the key to unlocking our stories: Acts 8

read Acts 8.  For most of us, stories are magical.  They transport us to another time, place, world and reality.  For shy people, they can help us understand others, empathize, and to feel as if, even when other people are opaque to us, at least the characters in stories – and perhaps their sensitive authors – are our best friends.  Stories take us out of ourselves, and yet somehow make us more ourselves.  Why?  Is it simply because we can picture ourselves as the hero or heroine, wielding jeweled-hilted swords, defeating smoky-voiced dragons and rescuing hapless victims?  Or is it because we recognize we’re made for more than just ourselves; that we are being woven into a tapestry larger than the corner of the world we can see; that we are both completely individual and yet somehow part of a community of love where our every choice matters, deeply, on a universal level.

All stories help us break out of prisons.  Some can break us out of prisons of being self-conscious and shy.  They break us out of more insidious prisons – of pride, selfishness, self-pity and self-centeredness – as Dickens tried to do, overtly, with his fiction.  They can break us out of prisons of ignorance.  And when they’re especially uplifting, like Laura Hillenbrand’s books, for instance, they break us out of prisons of gloom.

Beautiful writing can break writers out of a prison of jealousy.  Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited 
is so truly deeply good, that when I just re-read it, there was no room for jealousy.  I felt awe.  I actually teared up reading the beginning of it, the way a friend told me that his son in the business of animation wept the first time he saw Toy Story 1.  It was the way Salieri probably wept in his finer moments when he heard Mozart play.  It was the way a portrait artist might weep upon beholding a Vermeer.  When you spend your whole life trying to do something creative, you recognize a true masterpiece.  The harder you’ve tried, the more awestruck you feel when someone else succeeds.  You realize that there is genius there, greatness, the X factor, the je ne sais quoi, the thing you’ve striven for your whole life and missed the mark.

But have you really missed the mark?  Isn’t part of the reason we weep when we see truly brilliant creativity in a field we do ourselves because we know that we, too, in our finest moments have at least touched glory?  Maybe we couldn’t sustain it for the length of a novel, a symphony, or an entire tennis match, football or soccer game – perhaps even more than a few brushstrokes – but we know when our hand, too, has felt guided as if by a divine force.  We call this feeling of losing ourselves in creativity by various names in various fields – inspiration, the striking of the Muse, being in the zone – but we all know it when it happens to us.

That’s probably at least part of what’s going on when a magician named Simon believes in Jesus when he first hears about Him, and then turns around and tries to buy his power the next.  His first reaction strikes me as the reaction of someone who has tried to wield magic, falling at the feet of the One True Magic.  His second reaction – trying to buy the power – is the natural human reaction.  We move from awe to jealousy.  We’ve all done it – this kind of flip-flop between melting at the sound of truth – and then being jealous of it and wanting it for our own glory.

At first, Simon melts.  He wan’t just a two-bit magician.  He’d been called the “Great One – the Power of God,” and he’d “astounded” the people of Samaria with his magic “for a long time.”  Acts 8:4-25.  Maybe that’s why Simon believed so quickly; Simon’s magic might have fooled the people, but clearly it didn’t fool Simon.  He knew that no matter how “good” he seemed – or even was – he still wasn’t good enough – not when compared with the true power of God. Maybe that’s why he believed the moment he heard the Good News of the cross.

But when Simon saw Philip perform “signs and great miracles” and then saw Peter and John lay hands on people and pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit, Simon couldn’t take it any more.  He offered to buy this “power”.  He’d stopped seeing God’s love as something that freed him from prison, and locked himself back in a prison – the prison of wanting power over people.  That’s probably why Peter rebukes him so sternly.  Peter doesn’t mince words.  He tells Simon: “you can have no part in this, for your heart is not right with God.”  He accuses Simon of “wickedness” and “evil thoughts.  He concludes with the chilling words: “for I can see that you are full of bitter jealousy and are held captive by sin.”

Who wants to be held captive by anything?  Who wants to have “bitter” jealousy of other people’s gifts?  It’s a horrible way to live – and yet everyone knows the bitter feeling of jealousy.  It’s ugly, but it hits all of us.  Simon, perhaps sensing the ugliness of it, begs Peter to pray for him, and boom.  That’s the end of Simon.  We’re left wondering what became of him – and hoping he turned his back on the bitterness and embraced joy again.

