God’s art

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. – Galatians 1:18-24 ESV

In my college days, shortly after I came to faith, I entered a very strange period of some days – I can’t remember how many – when the heavens went bronze and God’s voice went silent. I didn’t know what was going on and I was bewildered and alarmed, journeying through a dark night of the soul and a faith-crisis that I just hadn’t seen coming. I recall walking to the computer lab one night and stopping in the middle of the parking lot to jump up and down in frustration, pounding out my helplessness into the pavement.

That night I bumped into Karl, a friend who I had not seen for some time. He was a heavy drug user the last time I had seen him but now he was a believer in the Lord and full of joy. I remember talking with him for what seemed like hours; I don’t really remember what we said but I remember walking out of the computer lab and out of my faith-crisis into the light of belief. God glorified himself through my friend Karl that night.

I don’t think we can over-estimate how much the Lord loves the art of redemption, how much he loves turning lives upside down – or better said right side up – and causing both the believing and unbelieving worlds to gape in wonder. Of course, often his redemption of our lives appears, at least on the surface, routine. The person I was before Christ claimed me wasn’t – on the surface – that much different than the person I was afterwards, even though inside everything got turned on its head. Not everyone saw it at first but he re-arranged my hopes and dreams, busted out the walls, and had me dancing on the ceiling. I was a little bit of the bull in a china shop once things got going, but to the outside observer I had just “cleaned up my act” a bit. In reality I had begun to stop “acting” at all, as slowly but surely Christ began to turn me into the person I really was in him, and to manifest himself in me – a progression still underway to this day.

But sometimes God takes the one we would least expect, the sinner of a thousand dark days with blood on his hands and hatred exploding in his heart, and God conquers, conquers, conquers through the absolute might of the blood of Jesus and the power of the resurrection from the dead. He embraces such a one in the almighty love of our suffering savior and not only claims him as his own but also entrusts him with a world-altering mission. This is what God did for and through Paul, and just the rumor of that amazing, artful, ironic, almost hilarious conversion caused God’s glory to be lifted even higher, and it still does.

I love that about our Lord.

God’s wisdom

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. – Galatians 1:11-17 ESV

Paul’s conversion story is indeed a rare one. He was not “seeking God” or “wondering about who this Jesus is” when he was saved by God, he was doing the opposite. Paul was sure, sure that those who followed the way of Jesus were wrong, and not just wrong, dangerous, and he was doing his very best to eradicate them. And yet in the midst of his sin he was chosen by God specifically for salvation and for persecution, for the spreading of the Kingdom and for suffering.

What amazes me in this is the way Paul was, on paper, perfectly suited and positioned, once saved, to be the missionary to the Jews, not the gentiles. Wouldn’t it have been wise to send him to them? He would be able to bridge the gap between the Jewish people’s expectations and the reality of Jesus. He would have been able to show them in the scriptures that he knew so well how Jesus was the promised Messiah. He was advanced in Judaism beyond many of his own age among his people; what a great fit as the missionary to the Jews he would have been!

It sounds like the wise choice to us, but God in his wisdom chose Paul to go to the gentiles, a people for whom the Hebrew scriptures were largely unknown, who would not have been impressed with Paul’s pedigree or his knowledge of the traditions of the Jewish fathers.

And through this man Paul God planted churches all over the gentile world.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. – 1 Corinthians 1:20-25 ESV

The progression of obedience

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. – Ephesians 5:15-21 ESV

A disciple is someone who both hears and obeys. So in reading this passage I began thinking through what’s being commanded and how the commands progress. Here’s what I think the word is telling us to do:

Walk Wisely because you know this is a dangerous world. Life isn’t a game,  eternity,  the future of immortal souls and the building of a righteous Kingdom are on the line.  Because of that . . .

Don’t waste time.  Again, this isn’t a game, it’s a war. In order to know what to fill our time with we need to . . .

Understand God’s will (revealed in his word). Growing closer to God will open us more and more to his lordship over our life, so we will . . .

Be controlled by the Spirit, rather than anything else. When we’re controlled by the Spirit we will . . .

Speak/Sing God’s word/God’s song into other people’s lives. We’ll also realize it’s extremely important to . . .

Speak/Sing God’s word/God’s song into our own life. When leading a life like this we will . . .

Be full of thanks for what Jesus has done! And in this thankfulness it will become so much easier to . . .

Revere Christ by submitting to others, becoming a servant the way he became a servant.

May I hear and obey.

Who’s approval?

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. – Galatians 1:10 ESV

Oh boy.

Confession: I have been a people-pleaser my whole life. I really have to work hard in keeping my focus straight, because my natural inclination is to work hard to win the approval of those around me.

