what we chase: Acts 7

read Acts 7.  A video that recently went viral begins with someone filming some peaceful deer grazing in Richmond Park.  All of a sudden, you hear the sound of stampeding deer hooves.  Then you hear a desperate man yell, “Fenton? Fenton! Fenton!  Fenton! Fenton? Fenton! Fenton?”  The deer hooves pound louder.  The man yells, “FENTON??!!!”  He takes the Lord’s name in vain, twice.  And then the deer stampede past the camera with a golden retriever tearing after them.  The man screams “FENTON!!!!!” and finally the man goes racing after, still yelling, his tweedy coat flying.  Fenton chasing deer video.

We laugh because we’ve all had our Fenton moments – trying fruitlessly to stop our wild beasts from doing something really stupid.  We also laugh, I think, because we all know what it feels like to BE Fenton – to tear recklessly through a park, ignoring the call of our master, because our prey is so vulnerable, so defenseless, and so very chase-able.

What can stop the Fenton in us?  Yes, punishment works sometimes – knowing we’ll be deprived of our biscuits, or worse.  But what ALWAYS works?  As Dale Carnegie explains in his timeless pragmatic masterpiece, How to Win Friends and Influence People, if you want someone to do something, you have to show them how they should WANT it, too.  It does no good to tell a human that YOU want it.  We humans are just too selfish.  Instead, in order to give up something we want, we need to know, really know, that our master is promising something EVEN BETTER than stampeding deer.  I hope that got your attention.  It got mine.  Because honestly?  If I were a dog, making an entire parkful of deer stampede in front of me sounds really, really fun.

I think that’s why when the high priest asks Stephen if the accusations against him are true, Stephen doesn’t answer.  Instead, Stephen takes them through the story of how God rescued His chosen people, the Jews.  Acts 7.   It’s as if Stephen is urging his listeners to abandon their jealousy and instead to come on up and admire the view.  Stephen tells them stories of how God anointed certain people to rescue His people – and how they resisted being rescued.  Instead, they reacted with jealousy and suspicion – fighting the very ones sent to save them.

It reminds me of the first thing we’re taught in swimming lessons – if we’re drowning, we’re supposed to lie very very still in the water.  We’re not supposed to clutch and flail at the person who comes to rescue us – or we’ll end up drowning both of us.  Staying still requires the quieting of our fear.  It requires trusting the one who came to rescue us – or at the very least, realizing that kicking against them is the worst possible thing we could do.

Stephen concludes his history lesson with a stern reprimand:  he tells his listeners that they’re stubborn, deaf and blind to the truth.  He says they’ve killed every prophet God sent to them, even the Messiah.  He asks why they break God’s laws, when it was given to them “by angels.”  I love that – the idea that angels gave us the Bible.  I picture angels whispering in the ears of God’s chosen prophets.  And Stephen asks why his listeners “resist” the Holy Spirit.

What does that mean to resist God’s Spirit?  I can give you a lot of analogies, but my guess is you already know.  If you’re in a river or ocean, for instance, you can feel the current tugging you a certain way – and it takes a lot of effort to swim against the current’s pull.  That’s what it feels like to resist the Holy Spirit.  If you’re in a car and your GPS wants you to go left and you plow on, your GPS will screech: “turn around, when possible!!!!!”  That’s what it’s like to resist the Holy Spirit.  When you cluck at your horse to move it from a trot to a canter, and instead the horse snorts, lowers its head, and you hear the annoying sound of its teeth ripping at dandelions – that horse is doing what we do when we “resist” God’s Spirit.  It’s choosing weeds over cantering.

So did Stephen’s listeners get it?  Did they suddenly melt with sorrow?  Did they realize they’d been fighting God – and that all their fighting was doing nothing but making them miserable?  Did they realize that resisting God’s love was causing them to fritter away all their energy?  Did they see that God wanted them to tear their eyes away from weeds so He could move them into a canter?

Their reaction was to shake their fists at him in rage.  They put their hands over their ears.  They rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and stoned him.  His accusers laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

And what happened to Stephen during all this?  Heaven opened.  Literally.  Stephen cried out that he could see the glory of God, and Jesus sitting at the right hand of God.  As Stephen died, he cried out the same prayer of forgiveness and love that Jesus did when he died – “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin.”

What could cause Stephen to want what God wanted in his dying moments? What could make him ask God to forgive his murderers, rather than tar and feather them?  The answer is in the same chapter – Stephen could see something he wanted more than revenge.  He could see love, really literally see it, and so he knew, in his very soul, that love is better than hate.  Stephen is a man like us; a saint in the Bible is not someone who is perfect, but someone whose sin is taken away because they’re sorry and ask God to forgive them through the cross.  Stephen, therefore, is the kind of saint any of us can be.  Stephen’s kind of love is ours for the wanting, ours for the asking, ours for the kneeling.

