But God

But God’s grace builds us up

Acts 20:28-32 [Paul saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders] So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders. … Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out! … And now I entrust you to God and the message of his grace that is able to build you up and give you an inheritance with all those he has set apart for himself.

At the end of his teary farewell to beloved friends, Paul returns to the topic of grace—my favorite subject, my deepest longing.

Grace builds up. I want to tell you my experience at the writer’s conference listening to two different keynote addresses.

The first, to open the conference, earnestly described how terrible America is today, and who he thinks is at fault for the mess we’re in, with political references that made me think of Romans 13:7 (“Give respect and honor to those who are in authority”) only by contrast. What have I gotten myself into? I wondered.

So, I felt anxious when I saw the topic of the closing-day keynote was “Our Voice in a Hostile Culture.” If it’s more of the same, I can’t listen to it, I thought. I don’t want to leave this conference feeling upset and disappointed with the event leaders who have been so kind to me.

As I listened, though, I found myself in tears. The speaker called us to Kingdom values. We are citizens of Heaven first, and we serve a King whose nature is love, and justice, and righteousness, and mercy. We are to represent him. Our voice is to be characterized by grace:

“In all things, become love—so that if anyone thinks of love, they think of you. In all things, all the time, become love. Patiently listen. Hear what people have to say. Treat them with respect. Look for what you have in common, the ways you can connect. Have an attitude of grace. Practice grace. Pray into it. Offer vision and hope. Be compassionate. Our lives are to be a lovely fragrance attracting people to the King whose grace we ourselves have experienced …”

In the flood of comments in the chat (we were on Zoom), one person wrote, “This talk has been worth the whole price of the conference.” I agree. Of all the thousands of words I listened to over three intense days, these are the words that most impacted and encouraged me. The words that will continue to challenge me.

Lord, teach me grace. Remind me constantly of your grace in my life. Please show me today how to build up those whose lives touch mine.

Shutterstock: sun ok

But the Holy Spirit warns

Acts 20:22-24 [Paul saying farewell to Ephesian elders] And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead. But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.

Looking back this morning over the faithfulness of God through the ups and downs of our 44 years of marriage (today is our anniversary), Dave and I commented that the stage we’re in now is similar to what Paul expressed about the value of his life: both Dave and I have work we feel called and compelled to complete. His work is different from mine, but both of us want to, in our own ways, “tell others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.”

I’m in the middle of an online writer’s conference. Yesterday I had the chance to ask advice from a web designer. He said I was the first person who had ever given him a cogent argument for having two websites. What struck me in the conversation is that for both ButGod.blog (“All I see is grace”) and HorseThief1898.blog (“A hint of magic and touches of grace”), the key word is grace. I thought this morning of the phrase from John Newton’s song, “’Twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”

So as we observe the world around us and feel concern for our grandchildren’s future, I invite you to take a few moments to let John Newton’s powerful words penetrate your mind and anchor your soul:

Did you catch the “But God” in Newton’s lyrics? What is your But God story today?

But Jesus was honored

Acts 19:15-20 One time when the seven sons of Sceva, a leading priest, tried to cast out an evil spirit, it replied, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them, and attacked them with such violence that they fled from the house, naked and battered. The story spread through Ephesus … A solemn fear descended on the city and the name of the Lord Jesus was greatly honored. Many who became believers confessed their sinful practices … So the message about the Lord spread widely and had a powerful effect.

John 3:34-35 Jesus speaks God’s words, for the Father gives him the Spirit without limit. The Father loves his Son and has put everything into his hands.

Have you ever longed to hear Jesus speak to you, just personally to you? During a time of trouble in Brazil, I shared this longing with an older missionary friend. She said, “Well, let’s ask him.” I’ll never forget that precious moment. It has strengthened me many times since.

The thing is, hearing him speak requires being still and listening. Leanne Payne, a woman of deep prayer, used to say, “Listen for the word of love the Father is always speaking to you.” How can we hear those words when we’re so flooded by other voices?

I resonated yesterday with the urging of Kevin, one of our pastors, to take a weekly sabbath from screens. I’ve done this before, with great benefit, but had let the habit slip away. I’m excited about so again, being quiet enough for a whole day weekly to hear God’s fortifying words of love—not in general for the world, but for me.

