Faith Comes First

It was prayer time, and Peter and John were doing what they usually did.

It was prayer time, and the lame man was doing what he usually did.

They were going to pray. He was going to beg. No one expected anything out of the ordinary. Isn’t that how it often feels when God begins to work?

Acts 3:1-10.

When the lame man saw Peter and John passing through the Beautiful Gate, he asked them for money, just like he did everyone else. I imagine there was a blank look in his eyes, like the injured mother with a baby I once passed on a street in South Africa, her sore leg blocking the sidewalk so I couldn’t help but stop. The lame man looked at them but didn’t see them as people. They didn’t look at him. That’s how we interact with beggars, isn’t it? Within a second, the lame man had already shifted his absent gaze on to the next group of people, asking out of habit far more than expectation.

But then Peter and John stopped. They looked the man directly in the eye, and they asked him to return their gaze. Now this was unexpected.

Did Peter know what he was
going to say before he stopped?

Did Peter know what he has going to say when he stopped there at the gate? Did he actually see the lame man afar off and begin praying/thinking about what to do? I think the Holy Spirit must have compelled him to stop and speak because his words are so bold.

Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.  –Peter in Acts 3:6

Stand up and walk.

Here’s the thing: Peter hadn’t healed anyone since Jesus sent the twelve out into the towns of Israel (Matthew 10), and we don’t have any documentation of what actually happened during that time. Sure, he’d been with Jesus when Jesus healed, starting with his own mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31). Sure, he’d walked on water when Jesus told him to step out of the boat (Matthew 14:22-33). But Peter himself hadn’t healed since long before Jesus left. There was significant risk in speaking aloud.

Was Peter’s voice shaky?

Was he even a little doubtful?

Did he hesitate before that last word…before he said, “walk”?

His confidence in Jesus’ power and the Holy Spirit’s work was growing exponentially. Still, I wonder if he took a deep breath before speaking. I would have.

If Peter hadn’t spoken, the miracle wouldn’t have happened. Peter had faith first. He believed God would work through him before he knew it as fact.

But that’s not all. Take a look at the next verse.

Taking him by the right hand, [Peter] helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.  –Acts 3:7

Note the order of events. The lame man took Peter’s hand, then he started standing up, then his feet and ankles were strengthened. Do you see it?

He made the effort to stand
after a lifetime of not standing.

The man had to believe first. He had to grasp Peter’s hand and make the effort to stand…after a lifetime of not standing. He could have been skeptical. He could have demanded evidence of the miracle before he acted on it. He could have sat there, saying, “I don’t feel any different.”

But he didn’t. He had faith first. He believed Jesus, through Peter, was healing him before he felt the muscles growing in his legs.

Clearly, Peter had taken on the authority the gospels show so often in Jesus…that attitude which drew everyone around to believe Him even before they saw miracles. Okay, not everyone, but remember the lepers who left Jesus to report to the temple, then on the way were healed (Luke 17:11-19)?

Maybe even Peter was surprised by the authority in his voice and the immediacy of the miracle.

Faith comes first.

Faith is believing what we do not see, and the reward for this kind of faith is to see what we believe. –Saint Augustine (quoted in Streams in the Desert July 24)

When the writer of Hebrews contemplated examples of faith through the ages, he (or she!) said,

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.  –Hebrews 11:1

Confidence…assurance…unbounded by sight.

Because we fundamentally trust
God, we can act on unproven faith.

This verse applies to the big things, like our assurance of a Heaven we haven’t seen, but it also applies to the small things, like speaking a truth you can’t yet touch, like sharing your story with that wayward teenager. Honestly, sometimes the big, far away things are easier. Yet, because we fundamentally trust God, we can act on unproven faith…faith that will be proven in the next ten seconds or ten minutes, not just faith that’s proven at our deaths.*

I’m not talking about some kind of name-it-claim-it gospel here. I’m talking about heeding the Holy Spirit even when you have no logical basis for it, about trusting that God will act in a situation to which He has specifically drawn you. It doesn’t matter which side of the situation you are on.

Peter opened his mouth and commanded a healing into existence.

The lame man began trying to stand before he could see or feel any difference in his legs.

There aren’t a whole lot of miracles anymore. I wonder if part of the reason is because we don’t let faith come first.

Prayer time on a random day of the week, and three guys were just doing what they usually did. Until God did something extraordinary in and through them. My #faithinGod is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you been there? Have you had no certainty of an outcome, but God provided or created one? Want to share that story with us in the comments? Want to say something else? I always like to hear from my readers, and I respond to every comment!

*You’ll see this same idea in Jesus and Martha’s conversation near Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:23-26). Jesus is the resurrection for that moment, not just for the end times. More about this in Dwell: Mary, Martha & Lazarus.

