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Acts Week 4: Changed Lives - Stories of Transformation

Updated: May 30


Changed Lives:  Stories of Transformation

Acts 9:1-20


In her book, “Better Than Before,” author Gretchen Rubin discusses various strategies for habit change.  One of these is what she calls the “Strategy of the Lightening Bolt.“  She says, “sometimes we’re hit by a lightning bolt that transforms our habits, instantly.  We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a long-standing habit–without preparation, without small steps, without wavering–and we pass from before to after in a moment.”[1]  For example, she says, one of her friends had smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for years.  And then, one night on her way to dinner, she pulled out a cigarette and thought ‘Why am I doing this?  Time to stop.’  And she did; she threw the pack in the trash and never had another cigarette again.  According to Rubin, her friend “hadn’t planned ahead, [...] hadn’t consciously been considering quitting, but she was hit by that Lightning Bolt.”[2]  One moment she was a smoker, and then next she wasn’t.  Her habit was transformed in a moment.

You might say that Saul of Tarsus also had a Lightning Bolt moment.  Saul had been “spewing murderous threats” against the disciples of Jesus.  In fact, he was so bent on persecuting them that he went to the High Priest and asked for letters that would authorize him to arrest anyone who was following Jesus.  His plan was to take these letters to the synagogues in Damascus and hunt down any Christians he could find there.  But as he was making his way to Damascus, Saul suddenly found himself surrounded by light.  He fell to the ground and heard Jesus call to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”  Then Jesus told him to enter the city.  So with the help of those who were with him, Saul entered the city, but for three days he couldn’t see, and he didn’t eat or drink anything.

Meanwhile, Ananias also had a divine encounter.  Jesus told Ananias to go to Judas’ house and put his hands on Saul in order to restore his sight.  But Ananias had some trepidation about this.  You see, Saul’s reputation for persecuting Christians had preceded him.  Ananias knew that Saul was out to get those who followed Jesus.  But Jesus was emphatic; Saul had been chosen to tell many people about who Jesus was, including Gentiles, kings, and Isrealites.  So Ananias went and laid hands on Saul.  Instantly, Saul’s sight returned.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit and he was baptized.  After eating and regaining his strength, he immediately began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues.  Saul was transformed by that lightning bolt moment, passing from before to after.   

Of course, unlike Gretchen Rubin’s friend, Saul’s lightning bolt moment didn’t just change a single habit.  This was a total life change; a transformation of his entire identity.  One moment he was a persecutor of Christians, and the next he was an evangelist for Jesus.  Eventually, he would even become known by the name Paul, a symbol of this transformed identity.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism also had a lightning bolt moment.  Though he had been raised in the church and was even a clergyman himself, Wesley didn’t feel like he had any assurance of his own salvation.  After a botched mission in America, he had encountered a group of German Moravians on the boat ride back to England.  In the midst of a terrifying storm, these Christians seemed perfectly at peace.  John was intrigued, and a little jealous.  He wanted what they had–a peace and assurance that, even in the face of danger and death, everything would be alright.  A few months later, he would find what he was looking for on Aldersgate street in London.  He wrote in his journal about that experience.  He said, “I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate street, where one was reading [Martin] Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.  About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[3]  John Wesley’s lightning bolt moment transformed his faith.  One moment he was begrudgingly attending a Bible study, and the next he felt secure in his faith and in the hope of salvation; he was at peace no matter what would befall him.  It was an important moment of passing from before to after.

You know, these lighting bolt experiences are pretty amazing.  But what if you’ve never had that kind of experience?  I have to admit that I sometimes have a hard time relating to these particular stories of transformation because I’ve never had a lightning bolt moment.  I didn’t have a dramatic conversion experience, and there hasn’t been a singular moment in my life when my heart shifted or changed course.  My experiences of transformation have been more like slow, drawn-out progressions than lightning bolts; they’ve been more plodding and less surprising.  Looking back, I can see the before and after.  For example, at some point along the way, the Christian faith of my parents became my own, and I began to take responsibility for my own relationship with Jesus.  At some point, my faith began to shape the way I chose to live.  But even my call to ordained ministry was more like a slow awakening over many years than a lightning bolt experience.  It’s hard to identify exactly when the tipping point happened in my own experiences of transformation.

