…suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice… Acts 9:3,4
The life of Francis Thompson was a downward spiral that landed him on the streets of nineteenth-century London—a useless vagabond, an opium addict, a starving derelict. There, God caught him. Finally.
The son of a doctor, Thompson started out with great potential. His father sent him to study for the priesthood, and then to another school to become a doctor. But he failed at both professions and be¬came a wastrel instead, running from responsibility, family, and God.
Eventually, this prodigal hit bottom. Wandering the back alleys of London, he was hungry, friendless, and addicted to drugs. With tattered clothes and broken shoes, he barely survived by selling matches and newspapers. Still, God did not relent in His dogged chase to capture the young man’s soul.
A ray of hope came when Thompson began to write poetry. Wilfred Meynell, an editor, immediately saw Thompson’s genius. He published his works, encouraged him to enter a hospital, and personally nursed him through his convalescence. This marked a spiritual turnaround in Thompson’s life. He writes of his flight from God and God’s pursuit of him in the poem “The Hound of Heaven.” A few lines…
I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat—
Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.
With this same breathless pursuit, the Hound of Heaven once chased another running man. This person was not a vagrant; he was a well-educated and very powerful Pharisee. Nonetheless, he stubbornly fled from Christ until, one day; the Hound caught him on the dusty road to Damascus. I’m talking about Saint Paul.
He was a Jewish zealot. He despised the very name of Jesus of Nazareth. Not unlike how Osama Ben Laden hated everything America stood for; Saul loathed everything followers of Jesus stood for.
Luke tells us that he enthusiastically approved of the lynching of Stephen and that he ravaged the early church. Who was the meanest man you ever knew? Saul was meaner by ten. Paul could have written:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the Temple and Synagogues;
I fled Him, down the old Damascus road.
He was running.
Clutching the arrest warrants from the high priest, Saul set’s out on his distorted mission. However, several days into the journey, the Hound of Heaven catches him and turns his world upside down. A flash of heavenly light at high noon knocks him off his horse and a Voice speaks from within the light and Saul is converted to faith in Jesus.
The Hound of Heaven has his teeth deeply in this missionary that will change the Roman world. But look at him now; the story tells us he was blinded by the light and he is shuffling arm and arm with a guide into the city—stumbling all the way. He is a blind and broken man.
Five years ago, when I broke my leg backpacking and the Snohomish County Search and Rescue came to my camp just under Gothic Basin, they took over and started calling the shots. They told me to sit still and they would pack up my gear. Told me to lie back on a litter and they would carry me to the pickup zone so I could be choppered to safety. They strapped me on to the litter wrapped a tight fiberglass shroud around me, folded my arms across my chest so that I couldn’t even scratch my nose.
It hurts to be helpless. But, I’ve learned that grace, like water, follows the path of least resistance.
We dog-ear someone’s life on the page of their greatest failure. But God doesn’t do that. God looks at the totality of their life. He even takes into consideration the good deeds that they will do in the life to come. There is always a clean slate of grace with God.
God sends a gentle saint named Ananias to Saul to touch his eyes and change his life. With tenderness, Ananias ministers to undeserving Saul. As the blinding scales of hate fall away, Saul opens his eyes, and for the first time he sees the truth of Christ’s love. And the two men embrace. Once enemies, now brothers.
Each dawn that peaks over the chalky hills of Damascus brings the soft light of hope and deeper meaning. The Holy Spirit lives inside the man-hater now and he is changed. But somebody had to do a lot of forgiving of Saul. Somebody’s mother had been thrown in prison. Someone’s brother had been lynched. Stephen’s children are crying in the night for their father who will never come home again. A lot of forgiving was given to this former enemy of the Church.
A restoration happened. A mending turned enemies into brothers. It is a healing that only occurs when the Holy Spirit fills the skin of a band of brothers and sisters who are willing to risk loving an enemy. The hunter became the hunted. The persecutor had become the preacher. Saul started out with all kinds of power, and now he is able to live for Jesus with authority that comes from being rescued, mended and restored.
Some of you don’t know it, but He is nipping at your heels.
Or maybe you are Ananias waiting for your orders.