When God’s voice is strong and solid inside me, I can handle the other voices better. Isn’t that true for you, too? Want to try this challenge with me?

By doing so, like the Ephesians, we are honoring Jesus above everything else. We are allowing him to nourish our souls.

Kevin quoted for us Mary Oliver’s famous poem, “The Summer Day,” the one that ends with “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The part that caught my attention yesterday was Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean-

After we got home from church, Dave helped me bag a huge pile of weeds I had pulled until dark the night before. He showed me a huge grasshopper-like creature attached to the brown bag he was stuffing with weeds:

I don’t know what this is–haven’t found it online yet. It’s five inches long.

This grasshopper … Thanks, Lord. Message received:

Be still. Be attentive. Let the Lord nourish your soul. Know Jesus and let him know you. Honor him by listening to his voice–his words of love for today.

But God said, “Don’t be afraid”

Acts 18:5-10 Paul testified to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. But when they opposed and insulted him, Paul shook the dust from his clothes and said, “From now on I will preach to the Gentiles.” … One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him, “Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! For I am with you.”

I have a strong streak of cowardice. So I empathize with my grandson Caleb when he says, “I want to do it with you, Grammy.” Some things are just plain scary, especially if you’ve tried before and things didn’t go well.

Caleb’s first time kayaking was a bit scary at first.

It means so much to hear God say “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you.” Even Paul needed that encouragement. It was hard for him to be insulted and slandered, as it would be for any of us.

I wrote the content that became Vítima, Sobrevivente, Vencedor (Victim, Survivor, Victor) first as my thesis for my family counseling program. Several people encouraged me to publish it, but I realized what I had written was largely theory. I lacked experience. I believed in what I wrote, but I hadn’t adequately put it into practice.

My counselor friend Gloria, however, had lots of experience. Perhaps she would be willing to co-write the book! I floated the idea to her, and she liked it. We scheduled a time to discuss details. The day before we were to meet, though, Gloria suddenly died from a pulmonary embolism. Instead of conversing with her the next day, I attended her funeral. (In Brazil, burials generally take place within twenty-four hours.)

In my grief at the loss of my friend, I set aside the book idea. A few months later, though, I had to decide: Would I face into my fear of publishing the book alone? Would I speak out for abuse victims, breaking long-held cultural taboos?

Long story short: the book was published in Brazil in 2000. A new edition came out in 2012, much improved by the experience I and many others gained “in the trenches” as we applied the concepts of recovery in small groups. Faithful, passionate women and men have continued this work, offering hope, love, and practical restoration to abuse victims, most of whom had never told their stories to anyone before.

The first version
The second version

Last week I received a text from Brazil, telling me a national-level training would be held last weekend by Zoom using Vítima, Sobrevivente, Vencedor. I rejoiced later to hear it had gone well. If you think of it, pray for the new teams taking this courageous step toward speaking out.

Don’t be afraid. I am with you. In what area do you need this encouragement from the Lord?

But God commands everyone everywhere to repent

Acts 17:24-31 He is the God who made the world and everything in it … He has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything … His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. … God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. For he has set a day for judging the world with justice …

Thanks to my Be the Bridge group, I’ve just read a funny, counter-cultural book called Unoffendable, by Brant Hansen. His thesis is that Christians should be the most refreshingly unoffendable people on the planet. He says the idea of “righteous anger” is unbiblical:

“We should forfeit our right to be offended. That means forfeiting our right to hold on to anger. When we do this, we’ll be making a sacrifice that’s very pleasing to God. … Actually, it’s not even ‘forfeiting’ a right, because the right doesn’t exist. We’re told to forgive, and that means anger has to go, whether we’ve decided our own anger is ‘righteous’ or not.”

Reading this, my first response is, There’s no way we can achieve this without mega help from God.

God’s hand pouring down blessings Shutterstock: Pemaphoto

Hansen next says, “I sense a lot of people think this idea is stupid, and they don’t agree with me on this. And I sense this because lots of people say, ‘That idea is stupid, and I don’t agree with you on this.’ I’ve got antennae for subtlety like that. I pick up on things.” (Haha.)

