Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord. ‘The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight. ‘But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘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.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, — Acts 9:10-19
Of all the books in the Bible, I think Acts is probably one of my favorites. Oh, Genesis is good, and I like the gospels pretty well, but somehow Acts has stuff that I really can get into. This one is no exception.
It’s a story of a man who is told to go somewhere that he didn’t really want to go and do something he didn’t really want to do. Ananias experienced Jesus in a vision, a vision that told him to go to a certain place and lay hands on a certain person in order to heal that person suffering from blindness. The very name of the person to whom Ananias was to go was enough to turn a strong man’s knees to jelly because Saul of Tarsus was known as a ruthless persecutor of Jesus-followers and not someone anyone would willingly go to see. It would be like asking them to walk into a hot furnace. Jesus wasn’t and isn’t the kind to take “no” for an answer, so Ananias picked up his cloak and all his courage and went to do what he was told. The rest of the story is Paul’s.
The part that intrigues me is Ananias and his predicament. Jesus had said, ” ‘Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go’” (John 21:18, NRSV) and here was Ananias being faced with just that. Trying to put myself in that or a similar situation, I can feel the trepidation he must have felt, sort of like the awful anticipation of a visit to the dentist for a root canal, to the hospital for major surgery or a visit to the IRS office for an audit. Those are bad enough, but with Ananias it was his very life that could have been on the line. For all his faith, though, there was still probably a bit of anxiety accompanying him.
Something occurred to me: does the idea of going where you do not want to go apply only to places or can it apply to changes of belief or ideas as well? What Jesus demanded was a change of habit, a new way of thinking and believing and a different way of relating to both God and other human beings. Ananias had been given instructions that went against everything he knew and believed and so he faced a predicament: he had to be obedient or truly he had no faith in the Lord to whom he had sworn allegiance. He did as he was told, probably not doing cartwheels of joy at the prospect but God didn’t ask for cartwheels — just a change of direction in thought and some obedience despite some consternation.
I have known what it is like to face a drastic change in thinking that went against everything I knew (or thought I knew) and believed (or was taught as belief). I didn’t hear any voice from the sky calling my name and telling me things had to change. Most of the time it was a slow process of revision that took a long time for it to turn around. Once in a while, though, there was one of those “AHA!” moments that changed my thinking radically in a very short period of time. I can’t say it was on the magnitude of Paul’s vision on the Damascus Road or Ananias’ instruction from God, but it was thought- and life-changing. It made me wonder why I hadn’t seen it before, but then I realized that I hadn’t seen it because I had lived with it and accepted it as normal, as the way things just were. Ananias probably thought that with Paul it was business as usual, namely persecution of Jesus-followers, but God’s message clearly indicated that there had been a very radical change in thinking in the former enemy. Sometimes it takes a few words from outside the usual to change the thinking of a lifetime.
I think that at some point in time everybody has had the luxury of going where they wanted but also have had times when they’ve had to go where they didn’t want to go. I know I have. There are times when the only reaction is “That’s not fair!” but I’ve found that for me a lot of them have produced some changes in thinking as much as changes in geography. It’s harder to demonize what you have experienced yourself, and it is also hard to slip back into the original mindset when you’ve seen how it feels to have the shoe on the other foot in a manner of speaking. I’ve watched my brother go through some of the same kind of experiences I did but seemingly without any real change in viewpoint or belief at all. I wish he could have seen what I did that changed my thoughts and beliefs although he and I were two different people, years apart in age and experiences. But then I think, possibly his thinking did change just a little bit and I just didn’t notice it.
I’m sure as I get older I’ll have more places to go that I don’t want to, but I have to be open to the possibility that an unwilling change could produce something greater than I could ever imagine. Perhaps I need to remember Ananias a bit more often.