It was and is a common practice in the poorer areas of the South to attend to safety of one’s self and one’s family by building a storm house, a storm shelter on property, especially when one lives in a mobile home as we did. They sell commercial storm shelters, of course, but to buy one of those would be unthinkable on a number of different levels.
Firstly, to construct a storm shelter as elaborately and cheaply as possible is one of the primary ways in which to show off one’s redneck engineering skills. The only platform for the demonstration of such skills more celebrated is the deer stand. As for ourselves, we had not only carpeted deer stands with bookshelves in them, but a deer camp/shelter stocked with ammunition and whiskey, made from an old school bus with all the seats torn out. If that’s not country, then nothing is.
The other reason why no one would buy a commercial storm shelter is that very quickly you realize that many of them cost nearly as much as your mobile home, which makes you think if did buy one, you should just live there full time. You would be safer both from tornados and, for a certain stratum, in a more defendable position should the Yankees ever decide to come by an overland route to try take Vicksburg for a second time.
Trips down the storm shelter are etched in memory very deeply. Being woken suddenly, sleepily pulling on boots over pajamas. Squishing and slipping down the muddy slope to the tiny stone bunker set deeply into a crevice between two hills, mostly underground, the roof flush with the hill above. But the thing I remember most is the darkness. The adults had flashlights and kerosene lanterns and I saw those beams of light but not much else in the rain and the dark. So pitch black that I would forget whose hand I was holding until a flash of lightning lit up the face of my mother or grandmother. The voices of my uncles and grandfather, unseen in the dark, giving direction. My Uncle Steve would be the first to go inside to make sure no animals had decided to seek shelter in our little storm house before we did. In heavy rain, water would flood the rock floor an inch deep and the men would bicker about whose job it was to make the structure more waterproof before the next storm. And so we sat huddled together looking out into the black, listening to the wind. My grandfather at the entrance used intuition more than anything else to decide when we could climb out and up and back to our beds.
The darkness was like a sheet laid over you and you pressed your senses out into it trying to figure out the storm, to picture what was happening out there above you, to predict the future. Would our little patch of Mississippi end up on tomorrow’s news as something that once was but is no longer, or would the wind pass us by.
There are days like that even when the weather is nice. Days of uncertainty. Anxiety. When you don’t know what’s going to happen, when the way ahead is dark, unknowable and frightening. When we don’t know how we should look on things, how we should feel about them. And seemingly there are always so many mistakes to make, so many things to stumble over as we find our way forward.
In the reading for today, Saul enters a time of darkness. He is struck blind physically, but however terrible it was to lose his physical sight, the blindness of his eyes was only a sign of a worse reality. He has been blind in his soul, blind in his heart. He has been on a mission to kill the infant Church, and for what? Because he is zealous for the way things have been. Zealous for tradition, his love for the rules has overpowered his love for people. He has become a person who would kill for an idea. He has been blind to the message, this new thing that God had been up to in Jesus, blind to the fact that grace and love were breaking into the world and in order to bring about change God echoes the blindness of his soul with the blindness of his eyes. In order to bring clarity, he first has to show Saul that he has not been seeing things rightly.
For three days he was without sight and neither ate nor drank. The same amount of time that Jonah spent in the belly of the giant fish after he had tried to run from God, three days in darkness, wondering, watching, waiting. The same amount of time that Jesus spent in the tomb, the disciples waiting, mourning, wondering. For three days Saul was in darkness. Then comes Ananias and Saul hears a stranger call him a brother. It is the beginning of his new life. He feels hands touch him from out of his own darkness and the scales fell from his eyes. And he could see not only the world around him, but he could see his place in it. Where once he tried to take the lives of others for his own beliefs, now he would be willing to give up his own life for the message that God is a God of grace.
As Paul received back his vision, John receives a vision. It finds its way into our bibles as one of the most misunderstood and over-interpreted of all books. Part of his vision is our second reading and it’s such a rich picture. There are angels too many to count, singing. It is the choir of all angels with whom we blend our voices in the Eucharist, and creatures expressing an example of God’s creative nature, and elders of the faith who have overcome the world through their faith to find victory in heaven. This whole beautiful scene is about Jesus, a man who died the death of a criminal in a persecuted corner of the world. It is as if John is given a little window onto ultimate reality, a little window of faith onto the broken events of history. He has for a moment the curtain pulled aside for him so we can look with him. It is about having the vision to find the truth and beauty of God hidden in the things of history and the things of life. Seeing in a crucified man the lamb and the love of God, seeing in our simple gathering an activity which echoes the activity of heaven, seeing simple acts of love and service for our neighbor and the needy through the eyes of heaven as the momentous work of the Holy Spirit in the world.
Revelation dares us to look on our lives in the light of heaven and value what heaven values here and now, to live as citizens of heaven already, there is nothing that makes more difference. Saul’s conversion, as it is called, takes place all of a sudden, as perhaps some of ours did; but however quickly we come to our first experience of faith, our conversion is ongoing. And we are continually being shown by the Spirit how to see things rightly. How to see what is valuable, what has worth. Continually having our eyes opened, and our own blindness of the heart healed, so that we no longer operate in a dark landscape, but in a world enlightened by God. May God continue to enlighten our way as we follow after the risen Christ, who is the light of the world. Amen.