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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What Might Have Been…

One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  No matter how many times I watch it, it never gets old for me.

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Oh, I know it’s in black and white, and it’s out-of-date.  It’s politically incorrect on numerous levels, and it’s theologically incorrect, as well.  But for all that, I think it has a deep wisdom we are sorely lacking, and I think what it says about the power of prayer cannot be dismissed.

Much of the movie is spent tracing the less-than-wonderful things that happen to George Bailey.  George Bailey is the quintessential “nice-guy” who always seems to miss out–as a boy, he leaps into an icy river to save his brother’s life.  His brother is saved, but George ends up losing the hearing in one ear.  While his friends go off to college, George has to stay behind; when he finally saves enough money to enroll, he ends up having to give up his college plans to save the family business after the sudden death of his father.  He loses out on business opportunities, and keeps losing skirmishes with his nemesis, the  “scurvy spider” local magnate, Mr. Potter.  Finally, on Christmas Eve, George has had enough.  The weight of always doing “the right thing,” and watching others get ahead while he falls further behind, has taken its toll.  When his absent-minded uncle loses $8000, George faces scandal and prison after all his years of frustrating hard work in a job he hates.  After uncharacteristic angry outbursts and a short drinking binge, George is in utter meltdown.  In desperation, he prays.  It’s not an eloquent prayer, or an angry outburst.  It’s a wimpy, doubtful, squeak of a prayer, “Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way…show me the way.”

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What the viewer knows, but George doesn’t, is that dozens of people he knows have all been praying for him.  We get to hear the voices of his wife, his children, his friends and neighbors, all praying simple and heartfelt prayers.  And we also know that God is at work– preparing to send an angel to help George.  But in the bar, at the end of George’s tearful and tremulous prayer, God is silent.

Not only is God silent, but George’s downward spiral continues after his prayer.  He gets punched in the jaw by a man he was arguing with earlier in the evening, and he doesn’t even have enough money to pay his bar tab.  Driving away, drunk, he runs into a tree and gets yelled at.  Reeling down the road and onto the bridge, where he intends to jump to his death, he almost gets hit by a truck.

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While I like the sappy, happy ending of the movie, the incredible darkness and despair leading up to George’s encounter with Clarence, and the even darker “alternate universe” that George experiences are what keep me coming back to this movie– not because I’m a glutton for emotional wringers, but because George’s story is only wonderful when he gets to see it from God’s point of view.  Mr. Potter tells George that he is worth more dead than alive.  But Clarence shows George the true worth of his life, not as it might have been, but as it might NOT have been.

 

And so it is with our lives–all the “might have been”s and broken dreams and failures that weigh us down– God is NOT (as we so often picture Him) shaking His head and grumbling about our wasted potential and weakness.  And often, the people we most fear to disappoint, our family and friends, are rooting for us to stay the course– to finish the race. God wants to wipe away all the seeming failures; all the “what-if”s and the “what might have been”s and replace them with the bigger picture of “what is happening around you”, “what really IS”, and “what can be.”

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There was never anything wrong with George’s dreams of traveling the world and becoming a successful builder of skyscrapers “a hundred stories tall.”  George’s desire to have nice things for himself and his family was not evil, and, in fact, his ambition to do great things was not that different than Mr. Potter’s.  But George’s choices, while “right” were not  in his own immediate best interest.  What Clarence showed George was not “what might have been” had George made other choices in his life.  What he showed George was indeed far more wonderful– the ultimate IMPACT of George’s choices!  God didn’t “take away” George’s dreams or ruin his life.  But neither did He prevent him from making selfish choices or getting what he wanted in the moment.  George’s life wasn’t wonderful because of what happened to him– though the ending is miraculous, and George gets toasted by his hero brother as “the richest man in town.”  But what really made George’s life wonderful was that he was THERE– there to save his brother; there to fall in love with Mary; there to help and influence so many people; there to tuck his daughter into bed and “paste” the petals of her flower; even there to stand up to Mr. Potter when no one else did.*

God answered George’s prayer.  And He answered the prayers of his friends and family.  But He didn’t answer in the way we would expect.  In fact, George jokes with Clarence that the answer to his prayer was getting slugged in the jaw.  But God’s answer came in the form of a childlike “angel” who struggles and questions his ability to make a difference– much like George himself.  God didn’t answer the superficial aspect of George’s prayer– He didn’t show him the way to get $8,000.  He didn’t show him the way to defeat Mr. Potter, or suddenly become more successful.  But He did show George the way to look for “what is” and “what can be”, instead of the “what might have been.”

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  • For anyone who has lost a friend or family member to suicide–my prayer is that we too, would find comfort  and hope in the lives our loved ones lived, and not in the manner of their death.  God is gracious and loving above all that we can imagine.  Part of the hope and message of this movie for me is that, even if George had jumped at the end, his life was still wonderful in God’s eyes, just as it was to all who knew and loved him..

 

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