Hansen says God can judge, because he is very different from us—he’s perfect. His character allows this. Ours doesn’t (1 Cor. 4:3-5). We don’t know the backstory. He does.

When I worked with sexual abuse recovery groups in Brazil, I thanked God constantly that he is the Judge and not us. Since vengeance belongs to him, as we express our profound pain to him, we can let go our intense desire to see justice done on our own terms.

Unoffendable challenges me, and I’m not sure I’m ready to swallow the whole thing yet. But here are a few more Hansen quotes:

“Anger is extraordinarily easy. It’s our default setting. Love is very difficult. Love is a miracle … We can recognize injustice, grieve it, and act against it—but without rage, without malice, and without anger. We have enough motivation, I hope, to defend the defenseless and protect the vulnerable, without needing anger … Life has become so much better this way” (p. 7-8).

“Gratitude and anger can’t coexist. It’s one or the other. One drains the life from you. The other fills your life with wonder. Choose wisely” (p. 44).

“We have nothing to prove, and when we really believe that, we’ll hardly be quick to anger. When we do get angry, we’ll rid ourselves of the anger more easily. Remember: Anger and rest are always at odds. You can’t have both at once” (p. 59).

“Whenever there’s an injury to a relationship, a hurt, a broken heart, or even a broken thing, and you are willing to forgive, you are saying, ‘I got this. I’m going to pick up the bill for this.’ This is, of course, precisely what God has done for us. … Since anger has value to us, giving it up requires a sacrifice, one that’s simply not optional for the follower of Jesus … (p. 141-142).

“[Jesus offers] a completely different way to live, and it’s one that sets us free from anger, free from guilt, free to really love people, free from constant anxiety, and free to get a good night’s sleep” (p. 143).

“When we’re at our best, you can kick and punch, sure, but you can’t offend us. … We can’t be agents of healing in people’s lives unless we’re ready to bear their wounds for them and from them. Jesus did precisely this for us. … Real ministry forces us to abandon our relentless search for approval from others. That frees us to love beautifully and recklessly” (p. 149-150).

“It’s always grace that changes hearts. Rules don’t, ever. Grace does” (p. 166-167).

“Your ‘righteousness’ isn’t the issue. His is. Final answer. We want it to be about us. But it’s not. Use your guilt to drive you back to Jesus … and then drop it” (p. 181).

“We’re human, so we’re going to occasionally feel threatened. It happens. Anger happens too. So do jealousy and bitterness and resentment. But [in God’s kingdom] things will be set right in the end” (p. 198).

But God honors those who seek truth

Acts 17:10-11 [Jealous Jewish leaders incited a riot against Paul and Silas in Thessalonica, arresting Jason for hosting them.] That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea [19 miles away]. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Someone anonymously sent Dave and me, through our mission address, a typed set of Scriptures often used to motivate defense of the unborn. I love those verses and have used them myself not only in favor of babies in the womb but for others who can’t speak for themselves.

I’ve used them when I speak about the vision God gave our friend Janet of Michael Derek, our fourth child whom we lost to miscarriage. (That story is in chapter 20 of Karis: All I See Is Grace.) A prior vision of Michael, shared with us at his memorial service in 1987, led us to believe his special task in Heaven is to care for the babies who arrive there due to elective abortion. I love thinking Karis assists him in that sacred work.

I’m both intrigued and puzzled about what led someone to send us those Scriptures in the way they did. I would love to know! I would love for that person to share with us whatever concerns are behind their decision to communicate—what exactly?—in that way. Especially if they think we are at fault and need correction. Even more if we have offended them. Jesus teaches us, If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense (Mt 18:15). I invite you, if you’re reading this, to ‘fess up so we can talk, and learn, and grow. Let’s live in the light and have fellowship with each other (1 John 1:7). Let’s speak truth in love (Eph 4:15).

Truth. How easily it gets skewed, and muddied, and misrepresented, and misunderstood. And put into rigid boxes along with things that aren’t true or right or godly. More than ever, we must be people like the Bereans, with open minds to truth, if we are to impact our generation for our Lord.

Sometimes, I’ve found, truth dresses itself differently than we expect. And we have reason to mistrust “truth” when it is dressed in bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, slander, and other wrong behavior (Eph 4:31-32). Instead, Paul says, Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.

