Facing the Future, Eyes Wide Shut

Editor’s Note: Pamela Shellberg, scholar-in-residence at The BTS Center, will be a key speaker at Convocation 2017: “Course Corrections.” The event also will feature poet Scott Cairns and Michelle Walsh, a spiritual director and licensed clinical social worker.

In Pam’s latest post for Bearings, she offers a preview of “Course Corrections” and outlines some of the questions that participants will explore. If you like what you see, we cordially invite you into further conversation. You may access Convocation 2017 registration materials by clicking this link

“And though his eyes were open, he saw nothing.” (Acts 9:8)

In preparing for The BTS Center’s annual Convocation, I read almost daily the story of the apostle Paul’s Damascus Road experience from the New Testament book of Acts. And, as if practicing lectio divina, this single sentence intractably clings to me: “And though his eyes were open, he saw nothing.” It is the very first description of Paul’s condition after being blinded by the brilliant light of the resurrected Christ.

I recognize this condition, feel like it is more than a little familiar to me—although never occasioned by what I’d call a bright light from heaven. Instead it’s come as the result of events that seemed more traumatic than enlightening, more from blinding pain than blinding light.

I recognize this condition, feel like it is more than a little familiar to me—although never occasioned by what I’d call a bright light from heaven. Instead it’s come as the result of events that seemed more traumatic than enlightening, more from blinding pain than blinding light.

There was the day my father died. My mom was standing at their kitchen window, looking out over the yard and to the small lake where they had made their retirement home. She didn’t look at me as I drew close to her side. She just whispered, staring straight ahead, “I feel so panic stricken.” Her eyes were open, but I don’t think she saw the lake, or in that moment how her life was going to go forward.

And then there was the day I was given the news that Bangor Theological Seminary was going to close and that I would lose my teaching job. I know my eyes were open to the other people in the conference room, open to the traffic as I drove home, open to the furnishings in my living room as I collapsed on the couch, but I know just as surely that I saw none of it.

The election this past November was another such disruption.  My eyes were open to the election results, open to all the post-election analysis, and open to the social media posts of family members and childhood friends. They were open to the ruptures laid bare in what I thought were commonly-held values and shared working definitions of patriotism, civil discourse, and democracy, not to mention what I thought were commonly-held basic convictions about the gospel and what it means to be Christian.

Eyes open to so much that was familiar, but just not seeing anything recognizable.

I could wonder at how my experiences are so resonant with the report of Paul’s experience—mine coming from disruption, grief, and loss, while his came from, you know, seeing Christ. But mostly I imagine that Paul’s experience was probably a lot more like mine—that he actually might have been traumatized by his encounter with Christ.  I can easily imagine, when I take off my Christian-centric glasses, that this revelation wasn’t entirely welcomed by Paul, at least not at first.

The storyteller in Acts tells us that Paul was without sight for three days, during which time Paul neither ate nor drank. Paul’s own letters indicate there were maybe as many as ten years or more between the time of the revelation and the time he actually hit the missionary trail and starting writing letters. These details resist the Christian’s misplaced zeal for the glory and splendor of Paul’s “conversion” to Christ. They force one to move beyond the lazy inclination to bifurcate and caricature him by setting the “before Saul” against the “after Paul,” the Jew against the Christian, the law-obsessed against the grace-inspired.

Rather, the details suggest that Paul, like the rest of us, lived into and through a time that is very familiar, a time when something ruptured his identity, broke him, and created some sense of radical discontinuity with the beliefs, convictions, and self-understandings that had governed his earlier worldview.

Paul never stopped being a Jew. So I can only imagine that during his three days blind and his many years in Arabia, he might have been living in some agonizing tension, the brilliant light of revelation tempered by real-life existential questions:  How much can I really let go of and still call myself—and be—a good Jew? How much of my legacy and theology can I relinquish and still remain a good steward of my inherited traditions? At what point might my story and my practices become unrecognizable to my fellow Jews?  At what point might I fail to recognize myself?

There are echoes (or maybe projections) of my own questions, which have been shaped by this 2015 blog post that Rebecca Schlatter Liberty wrote for Bearings. Versions of them are posed to the church as well as the nation: How much can I let go of and still call myself—and be—a scholar? a citizen? a Christian? How much of my inherited traditions can I relinquish and still remain a good steward of them? At what point might my story and my practices become unrecognizable to my friends and family members? to fellow citizens? to other Christians? At what point might I fail to recognize myself?

I think Paul offers an answer to some of these questions in the letter he writes to the church at Philippi. In it, he lists things he has come to see he can relinquish as identity markers: lineage, tribal affiliation, education, and standards of righteousness (Philippians 3:4-6).  But his words have to be read with the angst that surely must have been part of Paul’s coming to surrender not only claims to the most essential and fundamental aspects of his personhood, but also how he had known himself most truly and profoundly within his community and before his God. Paul’s words have to be read for how they extend the legacy of Israel’s great prophets, who were always calling the people to a searching and fearless moral inventory. They have to be read with some sensitivity to how surrendering aspects of self might have first left Paul with eyes open to the circumstances around him, but seeing nothing familiar or recognizable.

Still, Paul’s words reflect his best effort to live into the revelation of Christ, to live according to the pattern of Christ, “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Phil 2:6-8).  Paul only and ever wanted to know Christ and Christ crucified—the crucifixion being the example par excellence of Jesus’ volitional surrender of claims to the power, status, and privilege that could have preserved his familiar and recognizable life, but instead were relinquished for the sake of a resurrected life that couldn’t yet be seen.

Paul, like the rest of us, lived into and through a time that is very familiar, a time when something ruptured his identity, broke him, and created some sense of radical discontinuity with the beliefs, convictions, and self-understandings that had governed his earlier worldview.

This past week, we honored the life and legacy of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To mark the day, I reread his letter from a Birmingham jail. Again, as if I’d been practicing lectio divina, a certain idea has clung intractably to my mind and heart: that there are four basic steps in any nonviolent campaign, the third of which is “self-purification.” An essential step in “presenting our bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community,” self-purification was, in King’s mind, necessary to prepare for direct action. Today, as in the past, it calls for the “cleansing of anger, selfishness, and violent attitudes” from hearts and souls. It still requires the relinquishment of all impulses to retaliation.

Rather than being a conversion narrative, Paul’s story contains all the elements of an initiation—starting with the phase of purification represented in his affliction, fasting, and symbolic three days in death’s darkness. And if we read it as an initiation, it becomes differently instructive for how we might live into and through our own days of confusion and radical discontinuities. First we can make some effort to welcome them for what they are, with no expectation that we are going to get, with any necessary immediacy, the consolation of some great and brilliant enlightenment. We can expect to be blind for a few days. Maybe this expectation will, in fact, help to quell our fears. We can support each other in disciplines of silence where we might listen more attentively, heal, and be strengthened. We can fast and sit still in our brokenness. We can integrate our losses and our griefs, interpret them for our lives, and prepare our bodies to be presented as means of change in all our various communities. And we can, from the deserts and mountains of our spiritual dislocations, submit to considerations of what claims to power, status, and privilege we must volitionally relinquish for the sake of a hope in a life not yet visible.

Image credits:

Cover – metka/Shutterstock.com 

Inside – KellyB, “Swallowed by the Sea,” March 22, 2008. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 / Cropped.

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.

h