By Michael Mcshea
Mainstream Christian churches are starting a year long celebration of the 2000th birthday of Saint Paul the Apostle. Even secular, but mostly Muslim, Syria is embracing the event as part of its tourist industry. The road to Damascus is after all in Syria.
Which reminds me of a story -
Some strange guy once waved to me in a nearly empty parking lot at the Mall in Arizona. Hey I do go to the mall sometimes.
I did not know the guy. He started to give me the spiel that he waved to me because he thought he knew me. I looked like someone he knew. Well not actually.
"Are you a Someway salesman?" I asked. "No." he replied. This had happened to me before. People who sell some really junky soap powder for your clothes want to sell the same crappy soap suds to you and your friends and then start selling everything imaginable from their little catalogue. Sounds like a good deal. Cheap soap and its gets cheaper as you build a network of buyers for the products.
After a few more questions I hit pay dirt. I did not know the right questions. Then I switched the nouns or the verb tense and finally I got a "Yes, I am with Someway but I am not a salesman. I am a distributor."
The guy was Hindu. I did not mention it sooner because it might have triggered a cultural reaction in you and ruined my intended line of thought and writing. He was dark skinned and before he spoke too much, I thought he might have been Mexican American. After all it was southern Arizona near the border. I didn't know he was Hindu until he spoke with a slight accent.
Well I am a curious fellow and I like to chew the fat like anybody and in spite of the blazing hot summer sun, I continued in conversation. In a few more lines of conversation, I was asking him cultural questions about being Hindu. I was curious about their religious feasts. And the best I got out of him was yes he had a lot of relatives and yes they had holidays but mostly Hindu families like to get together to eat and eat and eat.
In many ways, this distributor was not much different that anybody else I knew here in America. I think of that random meeting in a parking lot and of course he gave me his business card in case I changed my mind or if my brother in law wanted to sell suds.
I harken back to an earlier time when a man is standing in front of a synagogue and is engaging strangers in chit chat and conversation. This man is a stranger in town. Until he speaks, the natives have no clue who he is or where he is from. His dress is quite common for this town along a Roman road in Asia Minor, the country of Turkey in today's geography. His accent is a little strange but you can't quite put a finger on its origin. The man is Jewish in outward manners and wants to talk about some local gossip or a phrase that the local rabbi dropped in the synagogue on Sabbath.
Paul calls himself an apostle. He talks about having been a tentmaker. Do you have any tents that need repair? He could do it very cheaply. He had learned the trade when he spent two years in the far away exotic place of Arabia. He disclosed this without much explanation. The Arabia thing goes over most people's heads. If they had ever heard of Arabia they knew that is was outside the realm of Roman control. Pirates abound in the waters off this exotic sounding country. If anything, a man or two of the world might think of that destination as the end of the line in terms of caravans snaking their way all around the Middle East and all the way to even more exotic sounding places like India or China.
"You say you studied Mosaic Law under the great Gamaleil?" Paul was forever careful. There were spies everywhere. With a simple question and a simple answer he might be labeled a trouble maker and thrown into a Roman jail but only after the locals had beaten him up. He was a Roman citizen. That was enough most of the time to get a Roman soldier or magistrate to give him the edge and the benefit of the doubt in any local dispute with natives that did not have the same rights of a Roman free man.
"I heard him talk a number of times. He is a brilliant man, a great scholar and a true man of the Almighty." In truth he had not studied for long at the Temple. He had heard of Gamileil and his defense of the new cult of Jesus before a local Temple administrative hearing.
"And now I tell you: Stay away from these men, and leave them alone. If their plan comes from human authority, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them. You might even be fighting against God himself!" Acts 5:38-39
"I am busy right now Paul from Tarsus. I have errands. Come to my house later. We will talk. Join me and my family for an evening meal."
"Thank you kind sir. Thank you. I will come to your house".
Paul was relieved. He was also hungry. He had not eaten for two days. Fasting is good for the spirit but it wrecked havoc on his stomach. Maybe tonight he would just talk about Gamiliel. The conversion would always somehow turn to Jesus and what he thought he had to say.
In a way of atonement, this man had many debts to pay back to men, to Jesus and his followers and to God himself.
Having been young and fanatical and vested with papers that gave him and a bunch of hired thugs authority, he had set forth to Damascus to bring some men to Temple justice. Talking with his fellow traveling companions, he realized that any prisoners this well spoken, well educated Jew could manage to get arrested, those men were not likely to live to see Temple justice.
As if in imitation of the energy of that blinding light and a realization, along with his anger and his hatred of the people he had once set out to get and in anger and disgust of the people he had once traveled with, he could reflect on many things, and look into the dark caverns of his soul.
At the end of a long day of trying to find people who were willing to listen to his message of Jesus, he could relax a bit. He could look into a mirror in a darkening room at twilight and see his face in guilt reflecting the life he set out to build and he could also see the face in the mirror of the man he had become.
Redemption for him was to continue the mission of people like the stoned and martyred Stephen. He saw that young man killed for his beliefs. Jesus in a direct and indirect manner had set in motion a whole new life for this sinner now known as Paul.
Beware of the strangers you meet on the road of life. Some might actually change your life for the better and forever.