God has been dealing with me in this for a long time. One reason this battle is so tough is because pleasing others isn’t always wrong, and so it’s sometimes hard to discern my own motives. Paul is not saying here that we are to actively seek to displease people. It really comes down to what we are seeking. If we are seeking God’s approval, God’s kingdom, and God’s glory and that happens to result in our actions blessing others, that’s fantastic.

But seeking the approval of others first and foremost is deadly, for many reasons. For example, it kills courage. People-pleasing is a form of cowardice, because it is based on the fear of rejection. I know that fear very well.

One reason Christ is so admirable, so excellent, is because he didn’t seek to please people. He went to the cross out of obedience to his Father and as a result of really displeasing the wrong people. My Lord, Jesus was brave.

May I become more like him. Lord, make me your servant, not the servant of my fear of what others think. Amen.

Good, good news!

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:6-9 ESV

Can you hear Paul’s urgency, his frustration, his sharp edges in this passage? It is rare for Paul to launch mortars this early in one of his letters, but he’s certainly lighting them off here. The reason is because turning to a different gospel is not just bad, it’s deadly.

The word “gospel” means “good news”. I remember when I first understood the good news as good news. This was quite a while after I had first heard it, because it took a while for me to understand how good this news really is, and I didn’t really get that until I understood how bad I am.

Good news! Jesus loves me. Good news! He died for me. Good news! He’s perfect, and obeyed and obeys God perfectly, so his death was a perfect sacrifice for me, paying the penalty that I simply could not pay.

Good news! He rose again from death and lives forevermore, interceding for me.

Good news! He is everything I’m not so I need to receive his gift and lordship, giving my meager everything to him in exchange for his infinite everything so that all he is can fill the howling vacuum of my emptiness apart from him.

Such good, good news this is!

Astonishing, isn’t it, if my eyes stray from this good news toward some other salvation-scheme that’s less Jesus and more me? Why would I do that? But how susceptible I am, as so many of us are, to replacing this good news with something else.

Oh my soul, focus on this good news, learn all of its music by heart, and sing it well for those who don’t know it, so that they can pick up the tune as written by the Lord of all good news.

Turning the tide

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. – Galatians 1:3-5 ESV

“To deliver us from the present evil age.” There’s something there, tangible, that I often miss.

Through his death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus delivered us from death and hell, and has given us eternal life. It’s easy to think of that deliverance only in the future tense. But if you’re paying attention you’ll notice that the New Testament resonates brightly with a sense of the Now.

Salvation in Jesus is forever, of course. But forever started that moment that he took you into himself. These days have enough trouble of their own; deliverance from these days, these evil days, is happening now.

Deliverance from, not teleportation out of.

The Lord is with us – that’s his forever promise – and he is turning us each day into immortal beings like himself who are becoming immune to the evil of our times, and indeed are daily more and more a part of his heavenly host, turning the tide.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  – Matthew 6:10 ESV

Worth waiting for

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.

(Romans 8:18-19 ESV)

Think about it: how much of your time is spent waiting for something (whatever that something may be) versus obtaining and fully enjoying that something? Have you noticed how much of your life you spend waiting?

When we’re young, we wait to get older. When we get older, we wait to get through school, or get married, or get a new job. Here in Houston we wait for extended lengths of time in traffic.

Humans spend a lot of time waiting. Many of us get very accustomed to living in the “wait”, and make the mistake of never really being where we are, because our minds are where and when we want to be; that distant time and far land where things will be quite alright. We wait and hope and focus on that day when our ship will come in or we will retire and travel the world or finally write that book or that song or finally get the girl or finally find our beach.

This waiting, this longing is natural in fallen humanity, even though we often shoot the arrow at the wrong tree. This sense of waiting, of everything not quite as it should be, is lit, however brightly or dimly, with the knowledge that it could be and maybe will be. That light of hope was put there by God, who has put eternity in our hearts. But rather than wait on the promise, we wait for things in the here and now, happenstances in our temporal circumstances because they seem more obtainable than what God has promised.

But look at what he has promised! Glory! In fact, the whole creation itself waits eagerly for what will be revealed when the Lord makes us, finally, what we were always meant to be.

Romans 8 goes on to describe how creation groans, and we ourselves groan inwardly and wait eagerly for our adoption as sons and daughters of the King, because of what our Lord (and big brother!) Jesus has done to make that adoption a certainty.

Sons and daughters of our loving, royal Father. Now that is something worth waiting for!

Wait

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

(Isaiah 40:27-31 ESV)

I read a piece of really stunning microfiction yesterday (unfortunately I don’t have the link. [Update 1/25/16: found the link]) about a guy who was abducted by strangers, locked in a room with a telephone, and instructed to never use the phone or else bad things would happen to him. He was fed crackers and water each day and after several weeks he was, understandably, starving and going out of his mind.

He finally used the phone. Without getting into the bizarre details, the result was really bad, but irony was that if he had just waited five more hours he would have been released.

