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On the Road

by Bev Stratton

Where were you? Where were you when Neil Armstrong took that one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind—transforming our understanding of who we are as technologically advanced citizens of a planet that is a small speck in a large universe? Where were you when the planes flew into the twin towers, the Pentagon, and the ground in Pennsylvania—when our sense of safety in the United States was transformed into recognition of the reality of terrorism that the rest of the world has known for years?

Transformation happens dramatically through ambitious endeavors like NASA’s exploration and through unexpected acts of terrorism. It also happens more slowly. As Paul’s story in Acts 9 and other biblical stories suggest, transformation often happens on the road. Journey with me along several roads, primarily in Luke-Acts, and take time for reflecting on transformations in your own life. (back to top)

On the road to Damascus

We know the story. Saul was persecuting the new Christians: receiving accolades from those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58) and tracking down the Christians to bring them, bound, to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1–2). He was on the road to Damascus when a voice from heaven left him blind and at the mercy of others. His transformation from Saul to Paul was dramatic: from persecutor to persecuted. He went from breathing rage and murder to fleeing the same, hidden in a basket (Acts 9:23–25), and to relying on the good will of others, Ananias and Barnabas (Acts 9:27), to open his eyes or to open the way to Paul’s acceptance by followers of the Way (Acts 9:2). Sometimes, transformation is sudden and dramatic.

On the road to Gaza

Imagine yourself now in a chariot along the road to Gaza (Acts 8:26–40). An apostle named Philip runs alongside you, listening to you and to what you are reading. He helps you to interpret and to understand recent events and future possibilities. Transformation happens when people help us open our hearts to the Spirit.

From Jerusalem to Jericho

Take another imaginative road now out of Jerusalem and head toward Jericho (Luke 10:25–37). There you have been attacked by muggers and left for dead by the side of the road. A Samaritan notices you, shows compassion, binds your wounds, and sees to your care. Your life is transformed through the compassion and generosity of others.

On the road home

Or perhaps, like the prodigal, you are on the road home or waiting sullenly at home (Luke 15:11–32). You have distanced yourself, made choices that have alienated you from others (whether you are the younger or the elder brother). You have squandered your gifts, you are miserable in a hell of your own making. And transformation is available. The father is waiting with open arms to receive you, welcome you, celebrate you, forgive you, and accept you. (back to top)

The road to Jerusalem

On Palm Sunday, Jesus took the road into Jerusalem. There he was transformed—from a Galilean preacher and miracle worker into the “Son of David,” and soon the “King of the Jews,” a treasonous allegation that would cost him his life at the hands of Roman officials. During the following week, he was transformed in the eyes of the people from a blessed prophet worthy of accolades to a cursed criminal to be taunted and crucified.

During Holy Week, Jesus spoke publicly in the temple and privately with his disciples about transformations to come that the Spirit would help them make. Through his purging anger, Jesus wanted to transform the temple from a den of robbers to a house of prayer. He called his listeners to be transformed from being hypocrites and blind guides (Matthew 23:13, 16), or seeking to be regarded as the greatest (Luke 22:24–27), to being servants (Matthew 23:11; John 13:3–17) and friends who love one another ( John 13:34–35; 15:12–17). He washed their feet and gave them bread and wine, as his body and blood, to help them understand how they can be transformed in their everyday lives.

Along the side of the road

Jesus experienced a transformation that he did not seek and which he did not want—unless it be God’s will. Jesus could see what was coming. The Romans regularly lined the highways with bodies dying on crosses as a way to keep people in line. The Pax Romana came at the cost of ruthless domination and cruelty. Jesus had to know that, like the prophets before him, anyone who spoke so boldly against the authorities, who accused them of not following God and of leading the people astray, would suffer at their hands. Jesus prayed fervently that the cup might pass from him (Mark 14:32–42). But he could not escape. And so he endured the transformation of the cross.

To Nueva Esperanza

Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Jesuit theologians of El Salvador have taught me most about Jesus’ transformation through the cross and resurrection. In 1980 Romero also knew that he would be killed because, like Jesus, he had spoken truth to power, refusing to let leaders continue to murder the Salvadoran people during what would become a 12–year civil war. Romero said, “If they kill me, I will arise in the Salvadoran people.” He preached about the grain of wheat that dies and thus bears much fruit ( John 12:24). Salvadoran Christians have become the transformation of which Romero spoke, allowing God to bring them resurrection and new life as they returned to their country during or after the war to build communities of new hope or nueva esperanza. (back to top)

Our own transformations

My first transformation was not on a road, but it was far from home. I traveled to Spain at age 13. While I lived with a family there, for the first time I experienced myself as culturally different. People asked me what was going on in my government (it was Watergate). They asked about my faith (what was a Lutheran? a Protestant?). They cared for their bodies in different ways than I had been taught (“Only prostitutes shaved their legs,” they told me). Once I saw myself through others’ eyes, I was transformed. I could no longer presume that my way, my faith, my culture was the only right one.

