“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man [Saul] and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. . . .”
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. (Acts 9:13–18)
Ananias’ story has taken on flesh for me in recent months. In light of events in my own life, I understand his shock at being asked to reach out to Saul. “But Lord . . .” I imagine Ananias stammering. The Message even translates Ananias’ response as, “Master, you can’t be serious.”
Saul was a killer. Saul was a deceiver. Saul was a man marked by sin.
Yet God had called Ananias to touch Saul in the name of the Lord and wipe away his blindness, both figuratively and literally. Touch a killer. Touch a deceiver. And see the redeeming love of Christ within.
The story, made real
In January of 2012, I was sitting on the couch in my dad’s house as I received the news from a police officer.
“Mrs. Hoover, I suggest you take your boys and get somewhere safe,” the officer had asserted on that frigid afternoon. “We believe your husband is responsible for a number of burglaries in the area. He seems to have quite the drug problem. You need to take the necessary precautions to keep you and your family safe.”
That was it. I had discovered the drugs. I had discovered the mounting evidence, which would eventually lead to his conviction for the burglaries. I had discovered his infidelity. I had discovered that my God-fearing husband was in fact a very, very marked man. And a few excruciatingly long weeks later, he was in jail, leaving me and our 2- and 1-year-old sons behind.
Denial, detox, lies, remorse. Denial, exhaustion, guilt, pain. Denial, confession, judgment, time.
Anyone who has loved a drug addict, particularly an incarcerated one, will know this cycle all too well. I was on “the outside” trying to piece together what had happened and deal with its repercussions, all while sustaining and providing for my two young children. For months, my life was in flux. I went through periods of deep grief, rooted anger, intense shame, and spirited vengeance. I wrote my husband off a half-dozen times, at least.
Yet this period of deep pain also ushered in a time of unimaginable growth and a closeness to the Lord I have a hard time describing in words. Never was the word love fleshed out more clearly to me than when I grasped the feet of my Savior and walked through this journey, as unstable as it was. 1 Corinthians 13 was engraved in my heart, as I daily fought the desires of my flesh. Would I stay? Would I love? Would I forgive? Would I reconcile? But more directly, would I allow Jesus to answer all those questions for me? This is not the important part of the story, though . . .
A 30-second moment
The most important part of the story resides in one 30-second moment: when my sons were reunited with their father after a year’s absence. They climbed out of the car and laid eyes on the man who had abandoned them for cheap highs and even cheaper relationships. Did they cry? Did they yell at him? Did they shy away from him, as if he were nothing but a stranger?
No. None of the above. They ran to him as fast as their little feet could get them there and gave him a hug that will remain with him forever. They did not see the marked felon that I saw standing before us. They saw love. And they reached out to touch it.
That moment changed my life forever. The Holy Spirit could not have spoken any louder to me than He did that day. I knew that I needed to take the gift of this experience and help other families coping with pain, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
I got that chance in May of this year, traveling with over 400 other volunteers to Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly referred to as “Angola”) for the annual Returning Hearts Celebration. The event provides an opportunity for inmates (roughly 375 this year) to reunite with their children and to be fathers, not inmates, for a day. The volunteers set up carnival games, food, bouncy houses, and a prize store. In one of America’s most notorious prisons, these men get a chance to enjoy unfiltered time and space with their children. And they have the opportunity to seek forgiveness and stop a familial cycle of crime many of them know all too well. I got the chance to be a part of another family’s 30-second moment. I was blessed to witness love that day.
My own mark
In the days before the big event in Angola, I had the privilege of listening to one inmate, “Pat,” speak about a particular Bible study group in prison called the Malachi Dads. The leaders seek to train other Christian inmates how to be godly parents and spiritually equip their children, regardless of their circumstances. Pat stood in the blazing Louisiana sun for four hours, talking to us about God’s calling in his life and how blessed he was to be able to share this ministry with thousands of others. I remember noting how eloquent he was. How empowering he was. How presentable he was. How Christian.
Yet I knew Pat was serving a life sentence. Pat was a killer. Pat was a deceiver. Pat was marked.
It was at that moment that the Holy Spirit took my breath away. I had traveled down to Angola as the wife of a felon, yet I’d still entered that prison with preconceived notions of not who I was going to run into, but what. I expected to walk in and be able to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell what sin does to a person. I expected to run into men who were living in a different echelon of the Kingdom than I was. Of course, I never would have said this out loud, but deep inside, those prideful feelings were as clear as the nose on my face.
The Lord used Pat like Ananias, to remove the scales covering my eyes. Then, I was moved to reach out and touch the face of another once-blind murderer. Through tears, I placed my hands on Pat’s strong jawline. It felt absolutely no different than my own. I intensely searched his eyes for his sin, his evil, his mark. I looked for a reason to feel comfortable in my own self-righteousness again. I could not find it. I did not see his mark. Instead, God showed me that he was a chosen, loved, forgiven, reconciled child of God. I touched him. I touched love.
The world will always remember Pat for his greatest mistake. And because of that, I will not leave anyone’s side again without letting them know that they are not what they have done.
You are not what you have done.
It’s from this vantage point that I can say I am so grateful to God for 2012. I am grateful that the Lord brought me to the end of myself, forcing me to live day-by-day in His provision, not my own. I am grateful that the Lord touched my face and wiped away the pride in my heart that stopped me from seeing people as worthy of love. And most importantly, I will forever be grateful that Jesus took His last breath on that blood-stained cross, so that we will never be remembered for our blinding mistakes.