Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
When life is a journey, the road is home. That is what Kyle Wang said to me the other day, and it made me think about Blind Bartimaeus and that moment when he threw off his coat and sprang up to follow Jesus down the road. It was his moment of conversion, and that is what I want to talk about today: conversion. It is an intimidating word built around huge expectations with images of Paul on the road to Damascus being struck by light and hearing the voice of Jesus. And sometimes conversions are like that. But mostly they are not. My conversion wasn’t.
But what all conversions seem to have are this: a moment of clarity, followed by a sense of urgency, followed by the long slog of transformation. And every once in a while along the road there are vistas of grace. Clarity, urgency, and the long slog, punctuated by moments of grace. That is the journey when the road is our home.
Bartimaeus lived on the side of the road. I don’t imagine he knew Jesus was in town. Jesus wasn’t on his calendar. But when he heard the word rippling through the crowd as they cascaded down the road toward him, he had a moment of clarity. I’m not sure what it was. The passage doesn’t say. Sometimes the clarity of conversion is hard to articulate anyway. It is deeply personal, unique, particular, and sometimes mysterious, and that is OK. You can own it anyway. But what we do see is his sense of urgency: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd tried to shush him, but the urgency was too great: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And Jesus responded, “What can I do for you?” Can you imagine? Jesus looking you in the eyes and asking, “What can I do for you?” And suddenly, sight seemed possible for Blind Bartimaeus from the strangest source: a man named Jesus.
I sat on the side of the road from 1985 to 1994. It didn’t look that way, I suppose. I went to college. I graduated from college. I got a job. I moved to Connecticut. I traveled the world. I got another job. I moved to Cleveland. I got married, and all the while I lived on the side of the road, and I knew it.
I mark 1985 as the beginning. That is when I started looking for God on my own terms. The Conn family had gone to church when I was growing up because that is what the Conn family did. Just ask my Mom. I did, and she said, “The Conn family goes to church; you don’t have to like it. You just have to get in the car.”
So when I got to college, Church God went on the shelf (except at Thanksgiving and Christmas). College liberated me to finally find the real God, the big God—the God that worked for me.
In 1987, my junior year, I met Pradan, a Yogi. He taught me to meditate. He said, “Do it at the same time, in the same way, in the same place, every day.” The point was to throw off the illusion of the world and find the real self at the center of one’s being. I was all about finding the real me, at the center of me. So at the same time, in the say way, in the same place, every day I sat with my life on hold at the side of the road until September of 1994.
Now Kristin and I went to church when we moved to Cleveland Heights. We needed a place to get married after all. We went to St. Paul’s most Sundays, because they had four services so we could make it work with our schedule. I knew the priests there a little bit.
And that was life on the side of the road until September 1994. Early one morning, I was meditating, as I always did. The sun was coming up. It was a beautiful, clear fall day. And on that day I got to the center of myself; on that day I arrived without distraction or gloss. And what I saw at the center was a small empty space with nothing in it. The core was void, empty, and worse than that, it was desperately lonely, if not isolated.
That was my moment of clarity. And I sprang up. I literally sprang up, ripping myself out of the meditation, and all I could think about was running to church.
I called Bill Fuller, an associate at St. Paul’s: “I must see you right now!” It was a little too early. So, I went for a long, long run, a panicked dash really, seeking to distance myself from that empty, lonely place at my center. It isn’t possible to do by running incidentally. I showered and went to St. Paul’s. I called in sick to work; I was sick in my soul.
Bill met me, and we talked. He asked me questions. He asked me about my life, my wife, my work, my MBA program. He reincarnated my world. He talked about Jesus being out there (outside of ourselves), and that the “out there” wasn’t illusion, it was a blessing that we invite into our center. Jesus made the road; he is the road; he is on the road with us.
And that is when I became a follower of Jesus. That is when my meditation turned into prayer. That wasn’t when I decided to be a priest. That came later. That wasn’t when I decided to go back to church. That came earlier. It was just the moment when I decided to follow Jesus down the road on the long slog of transformation.
Transformation is a life lived toward becoming the person God made us to be—to be our fullest, most normal, whole, healthy, holy selves.
Here is the truth: on the road of transformation there are vistas and valleys, tunnels and washed-out bridges, and dark forests and high hills. The life of conversion is about intentionally being on the road and being willing to be surprised along the way. I was surprised by a graceful vista the other day. It was a moment of reconversion. There was clarity, urgency, and a long slog.
Eleanor Burton, our longest-lived parishioner—86 years at Epiphany—was dying, and I was busy. It was a busy day. Her death wasn’t on my calendar. Kate had seen her, but I was close with Eleanor, and I wanted to see her as well. So I jumped in my car and dashed to Horizon House. I set my GPS so I would take the fastest, most efficient way. But on Madison I got behind a women in a Buick from Florida. That’s when I opened my mouth and said, “Jesus, help me a bit here.” I pulled to the right and then back to the left and shot up Madison.
Then, despite my experience and the advice of my GPS, I turned down Pike Street.
What an idiot! I hit every light. I went by the police station, and felt compelled to slow down. There were pedestrians crossing the street at every white stripped intersection. “Jesus, a little help here.” Clearly not.
I turned to take a short cut which turned out to be a long cut. Finally I came screaming up to Horizon House. There was, “Thank you, Jesus, finally,” a parking place right on the side of the building. I jumped out, got a ticket, put it in my car window, and then ran up to the closest door. It was locked. Then to the second closest door. It was locked.
I was forced to go around to the front door, walking with purpose and pace. I signed in, and as I was going down the corridor, I came up behind Olga Stewart, a long-time Epiphany parishioner. I hadn’t seen her since before my sabbatical. And I thought, “Had it not been for the wrong turns and the lights and the pedestrians, I wouldn’t have arrived at just the right moment to encounter Olga.” Jesus was probably driving that Buick from Florida.
I grabbed her shoulders, surprising her a bit, hugged her, and said, “Come with me.” Olga is a person of deep prayer. So we went and knelt at Eleanor’s bedside and prayed. We said good-bye. She died shortly thereafter. I had clarity to go, urgency to get there, and a long slog between Epiphany and Horizon house.
That is what life is like when the road is our home. Where are you on the road? What is your story? Are you on the side of the road? I’ve been there. Nothing that happens there is ever wasted by God. Have you had a moment of clarity or sense of urgency? Are you in the long slog? What was the muddy path like? Have you seen any grand vistas?
Know this: wherever you are on the road, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, we are on the road with you. It is the road Jesus made. He is the road, and he is on the road with us as well—all of us. The road is our home. And you know what is so beautiful about this? All of our roads intersect here at Epiphany.