Miracles Of The Soul

Daily Devotional for Monday, February 8, 2021 from Rev. Eric Douglass

For our Monday meditations, we have begun a series on ‘early church life,’ as found in the Book of Acts.

Meditations on the Early Church: Miracles of the Soul

Acts 9:26-27: When Paul had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.

The ancient world viewed people differently than the modern world. They thought that a person’s personality was fixed at birth, so that people underwent little development. If a person did change, it was thought that they had reverted to their ‘real’ personality…or that they’d been deliberately deceptive.

I am a carpenter. I can make anything from a chariot wheel to an oxen harness. When you work in wood from sunup to sundown, you develop a ‘feel’ for the wood. I can look at a twisted piece of lumber and tell you that it is oak, that it splinters easily, and that it is extremely resilient. I know its color and its smell—yes, wood even has specific odors. Just think about that cedar planking in your closet. Wood also changes over time. Cherry gets dark in the sunlight, while pine has sap that dries out, and sometimes causes the plank to twist. But, generally speaking, wood doesn’t change much. Oak never looks or smells like cedar. It remains oak, and any woodworker worth his or her salt can tell the difference.

Wood doesn’t change across time, that is the point…and so it is with people. If you handle people long enough, you get a feel for them. Just like the smell of cedar or the splintering of oak: you can tell their properties…how they are going to act. At their core, some people are kind, and this shows in all their actions. You don’t need to ask: “Will Sara be kind today,” because if she is made of ‘kind stuff’, she will be kind. But if a person has a mean spirit, it will show in all their actions, and such people are never to be trusted.

Anyway, that is what I believed until I met a man named Saul. Saul was perhaps the meanest person I’d ever met. He seemed to enjoy hurting people. But no, it was more complex than that. Saul believed that only the truth mattered in life, and he was absolutely convinced that he knew ‘the truth’. Anyone with a different belief was little more than dirt, only worthy of being kicked into the wind.

That’s when the chief priests got their claws into Saul. They told him that it was his duty to root out the lies, and to start with the Christians. They gave their blessing to Saul’s mission. They approved of his persecution. They forgave his taking of life. This fed Saul’s mania for truth, and he went from city to city not just proclaiming it, but threatening any who disagreed. Saul’s ‘wood’ was rigid, hard, unforgiving, and with a color that grew worse with age.  

Two days ago, I saw him in the marketplace, and immediately went for cover. No use antagonizing a dangerous man. I should have left the area right then, but I stopped to listen…and that’s when I heard him proclaiming that “Jesus was the son of God.” At first, I didn’t believe what I heard. This was the man who killed Christians! He even killed one of my friends, a kind soul named Stephen. Wood doesn’t change. Saul was and always would be a mean-spirited person.

But then something caught my eye: when a priest hurled an insult at him, he smiled and accepted it. The Saul I knew would never do that. He would find a way to hurt that priest. Oh, he would not physically harm a priest, but he would certainly turn to malicious gossip…or turn his friends against him…or bully him into submission. Instead, Saul treated this priest with respect; there was no yelling or bullying or mocking.

So I stayed—well to the back of the crowd, for I am not stupid—and listened. That’s when I heard that he was now calling himself ‘Paul’. He changed his name! But that doesn’t mean he is a different person. So I waited to see his true colors emerge. Only they didn’t. He finished his speech, endured the booing and the mocking, and wandered off down the city’s streets.

I’ll admit that I am still in shock. But, I thought to myself, perhaps he is faking it in order to locate Christians…and then have them arrested. If that is the case, then he would be back the next day. So, the next day I found my shadowy hiding place and waited. And I was not disappointed. Here came ‘Paul’ again, with the same speech as before. And the next day was the same. Only there were no soldiers or temple guards, no list of names being kept, no spies in the crowd.

That third day I went up to him, with a test to see what was really going on. I certainly would not reveal that I was a Christian, but remain somewhat neutral, like an average citizen with a question: “Are you not the Saul who killed Christians, right here in this city?”

Paul looked down. “Yes friend. I have made many mistakes in my life, and that was among the worst.”

“So why not round up the Christian now…there are many who would gladly help you?” Now that was a brilliant comment on my part, for it led Paul to believe that the time was ripe for arrests.

“Friend, this is not the man that I am. I saw a blinding light…I met Jesus…and that changed everything.”

Of course, this was unexpected…for Jesus had died just over a year ago! Everyone knew that. It was all the talk for months and months afterward. So…what was Paul playing at? He must have seen the confusion in my eyes, for he continued:

“It was in a vision, but was just as real as you standing before me.”

“But you hated them!”

“Friend, God can change the soul.”

I gawked at him for several moments, unable to think of any response. But the hurt in my own soul welled up, as it had every day since Stephen had been killed by the person standing before me. I gulped and spoke my truth: “Stephen was my friend.”

A tear began in Paul’s eye, which he quickly wiped away. Then he embraced me. Two enemies holding each other…one who had learned to hate, and the other who had learned to hurt…standing in a crowded market as if nothing else mattered…letting the wounds and the damage drain away. Then, quietly, I invited him into my home.

I was wrong about people. They can change from oak to cedar, from Saul to Paul. But they can’t do it on their own. Such a transformation can only come from someone who knows how to change oak into cedar. And that is beyond me.

So, if you want to see a real miracle, consider what God did to Saul.

Our Lord:
Your great miracles have no glitter.
They do not draw crowds or
provide fame or bring wealth.
They are the miracles of the soul.
Changing of a mean spirit
to a kind one.
Changing a greedy soul
to a generous one.
Changing a fearful being
into a hopeful one.
Changing a hurt person
into a whole one.
And so we sit at your feet and learn
that we are not simply products of our past.
We can be changed from oak to cedar…
if you are willing to perform the miracle.
I wish for it.

About the Author
Eric Douglass is the covenant pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, where his work emphasizes adult education. Writing meditations is a natural extension of this. During the current pandemic, his goals have been to ensure that the folk at New Hanover see the deep connection that they have to God and the community, even though the community can’t meet in person. This connection is not just one of continued fellowship, but of God’s presence in the community. God stands with us, no matter what path we are on. In this way, God acts like the father and mother who refuse to abandon their child, no matter how wayward that child, or how difficult the situation. Psalm 23 captures this perfectly: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Eric is a graduate of the University of Missouri, initially earning a degree in biology, and then his medical degree from that university’s Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he earned a Masters in Divinity and a Masters in Theology from Union Theological Seminary, here in Richmond. Since that time, he has authored two books, frequently delivers papers at the Society for Biblical Literature, and is an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon College. But the work he enjoys the most is teaching at New Hanover. Whether in casual discussion during the coffee hour, or a structured Sunday School class, or a Wednesday night special event, this is where he finds authentic people engaged in living out their life with God. Eric lives in Mechanicsville, VA, with his wife (Felecia). He enjoys doing fine cabinetry work and hiking. He has two children, Michael and Daniel, who both live in the DC area. His family is especially fond of playing board games, through which they have whittled away many a winter’s evening.