“I was blind, but now I see,” John Newton famously wrote in Amazing Grace. It’s an inspiring story, how Newton had been a slave ship captain but “saw the light” and became a priest, an abolitionist and an ally of William Wilberforce, the British politician who led the movement to abolish the slave trade. Ironically, Newton went physically blind, but was spiritually enlightened.
Saul saw the light, too. Saul was a devout Jew who pursued the earliest followers of Jesus in the years after the first Pentecost. They were called people of The Way, then, and Saul, like many others, saw the new sect as a threat to his faith. He was on his way to Damascus to arrest more and “bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2) when it happened to him. There was a flash of light “from heaven” that knocked him down and he hears the voice of Jesus asking him why he’s persecuting him (Jesus) and telling him to go into the city where he’ll be told what to do. Saul’s blinded for three days until a disciple named Ananias, told by God to visit him, comes to him and says “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” (Acts 9:17). His sight returns and he’s a changed man. He later adopts the name Paul and becomes the great builder of the earliest church communities.
The thing is, I think, we often portray these “see the light” moments as just that, a moment. A sudden flash, a light bulb goes on and everything’s changed.
If only it were that simple.
John Newton marks a moment in which he called out to God during a storm at sea in March of 1748 as the beginning of his spiritual conversion. He continued working in the slave trade until a stroke forced him to retire in 1754, though he continued to invest in it for a few more years. He became a priest in 1764. Amazing Grace (and other hymns) appeared in 1779. It wasn’t until 1788 that he began to speak forcefully against the slave trade and he lived to see the Abolition Act passed in 1807, dying shortly afterwards. He would acknowledge, late in life, that it took him many years from that moment at sea to find his way.
Saul’s moment was a beginning, too, and not just three days of blindness. I think it took him a while to really get into that conversion moment. Conversion, by the way, comes form a latin word meaning simply to turn about. He certainly did that. He stopped what he was doing, but he needed to learn things, he needed to experience things, he needed to find his way from being a good Jew to a good follower of Jesus. He needed to understand what was happening. And that was a challenge at first because the very community he wanted to join was afraid of him: they didn’t believe that he had changed (Acts 9:21-30). It took some time.
Conversions begin with a change - a change of heart - but it takes work to live into the change and make transformation happen. We begin to see more clearly and hear more deeply, we learn and experience, we taste life and we live it with all our senses, not just sight. That’s what leads us to what is true.
It takes time and, of course, that means uniquely our own time. Finding love, grace, respect, compassion, truth - these aren’t new things. They’re already in us. This isn’t about religious dogma or tradition or culture, it’s about finding what’s true in each of us and following that path. We are each unique individuals, but we are one in being created in the image of God and God is love. There are many paths to God.
These conversion experiences don’t make something new out of nothing. They make something truly you out of everything you are.