I was talking about you last night. Were you ears burning? Sometimes, I conjure a friend when I’m lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I talk to my friend about you, asking her things. She never responds, but it seems I end up knowing the answers to my own questions anyway.
You see, when I started on this journey, struggling through the vines that choked my path, I often wished I could be like you–or Peter, or James, or Andrew, or any of the twelve. Except Thomas. I thought of things that might make me your equal. Someday, I thought, someday I will be the new Paul…
I can almost hear you laughing as I confess these things. Hell, I’m practically laughing myself; it sounds so ludicrous. But it was true, once upon a time, and even a little right now. When I have those rare moments of peace before sleep, I think about what you said and how you lived. “He was a bastard before he converted,” I remember thinking one night. “That gives me hope.” Hope to be somehow changed into a miraculous new-age Paul from an everyday somebody with a fetish for sin. The new letter-writer. The new evangelist.
It was always a struggle to make myself equal to you–and to Peter, and James, and Andrew. I would tell myself that my faith was so much stronger than theirs–that I would not have denied Jesus, that I wouldn’t have fallen asleep at Gethsemane. But who knows? I fell asleep at my own graduation, and for years denied my sexuality. I’m probably not a better choice.
Still, I often find myself spouting theologies in antiquated language pretending to be the great and faithful Paul, the itinerant preacher and do-gooder. When I fall, I remember who you were before–a persecution-hungry tent-maker. Imperfect. Downright disgusting. When I do a paltry good deed, I think of your ministry to the Romans, and Corinthians, and Galatians, and on and on. It’s a step in that direction, I tell myself. A step on which I invariably trip.
I think I’m getting the picture, finally. Even if it were a matter of being equal, less than, or greater than the saints that have come before us, I don’t think it would make a difference. Who am I to you, or you to me? I read your words, but they’re not really your words anymore. We’ve adulterated them. Commandeered them. Shifted and mutilated them. Yes, the core is still visible, but too often in barely recognizable tatters. Still, in your day, you were the mouthpiece of God.
I could spend all day, every day writing letters like you. To friends and family. To colleagues and fellow Christians. Though I’m not sure it would go over well; they would not only be ripped up and burned as sanctimonious bullshit, but I would likely be ostracized from communities left and right. I don’t think “being Paul” has anything to do with taking on the details of your life and forcing them into a new world. Riding in ships. Wearing sandals. Making tents. It’s laughable at a distance, and at best. Insulting and offensive at worst.
“Being Paul,” if we are to call it that, means quite a bit more than crafting 21st-century epistles. I think it means, rather, living out the letter of Christ. You know, that one in which he says (or would say): “You are all lovable. I love you all. Love one another, will you? That’s really all I ask.”
Simple. And oh-so-damned complicated.
But there it is–the way in which I can be you here and now. Live with friends and family members, I tell myself. Walk the path with them. Support them. Guide them if they need it, listen when they beg for a loving ear. Try not to be too enamored with yourself or concerned with your own needs. What was in Christ said? “The bird and the flowers have all they need. Why should you worry?” Perhaps I’m paraphrasing.
The truth is, Brother Paul, I wish I had some earth-shattering theology to share. I wish I had a great test of faith to endure. Then Christ would know. God would understand how much I believe, how much I love. Silly me. God doesn’t need all that showmanship. Just a loyal, happy servant in love with love. That’s about it. The rest comes naturally.
I suppose I should just move on, then? I’m off to coffee with a friend now. To talk about soured relationships and bad coffee. And not much about you, or God, or faith at all. Wish me luck, will you?
And write some time. I do get lonely.