I’m excited to share the final (for now!) guest reflection with you today from my dear friend and colleague Jennifer Helminski, following up on her Love You Two Pennies, Troubling the Waters, and Why Not Become All Flame?. Here she revisits a familiar New Testament story — Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ and conversion on the Damascus Road. But what is Paul converting from…and to? Jennifer challenges us with a deep reading of this account — and our own hearts.
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Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” [The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
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, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.
This account from Acts is familiar to many of us that grew up in the church: Saul on the road to Damascus, the “conversion” of Paul — his literal “come-to-Jesus” moment. Saul, a Pharisee, took pride in fulfilling the commandments of his tradition which, for him, was a way to anchor Jewish identity and culture as a marginalized group living under Roman occupation as much as it was the fulfillment of his own covenant with G-d as a Jew. It is largely through Saul that Jews get interpreted through New Testament readings as primarily or overly legalistic, serving a punitive G-d. The G-d of the “Old Testament” seemingly gets replaced by the G-d of the New Testament, love prevailing over law. This becomes a very Jews bad, Christians good trope. Common interpretations depict Saul’s conversion as mirroring this supercession: this neurotically law-abiding Jew is shown the error of his ways through divine revelation, drops the old Jewish Way, and becomes a Christian — right?
Saul, or Paul, never stops being a Jew. And he does not need to stop being a Jew, or to become something else. And for the record, none of the other disciples stopped being Jews, either. Jesus, a Jew, never asked them to stop being Jewish. So what does it mean when we say Saul was converted on the road to Damascus?
What happened there?
The Latin etymology of the word “conversion” means to turn around or upside-down; to shift, to redirect, to alter.
Paul was converted: what he was so sure he knew about G-d was turned upside-down.
He was redirected on the path he was on, the direction in which he felt convicted to go. The very nature and focus of his passionate conviction was altered. And, for someone like Paul, who knew every letter of the Law, it would take nothing less than a direct, mystical encounter with the Living G-d to extract him from his self-righteous certainty. As the reading says: “…and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing.” It took a few days plus receiving divine healing through Ananias — one of the disciples Paul would have previously sought to destroy–but Paul ultimately regained his vision and saw anew. This personal revelation shook Paul to his core — but it didn’t break him; it broke him open and expanded him.
Saul’s persecution of the followers of The Way is the behavior of a man who takes serious pride in his religious tradition, seeing himself as preserving not only its purity, but G-d’s law as laid out in the Torah. He sees some of his fellow Jews, perhaps, as turning away from the Torah and to new, subversive ideas. And it’s important to consider why this might have been of particular concern to Saul: protection of Jews as a marginalized group under Roman occupation relied upon certain agreements with the imperial powers; “Christian” upstarts threatened the protection afforded by maintaining these agreements, jeopardizing both the power and the safety of the synagogues and Jewish communities in the Roman Empire. Perhaps he was disturbed that Jesus’ followers were speaking against the Temple and the Torah, or that the customs and laws that Moses had delivered were being replaced.
Ultimately, though, Saul might have felt like he was defending G-d.
But you know what? G-d doesn’t need defense.
There are a lot of folks in this world — members of any spiritual tradition you can name — who feel they are defending G-d from others, or their religion from others —protecting from attack, from weakening, from change.
Recall the words of the Risen Christ to Saul: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? He doesn’t ask, “Why are you persecuting those who follow me?” God-as-Christ was being persecuted, violently extracted from home and place of worship, bound and imprisoned. Here is the community as the Body of Christ, the indwelling Divine present within all. In our attempts to defend G-d, we hurt G-d because we hurt G-d’s children. Paul’s conversion, his turnabout, was from defending G-d to defending those who were being harmed.
In this story I see the Divine invitation out of narrowness into expansiveness. Saul’s narrowness was in losing sight of his G-d as a living G-d, a living presence, and instead relying on the law and customs to the exclusion of witnessing G-d’s changeability and flow, missing what G-d was doing in the present moment. His conversion into expansiveness was in receiving G-d’s invitation to welcome everyone to the table, into relationship with G-d. G-d chose an unlikely character in Saul, tapping a determined persecutor for this dramatic change of heart, for the work of spreading this New Word.
But why do we read about this personal encounter today? What does it mean for us now? If we reflect, I wonder where each of us might feel our own narrowness. Who are we deciding is in or out based on our traditions, our politics, our prejudices, acting in opposition to G-d’s expansive, boundless invitation to a broader, richer world of interconnection?
Who do we say is unworthy of G-d’s love and grace, of our love and grace? What texts, customs or beliefs do we use to justify ourselves in discriminating against and harming others? Do we say we do this out of love for and obedience to G-d? Do we do this to defend our homes? Our churches? Our nations? When and where do we seek to elevate ourselves in righteousness by diminishing others? When do we dare believe we might be closer to or more beloved by G-d than our siblings? I invite you to reflect on where you might draw the boundary around who is invited to G-d’s table, who is part of the Body of Christ: is it around our BIPOC siblings, LGBTQIA+ siblings, our trans siblings, our undocumented siblings, our incarcerated siblings? Who do you see as beyond the scope of G-d’s love and grace?
Can we hear G-d asking us, “Why do you persecute Me?” Can we receive this invitation from the Risen Christ to love inclusively with the heart of G-d? Can we be radically expanded? Can we be converted? Imagine a world where everyone has a seat at this glorious table, where no one is beyond the reach of G-d’s love through us.
Imagine a reality where each of us recognizes our boundless capacity for love, for mercy, for inclusion, for justice — where each of us acts as the hands and feet of Christ, loving without limits. Surely this is the kin-dom of Heaven.
Jennifer Helminski (she/her) is an author, poet, artist, and preacher who has a burning heart for ecological advocacy, sensual exploration, and spiritual renewal. Across her multifaceted vocation, she has recently co-authored federally-funded climate change research, assessed and advocated for the protection of our waters, led congregational chant, composed multimedia eco-chapel gatherings, and facilitated faith-community grief circles.
Jennifer has deep roots across the Abrahamic family of faiths, including Roman Catholicism, Mevlevi Sufism, and open-source Judaism. She is currently training in the ways of interfaith, ecological, and psychedelic chaplaincy.
Jennifer is a Master of Divinity candidate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where she co-authored Union’s Declaration of Climate Emergency and a 10-year Climate Mobilization Action Plan for the surrounding community.
In her writing, painting, poetry, and preaching, Jennifer explores the intersection of ecology, love, and Spirit, helping all beings find belonging in this fertile and joyful tapestry. You can subscribe to her upcoming Substack newsletter, The Pomegranate & The Rose, here.
Experience Jennifer’s teaching for yourself as part of Wisdom Camp 2022: The Ecology of Desire, this July 14th before the Wild Goose Festival. Use the code ‘WisdomCamp’ at checkout to save 10% on Festival registration!
PS: Thanks so much to every reader who’s contributed to Jennifer’s health needs GoFundMe campaign. Thanks to you, we’re approaching one-third funding! We’ve recently learned that recent tests she’s had show a probable diagnosis of systemic lupus erthymatosus (SLE), a chronic autoimmune disease. If you haven’t given yet, Please go here to read Jennifer’s full health update. If everyone reading this (who is able) pitched in $5, we could have Jennifer’s non-insurance-covered medical needs funded by the end of today. Check out her GoFundMe to learn more about Jennifer’s important work and to contribute!