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The Conversion of St Paul

The Conversion of St Paul

Well I have been back in hospital again! I have to confess that it was my own fault. As regular readers of our blog know, I had a heart attack back at the end of February and ended up in hospital for a week as a result. I am now waiting for a triple heart bypass operation sometime in July. Eighteen weeks is a long time for me to be sitting around doing nothing, however, and so the other week I succumbed to the temptation to do at least some of the jobs that needed doing? I had a wonderful week … rebuilt an old stone wall, cleared a lot of junk from the garage, dug up several old rose bushes that had gone wild again in the rose bed, and so on. ‘Push the boundaries!’ I subconsciously told myself, ‘Your heart will tell you when you have had enough!’ Unfortunately my heart didn’t tell me at the time … only later on when I was sitting on the patio enjoying a nice glass of wine!? And 12 hours later I found myself in an ambulance on the way to hospital with pain across my shoulders, up my neck, and down my arms … signs I now know well of my heart rebelling again!

I was sent to the Emergency Medical Unit (EMU) at Dorchester Hospital because there were no spare beds in the heart unit. EMU is the place where newly admitted patients normally end up for treatment before they get ‘shipped out’ to the appropriate unit for their particular problem when a bed becomes available. Consequently there are all sorts of ‘odd bods’ in EMU at any one time. There are three wards in EMU, plus a few single bed rooms. In our ward there were a couple heart cases like me, but the rest all had various different problems. There is usually quite a turnover of patients with some only being in EMU for 24 hours at the most before either being moved to another unit or sent home. I was in EMU for four days and was one of the ‘longest serving inmates’. In this number there were quite a few ‘characters’ including one literal ‘inmate’ – a guest of her Majesty no less – who was accompanied by two Prison Warders. He was around 19 or 20 years of age, and claimed to have swallowed some heroin. He refused to be x-rayed (because he thought his sentence would be increased if they found any heroin) but also refused to be discharged (because he would be taken back to prison). He gave the hospital staff a horrendous time and in the end had to be removed by hospital security. His chief complaint … much to the amusement of staff and patients alike … was that he hadn’t been given enough ‘porridge’ (a UK slang term for serving time in prison, as well as a cereal food) earlier that morning?! Quite a few of the patients that have ‘passed through’ EMU, however, were elderly, and suffering from dementia. Now there are various types of dementia and we should not ‘lump’ every sufferer together. Some people with dementia are incredibly happy in their own world, but others are very sad cases indeed. Since being in EMU I have gained a new and deeper understanding of elderly people with dementia, and a greater appreciation of just how wonderful our NHS medical staff are, especially our nurses who cope so brilliantly with all that comes their way day after day!

When I first came into EMU I found sleeping at night very difficult. There were people being admitted to the ward all times of the day and night, and on top of this there were daily ‘incidents’ to cope with as well, often occurring during the night hours. One night, for example, we had a lady threatening to ‘murder all the staff’ and a naked man attempting to get into another patient’s bed?! Sometimes the mid-night hour antics could be very amusing, but more often than not they were distressing and annoying. Fortunately, for me, my problem was solved by the acquisition of some excellent ear plugs and a wonderful padded eye mask. The ear plugs we bought in France a few years ago, specifically for use on the French campsites. You can’t get these particular ear plugs in the UK so we make a point of buying a couple of boxes nearly every time we go to France. They are made up out of a mixture of wax and cotton wool and cut out all sound very effectively. The eye mask is well fitted, padded and scented slightly with lavender and cuts out the light completely. I used both after a couple of nights and slept more-or-less right through, only waking up twice when the nurses woke me for ‘procedures’. I slept so soundly that I even missed all the ‘entertainment’ mentioned above … I only learned about it after the event?!

Reflecting on the effectiveness of my ear plugs and eye mask – one has a lot of time to reflect whilst lying on one’s hospital bed – I found myself thinking about the positive and negative effects of both? True that using my ear plugs and eye mask enabled me to have a good night’s sleep; true that they enabled me to remain completely unaware of all the shenanigans going on around me during the night … but what if some deranged woman wanted to murder me, or what if a naked man had tried to get into my bed, or what if a fire had broken out in the ward … I would have remained completely oblivious to all of it?! I exaggerate of course, but the point is made!

The Apostle Paul, or Saul of Tarsus as he was known then, was someone who was totally deaf and blind … when it came to the things of God and God’s great purpose for him in life! His story is told several times in the New Testament, particularly in the Book of Acts, penned by Luke, and in the autobiographical sections of the various Epistles or Letters attributed to Paul himself. Two particular passages in Acts are especially revealing about this matter of hearing and seeing God. It is clear (from the various Biblical accounts cited above) that prior to his conversion Saul, although ‘a young man’ by Jewish standards, had already achieved prominence. He was a highly educated Roman Citizen, a prominent business man working in the leather industry, and an extremely zealous religious leader within the Jewish Community. Despite all this, by his own admission, he was spiritually deaf and blind!

