I, Saul, page 5
“Have I at least made you curious about my parchments?” Paul said.
“As much as you, I now long to see them above all.”
Paul laughed. “Enough to cause you to get my letter to Timothy on its way with dispatch?”
“I am not dawdling, friend. You always want your letters just so.”
“Indeed. But the sooner it gets to Timothy, the sooner we will see him. Of all the things I want here, the parchments and my friends are paramount. But need I say it again? You must—.”
“No, you need not. It is my burden and I feel the weight of it. Keeping you alive so you may die is an awful obligation.”
“So that I may die in a manner befitting Christ, Luke. You should long for that as much as I do.”
Luke doused the light as Paul stood and whispered urgently, “Come to me and let me pray.”
The physician approached him gingerly in the pitch dark and felt Paul gather him in. Despite the stench, what a privilege to pray with this man! “Father,” Paul began, “I pray in the matchless name of Your Son and my Savior, Jesus the Christ. I praise You that I have been appointed for the defense of the gospel, and I rejoice in the preaching of Christ and Him crucified.You know it is my earnest expectation and my hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. And now I thank You for my dear brother and pray You will grant him health and strength and courage and power. And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with him until we meet again.”
Luke thanked him and readied to leave, but Paul drew him close again, urgently telling him of a gift that had been left him by Onesiphorus of the church in Ephesus. The story gushed from the old man as he handed Luke a small bag heavy with coins. He put it and his lamp deep into Luke’s pocket.
Faint light invaded from the hole in the ceiling. Luke gathered his cloak around him, then reached for the lip of the opening. He hurried out past the cells of the commoners, pressing a hand against the bulge in his pocket to keep it from rattling. He tried to hold his breath, but the stack of bodies startled him afresh and he was forced to gulp air as he reached the end of the dank, narrow corridor. At least Paul didn’t have to endure this stifling torture, men crowded so close they could barely move in the putrid, muggy air.
An orange glow lingered over the rooftops as Luke rushed from the place, catching Panthera’s eye on his way past. He felt as if he could taste the fresh air, such a salve it was to his lungs. His visit to the prison had both uplifted and saddened him. Paul was ever an encouragement, regardless of his circumstance. But the very place wore on every fiber of Luke’s being. If only he were allowed to minister to the other prisoners in even the smallest way …
Luke would sleep soundly this night, he knew. And early in the morning he would make certain Paul’s letter to Timothy was as perfect as he knew how to make it. He would carefully seal it, address it to his friend in Ephesus, and take it to one of the ships outbound from Ostia. He was eager to see Timothy and Mark too, but now—as was true with Paul—he wanted, above all, to see the parchments.
During their late-night exchange of online messages years before, Sofia had sounded as if she really wanted the whole story of the consequences of Augie’s rebellion. And so he had told her.
“That summer I was to play in a big American Legion baseball tournament in Missouri. I’d been looking forward to it for a year. Mom and Dad sat me down and told me that was off the table. I started to rant until my mother reminded me I had agreed to accept any punishment.
“I slouched and crossed my arms, having no idea how I would break this to my coach and teammates. I was the star, and they were counting on me, but I would not even be in the country. Every summer for years I’d stayed with relatives while my parents led Holy Land tours. The way I understood it, Dad was the Bible teacher, Mom was the hostess, and they hired licensed guides. They could never afford to take me along, and it was the last thing I wanted to do anyway.”
“But that year you were going.”
“My mother, the eternal optimist, actually thought it would be a great opportunity for my dad and me to bond. My dad would have less time for me than he ever had at home, and I would be there against my will, angry, sullen.”
“I’m trying to imagine such a trip with you not loving it,” Sofia wrote. “You live for those now.”
“So I stored my resentment, prepared to not even pretend to enjoy a minute of the trip. I had been raised in this very Christian, very church-oriented home with a mother who seemed to have a joy in her salvation and a father—a visible, respected seminary prof and scholar— who never experienced joy.
“Beyond getting ‘saved’ when I was young and being a good student, until my rebellion I was just a churchgoer. So we flew to Tel Aviv, and Mother insisted on me sitting next to my father the whole way. If he said three words to me they were probably, ‘Don’t embarrass me.’”
“That had to be awful.”
“Pure torture. But shortly after we arrived, other members of the tour showed up at the airport, and I saw my mother in action. Dad stayed off to the side and stiffly shook hands with returning tourists and newbies, but Mom … Goodness, Mom was like the housemother. Most everyone knew Marie and embraced her and showed her pictures and talked and laughed and cried. Newcomers immediately recognized her from the brochures and took to her loving, enthusiastic manner. That was how it would be for the entire week and a half—Mom making the rounds every day, greeting every person anew and making sure they were looked after. People seemed to endure my father because she made up for him. All he did was read the Scripture and explain it at each site. If it hadn’t been for Roger, I wouldn’t have known what a cool older guy could be like.”