How do I know?  Because look at the lovely reassuring hint of God’s grace here in this chapter.  That same young man Saul – the one who accepted the cloaks of Stephen’s murderers –  is about to become Saint Paul – Paul the evangelist – Paul the writer of epistle after epistle.  Jesus died for Paul’s sins and He died for ours.  God knows our every Fenton moment – the obvious ones caught on video for all the world to see that go viral to our shame – and the buried ones the ones that only we and perhaps a few others know about that threaten to drown us.  Jesus knew them all when he went on the cross, and He did it anyway.  We never earned His love.  We couldn’t have.  He freely gave it.  He gave everything.  He drowned so we wouldn’t have to.

God asks only that we stop resisting the call of His love.  He knows we’re selfish.  He doesn’t threaten us with whippings.  He doesn’t force us by yelling.  He never huffs and puffs after us with His tweedy coat flying.  He doesn’t mouth obscenties.  Instead, God surrounds us with the currents of His love.  He cloaks us with winds of His glory.  He whispers to us of the most excellent way.  He coaxes us.  He buffets us with tides of joy and peace.  His Holy Spirit is speaking to us, all of us, every day, wanting to be with us.

God asks only that we lay our stubborn doing down, and give in to the gift of spending eternity in His presence.  He asks that we surrender to the call of love.  He wants us to admit that by following the devices and desires of our own Fenton-hearts, we’re drowning.  He begs for us to relax into His outstretched arms.  He wants only to lift us out of the water, and send us forward, cantering into the wind with joy unleashed.  He wants us to be with Him – because that is to be a saint.  To be with God.

If we do, we’ll discover that giving in to God’s love is what we really wanted all along.

by Caroline Coleman on September 25, 2012 in A Chapter A Day, carolinecolemanbooks.com

when we feel lost: Luke 15















read Luke 15.  What does it mean when we say we feel lost?  It means we have lost our bearings – either literally or metaphorically.  Being lost doesn’t exist as an isolated state.  It implies that we have lost some thing, place, person or sense of purpose.  Being lost means that we have lost something to which we belong.

We all love belonging – as long as it doesn’t smother us.  But most things in life to which we belong are transient.  Life involves a constant leaving.  We are always on the move, always leaving people, places and things.  Sometimes we choose to leave.  Other times the choice is forced upon us.  Some losses are good and right. Children are supposed to leave home.  Adults are supposed to leave their parents when they marry.  Some losses are tragic.  Children are not supposed to die before their parents.  Marriages are supposed to last.  Limbs are supposed to stay attached to our bodies.  Other losses are annoying.  Hair is supposed to keep growing on top of our heads.  Our skin is supposed to stay smooth and clear.  Jobs are meant to be kept.  A sense of purpose is supposed to accompany our days.  But it doesn’t, not always, and not forever.  The things to which we feel we belong – the groups, organizations, and associations – are always changing, always shape shifting, always evaporating just as we reach out to grasp them.

All change, even change for the better, involves loss.  Life on this planet, therefore, involves daily, weekly, monthly and yearly losses.  Tiny and tremendous griefs punctuate our days.  It’s no wonder that we all feel a little lost.  The miracle is that we don’t feel completely lost, all the time.

In addition to all of our definable losses, we also have a vague sense of feeling lost for no discernible reason – a feeling that dogs us each day.  We will have just a momentary pang – a “who am I, and why am I here” kind of a feeling.  This sense of being lost can be fleeting, or it can linger, depending on our circumstances.  We can hide from the feeling.  We can bury it in work or play.  But a certain wistfulness creeps up on all of us and just makes us stop and wonder.

While we think being lost like this is a bad thing, it may not be.  There’s nothing wrong with anything that causes us to stop and wonder.  Knowing that everyone feels this way helps, too.  Sometimes, we are lost.  We have lost our way, like the prodigal son in Luke 15, who spends his entire inheritance in wild living.  We can lose our family, so engrossed in our own pursuits we have made no time for the less “exciting” but none the less real people to whom we’re related.  We can lose touch with reality, so high on our own achievements, goals and dreams, that we start to slip into the delusional thinking that we’re more important than other people.  We can lose our love for other people, like the religious leaders to whom Jesus tells these stories – so trapped in their self-righteousness they are furious Jesus eats with sinners.  It strikes me that the religious leaders’ anger stems from the fact that they know Jesus is right, and yet they feel completely unable to do anything about their self-righteousness.

And so when Jesus tells these angry people three stories of loss, it is heartening to know that in all three stories, the thing that was lost was found.  The shepherd found the lost sheep.  The woman found her lost coin.  And the prodigal son found himself – and in so doing, was able to go home.  So how do these three stories help us with all of our daily losses – both known and unknown?  Did someone lose us?  Or did we lose someone?  And how do we get found?

As always with Jesus’ parables, the characters that pepper his stories are human.  What kind of a shepherd loses his sheep, anyway?  A bad shepherd.  What kind of a woman loses a coin?  An improvident woman.  And what kind of a father would give his son half his estate?  A codependent father, one more intent on gaining his son’s approval than on being a good father.

Likewise, both sons in the parable of the prodigal son display their faults – some of which are their own responsibility, and others of which are the result of imperfect parenting.  Who can blame the younger son for wasting at least some of his inheritance – his father never should have given it to him in the first place.  And who can blame the older son for feeling slighted?  No one even bothers to tell him about the party.  He hears the music and dancing and has to ask one of the servants what is happening.