The story moves from Simon into one of my favorite stories (okay, they’re all my favorite).  But this one is truly lovely.  An angel tells Philip to go down a desert road.  Philip obeys and discovers a Christian’s greatest gift: a man is reading aloud from the Bible and invites Phillip to explain it to him.

When you know how beautiful Scripture is, there’s nothing more wonderful than someone else wanting to know, too.

The man who invites Philip is a eunuch.  He’s the treasurer of the queen of Ethiopia, and he’s reading a prophesy about Jesus written in the prophet Isaiah.  It’s always moved me that the particular prophesy the eunuch reads ends with the words: “Who can speak of his descendants?”  The eunuch will have no descendants because someone mutilated him when he was young.  So when the man whose ability to have children had been robbed of him asks Philip if the prophet was “talking about himself or someone else,” we sense that the eunuch is asking not just if this is a prophesy but also, on some level:

IS HE TALKING ABOUT ME?????

And that question – is this story about me – is at the heart of what we love about stories.  Isn’t that one of the things we always want to know when we read stories?  Even as we celebrate the particularity, individuality and specificity of stories, we long to crack them open into something more universal.  ARE they about us?  Are they about us on some cosmic level that we sense but can’t prove?  Are we the only ones who feel this way?  Is anyone else lonely?  Is anyone else full of self-pity?  Is anyone else desperately mourning their inability to have children – or mourning that their children have grown up, or grown distant? Is someone else weeping because they were mutilated or damaged as a child – perhaps even by someone they should have been able to trust?

And what we want to know most of all is: is there a God up there, out there, who somehow allowed all this to happen, and yet can possibly care about us?  Is the God of the Bible talking about US when He says He loves us?  Does He see us?  Does He care?  Does He?

So Philip explains the Good News to the eunuch.  Yes, yes and yes is Jesus’ answer to all our questions.  The Bible says all God’s promises are made yes in Jesus Christ.  God made us in His image.  He is the creator and He is love, so we, too, were created to love, and to create.  That’s probably why we are at our happiest when we lose ourselves in the act of creation.  We feel connected to the divine in those moments – which is why there’s no room for jealousy.  We know we’re part of something more beautiful than ourselves.  We know our deepest longings can be, and even are, fulfilled in losing ourselves in creation.  And so when we read that God created the world knowing it would fall – and therefore knowing He would have to die on the cross to redeem it – we sense the deeply sacrificial nature of true love, and we respond, because it is the One True Story.

And yet, we can’t stay on that plane.  We weep out of appreciation of the one true story one minute – and then want to use the gifts God gave us for our own glory the next.

Part of the good news is that God knows this about us.  God knew that if He made us as individuals, instead of robots, that we would choose to sin.  Adam and Eve did it, and we’ve all been doing it ever since.  Even if we act right, our hearts are never completely pure.  With sin, death, disease and dysfunction came into our perfect world.  And here’s where we get back to the Good News.  God loved us so much, He came down Himself to redeem us.  He died to lift us back into the heavenly realms, the place of creativity, joy and love.  All He asks is that we choose to step out of our prisons into the light.  He’s already unlocked the prison doors.  But He never forces us to take the first step.  He invites us to step out of the gloom and shadow and embrace the one true story – the only true story – the true masterpiece – the story of how Jesus Christ died to set us free.

But we have such trouble believing that, accepting it, and embracing it.  We’re in prisons of our own making.  So often we feel surrounded by invisible but rock solid bars of guilt, shame and fear.  They mire us in depression, complaining, bitterness and woe.  And the key is dangling before us at every minute.  We need only enter into the one true story – the deepest magic that every other story hints at – the story of Love dying for those who didn’t even love Him back.  God is standing at the door knocking – even if we, like Saul here, are persecuting every Christian we’ve ever heard of.  God forgives everything.  We need only admit we need His help.

If we do, He fills us with such love we feel more connected than ever to other people.  We discover a connection deeper even than the shyest child can feel sitting alone reading a storybook.  We discover a true connection that goes beyond ourselves, and our selfish focuses, because it’s based not on us, but on being woven together with Christ.  We become, on a level that’s hard to describe unless you’ve experienced it for yourself, brothers and sisters in Christ with other believers.

