Since I was a little girl, the Apostle Paul has always fascinated me. Paul was, in himself, a paradox of sorts - the super-Jew who was the one who spread Christ's message across the Gentile world. He was a ferocious, even rabid defender of the law; accounted one of the most gifted, if not the most gifted Pharisee of his generation. Because of this zeal he embraced the persecution of the Christian sect, becoming its champion.
An odd choice, surely, for the spokesman of the Lamb.
And yet, after Christ met Paul, or Saul as he was then called, on the road to Damascus, that zeal - that ardor - was directed instead toward spreading the news of God's new covenant with man that had been sealed with Jesus' blood on Calvary. As He does with each of us, when God looked at Saul, He no longer saw the old man dirtied and stained by his wrong choices and sin, but the new man - one washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb.
Over the next few weeks I am going to post my own idea of how this change came about. A Blessed Chaos is what I call 'Christian Fan Fiction'. (I am, after all, a great fan of Christ!
I hope through this 'poetical reality' that Paul's story may touch your heart as we approach this season of rejoicing and marking the Resurrection of our Lord.
It was dark.
Dark as a night without stars. A room without a lamp. A prison cell without a window.
And yet, it was in the midst of this complete and total darkness that I began to see the light.
My life had been one great striving to fulfill the law ;
a rigid adherence to the truth the God of my people had revealed to His chosen race.
My eyes, I believed, were open to all He was and ever would be.
But the Lord, in His graciousness, showed me how blind I truly was.
And into my well-ordered life, a blessed chaos came.
A Blessed Chaos
Blood striped the sandy soil near his feet like welts on the back of an obstinate slave. Nearby a young man lay dying, having committed his soul to the God of Abraham in the same gentle tones he had used to beg forgiveness for those who raised their hands against him. Troubled, the young Pharisee shifted his weight, consciously stepping back as another of his number moved towards him to reclaim the robe he had left in his charge.
“One less to trouble Heaven. Eh, Saul?”
Dark eyes, heavily-lidded, were focused on the speaker. “Yes. One less.”
So it was.
So it was never meant to be.
Brother against brother. Jew against Jew. And all because of this presumptuous carpenter from Galilee and his band of fanatical devotees who could not - would not - admit defeat. Saul shook his head as the limp body of the man named Stephen was silently borne away by friends and family. How could they possibly believe what they purported? How could they lay claim to a Savior who promised to destroy the Temple? To do away with the law that was his life?
How could they believe in a Messiah who died accursed on a tree?
Yes. As of this day there was one less fanatic to worry about. But he, Saul of Tarsus, vowed never to stop until there were none left to take his place.
“We do the work of the Lord,” Saul asserted, handing over the dark garment, “blessed be the Name of the Lord.” His companion Pharisee nodded and clasped his arm firmly, unexpectedly leaving a scarlet impression on his sleeve, painted fresh in martyr’s blood.
Saul drew back, startled. Until that moment, his hands had been clean.
The music had not changed. Not so he could discern and yet….something was different.
Saul lifted his head, disturbed. Outside the window of his humble home songbirds winged through the darkening sky in tune with the majesty that was the God of Israel. Without thought they embraced Yahweh’s eternal plan – single notes woven inextricably into the symphony of the universe. By God’s grace they knew their purpose.
Even they, creatures without conscience, knew their place.
The dark-haired young man sighed and rocked back on his heels, his prayers falling somewhat short of Heaven. Today, it seemed God was not listening. A sad smile touched Saul’s full lips as he shifted into a seated position.
For most of his young life – all he could remember – Saul had devoted every waking moment to the study of the law. He had breathed it. Eaten it. Gone to bed and risen by it. The law had become the melody by which he existed, the song that lightened his heart, lifting his feet and setting them on a path that included study with the masterful Gamaliel, early recognition of his keen intelligence and powers of persuasion, and a position as one of the youngest members of the Pharisitical order.
But of late, in the last month or two, despite repeated attempts to ignore it, he had come to the realization that something had changed. The melody had become strained. Discordant. It weighed him down now, causing his head to hang, his feet to drag, and his heart….
Well, his heart was simply no longer able to sing.
Saul knew the law was perfect. All. And so, with dreadful certainty, he knew whatever was wrong lay in him. He was out of joint. Lost….
Deep in meditation, Saul waited upon his Lord, his mind drifting back to the morning’s rash act. If it had not been for the depth of Stephen’s transgression, their loss of control would have been embarrassing. Still he could not help but remember the look of utter peace upon the blasphemous youth’s face. What did Stephen know? What contentment, real or imagined, fueled the steady fire that lit his light grey eyes? Drawing a quick breath, Saul’s own eyes snapped open. With sudden insight he realized God had not fallen silent.
His own disquiet had stopped his ears.
Illumined by a brilliant beam of steady moonlight, Saul knelt and bent his head against the cold unyielding floor. In desperation he called upon the Father of the Universe to open the eyes of his heart so that he might see clearly. He asked that his ears might be unstopped, so that he might hear and his lips part once again to sing his Lord’s praises.
“Show me, oh God my father, the truth. For only the truth will set me free.”
And there in the darkness, without the comfort of a pallet or a wife, and troubled in his breast, Saul lay until sleep overtook him.
After early morning study with his master and some time spent learning to perfect his tent-making craft, Saul hastily made his way to the Temple in order to continue his renewed relationship with the Lord God Jehovah. As he moved through the crowded streets lined with vendors peddling everything from daily necessities to unspotted animals ripe for sacrifice, he heard several pointed comments, and once or twice saw hands lifted his direction in praise and blessing.
The story of the stoning of the Nazarene’s follower had obviously proceeded him.
