What goes through the mind of a child experiencing the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and surviving the ordeal? How is his or her life changed by such an event? I don’t know. I imagine it could leave one in such a mental state as to require lifelong hospitalization. I imagine it could leave one so embittered that life never again takes on meaning, never again offers glimpses of joy. I imagine it could leave one mired in guilt over the thought that I made it out when so many others didn’t. I imagine it could leave one suicidal. Yes, I could imagine all of that.
But in all that imagining I would have failed to imagine the life of Livia Librescu, a child holocaust survivor. I would have missed the reality that even a traumatic experience in childhood almost beyond comprehension need not rob one of one’s moral compass, of one’s dignity. I would have missed the reality that such an experience might heighten the value one places on human life. I would have missed the reality that such an experience might make one willing to pay the ultimate cost to prevent future horrors. In other words, I would have missed the reality of Livia Librescu.
So who is Livia Librescu? He was a 76 year-old professor at Virginia Tech University about a decade ago when a gunman when berserk on that campus. He used his own body to barricade the door to his classroom to keep the gunman out long enough that his students might escape out the window. The last one jumped out just before the gunman’s bullets finally broke down the door and ended Librescu’s life.
The last student out said he looked back from the window and was torn between jumping and turning back to help his teacher. He jumped. He may wonder about that decision for the rest of his life, but I have no doubt that in jumping he successfully completed his professor’s final assignment. I have no doubt that could the gunman have seen into Lebrescu’s dying eyes, he would have seen the peace which says, “I am not alone.” And maybe on his lips a smile which said, “They made it.”
Did Librescu’s childhood experience in the Nazi concentration camp prepare him for what he did at the end of his life? I don’t know.
There is something else I don’t know. Well, actually there are a lot of things I don’t know, just ask my family, but one thing in particular I wish to mention at this time. I don’t know what it is that Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, the famous story just read in this morning’s text from the ninth chapter of Acts. The men traveling with him couldn’t explain it. Apparently it was some kind of vision, a not uncommon thing for people in that time to report.
And how was Paul’s life changed by this traumatic event? He went from being a persecutor of Christians, a guilt I imagine he carried with him the rest of his life, to being the movement’s greatest evangelist. And this was not an evangelist who traveled about the world in comfort while speaking to adoring audiences. No, this was an evangelist who experienced long periods of isolation, great periods of frustration, imprisonment, shipwrecks and many enemies. And yet he carried on.
This morning we have briefly mentioned two men who experienced great trauma in their lives, yet rose above it to achieve great things.
How goes it with us? It is easy to conclude that we have little in common with these two. Few of us will experience the trauma they experienced, and perhaps none of us will go on to accomplish the greatness they accomplished. Yes, it would be easy to conclude that we have little in common with these two, but it would be a mistake.
The road to Damascus is everyone’s road. You may not have as much baggage in your past as Paul, or as much pain as Professor Librescu, but we all have some baggage and some pain. We’ve all been tempted to give up on life; we’ve all been mired in guilt, lost in despair. And yet here we are. There must be some reason for that, something that propels us forward.
I believe you have all had, if not a vision, if not blinding light and voices from heaven, then at least moments of insight, of understanding, some inner voice telling you that despite any evidence to the contrary, you are a beautiful child of God. This is what it means to undergo conversion. It usually doesn’t happen dramatically. It is usually the journey of a lifetime. I suspect it may have been that way even for Paul, despite the story in today’s text.
If none of us have had the same Damascus Road experience as Professor Librescu or the Apostle Paul, it’s also true that none of us is likely to achieve anything quite so dramatic as each of them did. But while you may never do anything that makes the history books or even the national news, I’ll bet each of you has been a hero to someone. You may not have saved a classroom full of kids in the manor of Professor Librescu, but I bet you’ve saved an elderly person from loneliness, or saved a child from the terrors of the night, or helped an adult struggling to make ends meet. And you may not have spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire as Paul did, but I bet you’ve been Christ to your neighbor on more than one occasion.
That may not sound like much to you, but historians tell us that the single greatest factor in the spread of Christianity was not the presence of inspiring figures like Paul, but the everyday little acts of kindness done by ordinary Christians which were noticed by their neighbors.
The road to Damascus is not a journey for a special few. It is everyone’s journey. It is the journey on which we are invited day after day to turn our lives around and remember our calling. Most of the time it is nothing spectacular. Just little reminders to spread compassion, practice justice and be Christ to neighbor. If it doesn’t seem so spectacular, be grateful. I hope that road never leads you to the place of having to barricade a door against some twisted act of violence. But if it does, you will not be alone. Amen.