I’ve been back from sabbatical for over six weeks, and it does seem as if things at the church are pretty much back to normal now. But I myself have changed—especially since the three-week intensive retreat. In fact, I am pretty sure that I have changed a lot. Identifying what those changes are, how they are emerging, and how they are being put into practice is a process, i.e. it is happening over time. In many ways, it is pretty uncomfortable, because if I have changed, my relationships have changed. Not everyone wants to recognize the changes or even hear about what I learned when I was away. I hadn’t really anticipated that.
In the past year there has been more upheaval in my life, parish, and the wider Church than at any other time. And nearly all the upheaval so far has just brought ambiguity and irresolution. Nothing much has been “solved” or come to closure. Although this is uncomfortable, it is not bad by any means. I see it as a necessary transition time in which God is working.
Shortly after I returned home the house was recarpeted. That meant that just about everything in the place had to be taken out and then put back in. It was a ton 0f work and there are many details of reorganizing still to be sorted out, even a month later. The recarpeting was a super symbol for returning from the three-week retreat. It’s the same house, of course, and it is definitely recognizable for what it is—but the interior is both the same and also very much different. There is still a lot of stuff in the garage that needs to be unpacked. Some will be put in a place other than where it was before, some will go into storage, and some will be given away.
So today I mused on the time when Paul went to Tarsus after his conversion in Damascus. Setting apart his own somewhat different story (in Galatians 1:15-24) of the post-conversion events, I looked at Acts 9:1-30, especially the last five verses. Saul had gone to Damascus “breathing threats” against the Christian believers, got converted, and then began to preach what he had just tried to destroy. That raised murderous ire in some folks. Then he went to Jerusalem to try to join the other disciples but they were initially distrustful of him. Once again his preaching inspired a murderous response. So “the brothers … sent him off … to Tarsus” (Acts 9:30). He doesn’t appear again until Acts 11:25 when Barnabas sought him there and brought him back to Antioch to assist in the church. From there, after at least a year, began the missionary journeys and eventually the Pauline epistles.
Of course I had read this account many times, but only today did I ask, “What did Saul do in Tarsus?” We are told nothing about it. It is reasonable to expect that, at least in the beginning, it was a time in which he was pretty disconcerted. He was a highly trained rabbi with a powerful testimony. His effectiveness in Damascus was remarkable, his teaching even incontrovertible. When he came down to Jerusalem, he may well have expected that he would have been welcomed by the believers—which, eventually, he was. But this “highly trained rabbi” found himself subject to one-time fishermen who had been described as “uneducated laymen” (Acts 4:13)—not only that, but apparently he stirred things up enough in Jerusalem that the “uneducated laymen” sent him home to Tarsus. That couldn’t have been pleasant, nor would it have boosted his ego.
So I ask again, “What did Saul do in Tarsus?” What part did his stay there play in his later effectiveness? I expect that a time of tempering, including growth in humility, was vital to his Christian profession and subsequent preaching. Like many of the good things in life, time is essential for the ingredients of something to blend properly. Tea has to be steeped, wine has to be aged. I think spaghetti is better on the second day. Music played too fast becomes comic. Changes in life have to be assimilated and lived out.
I think that what I am going through now is learning to live with the ambiguity and irresolution that have so strikingly characterized the past twelve months. I very much doubt that it is a coincidence that so many important issues and events have been left open-ended—a state I have previously found to be prickly at best. At the very least, the irresolution means leaving the timing and details of things to God—and other people—as matters unroll. Patience. Humility. More listening and less talking. Putting familiar furniture back onto new carpet, etc.
Gradually things will get sorted out. Even the new direction this blog needs to go in is emerging. I doubt it’ll be too different from what it was before—like putting the furniture back into the house. But since the writer of the blog has been changed, what is written will be done a little differently.