Swallowing hard, he continued to press forward until one aged woman broke free from the disorderly ranks to thank him personally for his obedience to God.
“The Lord of all will bless you and yours for many generations to come,” she whispered, shyly touching his hand.
Quickly nodding his thanks Saul pulled away, touched, but disturbed as well by his sudden celebrity. All he had done was guard the others’ robes while they had meted out God’s just punishment. Still, he gave thanks for this human confirmation of the decision he had made upon waking cold and stiff on the uneven floor of his humble dwelling.
What they had done had been just.
Stephen – even as Saul – was a child of the Diaspora, a descendant of the children of Israel long since displaced from their homeland and forced to live and thrive in foreign lands until the day they could come home to Jerusalem. And like Saul, he too had known the one God and worked tirelessly for him. But then, for some incomprehensible reason this young man – so full of grace and power – had come to believe the filth about the carpenter from Nazareth. It had pained Saul to watch Stephen fall away from the brethren, to hear blasphemies issue from his lips. And when at last Stephen stood upon the steps of the Temple and spoke stingingly, accusing the guardians of God’s law of being stiff-necked, calling them ‘uncircumcised’ and murderers; when he threatened the Temple, the Council, their very God, Saul too had been overcome with rage and cried out for vengeance, ready to hurl the first stone.
But something had stopped him.
Instead of joining in he had stood by mute; his hands shaking and his dark eyes wide. This was not the law as he understood it. This was chaos. If their God was as almighty as they believed, then why this frantic anger? If Jehovah was in control, what threat was one poor lost soul who prayed to a god with pierced skin and a bloody crown? And yet, threat there was. If not to God, then to Israel. The Romans would not stand by as these fanatics interfered with their gods and the trade their worship engendered. Herod would not hear of another ‘king’ in Israel. And so, blessing or curse, Stephen’s young voice had been stilled in a moment of sheer frustration and rage.
Upon waking this morning God had confirmed Saul’s thought: their zeal had been righteous, but their methods questionable. Jehovah had spoken but one word in his ear as he lay there, exhausted, still seeking His face. “Open your eyes,” a quiet voice had breathed into the morning stillness, “to the incomparable power of those who believe. Open your eyes.”
Now, his eyes were open. He knew his own heart and waited only upon Yahweh’s favor.
Moving into the center court of the temple Saul caught sight of a small group of men and women who seemed to shrink into the shadows as his eyes fell upon them. He paused as one man among them met his stare – a tall rough-hewn man with callused hands and skin tanned bronze by constant exposure to sun and sea. The man’s back was straight, the tilt of his head not arrogant, but unbowed. Saul’s eyes narrowed, expecting to find in the fisherman’s look the recognition of a mortal enemy.
The older man instead gazed upon him with pity, and then called for those about him to lower their heads in prayer.
Saul stopped, aghast. How dare he? Here, within his own temple? Within the sight of the one true God?
How dare these Christians pretend to know better how to worship him?
Saul took one step toward the renegades only to find himself suddenly caught up in a vast influx of sweaty, road-weary pilgrims. He was spun round and round. By the time he had disentangled himself, the followers of the Galilean had vanished, melting into the shadows of the vast colonnaded temple as if they had never been.
Disgruntled Saul hesitated a moment, seeking to clear his head before entering the presence of God. Then, he entered the inner circle. As the ancient ceremony began and the words of the Prophets drifted to him on the hot dusty air, a curious thing happened. He felt a hand grip his heart and without warning time stood still.
In his head a hushed voice spoke. “Saul, as Isaiah before, I would send you. Will you go for me?”
“My only desire, Lord, is to serve you,” he answered, his head spinning. “Tell me what you wish?”
“Will you listen when I call?”
“I’m listening now, Lord. Tell me. What is it you want?”
The voice of the Lord was stubbornly silent and into the silence that fell, reality bled. Once again Saul became aware of time and the constant tide of believers who streamed past him: proselytes, God-fearers and Jews.
For just a moment, he feared his God had deserted him.
“My Lord, my rock and my salvation!” his heart cried out, near breaking. “What more do you want of me?”
This time the voice that answered was somehow closer, more personal. The voice of a man, and yet still his God.
“I will take you where you would not go. You will be made to suffer for me. Your name will be reviled and your character questioned. And yet, ages from now, your memory will be blessed.” There was a pause, as though a breath was drawn, and then, “Will you still go?”
“I desire only to serve you, Lord,” Saul answered, ashamed and angered. “Why do you question me so?”
The two voices were one. “I am the Lord your God. You swear your love and service, and yet you hurt me so. Why do you not listen when I call, Saul?
“Why do you grieve me so?”
Abruptly released Saul gasped and staggered. The pilgrims and worshippers about him looked away, thinking him drunk. Heedless of their disapproving stares he fell to his knees and sobbed. Yahweh’s touch had left his heart bruised….
But the Almighty’s words had wounded him to his very soul.
God was displeased with him. That was why he had not been able to hear. But why? What had he failed to do?
He had followed the law to the nth degree. Had made certain he remained clean and righteous. He knew every rule, every regulation, and had gone out of his way to make certain others obeyed.
What else could he do?
Saul’s tearful gaze moved slowly along the wall of the temple until it caressed the veil that masked the Holy of Holies and then, lingering for a moment on the lattice-work barrier that kept the women separate, came at last to rest on the spot where the followers of the Nazarene had knelt and prayed.
Unless it was this matter with Stephen….
Slowly rising to his feet, Saul felt his heart harden against the pain, as though a fortress had been erected to prevent it from further assault. Any tears he had dried in his eyes as a passionate fire ignited deep within his soul.