Related: Faith is in the Gap*

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The Ten Days Between: Betrayal and Belonging

The remaining eleven must have felt betrayed. Judas had walked alongside the disciples, slept on the ground near them, shared big bowls of soup with them, and so much more. Then he turned his back on them—not just on Jesus and the other eleven, but on the 120 who had followed Jesus for most of the last three years. He betrayed them all.

How long had Judas deceived them? How long had he plotted, snuck off, smiled through his hate? (That scene where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet comes to mind.) Not only was Jesus gone, but this band of brothers had a missing link…a powder keg in their midst that had exploded, almost destroying them all.

He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.  –Acts 1:17

Acts 1:12-22.

Long-time readers know I like those moments between the big moments, those times when it feels like nothing is happening, when waiting is the work. This is one of those moments. Jesus has gone to Heaven (Acts 1:9), Pentecost is still a few days away (Acts 2:1-4), and the apostles are waiting in Jerusalem, as Jesus instructed (Acts 1:4-5).

Peter is not good at waiting. Remember those days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension? Peter decided to go fishing (John 21). I think he went because he was restless, needing to do something besides wait.

Ten days is a long time for someone
like Peter to sit around and wait.

There were ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost. That’s a long time for someone like Peter to wait. Maybe he spends his days searching the scriptures. Maybe he drums his fingers on the windowsill and sighs a lot. Maybe he feels an obligation, being (probably) the oldest, to lead the group forward.

At some point in the ten days, all 120 are together in the upper room where they are staying. He has a couple of verses from Psalms on his mind—verses that point him toward an action, a decision. They need to choose a replacement for Judas, putting his betrayal to bed (so to speak). But let’s step back for a second.

Regarding Judas, there was a distinct sense of betrayal among the disciples, and in some ways, I’m sure they mourned Judas’ desertion and death. But there was also a new sense of belonging to a particular place in history. For over 400 years prior to Jesus’ birth, God had been silent toward his people. No prophets and no prophecy. No miracles. No amazing victories in battle. The Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings (what we call the Old Testament) must have felt ancient…like we might feel in a long-deserted antebellum mansion.

The Apostles have a distinct place
where they belong in God’s history.

Then Peter begins to see connections. Believing Jesus is the Messiah, he reads these ancient texts differently. He discovers verses—instructions, really—that pertain to him, to this moment, to the lives they will live moving forward. Peter, John, and the rest of the apostles have a distinct place in history! Their lives connect to prophecies made hundreds of years earlier. They belong.

A couple of observations here. (We won’t even talk about choosing Matthias today.)

It’s natural to focus on the present and what’s happening around us, but God has a bigger plan. We are not part of prophecy in the specific ways the disciples were, but we’re still part of the plan. When things get heavy around us, when we are betrayed, when we don’t know where to step next, God is already implementing His plan. Out waiting is part of what’s necessary for the plan to fall into place.

We cannot expect to endure the difficulties and betrayals of life without a strong foundation in God’s Word.

Peter knew a lot of Scripture already. From these first few chapters in Acts, it’s clear Peter’s knowledge of the scriptures combined with the Holy Spirit’s presence to produce understanding in Peter’s mind…and out of his mouth. His go-to phrases seem to be, “It is written” (e.g. Acts 1:20) and “[So-and-so prophet] said” (e.g. Acts 2:16, 3:22). We cannot expect to endure the difficulties and betrayals of life without a strong foundation in God’s Word. We must pack our brains full of individual verses and longer passages so the Holy Spirit can use them at the right times. The more specifically He can select a verse to bring to our minds, the more succinctly we will be directed and the more clearly we will speak truth.

I am so convicted about this. I lean heavily on the verses I learned as a child, which is well and good, but I should be continuing to learn new passages and review the older ones even though it’s harder to commit things to memory here in middle age.

Oh yeah, Peter was middle-aged too. Just one more way we’re alike even while he challenges me from two thousand years away.

What were the disciples feeling while they waited on the Holy Spirit (Acts 1)? Clearly, betrayal from Judas but also a sense of belonging to God’s history. More evidence that my #waiting is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Has God spoken to you through his Word in a time of waiting? Do you see something else in this passage? How do you continue to memorize Scripture? My readers and I would love to hear your responses to any of these questions. Drop a note in the comments below!

Blessed Are: the Pure-Hearted

King Solomon questioned, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9). He’s right. It’s hard to find an Old Testament example of someone who is pure-hearted.

For one thing, the Hebrew idea we typically translate as heart means “the center of the human spirit, from which spring emotions, thoughts, motivations, courage and action” (NIV Study Bible notes for Psalm 4:7). It’s a tall order to keep all that pure!

King David thought alot about the heart, and he knew what Jesus also told us in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said,

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  –Matthew 5:8

David wrote,

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god.  –Psalm 24:3-4

Being in the presence of the Lord…seeing God…requires that we have pure hearts. Thankfully, Jesus’ sacrifice made it possible for us to be counted among the pure-hearted. People in Old Testament times didn’t have that confidence during their lifetimes.