It was a good story and I was reminded of it when reading Isaiah 40 tonight. Waiting is hard; the end of Isaiah 40 speaks to this. The voice in verse 27 expresses what most of us have sometimes felt, a feeling of abandonment by God. I’m waiting here but I’m not sure if he even remembers me.

The Lord through Isaiah reminds us of something important. God is not limited in any way to come to our rescue. He is not tired. He doesn’t get tired. He knows and understands everything. He seeks to give power to those who are losing their might.

This is all inextricably tied to waiting on him. What does that mean? What does it mean to wait on the Lord? And secondly, why do we have to wait?

I think this is important to understand; this idea of waiting. We are beings who have never known anything but the flow of time, and so we’re locked into temporal thinking and our spiritual sight, our perception of the bigger picture, is extremely limited in most of us. So we find ourselves at times in desperate need of rescue but with no rescuer in sight.

God does this to us, I think, on purpose, for reasons higher than I can imagine but I think partly to teach us some of the basics of life in his Kingdom, including the basic 101s of patience and faith. So we will find ourselves wanting desperately for something to happen, but forced to wait. What do we do while we wait? I don’t think this passage implies that we do nothing. We need to wait for him because there are numerous (more than we know, I suspect) things in life that we truly are not going to be able to take care of on our own, so the ultimate fix for our problem is truly out of our hands. But when you’re waiting for the Lord to come to your rescue, that’s a perfect time to, for example, cry in the wilderness and make straight paths in your life for him.

He is coming. The people Isaiah was writing to still had centuries to wait for their Savior, but he was on his way, in God’s inscrutable, perfect timing.

Wait on him. He will renew your strength. He will rescue. You will soar, you will run, you won’t get tired.

He’s on his way!

Seek first

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. – Matthew 6:33

My high school discipleship group and I were talking about this verse tonight. As I’m learning to ask myself when reading scripture, what does this look like? What does it look like to seek first a kingdom?

I think it’s important, for starters, to understand what a kingdom is. A kingdom is a realm that is ruled by a king (I like to keep things simple). I, unfortunately, live in the kingdom of Bill too much of the time. Too often, I seek first what will increase my little kingdom; I focus on what will make my name great, what will increase my kingdom’s power, what will grant me, as the king, riches, luxuries, pleasures, power and exaltation.

It’s all about control, you see.

Our Lord understands that we are naturally this way. We worry about our own kingdoms; the context of this passage is our (natural) anxiety about the things we need to live.

But Jesus pushes against what we call “natural” – because, really, it’s not natural, or logical, or wise. We’re fallen and twisted, departed from what we were made to be, divorced from the natures God intended us to have, so much so that the wisdom of following after God is missed, often without us realizing it.

Here’s what makes sense: all the things we need fall under the domain of the King who created them. He offers us free citizenship in his Kingdom through the death and resurrection of his Son, but to gain this citizenship we need to take our white-knuckled grip off of our own kingdom. This feels like death to us, in our unnatural, fallen condition, but it only makes perfect sense. Our kingdoms are small, wispy vapors that will rise and fall like flowers and we don’t know our right hand from our left. He is the King who created the universe and holds it together by the word of his power. His Kingdom is forever, the government is on his shoulders, and he has authority over all things, including everything we need.

Is this really a hard choice?

True, his call on us is weighty. Giving control to the true King can and often does lead to hunger, nakedness, the sword. As Paul wrote, “for your sake we are being killed all the day long”. But Jesus promises us that if we seek the Kingdom, if we are aligned with the King’s purposes and sent out as ambassadors for him, he will give us all the things we need, and he understands what we need so much more than we do. He will give us what we need to seek the Kingdom even more! And in the end we will receive an eternal weight of glory that far surpasses anything we have to deal with in this life.

That’s a Kingdom worth seeking. First.

It’s madness to keep the gates closed

Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in. (Psalm 24:7, ESV)

The King of glory desires to come in. The passage echoes with the joyful command: “lift up your heads, O gates!”

Gates and doors are for defense. Being risk-averse, I tend to want them to stay closed. But Psalm 24 announces this right at the beginning:

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein – Psalm 24:1

Surely we would want him in our midst. He has all the resources.

But when I’m in times of doubt and stress, it’s natural for me to bar the gates. This is madness. The king of glory wants to come in. I know he has the answers, so why is my door closed?

The reason, unfortunately, is that I want to rely on myself, which is insanity. I need to open the gates fully and let him come in. “Lift up your heads O gates” is an invitation to hope, to revelation, to cutting through the fog and seeing clearly my situation, and more clearly that the King of glory stands ready to save.

It also takes courage.

Lord, may my gates and doors always be open for you. You are the king of glory and you own it all, what have I to worry about? You are strong and mighty, mighty in battle! Why would I fight any battles on my own? Make me always open to your presence and rule. Amen