needs God’s grace (Acts 26)
The placement of this transformation narrative also marks in Acts this natural movement from Athens to Rome and out to the world. And as this movement progressed, the multi-ethnic, globalized, diversified characteristic of Paul’s world became the context for his ongoing embrace of the process of transformation, both as a Jewish man (Saul) and a Roman citizen (Paul). And what shapes the movement of Paul’s ministry is a single truth to which all of Paul’s ministry efforts point to- love of God and love of others. This grace that meets Paul ultimately becomes an extension of God’s love for all, a promise of a creation restored.
And here’s the thing about this movement out into the world. The more steps we take out into the world as grace filled people learning to embrace the stuff that transformation desires to make more clear to us, the stronger our hope can become. Because this small step is what offers us that glimpse of forgiveness and love and healing that we need, not only in our lives but in the lives of others. And the wonderful truth of the Way of Jesus is that we get to participate not only in our own transformation, but in the transformation of others. And this participation builds a foundation. It plants markers for our journey. A place to start and restart from. A means of moving forward when the tension appears to be too much, spinning out of control. It is the promise that we are being transformed into the same image from “one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:15-18).”
- Coming Back to My Story
In that place of desperation, of feeling stranded and defeated and destroyed, over the years God did give me glimpses of where God was using that story to show me His. This came in the form of letters from youth letting me the difference I had made simply by being where I was. In a big way it was this experience that paved the way for us to finally as a couple take that step towards adopting our now son of 17 years old.But one of the most distinct memories of that time was the glimpse God gave me of his grace after being asked to preach one last time in the final moments of everything falling apart. I don’t know why they asked me to preach when there was so much hurt and brokenness, but they did. And not knowing what to preach on I felt called to preach on Acts 4. In particular I focused on the prayer by Peter for confidence and boldness in the process of growing into transformed people of God living in the “tension” of that hurt and brokenness. The same prayer that paves the way for Gamaliel’s story and Annanias’ story and Paul’s story to start to emerge in chapters 5 and following. And at the end of that sermon I asked the Church to stand with me and for all of us to pray that together, in the hope that it would center us on the one who can heal that tension and protect us from falling into those extremes of despair or misplaced zeal. It was after I had preached that a member of the prayer team, whom had been on that team long before I arrived, shared with me that when she came on that team she had a vision of someone someday leading the Church in that specific prayer out of Acts 4, and that she had been praying for years towards that end. Apparently that was to be me.And that’s the thing about the foundation these small steps create. That example, and all of those examples above, are now meaningful places to restart from in seeing where the healing needs to come from. They are reminders that somehow and in someway God is still here, doing something with my life because He was doing something with my past. And that a small step, whatever that might be for me, can actually do far more than my expectations of this present reality. That is what the freedom story is. It is a hope that is not my own. A hope that stands much taller than just my own story, my own limited perspective.And if hope is a virtue, something that has to be practiced, if I may add this. We are entering into a season (Advent) that is the perfect illustration of this slow drip process. Advent is literally and spiritually and theologically about the function of waiting and anticipation. Of living with the tension and allowing Jesus to occupy the center. So as this season begins, this is a perfect opportunity to engage in the sort of discipline that Paul modeled himself, that I believe kept him open to seeing and hearing the grace of the spirit breathing into his own story.
Back to Acts 4 one final time. Here’s the thing about Peter’s prayer. At that time I considered it a prayer we needed to pray together as a community. Because transformation doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens together. That’s why it calls us to move out into the world. So in that spirit I would like to use this prayer now as a means of encouragement to embrace that slow drip process of transformation together, wherever grace finds you, and in whatever it is revealing to you. And to see it as a prayer of encouragement and courage and strength and confidence to take that small step back out into the world.
“And now Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
And when they prayed it says they were transformed.