Growing up in protestant churches all across the world, I began noticing some striking similarities.
Men in the pulpits.
Defined and often unequal gender roles.
Preformed and rigid rules about “purity” and social hierarchy.
Ungrounded feelings of victimization.
A collective striving for moral perfectionism.
An undying, almost blind support of our government (so long as they happened to be conservative.)
The logical basis for the majority of this behavior can be found in the writings of Saint Paul. He has become the sort of protestant “standard bearer” for how to church.
His ideas, his ecclesiological experiments, his relationships, and his ministry have become the model for Protestantism—especially evangelicalism—worldwide.
But what if we got Paul all wrong? What if his writings aren’t the blueprint that the evangelical world paints them to be?
After all, what of the other Church fathers—Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, Augustine—and other historical leaders—Justin Martyr, Abba Anthony, Francis?
The powerful currents of the evangelical sub-culture often limit the spiritual experience to remain contained to the 66 book text now called the Bible.
But what if we’re reading it wrong? What if we’re missing the point?
What if Paul was writing more about his own imperfect relationship with the Divine, filled with feelings of inadequacy and shortcoming, than he was a blueprint for how to plant churches.
He insisted on seeking the influence of the emperor and furthering his “ministry” all the while disbelieving that his salvation alone, could have been enough.
No, he had to take this thing to the king!
His writings portray a man who works out of intense passion and maybe even fear or guilt. This is a theme in virtually all of his writings.
Perhaps Saint Paul makes the mistakes that a lot of church leaders make today—outbursts at other leaders, controlling literalism which stifles growth, a false sense of ownership over other people which causes him stress and anguish, and a need to save others which drives him tirelessly all across the empire.
Maybe the point of Damascus was simply Paul becoming aware of unconditional love? So much so that he would lay down his honor killings. So much so that he would lay down his religious ministry, his righteous agenda.
Lately, I’ve come to view the Road to Damascus as a sort of archetype for modern western Christians. A story which many of us, including myself, share today.
A man so passionate about his cause he kills his enemy on his journey to self-importance. He’s an evangelist. And after conversion he changes teams, cleans up his act, but keeps his evangelistic and self-important nature running away from the simple presence and availability of God.
I think he is quite aware of this tension in his life as evidenced by his often referencing to it in his writings. I don’t think Paul’s words “to die is Christ, to live is gain,” was so much an authoritative position on how one ought to life one’s life. Perhaps it was more a vulnerable glimpse about what he was trying to achieve, though he continued to feel inadequate.
I don’t know that Paul arrived so to speak at Damascus or even in the three years after, or five years after, perhaps if ever!
But that wasn’t the point. He was set free.
He was rescued from his enslavement to murderous jealousy. And like Israel being led out of Egypt, if that’s all God did for Paul, it would have been enough.
In fact, part of the millennia old passover celebration in Judaism, is the dayenu hymn. This word, dayenu, captures the only necessary movement and awareness of coming alive, of connecting to God, of becoming fully human.
To receive the freedom of realizing there is nothing to attain, no spiritual laundry list to mark off, only the boundless and unconditional generosity and love of the Divine.
Roughly translated this word means, “It would have been enough.”
They sing, “If God had only brought us out of our slavery in Egypt, it would have been enough.”
Because this is the spiritual destination. This is arriving.
Realizing that letting go and receiving your freedom from the prison that is the constructs of human injustice and oppression is always the end of the spiritual road.
To put it another way, it’s why the story of Jonah isn’t about the Ninevites, it’s about Jonah.
Jonah thinks God hates his enemies, but God goes to an extreme length to demonstrate the significance of the Ninevites personally to the prophet. Their humanity, their significance to God.
The story of Jonah isn’t about getting swallowed by a whale or a holy man’s disobedience, it’s about God teaching Jonah that his enemies are loved by the same God that loves him.
It’s why the writings of Paul aren’t about how he says to church, it’s about Paul. It’s about Paul’s story, his journey to realizing things like, “without love I am a noisy cymbal.” That even Paul, once an enemy of God, is loved by the same God that loves Jesus.
Maybe there aren’t really any enemies to begin with. Just illusions of separation and division that confuse us about who really are. And so slowly, Paul must remember.
Perhaps the entire Pauline ministry was less of a church model to which we must remain limited, and more of one man’s struggle to let go of his ego, and let the love of God be enough.
Jesus, if you remember, said evangelists like Paul (before and after Damascus) make other men “sons of hell.”