Josh of Tarsus? Well, sort of…

The story of Sauls conversion is very special to me.  It holds so many parallels to my own life that I feel a kind of kinship, as many who have experienced a similar thing, with the raging Saul of Tarsus.  The story can be found in the book of Acts, really beginning at the end of chapter 7 with the martyrdom of Stephen and then picking up again at the beginning of chapter 9.  If you’re not familiar with it, I encourage you to check it out.

To get an idea of who Saul was, you have to imagine a man who was not only a witness to but also probably the instigator of, the first martyr of Christianity.  Saul was there, probably screaming his head off in encouragement, as the people hurled stones onto Stephen.  He was there collecting Stephens clothing as the man died amongst a pile of rocks.  He was there in his element, feeling utterly righteous as a man was murdered at his feet.  When someone was stoned in those days it often ended not when the victim was dead but when the body could no longer be seen, completely covered, and the heap off rocks left for others to see and be reminded of what could happen for the supposed crime of blasphemy.  So as Stephen died and cried out to God for forgiveness for his executioners, Saul supervised his murder and was no doubt very pleased.

While I never went around imprisoning or murdering Christians, I did do an awful lot of mocking and hating them.  My whole family are believers and I just couldn’t help but secretly roll my eyes at some of them and berate others.  I wrote articles for the “news” section of an online radio station, where I railed against the belief in any kind of god.  I lectured my co-workers, and anyone else who would listen, on the stupidity of a belief in Christ.  I was too smart for that kind of thing.  I knew the answers and no one could tell me otherwise.  “I’ve read such and such author and studied this and that, so I know…” I would ramble on and on.   Looking back on that time now, I feel sorry for some of those folks for having to listen to me, but only some of them (haha, just a joke, calm down).

Saul went from house to house dragging people to prison for their beliefs, and felt that because of his position as a Pharisee, that he was justified.  He was educated by the finest teachers and had been brought up in the ways of the synagogue, he knew what he was talking about and there wasn’t anyone who could tell him any different.  Sound familiar?  Not satisfied with only raging through Jerusalem, he went to his bosses at the temple (probably Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, the same guys who put Jesus to death, by the way) and got permission to take his hatred on the road.  On his way to Damascus to do exactly what he thought was right, it happened.  Saul was in the most self righteous place in his life, surely looked upon with pride by his friends and family, on his way up at the temple, right where he wanted to be, and then Jesus showed up.

I ran my family like a tyrant.  I yelled at everyone, judged, complained, belittled.  Nobody could be good enough or meet my expectations.  My love was entirely dependent on action, if I didn’t get the right action from you, you didn’t get any love from me.  It was hell for everyone.  I always had something to say to any outsider who questioned me about my family,  “she did this, they did that, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you…”.  My wife felt horrible and afraid.   She cried all the time.  My kids were scared to make me mad.  Somehow, even though they all despised my behavior and dealt with it in a variety of ways, they never stopped loving me.  I don’t know how they did it other than by the grace of God, because I was bad. I finally told my wife to get out, I broke her heart by telling her to leave.  She couldn’t measure up to my dictatorship so she had to leave.  It destroyed the kids too.  But I knew best.  I arrogantly told them that it was for the best and that everyone would be happier this way.  Everyone felt ripped apart, even me, but I just could not handle it anymore.  Since I was the most important person in the world, what I wanted was what I was going to get, and then Jesus showed up.

Jesus literally showed up on the road like lightning.  Saul was blinded and frightened.  He fell to the ground and Jesus began to call him by name.  Saul was astonished and didn’t even know where the voice was coming from.  Jesus asked Saul why he was persecuting Christians and the name of Jesus.  Saul had rallied the men of the temple and the high priests to his cause, he knew his arguments backwards and forwards, he had preached to the masses and raised groups of men to go into the streets and murder Christians, but at this moment he forgot all of that.  For once Saul was speechless.  All he could say was “Who are you Lord?”

