The first time I remember hearing the story of Paul’s conversion was in Vacation Bible School. I sat with a sea of school children in the main sanctuary as we watched a clumsy dramatic reproduction put on by high schoolers from the youth group. First Paul, then known as Saul, persecuted and hunted down some Christians to kill on stage right. Then he cheered when Stephen was stoned on stage left. Next he went on a journey up the main isle, meant to represent the road to Damascus. The houselights went out, leaving the dim outside light in the windows as our only light. Until, BAM, the spotlight in the balcony seating came on. We gasped in one collective breath as a voice came over the sound system: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

I had seen enough cartoons to know it was time for a take down. Here was the baddie meeting his just end. But Saul did not meet his just end. Jesus introduced Himself to Saul and told him to wait for further instruction in town. The light left and the voice stopped, leaving Saul alone and blind. Jesus sent Ananias to pray for Saul to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Ananias went and prayed for Saul who received healing and the Holy Spirit. After that Paul devoted the rest of his life preaching the gospel of Jesus.

I couldn’t believe it. Paul was the bad guy, the opponent of Jesus and His church. Yet, rather than dissolving on the spot or falling from a great height (like every other bad guy in the movies) Jesus met him, forgave him, and gave him a new name and a purpose for his life. He accepted Paul as His own and brought him into the heart of the church.

The church in Jerusalem couldn’t believe it either. They were afraid of him and thought it was a trick. One man believed him and stood up to vouch for Paul: Barnabas. After that the church in Jerusalem accepted Paul and he became an apostle who preached the gospel with boldness. (The full story can be found in Acts 9)

Barnabas’ name means, “Son of encouragement.” He encouraged Paul’s new faith in Jesus by believing his conversion was real. The two went on to go into missions together. Barnabas encouraged John Mark as well. In Acts chapter 15 Paul and Barnabas are discussing where to go on their next trip. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, who had gone with them before but deserted them part way through the trip. Barnabas wanted to give John Mark a second chance, and Paul did not. They ended up getting into a sharp dispute and parted ways.

Barnabas sailed off to Cyprus with John Mark and Paul went to revisit church plants with Silas. Most scholars believe that John Mark is the author of the gospel of Mark. Barnabas gave John Mark a second chance to spend his life furthering the kingdom of God. Not only that, but God saw it fit for him to be one of the authors of the bible.

I wonder if God sees us the way Barnabas saw these “screw ups” in the early church. Not with a, “You’re a throw-away” kind of judgement, but a, “I’ll champion you and give you a second chance, a place in my kingdom, and a purpose in my work.” God sees our whole self, not just the different parts isolated from each other, and sees us with a heart of grace.

It seems like true encouragement comes from a place of grace, whether the encouragement is coming from God or from another person, like Barnabas. There’s been plenty of platitudes thrown around that are meant to be encouraging but end up falling flat and feeling disingenuous. Perhaps because they were taken from a script learned through experience, the script of “What you’re supposed to say.” Rather than coming from a place of grace in the heart. The place that makes words life giving and uplifting.

Barnabas was so good at this with his words and his actions. He’s always been one of my favorite characters in the bible. I hope I can be half as encouraging as him over the course of my life. So I work on learning how to love. Learning how to have grace in my heart and not judgement; which is hard these days, when the general climate is one of judgement and misunderstanding. I’m also trying to learn how to stick by people and do what I can to support them, even if I don’t get anything out of it in return.

The longer I work to be encouraging, the more I realize my efforts can only go so far. I always reach a wall or an emotional glass ceiling, where I can be loving and non-judgmental up to this point, but no further. Whenever I reach this point in relationships or leadership I have to turn to the Holy Spirit. Every time I invite Him over to where my walls are, He shows me a way forward, He fills me with the love of Christ. He helps me to overcome my emotional walls and gives me something that I can turn around and give to someone else.

-Etta Woods

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