But even when we’re believers, our prisons are never far away.  Like Simon, who we are told did believe, we forget we’re released from prison by God’s sacrifice alone, and we think we can “earn” heaven; our gifts fool us into thinking we did it on our own, at least that now we can take the reins in our own hands and continue doing it on our own.  We look down on people who don’t happen to have our gifts – and this locks us in a prison of comparing ourselves to others.  In turn, it locks us in a prison of anxiety because there’s no security if our sense of worth is based on our achievement – and our achievement needing to outshine others.  It’s a horrible way to live – and yet we all do it.

That’s why the story of the eunuch provides such hope.  The eunuch – despite his powerful position in the queen’s retinue and his knowledge of money – knew He needed God to do the “buying” for him.  The eunuch – rejected and despised by men – knew what it was like for Jesus to be rejected and despised by men.  The magician – riding on the waves of his own illusion – chose to remain mired in jealousy.

How much better to respond to the message of God’s love for us with humility.  May we all, along with the magician, pray that God will give us humility.  May we all rejoice, without jealousy, when those people rejected by us and our society embrace heaven first.  May we see in their liberation hope for us all.  May our every weakness be transformed into strength.  May we rejoice in our weaknesses, instead of hiding them, because they enable us to see our desperate need for God.   And in the moment of dying to ourselves and our illusions of power, may we all embrace God’s new eternal life.  May we recognize the true masterpiece and melt at the sight and sound of it.  If we do, He invites us to enter into His story that goes on and on, forever, celebrating our individuality and yet weaving us together in a poem, a tapestry of love, that just won’t look right without every one of us in it.

by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on October 5, 2012

and if you don’t have a Bible yet, buy whatever translation speaks to you best…  the New Living translation (modern contemporary prose).
 The Amplified Bible (the one Joyce Meyer uses – with expanded explanations of every verse).
 The Message (Eugene Peterson’s wonderful rendering of the Bible into modern slang and usage).
 The New Revised Standard.
 The New King James.  
The original King James.
An audio version (Thomas Nelson has a 79 CD bible with Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Richard Dreyfuss as Moses, Gary Sinise as David, Jason Alexander as Joseph, Marisa Tomei as Mary Magdalene, Stacy Keach as Paul, Louis Gossett, Jr. as John, Jon Voight as Abraham, Marcia Gay Harden as Esther, Joan Allen as Deborah, Max von Sydow as Noah, and Malcolm McDowell as Solomon).
It doesn’t matter.  No matter which version you use, the Word is always active and alive.

 

how to glow even when you don’t feel like it: Acts 6

read Acts 6.  We are all attracted to glowing faces.  We can feel when our own faces glow.  We spend a lot of money on products that promise to give us that glow. Glowing faces are contagious.  It’s hard to see someone else glow and not respond in kind – unless we’re in a really really bad mood, in which case seeing someone else that happy can make us glower, Scrooge-like.  To resent when others are happy makes us feel small, miserly and bitter.  That’s when we know we’re in a bad place – when we can’t be happy for someone else. We know that love rejoices for other people.  But at times, we all have quiet selfish little moments, in which we don’t rejoice – as much as we would like to.

If you don’t believe me, think about when you were single, lonely and depressed, and your best friend got engaged.  We rejoiced, of course we did, but there is always a little part of us, a secret place, that mourns: “when is it going to be MY turn?”  Or on a personal front, when I learn that a friend is having her first novel published by a fantastic, literary publisher – I’m thrilled for her.  I’m over the moon.  And quietly, there’s a little stabbing sigh of: “why can’t I write a literary novel that’s good enough for that publisher??”  We don’t want those stabbing sighs – they do pierce our souls. They make us feel unattractive.  They are unattractive.  But they live alongside us.  They inhabit us, like termites, eating us up from the inside out.  Left unchecked, they can, like termites, bring down our houses.  They seek to define us.  They seek, as the Scripture puts it – to devour us like a lion.  That’s because those kind of lonely, self-pitying, selfish and self-seeking thoughts bubble up from the cauldrons of hell.  Those thoughts are meant to devour us.  As Saint Peter once put it: “your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  1 Peter 5:8.

