But God

But God removed and replaced

Acts 13:1-3, 9, 22-23, 46, 52 One day as the leaders of the church at Antioch of Syria were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.” … Saul, also known as Paul, was filled with the Holy Spirit … But God removed Saul and replaced him with David … And it is one of King David’s descendants, Jesus, who is God’s promised Savior … Then Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and declared, “It was necessary that we first preach the word of God to you Jews. But since you have rejected it and judged yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we will offer it to the Gentiles. … And the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

My parents believed God was sending them to translate the Scriptures into one of the languages of a remote part of China. As they prepared to leave, China closed its doors, and in time, Mom and Dad went to Guatemala instead. I might have grown up in China instead of Guatemala!

As Dave and I prepared to move to Brazil, our mission asked us to consider Mexico instead. Our kids might have grown up in Mexico instead of Brazil!

We thought we would live out our lives in Brazil, seeing our grandchildren once or twice a year. Instead, because of Karis’s transplants, here we all are in Pittsburgh, where I see Caleb, Talita, and Liliana once or twice a week.

Turning points. This chapter is full of them—you’ll have to read the whole thing for yourself. Barnabas and Saul are sent out. They go. The governor of Cyprus believes in Jesus. Elymas the sorcerer is blinded. Saul’s name changes to Paul. John Mark leaves Paul and Barnabas and returns home (we learn later Paul took this very hard). The news about Jesus’ resurrection (But God raised him from the dead, v. 30) generates conflict in Antioch of Pisidia. Paul and Barnabas respond by turning from the Jews to the Gentiles, who accept the Gospel joyfully.

Shutterstock: Tang Yan Song

Paul preached about a different Saul, one whom a thousand years before God removed from being king. But in his own life, the arrogant Saul who once tried to destroy the church has been replaced by one who dedicates his whole being to build it up. Luke was a careful writer. I don’t think it’s accidental that Paul’s name change appears in the same chapter where he preaches about the replacement of the ancient Saul (representing the old system of law), with David, whose descendant Jesus introduced the age of grace. Continue to rely on the grace of God, Paul and Barnabas told the believers (v. 43).

What turning points have you experienced? How has your life been different because of them? Are you facing a moment of decision right now? Continue to rely on the grace of God.

But God struck him down

Acts 12:18-24 [After killing James, imprisoning Peter, and killing the guards after an angel freed Peter] Now Herod was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon … He put on his royal robes, sat on his throne, and made a speech to them. The people gave him a great ovation, shouting, “It’s the voice of a god, not of a man!” Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod with a sickness, because he accepted the people’s worship instead of giving the glory to God. … So he died. Meanwhile, the word of God continued to spread, and there were many new believers.

I’ve laughed at Rhoda and the believers who prayed for Peter to be released from jail and then said “It’s impossible” when God did what they asked. But the context for that amusing scene is anything but funny. Their local Judean king was willing to do anything, even kill people, to feed his own ego. This is the same Herod who killed John the Baptist to entertain a drunken crowd.

Thinking of how much God dislikes arrogance, abuse and tyranny, I wonder how he views situations like Venezuela, where the suffering goes on and on. Our friends there constantly challenge us with their belief that God is working through their suffering. They speak more about being found faithful as they reach out in love to those around them than about ending the pain. I am humbled by their faith and service and perspective.

It’s clear from this story that God sees what’s going on in our world. That’s as true today as it was two thousand years ago. But he doesn’t act according to our limited wisdom. He sees everything, without bias or favoritism. Once again today, I’m invited to trust him.

Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. For our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29). George MacDonald, the man who most inspired C.S. Lewis, said in response to verse 29, this consuming fire is essential love, burning out of us all idolatry so we can see and love him in truth. “Love loves unto purity … He doesn’t put on a mask. He puts on a face.”

Lord, burn out of me all that loves comfort and safety more than you. I want to see your face.

But God is amused

Acts 12:1-19 King Herod arrested Peter … under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each … The church prayed very earnestly for him … [An angel of the Lord springs him.] When he realized he was free, Peter went to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many were gathered for prayer. He knocked at the door in the gate, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to open it. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the door, she ran back inside and told everyone, “Peter is standing at the door!” “You’re out of your mind!” they said … Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking. When they finally opened the door and saw him, they were amazed.

So, you may not feel I am being adequately respectful of God by saying he is amusable. But follow my logic here. Try to think about this story from God’s point of view. He’s just done a spectacular miracle in response to the believers’ prayers. And then Peter gets stuck out in the street while those same pray-ers decide God couldn’t possibly have done what they were asking him to do. Rhoda’s response is quite funny.