But imperfect parenting doesn’t account for all of the sons’ poor choices.  The younger son spent everything his father gave him.  He saved nothing.  He doesn’t seem to have stored up anything for his future.  The older son betrays years of pent-up anger.  Any marriage counselor worth their salt will tell you not to use the words “always” and “never” – because those words are just not true.  The older brother’s words to his father are peppered with “always” and “never”.  The older brother says he has “slaved” for his father “all these years”.  He says he has “never once” refused to do “a single thing” you told me to.  He says that in “all that time”  you “never” gave me even one young goat for a feast.  Has the older brother really “never” refused his father?  He seems pretty good at it here – he’s refusing to go into the party.  The older brother continues his exaggeration by saying that his younger brother has wasted his money on “prostitutes”.  But prostitutes are never mentioned.  The younger brother wasted his money in “wild living”.  The older brother jumped to the conclusion that his younger brother visited prostitutes, but he might not have.  The older brother is exaggerating to try to get his father to see how he has favored a brother who didn’t deserve it.  Exaggerating never helps us – it distracts our listener from hearing the truth – but we resort to it when we feel insecure; we exaggerate when we think the truth isn’t good enough.

What’s the truth?  The truth is that the father seems to have favored one son, and that the favored son is spoiled.  The truth is that the older son was slighted.  The truth is…. that we live in a world where fathers are imperfect and were sons are improvident or bitter. So why does Jesus tell this story?

Jesus tells a story of humans because that’s the only kind of behavior we humans can understand.  And yet in this parable about flawed human beings, the incarnation happens – God breaks through.  How?

God is nowhere and everywhere in this parable.  First, each of these three humans displays aspects of God.  The amazing humbling thing is that our perfect God works through broken imperfect people. The father mirrors God in his forgiveness. The prodigal son demonstrates salvation – we can “come to our senses” because we realize that abandoning God has put us on the path to starvation, loneliness and isolation.  The older son teaches us of the mercy of God: the older son reminds us that even when we choose to stay with God, we will still fall – we will grow resentful and exaggerate, nursing our wounds, and forgetting that we, too, are sinners saved by grace alone.  But just because we sin doesn’t change the fact that we are living in God’s house, and no one can take that away.

Second, insofar as the parables are about humans, they reveal God’s character through contrast.  The human father gave half his estate through the need for approval; God gave us all on the cross, not because He needed anything from us, but because giving is in His very nature.  The inheritance God gives us is everlasting and can never be wasted; it can never be taken away from us.  If we “spend” God’s love on other people – God will always fill us back up.  God’s arms are always open and available to us the moment we run home.  God never piles on, like the older brother.  He always forgives and always rejoices when we return.  Unlike the older brother, Jesus always did His father’s will.  Jesus had every right to resent us for being God’s children, but instead, He rejoices along with God when we repent and turn to God.

God’s character shines through the interstices of this story, revealing His love for each and every one of us – even though we are as clueless as sheep, as predictable as a rolling coin, and as pig-headed as a child who thinks he can make it out in the big bad world all by himself.  These are stories where God cracks open earth and lets us peer into heaven.  There are flashes of godliness sparking out of humanity, so that we, in our humanity, can get a glimpse of what godliness looks like.  We can see a human man, named Jesus, and through Him – unrobed and unmasked and lost on the cross – see God.  On the cross, Jesus Christ was lost so that we would never have to be.

The message under all the parables, the groundnote of God’s message to us is: I know you, and I love you anyway.  I know your heart. I know how you work.  I know your greed, your inordinate loves, your stubborness, your cheating habits, your selfishness, your inability to see any viewpoint but your own.  And yet despite our flaws, God can shine through – as light shines through cracks in jars of clay.  Because we have it backwards.  The parables shock us because we expect stories of people made perfect by God, but we get stories of imperfect people loved by a perfect God.  The stories move us to the place of tears, where we cry out to God – how can you?  How can you love me?

God’s answer is that He loves us because we belong to Him.  We may feel lost, but we never are.  We are all, as my friend Laddie recently put it, “just a phone call away from heartbreak,” and yet, we are also, all just a single cry away from healing.  A shepherd may lose his sheep.  A woman may lose her coin.  A son may lose his family.  But God never loses us.  He is always with us, always.  He loves us.  We belong to Him.  He belongs to us.  We are a family.  And unlike our earthly families, filled with imperfect parents and imperfect children, all the wounds in our heavenly family have been healed.  Jesus Christ took the punishment we deserve on the cross.  And so everything lost has been found.

So when we feel lost, or stuck in our pride, self-righteousness or anger – all we have to do is remember this: we have already been found, just as we are, and in the finding, we are found not wanting but having.  We have everything through the love of God.  Everything bad has been made untrue in Him.  We can trust Him with all the bad things in our lives, even if we don’t understand them.  He will restore our sense of self.  He will restore our sense of home.  He will restore our sense of purpose.  He will restore our ability to love others, even when they least deserve it – because He will remind us that that is the kind of love He has for us.

And by the way, the picture at the start of this blog was given to me by Tory Baker and hangs in my bedroom – because I love it.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on February 1, 2012