Was Blind But Now I See

Was Blind But Now I See

Acts 9:1-9

by Daniel Harrell

I’d like to take a moment on this Sunday before Thanksgiving to think with you a bit about the Puritans—in part because I’m dressing up like one on Thanksgiving morning for our worship service here. Colonial long-timers will remember our Thanksgiving Service as a signature of church life back in the day: hundreds filled the pews and others watched on the television news. I confess I thought the Search Committee was kidding when they first told me about it. Given my own proclivity for Puritan propriety after so many years living in proximity to Plymouth, Massachusetts, I thought it worthwhile to attempt a reboot, purifying our Thanksgiving worship as accurately as possible. Come hither this Thursday and ye shall see thy ministers in buckled shoes holding forth from the Geneva translation, with no papist liturgy, no pagan folderol, no human hymnody nor devilish instrumentation, but only sweet Psalmody and pure sunlight illuminating our presence. As one Puritan put it: “Worship comprehends all that respect which man oweth and giveth his Maker. … It is the tribute we pay to the King of Kings, whereby we acknowledge his sovereignty over us, and our dependence on him.”

Sadly, Puritans are seldom mentioned in polite company anymore, save as a deleterious influence on American civilization. “Puritanical”—the unavoidable adjective associated with them—implies a meticulous moral rigidity that frowns on the joys of life, fosters a hatred of everything beautiful and focuses on a dark fixation with sexuality.

However, as far as the actual Puritans of history are concerned, none of this is true. The people who settled Massachusetts were models of Biblical piety, infused with grace and deep love. Their real legacy can be found in documents such as the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641, a political covenant that guaranteed protections for women, children, servants, foreigners and strangers, strictures against cruelty to animals, authorizations of due process and due mercy, all derived chapter and verse from the Old Testament. Compare these to laws governing Virginia, a colony shaped by the Church of England. In Virginia, capital crimes included blasphemy, speaking traitorous words against those who owned pious and Christian plantations, being absent three times from church, stealing food from a garden or speaking derisively of a minister (OK, that last one’s not so bad). Newcomers to Virginia were ordered to present themselves to clergy to give account of their faith, to be instructed in the ways of the church, and then be flogged each time they failed to obey. If anybody could be called puritanical, it was the Anglicans rather than not the Puritans.

Colonial Church, with both our name and our architecture, but more importantly our practice, seeks to honor the best of this Puritan heritage—emphasizing liberty in Christ over legalism, the common good over individual preference or personal privilege, humility over pride, and serious learning over the variability of experience. Puritans believed the mind is meant to be God’s dwelling place. Jonathan Edwards, writing a hundred years after the Puritans and huge proponent of religious experience, nevertheless cautioned against the ease with which experience untethered from education and humility gives rise to arrogance, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and yes, puritanicalness. Earnest familiarity with Scripture and deliberate self-suspicion supply guardrails for the heart.

Virtue requires continual suspicion as to the true content of our character. Our hearts can be so murky as to motive, so shadowed and uncertain; our best intentions are tinged by self-interest, our good works self-serving. Thankfully the grace of God can surmount our manifold sins and perversity. Christianity, has given rise to best of science and literature and art, justice and freedom, beauty and brilliance: Galileo and Luther, Michelangelo and Bach, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham, Annie Dillard and Marilynne Robinson. The church has built great colleges and universities and hospitals, ministered to gang members in East L.A., Ebola victims in West Africa, drug addicts in Medellin and dying neighbors in places large and small around the world.

And yet, old associations die hard: whether it’s Christianity as patriarchal hypocrisy, or the Puritans as puritanical. The same with Colonial and colonialism. You’ll recall my recent encounters with individuals from other countries and cultures, who upon hearing me introduce myself as a minister at Colonial Church, stared with alternating bewilderment and indignation. A middle-aged white man, without a hint of irony, says he’s the pastor of a church brazenly named for the imperialist, racist exploitation of native peoples and lands? I’d sheepishly explain how our name derived from colonial New England congregationalists passionate for religious freedom and the gospel, only to be reminded how New England colonists decimated the Wampanoag Indian tribe in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and sold their women and children into slavery. Oh, but we’re in Minnesota, I’d say. I didn’t mention dressing up as a Pilgrim on Thanksgiving.