“That’s when you first met him?”
“My mother introduced us and I couldn’t believe that big, resonant voice came from this elf. He was only thirty then, but his mop of curly hair and his bushy beard were already gray. Easily a foot shorter than I, he bellowed, ‘I’d have known you anywhere! Your mother shows me the latest picture of you every year! Look at you!’
“He pumped my hand and said, ‘I envy you.’
“‘You envy me? Why?’
“‘Why? Why, because this is your first visit to Israel, am I right?’ I nodded. ‘Oh, to see these lands again for the first time! You’re in for the experience of a lifetime. Right now you’re imagining heat and dust and boring history, am I right?’ He couldn’t have been more right. I was determined to hate this trip. He said, ‘Talk to me again at the end of the week and tell me then what you think.’”
It had been hard for the young Augie to play the rebel, with his mother coming to life for everyone else’s sake and the extroverted Roger Michaels turning every historic site into an adventure. He seemed to make it a point to sit next to Augie at meals and pull him aside for walks. “You know, I’m not a believer,” he said.
Augie raised a brow. “I didn’t know.”
“I respect all religions. Basically I’m just a Zionist from South Africa who lives in Rome and loves history, especially the so-called sacred sites. Everybody who tours with me gains something for his own experience. But of course you evangelicals are always trying to get me saved. It doesn’t offend me, but I’ll bet I know more about your faith and the Bible than you do. Except your dad, of course. Nobody knows the New Testament like he does. Why are you giving me that look?”
“No teenagers like their parents. You’ll get over it.”
“I love my mom.”
“Who doesn’t? How could you not?” “You can’t say that about my father.”
It was Roger’s turn to shrug. “So he’s not Mr. Personality. He sure knows his stuff. He’s even respected by the antiquities authorities in my adopted city.”
Roger nodded. “Don’t let whatever is between you and him keep you from learning.”
That wasn’t easy. Augie hadn’t planned to be receptive to anything. He studied the ground when his father read Scripture about the places they visited, and sometimes he pretended to nap as his father droned on.
But when Roger took over, by sheer force of his personality and that extraordinary voice he made the sites come alive. Once Marie sidled next to Augie and said, “Imagine, Jesus may have walked right where we’re standing.”
Augie let that invade his mind. He’d been raised on the accounts of Jesus’ miracles and messages, but now the Bible came alive. The totality of the experience finally overwhelmed him in a several-hundred-years-old stone chapel in Tiberius that had been erected as a memorial. Ironically, the unbelieving guide set the tone. Roger drew everyone close before they entered and whispered, “We have this shrine to ourselves. I recommend remaining silent while we’re inside.”
The group shuffled in, Augie last. In the eerie stillness the tourists gazed at the chancellery, the architecture, and the stained glass. Many bowed their heads. After several minutes, Augie suddenly experienced a desire to worship, to pray, to really connect with God, something he had never really done. His mother prayed way more than he did. He couldn’t count the number of times he had passed her bedroom and seen her on her knees.
Augie was a believer. He knew he was a sinner and that Jesus had died for him. He had even prayed to receive Christ. The truth was, however, that he had never really embraced it with his whole being. If it were true, if the God of the universe had really sent His only Son to die for Augustine Aquinas Knox, Augie wanted it to mean something in his life.
And at that precise moment, in the stillness of the old chapel, Roger began humming in his sonorous bass. Soon everyone hummed along to “Amazing Grace.” Then Roger began to sing beautifully and the others joined in with sweet harmonies.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound …
Augie opened his mouth to join in but was so overcome that he could only listen. When the truth of the next line hit him, he collapsed to his knees in tears.
… that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.
It was as if he were really seeing for the first time, and the truth of everything he’d ever been taught—mostly by his mother—washed over him. He covered his eyes with his hands but could not stop weeping. Somehow he knew he would never be the same. He had no idea what his life would become, but he knew he was in love with this place, with the history of it, with the Man who had walked its streets and performed miracles here.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we’d first begun.
The feeling stayed with Augie for the rest of the trip. He drank in every detail, borrowed his mother’s Bible, and followed along as his father spoke and Roger explained. Despite his exhaustion at the end of every day, he stayed up late in his hotel room, reading ahead, eager to glean every fact about every site.
His mistake had been exulting to his father, “Dad, I got it! I finally got it!”
“Got what?” Dr. Knox said.
“What you love so much about this place.”
“What I love so much about it? On the whole, I’d rather be home or in Rome. And you might want to keep your personal reactions to yourself.”
“To myself? I thought we were supposed to share Christ with everyone!”