As we continue our series, Seeking the Beatitudes in the Old Testament, just one Old Testament figure comes to mind when I look for someone pure-hearted: Joseph.

Genesis 37, 39-47.

Joseph was his father’s clear favorite out of twelve sons. One day he dreamed his parents and brothers would bow down to him. Maybe he didn’t realize it was a prophetic dream. He naively shared the dream with his brothers, who immediately resented him far more than they had before. They were so angry that they sold him into slavery and lied to their father, saying he had been killed. That’s the short version.

God did it, but it
looked like a coincidence.

Joseph ended up in Egypt and somehow came to serve in the home of Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, a man named Potiphar. It’s not really a “somehow.” God did it, but it looked like a coincidence from the outside.

Oh yeah, Joseph was super-handsome and super-qualified for every task he was given. The fact is, “the Lord gave him success in everything he did” (Genesis 39:3) and blessed Potiphar’s household because of Joseph’s presence.

Exhibit A for a Pure Heart

Here’s how we know Joseph was pure in heart. Potiphar’s wife noticed him and invited him into her bed—not just once but daily. And daily, Joseph refused. I don’t think it was because she was ugly or old or any of the superficial reasons one sees on modern TV. Look what Joseph said:

“My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” Genesis 39:9

Exhibit B for a Pure Heart

Joseph’s pure heart
prevented resentfulness.

Eventually (to make another long story short), the wife got insulted and accused Joseph of trying to rape her. Potiphar threw Joseph in prison where he was so successful—despite it being prison!—that the warden put Joseph in charge of everything in the prison (Genesis 39:22). Joseph also developed a reputation there as an interpreter of dreams. Joseph’s pure heart prevented him from being resentful of either his brothers or Potiphar.

Exhibit C for a Pure Heart

After several years, Pharaoh had a prophetic dream that only Joseph could interpret, which led to Joseph’s installment as second-in-charge of all Egypt (Genesis 41:41-43). Because of Joseph’s careful planning and the success the Lord always gave him, Egypt was the only country in the region to successfully survive a seven-year drought. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt in search of food, and they bowed to the unrecognizable Joseph—just as he had dreamed so many years earlier. Even in this moment when even the holiest among us might crow just a little, Joseph cried and celebrated the reunion (Genesis 45:15, for example). His pure heart lasted a lifetime.

Joseph Saw God Work

Joseph saw God work and
experienced God’s blessings.

Joseph didn’t “see God” in the way we imagine Jesus meant in the Beatitudes, but he certainly saw God work and experienced God’s blessing even in the most difficult circumstances. Remember what he told his brothers after their father died?

“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  –Genesis 50:20

As Jesus’ many followers heard him preach this inside-out sermon, so different from what they usually heard, I wonder if there were one or two who could remember Joseph’s story and know Jesus’ ideas weren’t as far-fetched as they seem.

Seeking the Beatitudes in the Old Testament: Joseph was pure in heart, and he saw God work. My #heartpurity is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

We don’t know how Joseph maintained his purity through all those years. What do you do to keep a pure heart? Please share in the comments below. I would love to hear from you!

For more about a pure heart, check out this post from my Intentional Parenting blog: On Purity.

When Your Ministry Falls Out the Window

Paul only had a week in Troas—not long to share everything God had placed on his heart, to encourage all the leaders, and to meet new people with whom he could share the Gospel. The week passed quickly. On Paul’s last night in the city, the church planned a special service where Paul would speak, and they would all share communion.

Paul didn’t just share a thoughtful devotion.

Acts 20:6-12.

Now I’m from the south, and I’ve heard some long-winded preachers. Very rarely do they truly have that much to say. Did I say “rarely”? In fact, only once, in my experience. Most of the time, they have a good message but lack a good editor.

Everything Paul said was
important and relevant,
but that didn’t matter.

I’m not saying Paul falls into that category. I’m sure everything he said was important and relevant. But still, as someone said, “The mind can only absorb what the behind can endure.”

Enter Eutychus.

Paul “kept on talking until midnight” (v.7). The room was packed, and the many lamps (v.8) probably also contributed to a stuffy heat. Eutychus found a good vantage point where he could catch the occasional breeze from outside. Never mind that they were three stories up.

Eutychus got drowsy.

Paul “talked on and on.” Luke’s words (v.9), not mine!

It was hot.

The hour was late.

You know what happened. Eutychus fell asleep, then he fell out the window. The impact killed him.

My mind wandered while our pastor was talking last Sunday. His sermons are less than forty minutes. It’s morning, and the air is well-conditioned. Still, I find it hard to focus. The theater-style seating is padded, and the lights are dim. A guy one row in front of me was almost snoring, head resting in his left hand!

