Antioch: First Church of…Well, Everything (part 2 – Acts 13-15)

The multi-ethnic church in Antioch was the first to do many things we find more-or-less normal for churches now. Click back to last week’s post about the first four ways they defined what “church” should be, then read on for three more ways they set the pattern. Continue reading

Letting Go of Legalism

During a family reunion many years ago, my husband’s family found themselves at a karaoke bar in Branson, Missouri. This was before I became an official part of the family. Toward the end of the evening, all the brothers, sisters, in-laws, cousins, etc. came together onstage and sang “We Are Family.” My mother-in-law still recalls it as one of the most special moments of her life.

Except one aunt and uncle weren’t there. They stayed back at the hotel because alcohol was served in that establishment.  Just before this aunt passed away, she told my mother-in-law how much she regretted that decision…how much she wished she had been part of the family ensemble on stage that night. Continue reading

Paul’s Inauspicious Beginning

We all know the dramatic story of Saul’s conversation on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and how he went from persecuting Christians to being principal among them and, most would say, the first cross-cultural missionary. No doubt, his calling was clear and certain.

Paul didn’t tell any
of the leading Christians
for a long time.

But here’s something really interesting. Paul talks about it in Galatians 1. He describes his conversion and what a complete change it made in him. Immediately, he began sharing with anyone who would listen in the Damascus synagogues, causing a major uproar! But even though his conversion was so phenomenal and he knew he was called to reach the Gentiles, he didn’t tell any of the leading Christians for a long time. In fact, after a few days in Damascus, he went away from the seat of Christianity (Acts 9:19-22, Galatians 1:11-17). Doesn’t that seem backward to you? Shouldn’t he go tell the leadership team in Jerusalem? Shouldn’t he start right away? But look at the next few verses:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. … Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. -Galatians 1:18-19, 21-22

I bet you’ve never heard a sermon preached from these verses. I haven’t. But there’s some real wisdom here for those of us called to something public. I’m talking to you, writers and speakers!

Three Years

Three years he remained anonymous. God called him to share Christ with the Gentiles—a totally new thing—but Paul waited three years. Jesus Himself (!!) appeared to Saul/Paul after His ascension, and yet Paul didn’t write a book, hire an agent, or start a speaking tour. He didn’t even start building a platform. (My writer friends will understand that one.) He went off by himself. So maybe he needed a little space to digest what happened on the way to Damascus and to reflect on this radical new perspective. Or maybe he realized the wounds he had previously inflicted on Christians were just too fresh. We don’t actually know why Paul went away or what he did for those three years, but I think he sought solitude because there was so much he had to unlearn from his days as a Pharisee. He knew he wasn’t spiritually mature enough to lead anything.

Get Acquainted

Finally, Paul thought himself ready to begin his ministry. So he printed some business cards, then he scheduled a social media blast and recruited a street team. He worked his connections to get a speaking engagement in a mid-size auditorium. Wait, what? He didn’t do any of that. He quietly entered Jerusalem and tried to connect with a disciple or two, but they were still afraid, even after three years! Finally, Barnabas convinced Peter to meet Paul, and Paul stayed with him for a couple of weeks. Peter was an experienced preacher and minister, a man who knew Jesus personally and who understood what “go ye therefore” (Matthew 28:19 KJV) really meant. In other words, Paul found a mentor.

Saw None of the Others

During those fifteen days with Cephas/Peter, Paul shared his faith all over Jerusalem, but he never met any of the other original disciples (Acts 9:28, Galatians 1:19). He wasn’t interested in networking with people who would further his career. In fact, I bet the only reason he saw James was because James just dropped by Peter’s house one day while Paul was there.

Personally Unknown

After those fifteen precious days with Peter, Paul went home to Tarsus. (Galatians says the more general Syria and Cilicia, but Acts 9:30 specifies Tarsus.) Jesus knew a prophet is never honored in his own country (John 4:44); it’s almost a proverb. On top of that, Paul didn’t know any of the believers in that region (Galatians 1:22). It wasn’t a logical destination for him. And yet, God began to give him an audience there—in an unlikely place at an unlikely time.

To summarize (in present tense), Jesus gives Paul an assignment. Three years later, he gets a couple of introductions, frightens a bunch of believers, then goes where no one knows him. He is not famous or popular. Not an auspicious beginning to such a profound calling.

I wonder if Paul expected more. I wonder if he was frustrated with the length of time in Arabia and the lack of recognition in Judea. I would have been. Would you?

Sometimes we have to
“grow into” our calling.
(click to tweet)

What’s my point? Calling and the ministry it produces may not be consecutive. Sometimes we have to “grow into” our calling.

More than ten years ago, I first understood God calling me to speak and write, but at the same time, He showed me I had too much pride and too little wisdom. I doubled Paul’s three-year absence, leaving more than six years before I even began blogging. The lesson we have from Paul, which is the lesson I’m still trying to learn, is to be patient. That means…

  • Not to force the ministry, like Paul waited those three years.
  • To keep working even while we’re learning, like Paul shared in Jerusalem.
  • To find a mentor, like Paul found Peter.
  • To know some people aren’t going to “get it,” like believers were frightened by Paul.
  • To take the less-prestigious, less-popular roles and wait on God, like Paul went to Tarsus.