We humans are too vulnerable to a lion’s speed, prowess, teeth, claws and predatory instincts to protect ourselves.  We need a safe refuge, strong friends or powerful weapons – and the intimate knowledge of how to use those weapons.

Spiritual lions call for spiritual refuges, spiritual friends and spiritual weapons.  We can’t fight off spiritual lions with willpower alone.  No matter how much we instruct ourselves to be happy for other glowing people, we can’t shake off those tiny predatory selfish thoughts that rob us of our own glow.  We can bury those thoughts, but they’re still there, rising up out of the ashes of our hopelessness, singing to us a dirge of sadness and regret, dragging us down to the depths, wanting us to feel unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.  Those thoughts can indeed devour us.  They can eat us alive.

And those thoughts show on our faces.  We can feel the twinge of selfishness in ourselves, and we can see it in others.  We sense when their smiles crack, like paint chipping off porcelain dolls.  We feel when our own smiles crack, and it makes us feel as hard-hearted as porcelain dolls ourselves.

The spiritual solution offered by Christ is, as always, the unexpected way.  It is to find strength to fight off the lions of self-pity, hopelessness and despair through laying down our lives.  It is, as Christ once said, to find our life by losing it.  Something within us responds to those words.  We hear the sound of them.  We like the sound of them.  But we don’t always know what they mean.  What does it MEAN to lay down our lives for others – especially in the face of their glow when we feel none ourselves?  Guilt alone can never motivate us to find real joy, deep within us.  Guilt can restrain us.  We do feel guilty when we are jealous of other people’s delight.  But the guilt can’t erase our selfish thoughts.  It only highlights them.

What I love about the Bible is how very real it is.  It addresses these kinds of issues head on.  It lovingly highlights our humanity.  It reads us.  It shows us that yes, we all have a selfish side.  But at the very same time, it shows us how very loved we are by the God who made us, knows us, and understands us.  It’s hard to describe, but the more time we spend with God, the more we begin to melt at our humanity.  God’s presence brings us to a place where we weep with Him about our shortcomings, rather than rail against Him.

If we look at Acts 6, for instance, we find a scene straight out of any contemporary news story about sectarian violence.  Soon after Christ was rose again to heaven, the early believers lived in unity.  They shared everything.  They ate together.  They handed over their property to be used by those in need.  Their unity convicts me every time I read it.  And then, boom.  Humanity reared its ugly head: “as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent.”  Acts 6:1.  Those rumblings and grumblings rise up within us all.  We grow discontented with even unity.  God places us in a garden, and we end up seeing the thorns.  Here, the cause was, as so often happens, ethnic: “The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.”  Acts 6:1.

I love what happens next.  Instead of lecturing the people, and telling them to shape up or ship out, or telling them that they’re imagining things, the Twelve apostles call a meeting.  The Twelve say that they need to spend their time teaching the word of God, “not running a food program.”  So they ask their Christian brothers and sisters to select “seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom.  We will give them this responsibility.  Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching. the word.”  Acts 6:2-4.  I love the fact that they don’t discount the problem.  It suggests to me that they recognized their own humanity – perhaps they HAD been discriminating against the Greek-speaking believers.  It suggests they recognized what Richard Dawkins once called the “selfish gene” inside us all – the one Dawkins quantified in bats, that would, in a bat cave, cause adult bats to statistically favor feeding baby bats who shared their genes over bats who were unrelated.  And even if the discrimination was in the minds of the Greek-speakers, it was no less real, and no less important of an issue.  The apostles prayed for the seven men chosen to distribute the food and laid hands on them.

And all of this brings the story to Saint Stephen and the glow.  Many of us have heard of Stephen.  He was the first Christian martyr.   Stephen is described repeatedly here as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.”  Acts 6:5.  He’s “a man full of God’s grace and power, [who] performed amazing miracles and signs.”  Acts 6:8. Stephen has the kind of “power” God gives.  He has the power that can defeat roaring lions.  Inevitably, Stephen’s spiritual power brings him into conflict with people who don’t have that power.  Some men begin to debate with him, and discover that none of them – not one – can “stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.”  Acts 6:10.