And you know what? That’s ok.  I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of transformation stories.  Yes, lightning bolt moments can be powerful and attention-grabbing, but I don’t think gradual transformation is any less powerful.  And the truth is, it’s not up to us anyway.  Gretchen Rubin notes that when it comes to habit change, we can’t make a lightning bolt happen on command; rather, “it’s something that happens to us.”[4]  And in the same way, we can’t orchestrate transformations of the heart, whether by lightning bolt or by slow progression.  After all, transformation is ultimately the work of God’s grace in our lives.  God is the one who goes before us, calling for our attention whenever and however God chooses, inviting us to accept the gift of saving grace through Jesus Christ.  And once we’ve accepted that gift, God is the one who works in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit to make us more like Christ, transforming not only our present, but our future as well.   

And yet, just because the work of transformation isn’t ours to do doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in that work.  You know, I’ve been spending a lot of time outside in my garden beds this spring.  I’ve been planting seeds, adding fertilizer, weeding, and watering.  I have big plans for my garden this year and what it will produce.  But the truth is, as hard as I work, I can’t make any of those seeds sprout.  As hard as I try, I can’t make those plants produce fruit.  What I can do is cultivate the soil.  I can nurture the plants.  I can give them every opportunity to grow and flourish.  I tend my garden with the hope that transformation will happen, that at some point I’ll be able to see the before and after.  And I keep watch for signs that transformation is taking place.     

In the same way, John Wesley tended to his faith.  He may have had a lightning bolt moment at Aldersgate, but he also made the choice to show up at a Bible Study he didn’t really want to attend.  Wesley was fastidious in the practices of prayer and study, fasting, worship, and service.  In other words, while he didn’t command his lightning bolt moment to happen, he did cultivate the soil of his faith and pattern his life in such a way that transformation could take place.  And he kept watch for signs of transformation  

So how are we cultivating the soil of our faith?  What are we doing to nurture our hearts so that the Holy Spirit might do the work of transformation within us?  How are we keeping watch for signs that transformation is taking place? 

One of the ways we do that here at the Vine is through our small groups that we call Branches.  These are communities of hope, healing, and belonging where we cultivate the soil of our faith with others.  Together, we help one another recognize the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives and in the world and point out places where we see transformation taking place.  Even as we seek to nurture our own faith, we also help nurture the faith of others.  Because, you see, transformation isn’t just about our own change of heart or our own change of identity.  True transformation moves us beyond ourselves and empowers us to use our gifts for the sake of the kingdom of God.

You remember Saul’s lightning bolt moment?  That was made possible because, despite his own doubts, Ananias allowed his own mind to be transformed for the sake of the kingdom of God.  He listened to the call of Christ and participated in Saul’s healing through the work of the Holy Spirit.  And in that way, he was able to witness the profound transformation of another.

For his own part, Saul didn’t take his new identity for granted.  He began telling others about Jesus.  He participated with the Holy Spirit in facilitating the exponential growth of the church.  Saul’s transformation empowered him to contribute to the transformation of the world.

And so we’re called to do the same.  We’re called to cultivate the soil of our faith and nurture the faith of others.  We’re called to trust that the Holy Spirit is about the work of growth and flourishing, and look for signs of that transformation in our lives and in the world.  And when we realize that we’ve passed from before to after, whether we’ve experienced a lightning bolt or a gradual change of heart, we’re called to use our gifts for the sake of the kingdom of God.  May it be so.  Come, Holy Spirit, come.  Amen.               


     


[1] Gretchen Rubin, Better Than Before, New York: Broadway, 2015, Pg. 122

[2] Ibid, 124.

[3] John Wesley, Journal Entry for May 24, 1738, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html

[4] Gretchen Rubin, Pg. 123.



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