In one of the Revd. Wilbert Awdry's 'Railway Series' stories, we're introduced to the tank locomotive 'Duck.' Duck is proud of his Great Western lineage, and prefaces his observations with a predictable, 'There's two ways of doing things, the Great Western way and the wrong way....' I suggest that it's a tendency not just restricted to shunting engines.
The dramatic conversion of St Paul is even now one of the stories vaguely recognised by the population at large. 'A Damascus Road experience' still, for the moment, means a 180 degree turn in the way someone looks at things. But the very suddenness of the conversion has stuck in peoples' heads, and for centuries some folk (cue the voice of the tank engine) have seen it as the 'proper' way of becoming a Christian. At the same time others point out that they're Christians from the cradle and that the Johnny-come-latelies should pipe down and learn from those who've been around a bit. It's the background to the 'Born-again Christian' arguments, to spats about who's a 'real' Christian and so on.
This being the back end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, shouldn't we be trying to find a way of reconciling both these ways of looking? Because if only folk could stop squabbling, there are loads of clues around in Christian history and in Scripture that it's a false opposition.
First of all, regardless of whether we've done the Damascus Road thing or alternatively can't remember a time when we weren't part of the Christian faith, there's no-one who hasn't experienced both forms of encounter with Christ, whether we recognise it or not. Take the story of Paul; he's converted by the startling experience, but he doesn't immediately go off and start his missionary journeys. He has to get used to the long, slow business of growing into the faith under the watchful eyes of those who've been around a lot longer than he has. He has to demonstrate to the Jerusalem Christians that he's not just a flash-in-the-pan conversion. He even goes off on a three-year retreat in the desert (according to his letter to the Galatians) before he undertakes serious ministry. So the pattern of Paul's conversion has a lot more in common with the 'in it from the beginning' type than you might expect. Conversion is only a point on the road, after which comes the long, steady immersion in the faith.
And at this point, lest those of us baptised before we were able to speak start to feel smug, the authentic Christian life isn't marked entirely by steady-state stuff. There are real moments of new insight, of radical change which, although they may not be quite the Damascus Road thing, are nevertheless experiences which turn us round. Working with the diocesan vocations as I do, time and again you hear stores which begin, 'You'll probably find this peculiar, but...' as the person in front of me starts to describe a small scale Damascus road experience. Not necessarily a 180 degree turn, but something which nevertheless alters radically the way they see themselves, or God, or the Church. An authentic Christian life will contain bits of Damascus and bits of not-Damascus, and we're doing a Duck the Tank Engine if we imagine differently, and especially if we look down on those whose balance is different from our own.
But there's another thing to note, something for which I'm indebted to one of the others at Lectio yesterday. If we look at the Damascus Road story, God is not just at work in the light and the voice from heaven, but also in the person of Ananias (who takes a risk and is obedient to God's voice despite his misgivings). Though Paul's turn-round may start with an irresistible, supernatural or psychological event, it is only able to grow and continue because God has also acted in an ordinary Christian already living in the city. The two arms of God work in Paul's conversion both in the shock of the divine encounter, but also in the support and wisdom of another human being.
And although there's a lesson to be learned for us all, that conversion and consolidation, Damascus Road and the long haul are both part of an authentic Christian journey, maybe what we really need to remember is how God may well use us in the work of conversion. There is for all of us a call to be Ananias from time to time, helping those who've had some sort of experience to make sense of it, to hold them until they recover from the shock of meeting God when they don't expect it. (We can only do that if we're both soaked in the faith ourselves, and also open to the unexpected encounter with God which will change us, of course, but that's what discipleship's all about, becoming more what God has already made us).
Once we've put paid to the silly squabbling about how people come to faith, we'd do well to remember that the God who knocks people off the certainty and comfort of the donkey also works in us who hurry to pick them up and dust them down. Where would Paul have been if God had sent the light and the voice – but had not also sent the faithful human disciple Ananias?