Personally, that means I’m trying to be satisfied with my platform, with the reach of my Twitter feed, with the many (that is, all) influential people who still don’t know me. I’ll take the opportunity in front of me even when it doesn’t seem promising. And I’ll try not to scare too many people in the process.

Paul didn’t become the best-known Christian EVER over night. Likewise, our calling takes time. (click to tweet)

How’s your calling coming along? Are you frustrated by a lack of progress? How does Paul’s example help you be patient? Write me a note in the comments so I know I’m not alone on this!

The Crutch: a Short Story

The muted tip of Jack’s crutch played counterpoint to the flop of his one sneaker. If the hall hadn’t been so crowded, there would have been an echo. He liked the echo. He decided to ask permission for early dismissal in his next class so he could be alone in the hall.

“When you gonna get off that thing, Jack?” Carly was the only one who seemed to dislike his crutch. The rest of his friends thought it was cool…or maybe they were jealous of the extra attention he got because of it.

“I don’t know.” Jack shrugged with the shoulder that wasn’t over the crutch. “The doctor says another week or two, but I can move pretty fast on it now, and it’s actually comfortable.”

“Looks to me like you want to keep it.” Carly’s brow furrowed and her lip turned up, like she had caught a whiff of the cafeteria dumpster. She veered toward her next class before he could drum up a suitable answer.

Jack did want to
keep his crutch.

The truth was, he did want to keep it. He felt more in control of his path with the crutch, and he didn’t stumble over his own feet like he used to. Plus, people were so encouraging. Complete strangers at the big department store applauded his maneuverability and kids on the bus moved so he could have whatever seat he wanted. If people would just try it, they would see how much better life was with a crutch.

Jack shared his thoughts with his parents over dinner. They were such good listeners. Later, his dad climbed into the attic and pulled out an old wooden crutch. He used it to walk around the garage on one foot for almost ten minutes with Jack calling out pointers and trying not to laugh when his dad bumped into things. Jack’s dad hobbled over to Jack’s perch on the workbench. “You know, Jack, I think you’re right. I’ll have to build up some strength in my arm and shoulder, but I can move around fairly well with this crutch, and I’m sure it’ll get me some attention at work.”

The next evening, Jack’s dad came home with a shiny metal crutch for his mom. There was even a pink bow on the shoulder rest. “But I’m not hurt,” she insisted. Jack and his dad worked for half an hour before they convinced her to give it a try. Jack smiled to see that his mom finally had something to lean on while she cut vegetables for dinner.

They walked with Jack’s
familiar thump-squash stride.

Later in the week, Jack rummaged through the dumpsters near the hospital and found two used crutches. After applying some Clorox and a little duct tape, he presented them to his two best friends. They laughed. They fell down. They resorted to sword-fighting at one point. But after six juice boxes and a bit of cajoling, they walked home with Jack’s familiar thump-squash stride.

When Carly saw the three classmates using a crutch, she just rolled her eyes. Two days later, however, another five students came to school with crutches. By the end of the grading period, at least twenty percent of every class walked with a crutch. This fact slowed class changes and bus loading in the afternoons. Before long, the cafeteria created special lines for those on crutches and the library recruited student volunteers to carry study materials for the same kids.

The principal tried to keep this…phenomenon…quiet, but #crutchlife exploded on social media, which led to news crews clogging the entryways and phone lines of the school. On the second day of media coverage, one of the reporters leaned on a crutch to record her story for the camera.

Carly noticed the becrutched reporter out the window of her civics class. While Mr. Lewis droned on about moral codes and the “rule of law,” Carly searched for a cast or brace on the reporter’s favored leg. There wasn’t one.

After tripping over two crutches on the way out of class, Carly sought out Jack. “What are you doing, Jack?” Carly’s hands stretched stiff at her sides, elbows tight, eyes wide. “This is crazy! None of these people actually need crutches!”

Jack lowered himself onto the cafeteria seat and laid his crutch carefully under the table. He gestured toward the vacant seat beside him without speaking to Carly. She sighed as her body cascaded into the seat. Another sigh propelled her head to face Jack’s.

“My crutch makes
me a better person.”

He smiled kindly and patted her hand. “Carly, we’ve been friends for a long time, haven’t we?” He waited until she nodded slowly before he continued. “Then I feel comfortable telling you this. I have realized this crutch helps me move around in a way that I can’t on my own. It makes me a better, stronger person because I am now in control of my movements. I always know exactly where to find it and how to use it. Don’t you see? I am more free now.”

Jack’s patronizing tone made Carly want to vomit, but it was his words that drew a flush to her cheeks. “Have you lost your mind? You have two feet. You learned how to walk from your parents. You can go anywhere…run even. Now you’ve tied yourself to this crutch. It was supposed to be temporary, but you’ve gotten so comfortable with it that you’ve made it permanent. You are not better. You are not stronger.”

With that, Carly jumped up and ran away freely, on her own two feet.

Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? -Galatians 3:3

What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God [to Abraham] and thus do away with the promise. -Galatians 3:17

I’d love it if you shared this with some friends…

The Crutch: A short story and allegory via @Carole_Sparks. #NotAboutMe #legalism (click to tweet)

Can you see the allegory? Have you found yourself leaning on something that was originally helpful but eventually harmful? Want to share an example (doesn’t have to be personal)? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!