i wonder, sometimes, how brave i really am.
i just spent the last 12 days traveling places i’ve never been with a group of people i’d never met, so i guess some would consider that to be brave.
but there’s that level, and then there’s the Apostle Paul’s level.
he was just on a whole other level of brave.
the ability to travel into the most politically and religiously charged city in the world, and preach about a man named Jesus Christ who changes everything . . . that’s something.
perhaps courage comes from knowing that the strength within you is more meaningful than the threats that surround you. i’m not quite sure why some acquire that level of strength, and others do not . . . but i know that the courage to follow conviction regardless of cost is much more rare today than it used to be.
the apostle Paul, for those of you who may not know him, was originally a pretty dangerous fella. he actually used to kill people on the regular, mob boss style. except, he specifically targeted those who claimed to follow Christ, and bore his name in their self-imposed title: Christian.
then one day, while Paul was taking a walk, a blinding light shot from the sky. not like Thor, more like one of those floodlights that advertises used cars on sale.
he went blind.
and God spoke to him, asking why Paul was bullying Christians. Paul kind of had a realization that God was actually real and that all these people who were talking about Jesus Christ might have a point. so he got on board.
but he still couldn’t see.
so God directed him to a city where another guy [who had also heard from God] was waiting. he talked a long time with Paul and answered all of his questions. God restored Paul’s sight and Paul realized that he wanted to spend the rest of his life telling others about how God is real and he sent Jesus, the Christ, to save everybody because they needed it.
[i paraphrased this story. the real thing can be found in the Bible, in the book of Acts, chapter 9]
so Paul traveled around a lot and made quite a few enemies in the process. towards the end of his life, he returned to Rome to stand trial for his crimes of spreading religious propaganda.
he was eventually killed [nobody knows how, but tradition holds he was martyred via beheading] after being imprisoned.
i was able to visit several key places:
1. the place where Peter and Paul were imprisoned.
[i’m pretty sure Peter is on the left, Paul on the right]
the prison was actually just a hole. it was about the size of a manhole you’d see in the city streets, and the men were dropped approximately 8 feet down into the cellar. for viewing purposes, stairs had been installed at the site. it was very sobering to think of spending time in such a claustrophobic place, simply for talking about what you believe in.
2. the presumed site of Paul’s martyrdom.
[the site was being visited on a field trip by a group of school-age Italian kiddos]
it was a small, humble church. still with lovely carvings and decor, and a space to honor the apostle.
3. the place of Paul’s burial.
by contrast, this location was grand and imposing. a large statue of St. Paul stood within the courtyard of the church, and in it he held a sword. the guide, Sonia, explained that he was holding a sword for two reasons: first, because tradition holds that he was beheaded by a sword, and second, to indicate that he had his own weapon . . . the scriptures.
[the words of God, the Bible, are sometimes referred to as “the sword of the Spirit,” as, when applied to daily life, is a weapon against evil]
the inside was spacious and intricately beautiful. i found a bench and sat down for a few moments, just to pause and pray.
a group of children also gathered here [i’m honestly not sure if it was the same one as before] to peer curiously in at the space in which Paul’s body is laid.
4. St. John Lateran Basilica, the first Christian church ever constructed.
so, years after everything went down with Paul, it was decided that Christianity wasn’t really the worst thing in the world. plus, it just wasn’t going away, despite all the efforts to eradicate it.
Constantine adopted a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” stance and oversaw the construction of a massive, beautiful church. it was the first official church for the Christian faith, as prior to this time, the meetings had not taken place in public. because of the strong cultural bent against, people met in homes or caves, trying to fly under the radar.
it’s a bit ironic that a large statue was erected outside, indicating a prophet that was teaching a willing crowd.
exactly what they had previously been so afraid of.
with this cultural shift, it was nonetheless important that the political seat retain some standard of religion control. to that end, many of the features within this church are political in nature, pointed out by Sonia, who suggested that the intent was to remind parishioners: you’re granted the ability to choose your religion, but don’t forget that who’s still really in charge here.
i saw a LOT of churches on this trip. regardless, each one hit me like a punch in the face.
such grandiose beauty. such intricate workmanship. such large places created with the intent of inviting God inside.
one of my traveling mates asked this question: would Peter and Paul, so humble and focused in their devotion to God, be disappointed by such large and ornate structures dedicated to their honor?
i thought that was an intriguing question.
there is certainly a tendency to elevate certain humans, whether rockstars or celebs, to a higher status.
after going to so many places where Paul has been, including prisons, i have to say that i think he would be inclined to choose simple and quiet places to worship the God he served so faithfully.
so, the question of why i believe.
because i, like Paul, had a moment where i knew beyond the shadow of any doubt that God was real. and that i was not at all the person that He had created me to be. and that i needed help.
i’m inspired by Paul’s response: total and radical life-change, with a focus on sharing hope with as many as would receive.
and i know that if so many were courageous enough to stand up for their convictions — many, many years ago — then they must have known what i know.
it’s worth it all.
i can still remember the dark-haired boy in my 7th grade math class. i had a crush on him, and he made fun of me because i loved Jesus. the painful memory of that girl, so lacking in courage and scared to be honest, is something i will always remember.
Paul was right. it’s worth it to stand up for what i believe in.
i’m back home now. grateful for the experiences of this journey, and full of memories.
thanks for sharing in my joy and listening to my heartbeat.