Blinded By the Light

A few months ago, I went to the theater to see the movie “Paul, the Apostle of Christ.”  It was an excellent movie, not the least because I found so much of it relevant to what is happening in the world today.  The movie was centered around Paul’s time in prison in Rome; the upheaval and persecution facing the early church, and the looming certainty that Paul would be martyred and his words and leadership sorely missed.  The church in Rome was facing division– some were militantly opposed to the corruption in Rome under Nero, and wanted to form a rebellion.  Others wanted to flee Rome in hope of supporting outlying churches, starting new churches, or just finding a safer haven.  Still others were losing hope and wanted to give up or hide.

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The movie also covered (in a series of flashbacks) scenes of Paul’s earlier life.  I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but this part of Paul’s life is covered in the Bible, so I will stick to the facts presented there, rather than the drama from the screen…

Saul of Tarsus was both a Jew and a Roman citizen by birth.  He had studied God’s word intensely his whole life, and became a Pharisee.  He had studied under some of the greatest scholars of his age–in today’s world, he would have been one of the greatest legal minds of our time– a superstar in the arena of law, philosophy, and logic.  Of all the people in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world, Paul KNEW right from wrong.  He KNEW the words of God, the laws of God, the traditions of God’s people.  The result of all that knowledge was an obsession with wiping out those people (Jews, especially, but also Gentiles) who followed Jesus of Nazareth and “The Way.”  Saul was a man filled with righteous anger, and a zeal to have everyone conform to what was “right.”   He was a man of power and influence– a man to be feared and respected.  In his letters, we can still see some of that intensity and the way he has of arguing both sides to their logical ends.  But something happened to Saul..something that changed his entire future, including his name.

Paul, the Apostle of Christ, was still a Jew and a Roman citizen.  He was the same man who had studied vigorously and knew the laws of Moses and God’s words through the centuries written by prophets and historians and psalmists.  But the Paul we see in scripture, while still bearing the intensity of his youth, is a man of gratitude and peace.  Here is a man who works steadily with his hands for honest but meager wages compared to what he might have made as a Pharisee.  He is a man who boldly faces down even Peter and James in Jerusalem, but who nevertheless takes orders from a council made up of former fishermen and tradesmen.  Paul undergoes flogging, arrests, prison, cold, hardship, physical pain, poverty, and disgrace with the kind of stoic acceptance, and even joy, that makes him a great hero of the early church.  Never once does he return to the anger that drove him to persecute others who did not agree with him.  Instead, he is willing to be the victim of persecution at the hands of those he used to serve.

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I was scrolling through Facebook the other night, and I chanced upon posts from two women I know.  Both are about the same age, both mothers of five children, and both are practicing Christians.  The first woman was posting about two recent difficulties faced by her family, and how God had been faithful and gracious in spite of a huge loss and a tense situation that could have turned into another tragedy.  She spoke of God’s answers to prayer, and how their family was reminded of God’s goodness as people came alongside at just the right moment, and the loss was not as great as it might have been.  I was inspired and encouraged by the way she saw God’s love, and gave credit to all who had helped them.

The second woman spoke in vicious tones about how she would not associate with certain Christians who hold political and social views she sees as hateful.  She cursed fellow followers of Christ for being “anti-Jesus,” and condemned several of her early teachers and pastors.  I read her remarks with great sadness, because I remember her as a younger woman, eagerly memorizing scripture and being a loving and encouraging example to others.  I also read her remarks with pain, because I think she includes me in the “hateful” group based solely on the type of church I attend.

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It is not my place to say that one woman is a “better” Christian than the other– on another day, their FB posts might cause me to think very differently.  And God sees more than just what we post on FB or say in passing conversation–He knows our every thought and motive.  So I want to be careful–these women, though similar in some superficial ways, lead very different lives and have very different experiences of following God.  But I saw in their posts two ways of “seeing” Christ.

When Saul of Tarsus, in his anger and zeal, traveled toward Damascus intending to kill people he may have never met, he was already a crusader for Jehovah– ready to mete out justice against anyone who didn’t meet his standards.  He KNEW all about God.  He knew what it took to be righteous.

But when he actually encountered Christ– he was knocked off his horse, blinded and overwhelmed by a vision.  And when Christ spoke to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4), Saul didn’t recognize the voice of the very God he so proudly served.  Saul remained blinded for three days, but his vision was never the same again.