More recently, a longtime Colonial member found himself in a conversation over beers with a couple of younger folks at our Reformation on Tap event last month. “We gotta change the name of our church,” a younger man remarked. Blown away by this, the longtime member wanted to know why. “Because the name relates to colonialism…” replied the younger man, “a negative to many ethnic groups and reason enough to to avoid our church.” In our staff meeting, Carter Sample shared other conversations with outsiders concerned about our name.

Well, at least we’re not the Robert E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, Virginia. After two years of debate and a slim 7-5 church vestry vote, Robert E Lee Memorial is now Grace Episcopal. Conversion takes time and is tougher than you’d think. In Genesis, it took God coming to earth in dark of night to wrestle Jacob into Israel, from a name meaning usurper to one that means “wrestle with God.” Israel would always struggle. In Matthew’s gospel, God came to earth and renamed Simon, meaning “to hear” into Peter, “the Rock.” Peter’s transformation was rocky. Here in Acts, the risen Christ drops down to humble the hateful Pharisee Saul, meaning “prayed for” into Paul, meaning “the least.” Saul was a throwback to the name of the Old Testament king who was an answer to prayer for Israelites wanting a human king in charge for a change, instead of God. King Saul failed miserably, due to his own arrogance and perversity, making way for the pious and passionate King David, a precursor of Jesus, the Son of David.

Unlike Jacob-Israel and Simon-Peter, Saul’s middle name was already Paul. As with my own name, which I told you about last Sunday, I like being called Daniel (meaning God is my judge) rather than the diminutive Danny I was called for most of my life (meaning judgy).

For different reasons, however, Saul didn’t want to be known as small Paul. Had Saul lived in Colonial America, he’d have been an Anglican in Virginia—a judgmental and harsh enforcer of faith and a punisher of the wayward and disobedient. But once transformed by Jesus, Paul became a Puritan: a defender of liberty, crucified with Christ, willing to suffer all for love’s sake. Still, conversion takes time and is tougher than you’d think. Saul’s conversion, while no doubt dramatic, was not automatic. Jacob became Israel but still wrestled with God. Simon became Peter but denied knowing Jesus. Saul saw the light, but then wasn’t able to see. He’s led by the hand to Ananias, a Christian teacher who mentored Saul in the ways of the Lord and restored his sight. The Puritans taught religious experience must be tied to serious familiarity with Scripture and deliberate self-suspicion. Saul won’t be go by Paul another four chapters.

Saul’s Damascus Road conversion has served many as the template for becoming a Christian. The End of Sermon Altar Call, the Billy Graham Crusade, the Young Life Talk, the youth camp bonfire, door-to-door evangelism: these are all Damascus Road  moments. And I’ve done them all—just to be sure. I’ve come forward at the end of sermon dozens of times. I’ve cried at campfires (and made others cry). I’ve gone door to door and prayed the prayer, gone so far as to become a minister. And yet I still wrestle. I still deny and sometimes can’t see. Conversion takes time and is tougher than you’d think. For centuries in New England congregational churches, becoming a member required more than a personal testimony. You had to supply two character witnesses who’d seen your faith in action, proof that your conversion took hold.

According to most national surveys, we Americans presume ourselves to be basically good people, above average for the most part, even exceptional. 71% of us still believe in hell, but nobody thinks they’ll actually go there, even if we think others should. Saul was certain he was exceptional. He’d done it all—the altar call and campfire, door-to-door searching for heretics, devout to the extreme of becoming a Pharisee, his righteousness impeccable for everyone to see. Zealous and accomplished, a pillar of his religious community, his credentials impressive, his successes the object of envy.

But once transformed by Jesus, Saul sees all he’s accomplished and is horrified by it. Writing to the Philippians as Paul, he regarded his treasured reputation, achievements and success as filth only fit for the sewers. “I regard it as all rubbish—dog dung in the Geneva Bible—a load of crap compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things.” (I’ve seen a framed, cross-stitched copy of this verse over a friend’s toilet.) Jesus did not condemn Saul’s wickedness as a Pharisee. Jesus condemned Saul’s goodness.

