Paul’s Face, Part 1

The lantern cast a shadow dim
Across Paul’s face and covered him,
As if just half a man, with light
On his left side. He kept the right
Side of his face turned to the dark
So Eunice and her son could mark
When he would smile. The last time he
Was here he noticed Timothy,
Especially the trembling and
The awkward twitching in his hand.
Paul felt a kinship with the youth
And asked his mother if the truth
Of Christ had taken root, or made
A difference in the way he prayed
Or talked about his dreams. She said,
“He wants to talk with you. The dread
He felt is almost gone. He told
Me, when you left last time, ‘He’s bold
In spite of how he looks. Do you
Think Paul would meet when he comes through
This way again?’ ‘I think he would,’
I said. If you and Silas could
Come by our house tonight, he’s got
Some painful questions that I’ve not
Been able to resolve. Perhaps
Your story might fill in the gaps
Between my son and God.”
Paul sat
With Silas on his right, and at
His left the young man, Timothy,
With Eunice sitting quietly
Across the table. “Paul, what I
Would like to understand is why
You’re not self-conscious when you preach
In synagogues, or when you teach
In schools, or when the crowds surround
You in the square? I feel all bound
Up in myself whenever I
Have tried to speak. I’d rather die
Than watch embarrassed faces glance
At my bizarre and spastic stance
And twitching hands, and then look down
In pity, or worse, mock the clown,
And laugh at my attempts to speak
Of Christ. Paul, how, week after week,
Can you make your misshapen face
The object of so much disgrace,
And not become embittered at
Man’s cruelty, or worse than that,
The cruelty of God? Has your
Face always been that way, before
You can remember? Or, was it
An injury? I’d gladly sit
Here all night long, if you would tell
Your story, Paul?”
The pleasant smell
Of burning lantern oil filled up
The empty moments, as a cup
Is filled with wine to make one strong
And bold to carry out some long
And painful task. Paul turned his face
A fraction toward the boy. By grace
His mother never blinked, or took
Her eyes from Paul’s. Her steady look
Was trained to see through skin and rest
On deeper things and there be blessed,
And bless. Paul felt this solid grace
And said, “Yes, Timothy, this place,
This night, is ripe for hearing tales
Of how God beats with beams and nails
The rhythm of his gracious plan,
And makes a cruel and ugly man
His healing branch.
It all began
In Tarsus, where my father’s clan
Has lived two hundred years, disbursed
Since mighty Maccabees had burst
Against the idols of the Land.
My father was a Roman and
A Jew, the master of a school
That silenced scathing ridicule
And rivaled all the Greeks for pride
In higher thought. My father tried
In every way to make the Jews
Outshine the pagans who amuse
Themselves with myths and learn, for naught,
Philosophy and empty thought.
He dreamed of having sons who took
The pedestal and without book
Or note outshone Demosthenes,
And brought all Tarsus to its knees
In praise of Jewish rhetoric.
My birth turned out to be a trick,
It seems, and all the deities
Of Tarsus scoffed. The willow trees
Beside the River Cyndus speak
More fluently than Jews with weak
And palsied faces. I was born,
I’ve often thought, as with a thorn
So deep that none could pull it from
Its place. My cheek and eye are numb.
The right side of my lips drop out
As though I had a constant pout.
My right eye never shuts, and drains
Incessantly. There are no pains,
Nor can I feel the drainage so
To wipe my face before I know
It’s time from how the people stare.
Infections in that eye are there
As often as they’re not, and I
Can barely use it now. The cry
That went up from my father’s heart
Was not from pity for my part,
But rage against the gods, or God,
That they—or he—would rise and trod
My father’s dream down into dust.

He wrote me once and said, ‘I trust
You know I named you Saul, but not
Because he was a king. His lot
Was to be king, but he was born
A fool. He couldn’t blow the horn,
And never led his troops to war.
And ended in a heap before
His enemies, impaled upon
His own dull sword.” The bitter dawn
Of my third birthday I was sent
Up to Jerusalem and spent
My youth beneath the watchful eye
Of one my father knew, Rabbi
Gamaliel. My mother wept
And tried to help me to accept
It as a kind of mission for
The Lord, like Samuel who bore
The burden of the word when he
Was only three, and went to be
With Eli in the temple of
The Lord in Shiloh. But her love
Could not conceal my father’s aim
And plan: protect the family name
And pride, eliminate the shame,
Advance the cause of his acclaim
And guard the status of his school.
Even at three I was no fool
To think my going was a gift
To me, or that her words could lift
My load.
Gamaliel was tough,
Just like the Torah in his rough
And flawless hands. He looked at me
One time and said, ‘Saul, you can be
The best rabbinic mind with ease,
A Pharisee of Pharisees,
The Law and Prophets written on
Your mind. God gave you mental brawn
To make up for your outward looks.
If you will give yourself to books
And parchments, and the legacy
Of all the oral wisdom we
Possess, you will advance above
All the contemporaries of
Your age, and stop the mouths of strange
And foolish men who dare to change
The law, and even claim the king
Of Israel has come. The sting
Such messianic fools will feel
From your intimidating zeal
Will crush their cause and you will see
Why God brought you to live with me.’

Gamaliel could not conceive
That all I wanted to receive
Was not the talent to transcend
My age, but just to have a friend.
Why would a boy choose to contend
Or fight, if he could have a friend?
But then Gamaliel was right.
There were no friends. And so both night
And day I lived with books. These were
My silent friends—no scorn, no slur—
They all accepted me. They spoke
To me, but never made a joke
About my face. And so I built
A wall around my world. All guilt
And shame remained outside. Inside
I had my friends, my Law, my pride,
My flags of joy above the world,
An echo of my rage unfurled.”

Paul stopped. The hand of Timothy,
Before him motionless, lay free
Upon the table. Eunice sat
Enthralled with Paul, but noticed that
The tremors of her son were still.
“Paul, you’re not done, are you?” “Let’s fill
Our cups before we do the rest.”
Paul said, “I’ll get to your request.
There’s more. My citadel would soon
Be breached and sacred rubble strewn
In broken pieces everywhere.
Let’s pause, and then I’ll take you there.”

May God in mercy make this flame
A crucible for testing blame—
This candle one, Lord, let it burn
Our blaming soul until we learn
How much of it is sin. Burn down
The wall around our little town
That we have built to keep outside
The pain, but found it shelters pride.
O let this light expose the stain
And guilt of how we make our pain
A warrant for our sin, and then
Build walls around our guilt, and when
They’re up, unfurl the flag of rage.
Come, candle one, consume this cage,
And set us free. We do not need
These walls. The Lord of glory freed
Us for himself and our disgrace
He took, and he will lift our face.

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org