As Paul, he became a man of prayer– his letters are filled with prayers for the well-being and spiritual growth of those he misses and longs to see.  They overflow with doxologies and prayers of worship for the Savior he loves and serves with gladness.  He can’t stop talking about God’s goodness– to him, to Israel throughout the centuries, and to the Gentiles who now have access to the throne of Grace.  He still has harsh things to say to some of the followers who “don’t get it.”   To those who want to compromise with sin or go back to legalism.  But he pleads with them; he doesn’t throw stones.

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It can be very frustrating in today’s world and in our society to see Christians who have very different ideas about worship styles, ways of interacting with others, even ways of living out the words of Christ.  Sometimes, it seems that fellow Christians are blind to the needs of the poor, or the sins of their friends, or the hypocrisy in their lifestyle.  I think scripture gives us a clear directive:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

Matthew 7:3-5 (English Standard Version)

We should not rush to condemnation, name-calling, and finger-pointing.  Instead, we should do a “vision” test and see if we are looking and acting in love or in self-righteous hypocrisy.

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God doesn’t want us to be blinded by the light of our own knowledge and self-righteousness.  Instead, He wants us to walk in the light of His Word–His Word made flesh!  May we live in the light of Paul’s example of prayer, loving correction, and running the good race.

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Walk This Way

There is an old comedy/vaudeville gag, where a character enters a stately home, or an office, or arrives at an  important event.  They are greeted by a “straight man” character, who tells them to “walk this way”.  The “straight man” then turns and begins walking in a manner that uses exaggerated mannerisms.  The comedic character doesn’t just follow in the general direction of the other character– s/he imitates the exaggerated mannerisms as well.

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In the last of three prayers from the song, “Day by Day” (see last Friday and Saturday), I want to explore how to “follow Thee more nearly.”

I have this quibble with the song lyrics– I know that “nearly” rhymes with “clearly” and “dearly”, but it is not grammatically correct, as it implies that I almost, not quite, but nearly want to follow Jesus, instead of saying that I want to follow Him more closely, or become a better reflection of His character.  That said, I sometimes think that I fall into the comedic trap of thinking that “walk this way” merely means following Christ with exaggerated mannerisms– I follow “more nearly” when I should be following more closely.

Years ago, a good friend of mine suggested that I read a book called “God On a Harley” (Review and summary here)  It is a fable, and an interesting read.  I don’t recommend it for theological content (the Christ it presents is more of a New-Age life coach, not a Messiah), but I’m glad I read it for two reasons:  It challenged my conventional view of Jesus, and it challenged the way I thought about discipleship.  At the time I was reading the book, I was also considering making some big changes in my life– changing careers, moving away from my home town, and trusting God to be “sufficient” in my singleness and lack of guaranteed income.

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When we talk or think about Jesus’ time on Earth, we generally focus on His birth, His miracles, His death, and His resurrection.  We don’t usually think of His everyday life…where He ate or slept or how He lived.  If He were to walk among us today, He wouldn’t appear like the paintings we see– flowing long blond hair (which has always been inaccurate), white robe and sandals.  He might wear a T-shirt and jeans, ride the bus or subway train, and hang out at Starbucks or the corner convenience store.  Jesus didn’t live in a “holy huddle.”  And, though He famously walked on water, He mostly walked the streets.  He lived and walked and ate and spent His days among ordinary people–in fact, it was His willingness to eat with and talk to the marginalized, the forgotten, the ostracized people of Him time, that got Him in trouble with the religious leaders and those in power.

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I don’t think Jesus in our time would be a tattooed, beer swilling, biker– but I’m convinced that He would be found sharing a story or a pizza  with one; and with the kinds of people many of His “followers” would shun.  The Jesus I want to follow “more nearly” is Holy, but He is not “Holier-than-thou.”  I can’t follow Jesus more nearly if I’m following an image that only exists in a picture or my self-righteous imagination.   In my youth, I had a picture of what “following Christ” looked like– but it was more about following expectations and selfish desires– successful career, marriage, giving to the “right” charities, becoming a pillar of the community.  There is nothing wrong with any of those things, but if God calls me to serve in humble (even humiliating) ways, doing thankless tasks, and spending time, not helping the needy at my convenience, but truly serving– pouring out my time and my heart until only His strength keeps me going–I have learned the joy and honor that transcends anything I once imagined.