And there seems no “spiritual” reason for God to inspire Luke to include this story. I mean, poor Rhoda! But if we believe all Scripture is inspired by God, that applies here too. I think God wants us to laugh at and with those people. I imagine them retelling the story for years—to the point that it made it into Holy Scripture, handed down all the way to us.

Perhaps because I spend a fair amount of time with two toddlers and a preschooler, my life is filled with amusement. This week Caleb, 3 ½, has vacillated between being a giant crane (the machine kind) anxious to help move heavy things, and a funny pterodactyl (“engraçado” in Portuguese), swooping across the grass. I’m supposed to know how to address him at any given moment, and he’s quick to correct me if I get it wrong. His one-year-old sister doesn’t quite have the swooping down yet, but she’s trying! And I of course am required to swoop with them. The very picture of dignity.

Talita and Lili with Val

When is the last time you did something silly? I would love to hear your stories!

But God extends grace

Acts 11:20-21, 28-29 Some believers who went to Antioch began preaching to the Gentiles about the Lord Jesus. The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord … A prophet named Agabus predicted by the Spirit that a great famine was coming upon the entire Roman world. So the believers in Antioch decided to send relief to the brothers and sisters in Judea, everyone giving as much as they could.

Galatians 1:15 But before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace.

Ephesians 2:8 God saved you by his grace … you can’t take credit for this: it is a gift from God.

My heart sank. “You’re kidding, right?” That’s what I thought, though I think I was a little more gracious than that to the Duquesne Incline ticket seller. It wasn’t her fault—I should have researched before spontaneously dragging my three-year-old Caleb and one-year-old Talita up all those steps from the parking lot to the next set of steps to the walkway across to the cars.

Shutterstock: James Kirkikis

The thing is, I had already dragged the kids all the way back down to the car and up again in muggy 90-degree heat after discovering I had forgotten our face masks. Little Talita was soaked in sweat, her hair a sticky mass. Caleb stared at me in unbelief when I told him we wouldn’t be able to ride the Incline after all. I hadn’t realized it was cash only, and the credit card in my pocket had zero value. Nor could I imagine making the round trip again. Obviously, I wasn’t accustomed to riding on public transit, or I would have known about the need for cash.

A woman behind us in line heard my explanation to Caleb. As I turned to start our descent to the parking lot, she said, “Wait. How much do you need?”

“Well, the kids are free. So it’s just me.”

“Five dollars, then, round trip. I can give you five dollars, so the children aren’t disappointed. Let me do this.”

“What? Are you sure? I have no way to pay you back.”

“I’m sure. Here. Enjoy the ride.” Her smile was brilliant.

Ironically, on my way to pick up the kids, I heard on NPR a conversation about research demonstrating the benefits to the giver of showing kindness to others. I hope that was true for our benefactor! What a lovely random act of kindness. Though I might not recognize her again, she will forever occupy a warm place in my heart.

It tickles me to think God experiences joy when he gives to us. In my experience that happens like, all the time. Even when I don’t notice.

But God builds bridges across cultural and religious barriers

Acts 10:1, 28, 44-45 In Caesarea there lived a Roman army officer named Cornelius, who was a captain of the Italian Regiment … Peter told Cornelius and his household, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean.” … Even as Peter was speaking about Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message. The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too.

Colossians 3:11 In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile … Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

I just finished reading a fascinating book set in 1880s India and England, A Tapestry of Light by Kimberly Duffy. As I commented in my review of the book on Goodreads, it’s a TCK story, at a time when the challenges of “third culture kids” weren’t as well recognized or understood. Indian and English hostility had hardened, and then-named Eurasians, descendants of both British and Indian parents, were caught in the middle, despised by both groups. Ottilie, the protagonist, is Eurasian, and doesn’t feel fully at home anywhere.

TCKs tend to feel the same way. A friend of Dave’s illustrated her feelings by calling her American heritage blue, her Ecuadoran upbringing yellow, and herself green, a blend of the two, not fully “herself” in either context. As I read A Tapestry of Light, I thought of the way TCKs from all over the world immediately bonded to each other, comfortable in common “greenness.”

Picture Cornelius, a Roman army officer hated by the people whose land his country occupied. And Peter, ingrained from birth with this hatred, with a consuming passion for freedom from Rome. And then God puts them together and by amazing grace on both sides, something brand new is formed, where what matters most is Christ’s deep love for all of them. Read the whole chapter to understand this better.

And I wonder: could Christ’s love be so compelling here, now, that it could lift us out of our divisions and hostilities and mistrust of one another into something new, redemption from our fears and our certainty that “we” are right, and “they” are wrong?