Most of us don’t like it when someone shows us up.  It rubs up against our pride.  So instead of rejoicing in Stephen’s wisdom, they seek to bring him down.  They lie about him.  They persuade people to accuse him of blasphemy against God and Moses.  Stephen is arrested, brought before the high council, and lied about.  And here is where the story takes a turn for the beautiful – right here – where we least expect it:

“At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s.”  Acts 6:15.

That’s it.  That’s the end of the chapter.  As we read the chapter, we find humanity, tension, resolution, jealousy, selfishness, wounded pride – and then angelic beauty.  What happened?  How did Stephen glow at the very moment when most of us would deteriorate into fury, anger, rage and high moral indignation?  Stephen was innocent.  He had acted with the best of intentions.  He was falsely accused.  And yet he didn’t inhabit the bitterness of his accusers.  What was his secret?  What did Stephen know that the rest of us only yearn to know?

Stephen knew God.

Stephen knew the One who loved Him.  He knew, in an intimate tender way,  His Lord and Savior.  He looked not at the lying people – or rather, not at the jealousy and pride hardening their faces – but into their hearts.  He knew that they spoke from their humanity.  In order not to resent their humanity, Stephen must have known his own humanity.  To have God’s “wisdom,” as Stephen is described as having, is to know not that we are perfect, but the very opposite.  To have God’s “grace” as we are told he had, is to know our shortcomings, and know them deeply . But it’s also to allow God to bring us to the place where we can weep over our smallness.  And when we begin to mourn, as God mourns, we glow, as God glows.  We shine with love, our of love, in love.  We shine because we know we are loved, just as we are.  We begin to know, in a very deep way, that God loved us so much He laid down His life for us.  He did it literally, on the cross, and spiritually, by allowing Satan to devour Him in hell.  He took our punishment – the lion’s claws, teeth, and roaring fury – so that we could have peace.  He abandoned the refuse of heaven, in order to give us the refuge of grace.  We can hide from any lion in the secret place of knowing that no matter what we sense ourselves thinking, and no matter what we do, we can be made beautiful, perfect, spotless and clean, by the cross.

That’s all God asks of us – to have faith in His love.  He asks that we lay down our lives – that we stop pretending we’re all that – and instead admit our pride.  Admitting our pride gives us the strength to defeat even a pride of lions.  If we confess our faults, He is faithful and just, and will cleanse us of all unrighteousness.  He will wipe our tears from our eyes and make our faces glow with a knowledge of His love so deep and true, that it brings joy to us in the midst of any and all circumstances – even, especially, false accusations against us when, for once, we are actually innocent.  Look at Joyce Meyer – the one whose picture I took on t.v. above.  She glows even as she tells millions of people a day about her selfishness, pride, jealousy and smallness – and in so doing she becomes anything but small.

We can all be like that.  We can all glow.  We can all shine like an angel, even in the midst of our smallest, most bitter, selfish, self-pitying, hopeless, bat-like, selfish gene thoughts.  Right there, when we least expect it, we can take a turn for the beautiful.  How?  By weeping with God’s heart over our humanity, and accepting God’s heart in place of our own.  A tender soft loving heart can defeat any lion.  That’s the secret.  That’s why the Bible says that the lion, one day, will lie down with the lamb.  That unity starts in our own hearts now, as we allow our porcelain hearts to lie down with the Lamb of God.  Our painted smiles chip off, revealing a heart of God beneath.  God’s Spirit gives us a heart that can rejoice when others rejoice; that weeps when others weep; that delights in the victory of others even in the midst of our own seeming defeats.  That is because we know our deepest victory has already been won.  God defeated the lion for us on the cross.  And if we lay down our smallness, over and over and over again, it is to lay down our lives for others.  It is to glow not with our own made up beauty, but to glow with God’s beauty.  God’s sacrificial love gives us the kind of beauty that lingers with us no matter how hopeless, unattractive or despairing we feel.  It transcends our thoughts and encircles and enraptures us, even as we remain, still, a people who sometimes cannot rejoice for others.  Our thoughts may flap their bat-like wings, but deeper still, our hearts know the truth.  We do love others.  We can love them.  If we look to God, He gives us His love – for us, and for all humanity.

by Caroline Coleman on September 18, 2012