Sometimes, it’s hard to pay attention, even when you know the message is good and relevant. Sometimes, we’re going to fall asleep in the middle of it all. Sometimes, each of us is Eutychus.

But that’s not my point, just a place where we may need to forgive ourselves.

When Paul saw what had happened to Eutychus, there’s no indication that he was insulted. (I would have been.) Paul went down to the young man’s body and wrapped himself around the him. We don’t know the details of what happened next, but God used Paul to bring Eutychus back to life (v.10).

Here’s the part that both amuses and challenges me.

Some people took Eutychus home (v.12), but Paul went back upstairs. The group observed communion, then Paul continued talking until daylight!

He preached all night, breaking only for a resurrection and a snack. Then he left for Assos.

Paul dealt with the issue
then returned to his task.

When something negative happens in our ministries, we tend to think it’s a sign that we’re doing something wrong, like maybe we need to quit. It’s difficult for us to take the event “in stride” and continue the ministry God has given us. Paul, however, dealt with the issue, then returned to his task. He needed to share as much as possible before he left town, and he didn’t let a small thing—like a guy falling out the window (!!)—stop him.

I wish we knew more about Eutychus. Did he become a strong believer, maybe even a church leader? Did he ever sit in a window again?

Paul moved on, first to Assos, then to Ephesus. We can move on, too.

Paul didn’t let a big thing like a guy falling out the window stop him from the ministry God had given him in that town. My #ministrycrisis is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you had a difficult issue arise in your ministry? How did you deal with it? Were you able to continue after it was resolved? I’d love to hear how God worked in you through such an event. Leave me a note in the comments below. You can also let me know what you think of this story or what stands out to you in Acts 20.

Why I didn’t have new content this week

So this happened.

GrishaVerse books
#GrishaVerse (out of order)

My blog isn’t the only thing I neglected since I dipped my toe into Leigh Bardugo’s YA “tsarpunk” world less than two weeks ago. My only regret is that there aren’t any more stories.

Goodreads reviews coming soon. (I didn’t stop long enough to review each one as I finished it.)

What book series completely captivated you when you first read it? What book do you wish you could read again for the first time? Drop me a note in the comments.

Called to Brokenness

Bread doesn’t grow on trees. If I want to make bread, I have to use flour. Flour typically comes from a grain, such as wheat.

Grain  ⇒  Flour  ⇒  Bread

We once lived in a place with less strict processing standards than the United States FDA. Sometimes, a few kernels of our rice retained their tough outer hulls. That hull was like the shell of a nut! It was difficult to break with your hands and almost impossible to chew. We checked and cleaned our rice to remove those pieces before we cooked. Other grains grow the same way.

Wheat is of little use while
it’s standing in the field.

Before the grains come to us, grain farmers put great effort into growing high-quality grain. It may be strong and look beautiful standing there in the field, but it has very little use in that form. The grain already has a purpose, but it isn’t fit for that purpose just yet.

In order to convert grain into bread, the grain must change. First, it must be harvested–cut from the stalk which has sustained it. Then, it is threshed to remove the tough outer hull of each grain berry. Next, it must be winnowed, which separates the berry from the chaff. Finally, the berries must be ground into a coarse powder that will mix with water and whatever else we plan to use for the finished product.

02-21 cinnamon rolls baking breakfast
just one of many great uses for flour (c) Carole Sparks

Here’s a fun, 5-minute explanation of how to make flour from wheat.

Threshing.

Winnowing.

Grinding.

Without the grain’s sacrifice,
we wouldn’t have bread.

I love the smell of freshly-baked bread. Bread fills our stomachs, delights us, and symbolizes friendship when we share it. But without the grain’s sacrifice, without all the punishment each grain endures, we wouldn’t have bread.

Do you see where I’m going here?

“A badly bruised soul is one who is chosen.” -Streams in the Desert, June 19

Can we consider our
struggles a privilege?

We go through struggles. We get beaten up, tossed around, ground down, burned out. It feels like punishment at the time. Can we, instead, consider it privilege? Can we look forward to the “pleasing aroma” (2 Corinthians 2:15) we will give off for God’s glory? A finished loaf of bread (or pan of rolls) blesses many.

God knocks off the hard, outer shells we’ve allowed to grow around ourselves. He blows away the empty husks (the chaff), and He allows us to be ground—not for the pain of it but for the resulting glory. That brokenness is necessary for God’s glory, others’ blessing, and our own maturity. In other words, brokenness is the calling of every believer.

Want more on the purpose of our presence as Christ-followers? Check out this post: Sheep and Grapes.

Our difficulties: Are they punishment or privilege? If we want to be useful for the Kingdom, we must count them as privilege. Also, bread is good. My #brokenness is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you previously considered the flour-making process? I’m just learning, and I would appreciate your input. Do you see other parallels to the Christ-life? Please share in the comments below!