My wife had left.  She took the kids with her and I was alone.  Exactly what I wanted.  I was pacing in the hallway of my house, looking into the empty bedrooms.  As I went into one of them, my own lightning hit.  I am still struggling, to this day, to understand how what happened actually happened but I’ll go to my deathbed knowing that it did.  I felt as if I was pushed down to the floor, onto my knees.  It was like a million hands pushing down on every part of my body at the same time.  When my knees hit that carpet, tears flowed out.  Weeping like I’ve never known before.  I didn’t know why, everything was finally how I wanted it to be, why was I crying?  I couldn’t get up and I couldn’t stop the violent sobs.  I don’t know how long I was there, but it was more than I could take, and I finally surrendered and cried out to God.  I didn’t know what to say.  I knew the Lord’s Prayer so I just started repeating it, over and over again.  A peace blew into the room, warmth, calm.  I could feel it all around me.  I knew Jesus was there and I was speechless, all I could say was the same prayer over and over again,  “Who are you Lord?”

Saul had some companions traveling with him and they too, were speechless.  They picked him up off of the road and discovered that he had been blinded.  They led him by the hand the rest of the way into Damascus.  They took him to a house and he laid there for three days, not eating or drinking anything.  I can imagine him wondering what had happened to him.  His whole world had collapsed around him.  All his teachings and arguments had been swept away in an instant.  What could he do now?  Where should he go?  Well this is where God kicks into high gear.  Jesus called to a believer named Ananias in a dream and told him to go and heal Sauls eyes.  With Sauls reputation, Ananias was obviously very afraid, but Jesus said “Go!” and told him that he had plans for Saul.  Ananias went to Saul, healed his eyes, and told him that Jesus had sent him.  He told Saul that he was to be filled with the Holy Spirit and immediately Saul got up.  He was baptized and he ate and regained his strength.  (Interesting how Saul had not ate for three days, and yet the first thing he did was get baptized, and then he ate some food.)

I finally got to my feet, and while I was not literally blind, I felt as if everything I thought I knew was wrong.  I felt blind, like I had been living in darkness my whole life.  I had spent time in the church when I was a child, but it was just something we did.  I never felt anything or experienced Christ.  I went through the motions and stopped going as soon as I could.  This is evidenced by the jails, drugs, and general delinquency that dominated my life through what should have been my high school years.  I even explored Christianity a bit more in my late teens after I straightened up and got clean, but again, I was just going through the motions again.  It was nothing real and concrete like what I had just felt throughout my mind and body.  This wasn’t some religious thing to do because I felt bad.  In fact, I felt helpless through it all, like I was being used.  My will was being broken, right there on that dirty carpet.  And this is where God kicks into high gear.  A friend, that I had known for years randomly calls me within a day or two and asks me if I would like to read the New Testament with him.  “What?”  I’d never heard him talk about the Bible or God before and now here he is calling me out of the blue, knowing that I don’t believe, and asking me to read the Bible.  Then, someone that I have never met in my life, contacts me on the internet and starts talking to me about Jesus.  Come to find out, he is married to a good friend of mine from high school, that I had only recently reconnected with, and they are pastors!  And there were more.  Unsolicited friends that I hadn’t talk to in years started calling and wanting to talk about Christ…to me!  What the heck is going on?  Where are these people coming from?  They were my Ananias.  I gave my life to Christ, blew the dust off an old Bible I found in my closet, and jumped in with both feet.

Saul hits the streets running.  He is in the temple preaching the ‘Good News’.   He is on the corner, on the sidewalk, baffling everyone he meets.  I can see him like Scrooge at the end of “A Christmas Carol”.  He can’t help himself.  It just pours out of him.  Nobody can believe what they are seeing.  “Isn’t this the same Saul who was out persecuting Christians just the other day?” they ask.  Even the original disciples don’t believe it and have to be convinced.  It was a radical transformation.  Saul changed his name to Paul, went on to preach the name of Jesus all over the place, plant churches everywhere he went, endure all kinds of torture and even die (by stoning, ironically) and be resurrected while writing most of the New Testament and influencing millions around the world for millenniums.

This is where our stories split, slightly, haha.  I started going to an awesome church where I was able to get plugged in with some really great people.  My wonderful wife and I have repaired our marriage and are striving to find Gods will for us and for our family.  Relationships that I walked all over in the past are being mended.  Mistakes I have made my entire life are being corrected.  Life is full.  I talk to people all the time about my faith, and I have had those moments where someone asks “aren’t you that one guy?”  Nope, I just look a lot like him!  The powerful work of Jesus has transformed me and my life.  A couple weeks ago my daughter told someone that “ever since dad found Jesus, he is a completely different guy.”  She couldn’t be more right.

Acts 7 tells of Stephen’s stoning and introduces Saul  and Acts 9 tells of Saul’s conversion.

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