Friday, April 15, 2016

The Story Within the Story

By Colleen O’Sullivan

There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”  He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  The Lord said to him, Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.  He is there praying, and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, that he may regain his sight.”  But Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man, what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem…”   But the Lord said to him, ”Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”  (Acts 9:10-13, 15-16)

Lord, thank you for being patient and not laughing at us when we argue with you over whose plan is the better one.  Thank you for your steadfast loving and forgiving nature.

West, Benjamin, 1738-1820. Conversion of St. Paul,
from  Art in the Christian Tradition, a project
of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Today’s reading from the Book of Acts is the story of how Saul of Tarsus, vicious persecutor of followers of the Way, becomes Paul, an apostle for the Lord.  It’s quite a dramatic story.  Saul is on the road to Damascus, where he hopes to continue the terrorizing of Christians that he is well-known for in Jerusalem, when suddenly he sees a blinding light and hears Jesus speaking to him. Jesus tells him to go into Damascus and await further instructions.  Paul, lying on the ground, finds that he is blind.  Wordlessly, he is led into the city by those accompanying him.

There’s another, smaller story residing within this overall narrative, however, and that’s the story of a man called Ananias, a Christian living in Damascus.  Ananias must be a prayerful person, someone who’s used to conversing with and listening to God, because he hears God giving him explicit instructions about walking to Straight Street, going to Judas’ home, and praying over Saul of Tarsus, who has had a vision of his own that Ananias would be God’s instrument of healing for him.

On the one hand, I sympathize with Ananias.  Saul of Tarsus was a name no Christian wanted to hear.  Saul was ruthless in his attempts to rid the world of Jesus’ followers.  He burst into people’s homes, seizing them and throwing them into prison.  He stood guard over the cloaks of those who helped to execute Stephen.  His reputation preceded him in the city of Damascus.  Just the thought of Saul struck fear into any believer’s heart, much the way thoughts of ISIS trying to exterminate any Christians (among other groups) in their path today horrify and frighten us.

On the other hand, Ananias makes me laugh.  God asks him to do something and his response is to tell God why God’s plan is flawed.  Don’t we all do that sometimes?  Maybe we start off telling God we’ve got a plan.  Or maybe we sense that God wants us to take some particular action, but we drag our heels and, like Ananias, point out to God why we think it’s not the best idea.  It’s a good thing God loves us and has patience, because sometimes God must be tempted to laugh as we try in vain to be the center of the universe.  God already occupies that spot and God is the one with the overall plan for salvation.  If anyone knows the pitfalls or beauties of a plan, it would be God. 
God finally tells Ananias that he has a plan for this Saul of Tarsus.  God is going to channel all that zeal and energy that Saul possesses and use it for God’s purposes.  God is going to transform Saul into Paul and send him to the Jews and the Gentiles alike to preach the Good News that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  God has plans to grow the Way into a church where all believers are welcome, and Paul is the instrument that God will use to accomplish this. Ananias has a small part in this big plan.  God asks him to go to Saul, to lay hands on him, to pray and heal Saul of his blindness.  A small part to play, but a vital role in a much grander, divine scheme for the spread of the Word throughout the world.

When did God have a plan for you different from what you envisioned?  What was the result?    

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