As a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin or High Council, Saul was present when Stephen, one of the foremost leaders in the embryonic Christian Church, was called before them to give account, following a complaint from one of the Synagogues in Jerusalem (Acts 6:8-12). Stephen took the opportunity, not only to tell the members of the Sanhedrin a few ‘home truths’, but to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them. Unfortunately for Stephen their reaction was a violent one. Luke tells us that even before Stephen had finished his defence, ‘they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul’ (Acts 7:57,58). ‘They put their hands over their ears and began shouting!’ These members of the Sanhedrin, including Saul, deliberately blocked off the sound of God’s Good News by putting their hands over their ears and drowning out Stephen’s words by shouting more loudly themselves! It was, if you like, the spiritual equivalent of putting ear plugs into your ears!

At this time Saul of Tarsus was not only spiritually deaf but spiritually blind, as well. Luke tells us that when Saul had his now famous encounter with the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road, he ‘got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing’ (Acts 9:8). His physical blindness, however, simply mirrored his spiritual blindness. Later on in the story, Luke tells us, that when Ananias (a Christian disciple who lived in Damascus) laid hands on Saul and prayed for him – Saul’s conversion was a process and not instantaneous as some would have us believe – ‘something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see’ (Acts 9:18) both physically and spiritually! We cannot be sure exactly what these ‘scales’ that blinded Saul of Tarsus were. The Greek word has many meanings – the shell of an egg, the skin of an onion, the scales of a fish, and so on. What we can be sure of is that for various reasons, prior to this encounter with the risen and ascended Christ, Saul was physically and spiritually blind. His physical blindness simply mirrored his spiritual blindness. For all his achievements, intellect, and religious fervour, Saul of Tarsus was ‘blind’ to God and the things of God! To all pretence and purpose, it was, if you like, the spiritual equivalent of covering your eyes with an eye mask!

Of course this kind of spiritual deafness and blindness was not the sole preserve of Saul of Tarsus. All of us at some time or other have suffered from the same complaint, and many still do?! Perhaps this thought, based on his own experience, prompted the Apostle Paul (as Saul of Tarsus eventually became following his conversion) to enlighten the Church at Corinth by telling them that ‘the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). The phrase ‘blinded the minds’ here suggests ‘a dulling of the intellect’ or ‘an inability to think things through properly’ and implies a failure to make correct use of our God-given senses such as sight and hearing. What exactly Paul had in mind by the ‘god of this age’ is also hotly debated amongst commentators. Some suggest that this is a reference to Satan – the fallen arch-angel who sought to exalt himself above God, and who remains the arch-enemy of God and the things of God – whilst others think that this is a reference to the prevalent ‘spirit of the age’, in this case most probably materialism. There is not really a contradiction here – Satan will use numerous means to prevent us taking seriously the person of Jesus Christ and his claim upon our lives! Materialism today, as in 1st century Corinth, remains one of the many things that ‘blinds our minds’ to the relevance of the Gospel! And, of course, it is not just ‘unbelievers’ who are ‘blinded’ to the call of God!? Many ‘believers’ too easily slip back into a place where human reason and effort take the place of ‘waiting on God’ for direction, and ‘catching God’s vision’ for our lives or church?! Where, in today’s Church, are those who ‘wait upon the Lord’ (Isaiah 40:31), waiting for him to speak and give us direction? Where are those who ‘dream dreams and see visions’ (Acts 2:17) rather than simply ‘do our own thing’?!

Fortunately for Saul of Tarsus God was not content to leave him in such ignorance. It is clear that what concluded in the house of Ananias (Acts 9:17-19) actually began much earlier with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-8:1). Although Saul ‘approved’ of the murder of Stephen, he was unable to forget what he saw and heard that day! And finally, on Damascus Road, Saul of Tarsus ‘cracked’. He finally saw the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus in all his glory (Acts 9:3)! He finally heard the voice of God and responded to what he was told (Acts 9:4,5)! And thankfully God still reveals himself to us today – whether we are ‘unbelievers’ who have never, until this moment, recognised or responded to the call of God in Christ to us, or ‘believers’ who need to catch a ‘fresh vision’ of God or hear a ‘fresh call’ from God, for the future!

‘Open our eyes Lord
We want to see Jesus,
To reach out and touch Him
And say that we love Him.
Open our ears Lord
And help us to listen,
Open our eyes Lord
We want to see Jesus.

~ Robert Cull (1949-)

Jim Binney

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