when no one wants you at the party: Acts 14

 

read Acts 14.  Is life meant to feel like a war or a party?  It’s an important question because our expectations so determine our quality of life.  Self-pity can set in faster than a New York City cab driver can honk at a changing traffic light if we think life is supposed to be all feast and we find it coming up nothing but famine.  So which is the appropriate metaphor?  And why?

One of the most moving op ed pieces I’ve ever read appeared last week in the New York Times by journalist Ben Mattlin.  Mattlin wrote about how he was born with a condition that means he’s never walked or stood or had much use of his hands.  He says that as a “good pro-choice liberal” he ought to be in favor of assisted suicide, but as a person who has lived his life “so close to death for so long”, he says: not so fast.  He writes that doctors take one look at him and routinely assume his quality of life is terrible.  They have no idea that at age 50, he’s a husband, father, journalist and author.  His wife has learned to tell doctors to proceed “full code” – i.e. to tell them to keep him alive using any and all means necessary.  From this experience of discovering “how thin and porous the border between coercion and free choice is,” Mattlin says he cannot support an assisted-suicde law like the one just rejected by Massachusetts voters.  Mattlin says that the reaction of doctors is just “one of many invisible forces of coercion.  Others include that look of exhaustion in a loved one’s eyes…  All these can cause a dangerous cloud of depression upon even the most cheery of optimists… If nobody wants you at the party, why should you stay?”  Mattlin’s conclusion is that a suicide pill is rife for abuse – both by doctors and by the patient succumbing to a moment of depression.  “Suicide by Choice?  Not so Fast,” NY Times, Nov. 1, 2012, A31 (click link for full op ed piece).

The article is moving not only because it describes so well an experience any of us could have – of being terminally ill and feeling like a burden on those around us – but also an experience all of us do have – that sense, deep in our bones, that no one wants us around.  In those moments, what is there to celebrate?  In those moments, we all feel that life has become nothing but war, and we have somehow just lost, for reasons we often don’t understand at all.  We wonder what the rules are.  We wonder what the weapons are.  And we wonder how we, alone among all the people we see around us, seem to have just drawn the short straw.

The problem, I think, is that humans are fickle.  So if we depend on other people for our sense of joy, we’re doomed.  Look at Paul in chapter 14 of Acts.  One minute the crowds are hailing him as a god – literally – they’ve decided he’s Hermes and Barnabas is Zeus – and the next minute they’re stoning him and leaving him for dead.  Humans shift from adulation to blame to adulation to blame – yes, even faster than a New York City cab driver can honk at a changing traffic light.  It’s no wonder that after Paul’s experience at the fickle hands of the crowds that when he rejoins his fellow believers he reminds them they must “suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.”  Acts 14:22.

As author Eric Greitens says of the Navy Seals, it’s not a great recruiting message.  Why would you want to enter a kingdom which requires you to “suffer many hardships”?

The question brings us back to our original question: is life a war or a party? The answer, I think, is … yes.  The Bible presents this world as a battleground between good and evil.  The Bible says our enemies are not other people, however.  Our enemies are not the weary doctors who don’t always feel like fighting for our lives, or the other people who sometimes become bored of our presence or even actively dislike us.  Our enemies are the powers and principalities of darkness.  Ephesians 6:12 (“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”)

Our real enemy in Mattlin’s piece, for instance, is the depression.  It’s the fear, the dark thought that no one wants you.

Eric Greitens would probably concur.  He says that during Hell Week, which occurs early on in Navy Seal training, at any moment you can ring a bell three times and quit.  He says that the time most people quit isn’t during physical hardship but mental.  On the second night the men are lined up on the beach at sunset.  Officers with bullhorns speak to their fears.   They yell things like: “you’re right.  This will be the worst night of your life.  This will be the worst week of your life.  You’ll never make it.  You can’t do it.  You’re a failure.  You’re going to fail. Get out now while you still can.”  Greitens says men bolted for the bell in droves.  And yet, as Greitens points out all that was being asked of them was to stand on a beach and watch the sun set.  But the inner darkness – the feeling that you can’t win – is the most powerful and dangerous enemy of all.

And that’s the war we all fight.  Those bullhorns in Hell Week – a week so aptly named – voice the weapons of our true enemies, the powers and principalities of darkness.  Those voices, coming straight from the pit of hell, are the enemies that beset us all – overtly and covertly – all day long, and tell us we should just give up now because we’ll NEVER make it.  They say that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be enough.

And that’s the beauty of those voices.  Because they’re half right, even though they’re wrong.  They’re right to say we’ll never will make it on our own.  They’re right to say we’ll never be good enough, strong enough, beautiful enough or successful enough to win every battle or be invited to every party, no matter how hard we try.  But they’re wrong to say we should give up.

Because the good news is that that war has already been won.  Jesus Christ already stood up to the powers of darkness.  On the cross, he bore the crushing burden of hell’s hatred and venom.  When Jesus cried out: “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?” he was crying out from the loneliest place in the entire universe – the place where God was not.  If God is all that is good, hell is the absence of God.  Jesus was shrieking from hell itself – a place Jesus went voluntarily to fight the battle we could never win, and suffer the punishment we deserve, to win it for us.