In my Danny days, I was a really good boy and enjoyed a lot of success and celebrity. Thousands showed up for my sermons and to be wowed by my righteousness. Of course, maintaining a shine on self-righteousness takes a lot of polishing and posing, and a great deal of self-deception. It’s a total sham. When the masquerade finally and mercifully collapsed, I worried over how much I’d disappointed everybody. Acquaintances kindly brushed my iniquities aside, provided rationalizations and excuses to guard my self-worth. Nobody’s perfect, you’re only human, you tried your best, you’re still a good person. Yet ironically, all their unconditional support only made life more unbearable. Being a forgiven sinner is almost harder than being a Pharisee. Fortunately, an old friend assured me I needn’t worry about disappointing him. He’d never thought that highly of me in the first place. This was true grace. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul wrote. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This is my verse.

Conversion is easier when our lives are a mess; when hardship or loss or failure knock us down. Laid off at work, a broken marriage, troubled children, terminal illness, personal peril—even unbelievers can call out to God in such moments. But rarely do we ever cry for mercy when life is fabulous. A new huge house, kids accepted to Harvard, a diet that finally worked, a large bonus or job promotion, an investment that scored a huge windfall—why pray to God for help about that? The last thing we need is the Lord messing with our success.

As you well know, Colonial Church has enjoyed a recent, large windfall of money that’s shored up our Foundation. Our windfall isn’t unexpected manna from heaven, but the fruit of astute stewardship, wise and shrewd leadership—it came from the unexpected yet successful sale of the asset next door; money we already had but just couldn’t access in full. Still, success can ruin your soul—the love of money being the root of all evil—I can’t help but think of these millions as a challenge from God for our church—not unlike Jesus’ parable of the talents where a master gave each of three stewards a rather large allotment of money. Two stewards doubled their talents, putting the money to good work and earning accolades from their master, while the third, due to laziness and disregard, buried his talent in the ground and was fiercely berated.

We want heed the Spirit and discern what is right, which shouldn’t be so hard. Jesus had a lot to say about money and what to do with it. So much so that our challenge  in our ReForming year may have more to do with obedience than with discernment. When I contacted a well-regarded church consultant friend for advice on the these things, I explained how unlike most churches seeking consultants, we weren’t in a crisis: there was no scandal, no irreconcilable conflict, no sudden drop-off in membership or huge problems to speak of. To the contrary, we were blessed with fruitful ministry, great people, big hearts, no debt and a huge surfeit of cash, close to five million dollars. “Five million dollars?” the consultant said. “Wow, you do have a crisis.”

Every effort we make to impress and to generate admiration and attention, the résumés on which we count to earn merit and favor, the assumptions we make about our worth and our goodness, the bank accounts that display our sagacity and favored status—these all evaporate in the blinding light of Jesus. It takes immense grace to see our success as dog dung, gladly flushed down the toilet. Saul gladly gave up what was exposed to be nothing for  to attain what turned out to be everything. In Christ, our loss is gain. Our defeat is our victory. Our death is our life, in our life and in our death. Our smallness is our greatness. Grace caught Saul and called him Paul. “I have been found,” he wrote, “with no righteousness of my own merit, but only that which comes through faith in Christ”—and not even necessarily our own faith. Paul’s phrase is just as easily translated as the “faith of Christ” such that in the end what saves us is not even our own faith, but Jesus’ faith in us based on what he has done for us and in us and to us.

And thus we pray with the Puritans, “Plow deep in me, great Lord, that my whole being may be a tilled field, the roots of grace spreading far and wide, until thou alone art seen in me, thy beauty golden like summer harvest, thy fruitfulness as autumn plenty. I have no Master but thee, no law but thy will, no delight but thyself, no wealth but that though givest, no good but that though blesseth, no peace but that though bestowest. I am nothing but that Thou makest me, I have nothing but that I receive from thee, I can be nothing but that grace adorns me. Quarry me deep, Dear Lord, and then fill me to overflowing with thy living water.”

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