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I’m not a biker, but I love the image of Jesus on a motorcycle, asking me to come along for a ride.  If I want to follow Him “more nearly,” I couldn’t come up with a better metaphor.  If Jesus came and asked me to ride off with Him on a Harley, several things would happen that relate to discipleship:

  • First, I have to commit.  You can’t “sort of” ride along — you either get on the bike or you stay behind. You might know all about the motor, you might know how to ride, you might know the traffic laws, you might even watch a video of someone riding, but you won’t experience the horsepower under you, the wind in your face, the road slipping away behind you.  The same is true of the Christian life.  You can know about God; own a Bible– even memorize it; you can sing God’s praises, all without experiencing a relationship with Him.  But you’ll never know the full power of His grace and acceptance until you commit.
  • Part of that commitment is to be willing to go when and where He’s going…you can’t go on the ride and stay at home.  You can’t go two hours after He does.  And that brings me to–
  • Trust!  You won’t get on the bike if you don’t trust His ability to drive and His wisdom in knowing how and where to go.  Once you’re on the bike, hanging on from behind, you can’t see all of the road ahead.  You can’t steer or hit the brakes.  In my own experience, I ended up leaving teaching after seven years with no “safety net.”  I had no job waiting in the wings, no money saved up, and no “plan” other than to take whatever honest work I could find and follow God’s leading.  I learned by experience that I can trust God’s ways to be better than mine; better than my expectations!
  • Riding together takes teamwork.  Just because God is doing the driving and steering doesn’t mean that I just sit back and watch the scenery (though I can do a lot of that, too).  If I’m not paying attention at curves, intersections, stops, turns, etc., I can throw everything off-balance.
  • Riding together, with my arms wrapped around Him is the closest I can “follow” Jesus.  It’s not about what I know, or what I can “do” for God– it’s choosing to be in a deepening relationship with Him.  As I live with Him, listen to Him, and trust Him, the knowing and doing will come naturally.

I want to follow with abandon– not just to walk several steps behind, or wander in His general direction, or watch what He’s doing from a distance.  I want to hang on and share the adventure.  That’s the way I want to “walk” with Him.  That’s my prayer, “Day by Day.”

Transformative Prayer

This cute meme has been making the rounds on Facebook and Pinterest.  It suggests that prayer turns meek kittens into mighty lions.  And it can.  Most times it should.  But how often do we experience this level of transformation when we pray?

I began this blog, partly in response to recent comments I’ve heard that belittle the effectiveness, the power, of prayer.  I talk a good game when it comes to prayer–I pray daily, I keep a prayer journal, I consider myself a prayer veteran, even a prayer warrior.  I believe in the trans-formative power of prayer.  So why do I often feel like a kitten both before and after prayer?

I’m afraid that, too often, I don’t want to be transformed when I pray.  I want to be heard; I want to be comforted; I want to be refreshed.  But I don’t really want transformation.  Transformation is not cute or comfortable–it hurts, it stretches.  Transformation requires risk and commitment in the face of uncertainty.  I want to be a kitten who thinks of herself as a lioness, but I want a cozy lap to rest on, and a bowl of gourmet cat food laid out for me.  Kittens may wrestle with yarn or mice; lionesses wrestle with crocodiles and wildebeests.  I want to lift up those in pain, those who struggle, those in need– but I want to do it from the comfort of my own quiet corner.

If my prayer life isn’t causing changes in every other aspect of my life, I need to be concerned.  Prayer that never calls me into battle; prayer that leaves me feeling comfortable while others suffer..that isn’t really prayer.  That is giving lip service without heart-service.

But I also need to be careful to be transformed by the renewing of my mind (See Romans 12: 1-3).  Prayer should be transforming my heart and mind, but in Christ’s likeness.  Christ, who is not only the Lion of Judah, but the Lamb of God.  There are times when I should charge out of the prayer room, energized and ready for battle.  But it must come from God’s spirit, and not my own pride or in conformity to the world’s pattern of fighting.  Transformation doesn’t come about just because I pray– it comes about as I walk and talk with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  I don’t have the power to transform myself, nor do I have the power to decide the nature and speed of my journey.

I think sometimes, I see it as all or nothing– either I am running full speed ahead and making great conquests (Lioness), or I am mewling  and helpless (Kitten).  But God sees the bigger picture.  Sometimes,  we should enter the prayer room as kittens and leave like lions; other times we should enter as lions and leave as lambs– recognizing that our own roaring will never win the battle, and also recognizing that sometimes, in quiet obedience and sacrifice, we are doing what is necessary in the larger plan.  What should never happen is that we go running into the prayer room eager and ready to serve, and come sauntering or swaggering out, puffed up with our own importance, but unmoved toward others.

So the challenge is to go into the prayer room, expecting to be transformed– by God, for God’s glory, into the people God wants us to be– expecting to be changed, stretched and challenged.

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