Jesus Christ’s love did what our strength could never do.  His love defeated the powers of darkness.  He crushed hell.  He bore everything hell could cast on Him.  He allowed hell to crush Him.  And then He rose again, victorious.  If we accept that Christ died for us, heaven awaits us.  And heaven is the place that Jesus consistently describes in the gospels as a party or feast.  He should know.  He left heaven to come down to this earth to suffer and die for us.

All we have to do is lay down our weapons – our perceived right to choose our own way.  If we’ve lived long enough, we’ve already realized that choosing our own way does nothing but get us into trouble, anyway.  Knowing that our ways don’t get us where we want in life can soften our hearts to accept God’s ways.  God’s ways mean that instead of reacting to life like a male peacock, fluffing our prideful feathers the moment we feel the first perceived threat of an insult or the first little hint of rejection by another human, we get to react to life with humility.  We look to God, not our fellow fickle humans, for our sense of beauty.  We can go to God feeling as drab as the female peacock – and God decks us out in Christ’s radiant beauty.  When God looks at us, no matter what we’ve done, thought or failed to do, God sees us through the lens of Christ’s perfection.  He sees us as even more splendid than the male peacock.

That’s the paradox of the Christian life.  Even if we go to Christ feeling as worthless as a Navy Seal with a bullhorn in our ear yelling about how no one wants us at the party – we always leave victorious.  We discover that the “living God who made heaven and earth,” made us, too.  He made each of us in a unique way, with a unique life plan – whether we can run a four minute mile or if we’ve never walked a step in our lives.  Christ has rescued us from the powers of darkness, and while our peacock feathers may feel like they’re suffering when they’re plucked out, one by one – we discover that what looks like drabness is actually beautiful.  The cross redeems our battle wounds.  The cross gives us a forever beauty that grows brighter and brighter with each day.  If we point our compass to the true north and hold on for dear life, God lifts us higher and higher — until we find ourselves celebrating at the party where we’re always wanted, and always will be.

by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com, A Chapter a Day, on November 8, 2012

why we resist conversion: Acts 9

 read Acts 9 .  Conversion stories draw us in.  Did the convert hear deep voices, dream of skinny cows or see neon rainbows? Did he give away his Porsche?  Did she sign on the dotted line at the nearest nunnery?  Conversions, like snowflakes, fall upon each person in unique patterns etched in glory.  What strikes me as the common denominator is not who gets converted, but who doesn’t.  There are common factors that block all of us from converting to Christianity.  I know not everyone reading this even believes in God yet, but that’s exactly my point – if we don’t, why don’t we?

Perhaps the best place to start is the road to Damascus conversion story.  It’s the dramatic, iconic conversion story that many people know.  A devout Jew named Saul is heading down the road to Damascus, muttering curses under his breath, his pockets stuffed with arrest warrants to drag any Christian he can find to Jerusalem in chains.  Suddenly, a voice calls to him from heaven:  “Saul, Saul.”  Light rains down from the sky.  Everyone around Saul falls to the ground.  The voice asks Saul why he’s persecuting Him.  Saul says, “Lord, who are you?”  I love that response.  Saul knows the voice is His Lord – but he doesn’t know WHO His Lord is.  Jesus tells him He is Jesus, the one he’s persecuting, and says it’s dangerous for Saul to keep kicking against the goads.  Saul can’t see, eat or drink.  When the scales fall from Saul’s eyes three days later, he’s a changed man.  He has a new name, a new mission, new friends – and the persecutor joins the ranks of the very people he’d been persecuting.  And that is the birth of Saint Paul the apostle.

Embedded in the road to Damascus story are five hints of what hold us back from faith.  The story suggests that maybe the biggest thing blocking us isn’t our unbelief, but something else – perhaps even our deepest need  -masquerading as doubt.

The first thing that holds many of us back is hate.  “But I don’t hate anyone,” is our gut response to that assertion.  Really?  Think about it.  Isn’t there somebody out there who’s done each of us wrong?  Aren’t there people who’ve done other people wrong?  Isn’t there some little cockroach of a person who doesn’t deserve space on this planet?  Isn’t there someone violating God’s laws – or at least, universal Laws that we all hold dear?  And, here’s the kicker, doesn’t the world need US to maintain our passionate hatred of that person in order to contain them and their misguided or downright evil ways?  What would happen if we were to let go of our hatred?  Who would stop that person?  Who would insist that they were in the wrong?  Who … beside, perhaps, the very God who made them in the first place.  Because what if our hatred, like Saul’s, is misguided?  What if the real enemy is the hatred itself – and the accompanying pride, the part of each of us that thinks we know best?  What if – and this is supposed to be a liberating thought – what if only God knows best how to handle people – starting with us most of all?