Truth. It matters.

Shutterstock: GoodIdeas

But the Holy Spirit redirected

Acts 16:6-10 [For Paul’s second missionary journey, Silas joined him in place of Barnabas. After revisiting Derbe and Lystra and picking up Timothy] Paul and Silas traveled through the area of Phrygia and Galatia, because the Holy Spirit prevented them from preaching the word in the province of Asia at that time. Then, coming to the borders of Mysia, they headed north for the province of Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there … That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece stood there, pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” So we [Luke joined Paul] decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there.

Not Brazil, Pittsburgh. Not our plan, God’s.

We expected to spend the rest of our lives—including our retirement—in São Paulo. I imagined receiving my grown and married children and their children in our house there—maybe once a year, maybe for Christmas.

Pittsburgh was a tough switch for both Dave and me. I was pulled out mid-stride, to go to a place where I knew not a single person. I remember telling the 100-plus participants in REVER (restoration ministry) at our church in January 2004, “I’ll be back in time to celebrate the end of this course with you in August.” August turned out to be the month Karis had her first transplant. And then rejection. And then Legionnaire’s …

Shutterstock: 1 plus 1 trips From one adopted city (São Paulo) …
To another (Pittsburgh). Shutterstock: Mihai_Andritoiu

More than ten years later, I finally made a special trip for an attempt at closure in Brazil. I miss our friends there and the joy of living in Brazil. Sometimes the grief of leaving sweeps over me still.

Dave took six years to realize he had to leave, and finally saying “yes” to the Lord required repentance on his part for making Brazil into sort of an idol. “What on earth will I do in Pittsburgh?” he asked me.

But God …  In the Lord’s incredible grace, that was when the Brazilian Bible Society asked Dave to write the Discipleship Bible. So between trips, he had a huge, fascinating project—one he would never have found time for while living in Brazil. The Discipleship Bible is impacting people across the huge nation of Brazil, and the Bible Society expects to publish it in Spanish next year. Dave considers it his legacy.

Meanwhile, God expanded Dave’s work into Spanish-speaking Latin America. Again, he would never have found time to invest in this way while living in Brazil.

And me? Though I miss my friends in Brazil terribly, I have the pleasure of my children’s and grandchildren’s company on a regular basis, a joy I never, ever expected, since neither Dave nor I grew up relating to our grandparents. And God took me into writing as a major investment of my time, something I did not anticipate. It surprises me still. Really, Lord? Have you grown me up enough yet for this?

What about you? Where has God shut doors in your life and led you on a path you didn’t expect or plan for? And how have you seen him walk with you, one step and then the next?

Thinking about Paul, and his rupture with Barnabas: he wasn’t perfect. He was immature in some areas. But God used him anyway. Take heart.

But the Holy Spirit lays on us no greater burden

Acts 15:8-11, 28 [After a dispute over keeping Jewish laws, Peter said] God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus. … For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you.

Matthew 11:30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.

Galatians 6:2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.

So, Dave and I sat with Rachel, Brian, and Liliana at one of the family tables (with a box of activities for kids of all ages) set up on the periphery of the tent where our church is meeting for one of its Sunday services. My 16-month-old granddaughter kept wandering to a blanket on the grass next to our table, where a family with a baby played with him while they listened to the sermon. At one point Lili grabbed the baby’s ball and took off with it down the sidewalk.

Thief Liliana stole my glasses

At the end of the service I commented to Brian, “Lili doesn’t quite have down yet the concepts of ‘mine’ and ‘yours.’”

Brian replied, “Oh no, she understands perfectly. What’s yours is mine.”

Dave said, “And God says, ‘All that is mine is yours.’”

Wow. Think about that. All that is mine is yours. Do you remember which parable that quote is from? The Father in the Prodigal Son story didn’t say this to the prodigal, but to the older brother. Think about that. In the face of such abundance, could he not have found it in his heart to show some mercy to his brother, who by his own fault is now destitute?

When I realize how much I have received, it is a small thing to extend mercy to others. Love mercy, Hosea tells us. Freely you have received. Freely give (Matthew 10:8).