“I’m just saying that you needn’t be showy. We’re not from a tradition like that, and it’s untoward.”
But Augie couldn’t help himself. The next person he told of the change inside him was Roger.
“Singing in the chapel got to you, didn’t it?” Roger said. “I’ve seen that before.”
“Mr. Michaels, listen. I know what you said about how we Christians try to convert you, but how can you know so much about Jesus and the New Testament and everything and not become a believer?”
Roger clapped a hand on Augie’s shoulder. “I told you. I admire your earnestness, but you must know there are many questions about the authenticity of your Scriptures. The last thing I want is to douse whatever fire has been ignited in you for your own faith. Good for you, I say.”
Somehow this had made Augie frantic. He so wanted this wonderful man to experience what he had. His voice cracked and he tearfully pleaded with Roger to examine the claims of Christ in the Gospels and in the Apostle Paul’s famous four-verse summary of the good news. “First Corinthians 15:1–4,” Roger interrupted. “You see, it’s not that I’m unfamiliar. I am simply not an adherent.”
“Yet,” Augie said, wiping his eyes.
Roger had sighed deeply. “I will say this for you, Augie. I don’t believe I have ever had anyone weep over me before. They plead with me, pray for me, send me things to read, yes. But the tears are new.”
“It’s not a gimmick, sir. I really—.”
“Oh, believe me, I have not one scintilla of doubt about your sincerity, and it touches me.”
They became friends that day, keeping in touch and reuniting on every tour Augie could get to. His parents couldn’t afford to bring him every time, so he worked part time and paid his own way. He became a student of the Bible, determined to be a guide one day himself.
Roger had been there when Augie first met Sofia, and also years later when they had fallen in love. Roger had always carried himself as a studied expert, confident without being cocky, passionate about his life’s work.
Now he was in trouble, terrified and desperate for Augie’s help.
The Roman Road
Refreshed by a night of sound sleep, Luke rose early, checked on his patient, then confided in Panthera that he would be gone all day to the port at Ostia, delivering a letter on Paul’s behalf.
“Why not just send it by carriage?”
“I’ve heard delivery is spotty with the fire and the restrictions on the route. I won’t rest until I know it’s at the port.”
“How is my mother?” the guard said.
“She is stable, and I will leave instructions on how to best tend to her burns. I hope to visit Paul this evening if I don’t have trouble getting back.”
Panthera squinted. “Let me send you with a document that will clear the way.”
Luke settled in at the desk in his room to check every word of Paul’s letter to Timothy. How thrilling was the testimony to his young protégé in the faith about his present circumstance. Even though the church in Rome had disappeared completely underground under persecution from Nero and many had indeed deserted Paul, still he averred, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.”
How Paul loved to talk about the great and terrible day of the Lord when he would face Christ Himself at the judgment seat.
Luke agonized over the old evangelist’s tone at the end, pleading with Timothy to come before winter and to bring Mark, because Paul felt all but Luke had abandoned him.
It was true, sadly. The Christians in Rome, both Jew and Gentile, had been terrorized by the emperor, and now Nero had further stirred the pot with mass arrests and proclamations against what he called the Christian cult. He bragged of having snared Paul, the biggest prize of all. Then came horrific eyewitness accounts that the emperor was using the bodies of Christian martyrs as torches to light garden parties at his palace. Little wonder that when Paul had been arrested at Troas and hauled off to the Roman dungeon, none of his formerly loyal friends admitted even knowing him. His letter mentioned Onesiphorus but
This you know, that all those in Asia have turned away from me … The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me. The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day—and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus.
How Onesiphorus had encouraged Paul! Somehow this man had found Paul and talked his way into seeing him several days in a row. Naturally it helped that Onesiphorus was a timber, iron, and marble merchant, often accompanying huge shipments from Ephesus to Roman ports. Onesiphorus had a history of extending affection and tangible support to Paul. He not only served as one of the elders of the Ephesian church, but he also personally attended to the evangelist whenever he visited. And Timothy had confided in Paul that much of the monetary support the church had been able to offer was due to Onesiphorus’ largesse.
Luke patted the bag deep in his pocket, filled with enough aureus coins to feed Paul for longer than he was expected to live. Rarely had he seen anyone so devoted to Paul as Onesiphorus. His selfless service to the evangelist, not just here, but whenever Paul visited Ephesus, so encouraged Paul. Luke prayed the Lord would bless Onesiphorus for that.
Finally satisfied that the letter would meet Paul’s exacting standards, Luke sealed, addressed, and carefully packaged it. Getting to the small port sixteen miles away took the better part of the morning. He found his way to the land route—a narrow but solid road originally built for the Roman military—crowded with caravans weighed down with goods. For a coin he was allowed to let his old legs dangle from the edge of a wagon driven by a slave and his pregnant wife.
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