“What do you want?”

I have not experienced a voice from heaven like Saul/ Paul, challenging my misguided, violent fury, but I have heard the voice of my neighbor inviting me to leave behind the internalized rage of my depression. He asked me, “What do you want?” The transformation likewise was different—not sudden, but gradual, as I considered his question and my response.

Guide alongside

Other transformations have been more like what the Ethiopian eunuch experienced, where someone opened my eyes to see familiar things in a new way. Like Philip, the first woman pastor I met (now an E LCA bishop) metaphorically ran alongside me as a university student. She introduced me to feminism and helped me to see Scripture and theology in new ways. I was transformed. (back to top)

Seeing in new ways

Later, a grey-haired woman (Peggy McIntosh) spoke at a conference about the privileges she had as a white woman that her African-American colleagues did not have. I was pregnant with my second child when I was startled and convicted by the truth of one of her statements: “I do not have to teach my children about systemic racism for their daily physical protection.” My way of seeing myself as a white woman changed in that instant, but I am still working to be transformed by the renewal of my mind (Romans 12:1) in terms of dismantling white privilege.

Transformation of trauma

Not all transformations are pleasant or enlightening. Where were you when the tornado went through St. Peter, or the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, or the flood covered Iowa or the Red River Valley? Where were you when your last living relative died? Where were you when you got the news about the suicide? Where were you when you heard the diagnosis—cancer, bipolar disorder, diabetes? Life will never be the same. It has been transformed.

When we have been bruised, assaulted, traumatized physically—at the hands of strangers or family members . . . when we have suffered emotionally at our work places or in our grief, we wait, like the battered man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, for the healing hands of others to show us compassion and to carry us toward healing as the Samaritan did. We depend on others for a time—doctors, therapists, and friends—until we are able to take up our lives again, forever changed by our experience.

Transformation happens here, too, as we recover from betrayal, anger, shame, and trauma. Transformation may happen slowly as we learn again to trust, to feel safe, to have confidence in ourselves, to regain a capacity for intimacy, to forgive and not forget, to build new relationships. (back to top)

Grace and change

Like the elder or younger prodigal son, transformation happens if and when we come to our senses, when we realize that things can be different, that life is different in another place—perhaps back home at a place we left (or refused to enjoy) for reasons that may no longer make sense to us.

Transformation happens when we are willing to repent or to accept the grace that is offered to us.

Transformation happens when we take steps to forgive and to accept others’ forgiveness of us.

On the road to Cimiento

My most recent transformation began on the road to Cimiento in Guatemala. Schedules worked out so that I could join my congregation’s delegation to our sister congregation in the highlands. Before the bouncy ride over deeply rutted roads on the back of a pickup, we traveled in the relative luxury of a small “combi” bus. There, the group, who mostly did not know Spanish, was willing to learn and practice the Spanish songs we would use in worship. On the bus, one participant told stories that left our stomachs aching with laughter. And we had hours of quiet conversations too.

My transformation was subtle but profound. I experienced the grace Paul imagines in 1 Corinthians 12. The body of Christ welcomed me as I was. My fellow travelers embraced my gifts of Spanish speaking and leading worship.

In this community I experienced the healing connection of mutually empathic and mutually empowering relationships. This gift of my fellow travelers was one step on a longer journey of transformation, bringing me to a place where I saw not only the beautiful green of the Guatemalan hills but also the possibility that I might again flourish.

So as the new school year or this year’s Bible study begins, as the changing season transforms summer’s green to fall’s golds and reds, I invite you to consider and to share with others where you were when transformation changed your life. Did something dramatic happen? Who ran alongside you or cared for your wounds? What challenged you, opened your heart, or changed your understanding? (back to top)

How did you experience community on the road to Damascus, to Gaza, from Jerusalem to Jericho, going home again, or on the road to … Cimiento? As people of Good Friday and Easter, let us remember that transformation happens on the road … and God is bringing new life.

Bev Stratton is professor of religion at Augsburg College, grateful for learning from travel and for unbidden transformation, and on the road to new ventures.(back to top)

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