Second, what can block us from converting is something that looks like love.  What if we love people who don’t believe in God?  Saul, for instance, was a devout Jew who thought of himself as an example for all.  Like him, what if we were to convert – where would that leave our loved ones who don’t believe? We feel guilty at the thought of converting, as if we would be somehow abandoning them.  It’s actually our pride, not love, then that thinks we have to reject love in order to help others.  It comes from the ridiculous idea that we’re the only one who can help other people.  What if – and this is the same liberating thought – God knows best how to handle other people?  What if we don’t really have a clue how to help other people? And what if the same God who woos each of us, is wooing everyone else – in the way only God knows best?  What if God invites us to let go of the people we love and trust Him to handle them best?

A third factor is guilt.   What if we’ve hurt other people (and we all have), and we feel guilty about it.  Saul, for instance, has already egged on the murder of Saint Stephen, and persecuted other Christians.  Our guilt can make us resist God’s call, because we think it would be “unfair” for us to shoot up heavenward before them.  After all, if we’ve hurt them or let them down, we don’t deserve to go to heaven before them.  But that kind of thinking stems from the misguided idea that ANY of us deserve to go to heaven.  In fact, no one deserves heaven.  We go to heaven because God Himself paid the price for our faults on the cross.  God beckons each of us not because we earned His love, but because His justice was satisfied by placing the sins of us all on Christ.  He issues the same merciful invitation to all – even people we’ve hurt.  It’s based not on our achievements, but His.  Thinking we have to hold back because of people we’ve hurt is another form of pride.  We can trust God to know best how to handle the people we’ve hurt, too.

The fourth thing that can block us from conversion is fear of the cost.  We fear that if there’s a God, He’ll ask too much.  It’s true that the first thing Paul is taught after his conversion here is how much he will “suffer.”  The word suffer makes us shiver down to the marrow.  But God never explains the suffering of Christ (as opposed to the suffering involved in living on this planet) until He’s first brought us the unimaginable joy of knowing Christ. That’s because we couldn’t understand.  Paul is embraced by light and Jesus and love before he learns anything about the cost.  Because even the cost is sweet when it’s wrapped in Christ.  So what if we’re afraid of the wrong thing?  What if we’re afraid to abandon the hopelessness and despair of a life based on the circumstances of our lives, in exchange for the joy, peace and productivity of a life lived in union with the God of love who we can trust to bring good out of bad?

Finally, perhaps the biggest thing that blocks us from conversion is our feeling that we’re unloved.  Perhaps we tell ourselves we don’t want it because we’re afraid we can’t have it.  Saul, for instance, was “trembling and astonished” when Jesus spoke to him.  It strikes me that Saul was astonished not that the God he was persecuting would speak to him, but that the very God he’d been trying to SERVE his whole devout life would speak to him.  He describes himself elsewhere as the most zealous Jew of all the Jews.  He’d spent his whole life trying as hard as he possibly could to be good by following every rule there ever was, and then some.  And if you’ve ever tried to do this, you know it’s doomed.  You know that trying to be good and follow all the rules, does nothing but make us humans anxious.  It’s an inherently insecure way.  No matter how hard we try, we will always fail – and so we’re always anxious.  That’s why I think Saul was touched to the core that God cared so much about him that he would urge him off the dangerous road.  Perhaps we’re all afraid to believe unfailing love exists, because we worry that it might be there for everyone else – except us.

God goads us on the right path by trying to assuage all of our resistances to conversion – by whispering to, imploring, singing to and encouraging each of us about His love.  He knows it’s as dangerous for us to ignore His message of love as it was for Saul.  He knows that most of the sins of the world are committed by people who feel unloved and lash out because of it.  That’s why He allowed us to lash out at Him instead.  God Himself fell to the ground, carrying the weight of a cross too heavy for any human to bear.  God Himself trembled.  God Himself was bound in chains.  God was persecuted.  God was innocent of any crime and yet punished for the crimes of us all.

So what do we have to lose by converting except pride, fear, guilt, futile efforts to help others, bad habits and the feeling that we’re unloved?  What do we have to gain except being “made whole”?  God is love.  How can He do anything else but love us?

That is the truth to which each of us longs to be converted.  And each of us will be converted in a unique way – on different roads – with different people who believe we’ve changed and people who don’t – in whispers and sighs or in thunder and lightning bolts.  But the common denominator will be the river of Love.  Because no one can be converted without stepping into the river – and it’s the same river for all.  Maybe that is the biggest stumbling block of all.

But the river that calls us is powerfully cleansing, and the view on the other side is bursting with light.  And who knows – maybe if we step in alongside the people we think we hate, we’ll find ourselves brimming over with so much love for them that we can hardly even stand it – and we’ll find that loving them was the thing we wanted most of all, all along.  It’s the kind of river where we’ll see the people we hurt twirling as they wade in alone upstream.  We’ll see people who rejected us walking hand in hand with their new loves, and we’ll be happy for them.  We’ll see our children lobbing baseballs over to test what’s on the other side – and watch as golden balls are hurled back, the way runners coasting downhill will high five the person struggling uphill – because they know what’s waiting for them on the other side.

by Caroline Coleman in “A Chapter a Day.”  carolinecolemanbooks.com on October 16, 2012