I told this story the next evening to begin a brief presentation on the theme of mercy at the second of three Arts Festival evenings held in the same tent where we had met for worship the day before. This was the second of three summer Arts evenings focusing on justice, mercy, and humility, from Hosea 6:8.

The next Arts evening is August 30, on the topic of humility. Pittsburghers, you are welcome! If you’re an artist and wish to sell your loveliness, contact Elise Massa, elise.massa@gmail.com. And if you’d like a copy by email of my booklet with three reflections on mercy, let me know.

But God’s Kingdom includes hardship

Acts 14:21-28 After preaching the Good News in Derbe and making many disciples, Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia, where they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. … Finally, they returned by ship to Antioch of Syria, where their journey had begun. … They reported everything God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, too. And they stayed there with the believers for a long time.

It’s hardly a “health and wealth” message, is it. I suspect the “long time” Paul and Barnabas spent in Antioch of Syria after their first missionary journey relates to their need for healing, both physical and emotional. Besides the hardships of travel by ship and by land, they were misunderstood, slandered, run out of towns, stoned and left for dead. Paul’s strong feeling that John Mark abandoned them (BEFORE the stonings, etc.) will fracture his relationship with Barnabas. No wonder they needed time for rest and renewal before Paul set out again—with Silas this time—in chapter 16.

Reading this passage, I flashed on furloughs my parents took from their mission work in Guatemala, when I was six and eleven and eighteen. My little brother Danny could give a perfect rendition of Dad’s “furlough talk,” complete with gestures and inflections. The memory makes me laugh, because our son Dan did the same thing with Dave’s—“It’s Kairos time!” I bet he still could. (No, not a good idea to give your brother’s name to your son. But I love the name Daniel.)

Today is Dan’s birthday (son, not brother—see what I mean?). I want to honor my son for his resilience through many hardships as he grew up,. Some related to having a chronically ill sister, but our call to mission included Dave traveling constantly, using our home intensively as a “ministry center,” giving away more money than we should have at the expense of providing for Dan the kind of clothes, etc. the other kids had at his school. And much more. If I could do it all over again, I would spend less time and energy in “ministry” and more time caring for our kids.

Dan, I love you, admire profoundly the wise, generous, perceptive, kind, visionary man you are, and pray God’s rich blessing on this special next year of your life, as you and April marry and you develop Dignity Best Practices, whose time clearly is now.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAN!!

But God never left us without evidence

Acts 14:15-17 [After a man crippled from birth was healed, people in Lystra thought Paul and Barnabas were gods and prepared to sacrifice bulls to them.] Barnabas and Paul shouted, “Friends, we are merely human beings—just like you! We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them … In the past he permitted the nations to go their own ways, but he never left them without evidence of himself and his goodness.

Romans 1:20 Through everything God made, people can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature.

Colossians 1:15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.

I have just learned that our friend and colleague Doug Lamp died last night from complications of Covid. Doug and his wife Barbara spent their lives sharing the Good News about God’s goodness, first in Bolivia and then in Cuiabá, São Paulo (living three blocks from us), and Natal in Brazil. When I left São Paulo to accompany Karis through intestinal transplant, they reached out to our other daughters. Barbara did some “mom” things for and with Valerie at school I wasn’t there to do. We last saw Doug in Natal in January 2020, before any of us had heard of Covid. I will miss my cheerful email exchanges with him over the news in their prayer letters and ours. My husband Dave was a guest in their home countless times, in Cuiabá, São Paulo, and Natal. They traveled seven hours to attend our daughter Valerie’s wedding in southern Brazil.

Ironically, Doug and Barbara had their bags packed and tickets purchased to retire to the U.S. three weeks from the day Doug learned he had Covid. We talked about them visiting us in Pittsburgh. We are heartbroken for Barbara and for their family. Doug’s long battle did not end as we hoped and prayed.

What does Doug’s death have to do with this passage from Acts 14? I’m thinking this sad morning of Doug no longer dependent on the evidence of himself God gives us here on earth, but there, with him, joining Karis and all your loved ones and mine in awe around God’s throne. One day you and I will be there too. What will matter then of all that troubles us now?

Lord, reorder my preoccupations and priorities. Because you are good.