Cornelius and Peter show us such a thing is possible! Remember that old song we sang fifty years ago, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me?” Lord, let it begin with me.

Ha! I found it! Wow, what a flood of adolescent memories are associated with this song for me!

But God said “Go”

Acts 9:1-5, 10-17 Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers … As he approached Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, lord?” Saul asked. And the voice replied, I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting … The Lord spoke to Ananias in a vision … “Go over to Straight Street … ask for a man named Saul. He is praying to me right now. “But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers! … But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument … So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus … has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

I bet if I were to ask Saul (later called Paul) to tell me his God story, he would first tell me this one—in fact, Scripture records him doing so many times, to various audiences. So, what’s your God story?We delight God when we tell what he does for us. Your stories, like mine, might not be as dramatic as Saul’s, but that doesn’t matter. All stories are good ones when t tohey honor God.

So here’s my story: I grew up in a missionary family, but it wasn’t until I was six that I understood Jesus had died for me and prayed the prayer, inviting Jesus into my life. My sister Marsha told me to write the date in the front of my Bible, so I would always remember this important event.

That’s it! Not dramatic at all. But of course, that was only the beginning. Remember when I mentioned that I started talking to God all the time? That began on February 26, 1961. Young as I was, from then on, I knew God was with me. I believe the Holy Spirit communicated that to me. I believe he preserved my life the first time I seriously considered ending it at age eight and several times after. Life wasn’t easy for me or for my siblings. Our mother was mentally ill, and our father didn’t know how to deal with that and protect us kids. I despaired many times, wounded as all of us were. But God, the Source of life, defended us—not from the wounding, but from ultimate despair. I am so grateful for his care for all eight of us.

The Lord says “Go!” to each of us in different ways. Right now, he’s saying to me, “Go love your precious grandkids.” So I’m off!

At Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park last weekend

But God gave joy in a time of trouble

Acts 8:1, 4-8, 26-39 A great wave of persecution began that day [with the stoning of Stephen], sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers were scattered. … But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. Philip, for example, went to Samaria and told the people there about the Messiah. … So there was great joy in that city. … [Then God sent Philip to walk down a desert road.] He met the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority … Philip told him the Good News about Jesus. … The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch ever saw him again but went on his way rejoicing.

“Karis my joy,” Dave used to call her, since we’d named her Karis Joy. And bringing joy to others delighted her.

“I wonder who God has for me in the hospital this time.”

Karis loved, loved, loved being home, having “a life.” So each time she had to be hospitalized she was bummed—if she was still conscious, that is. Usually, by the time we arrived at the ER, she had shifted into anticipation of who she might meet. Her dozens and dozens of hospitalizations were peppered with special encounters. As soon as she was well enough to be out of bed, she’d be out discovering who was there. Fellow transplant patients from a variety of nations, their children and other relatives, nurses, doctors, therapists—I could tell a thousand stories.

December, 2008 with one of Karis’s favorite doctors. She had been in the hospital for weeks. Finally we celebrated her homecoming, but the very next day she had to return, with bleeding from her intestine too severe to manage at home.

This attitude was not unique to Karis. Other patients also reached out, sharing life and encouragement. I remember Crysta’s little girl bringing Karis brightly colored and stickered cards. Angie shared a movie with us. Carissa brought modeling clay and books and what Karis called “intelligent conversation.” Some patients were one-timers, in Pittsburgh for special procedures. But the “regular” intestinal transplant crew, because most of them were long-term-care patients, became a family. Again, I could tell a zillion stories.

I’m smiling as I think about this. We laughed and wept, rejoiced and grieved for each other. Our nurses and doctors and therapists were wrapped into this community of love. Each loss—and there were so many—was cushioned within the blanket of comfort and understanding of others facing the same overwhelming challenges.

Karis had her eye out particularly for the international patients. With her five languages she could communicate with almost anyone, and the intestinal transplant world was truly a “united nations.” Everything we faced, they dealt with through the confusion of a foreign language and perplexing customs, far away from their usual support systems. Karis befriended them, in the hospital and out.

Joy.

But God shares our sorrow

Acts 7:59-8:2 As the Jewish leaders stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that he died. Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day … Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning. But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.

Romans 8:17, 26 If we are to share Christ’s glory, we must also share his suffering … But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.

Covid is battering our friends across South America. Daily, it seems, we hear of another heart-rending situation involving people we know and love. So while we delight in the re-opening of our lives here in the U.S., thanks to life-saving vaccines, we’re reminded constantly that this pandemic is not over. Nor will be in the foreseeable future.

A pandemic is one thing. Suffering people deliberately inflict on each other, as Saul did to the early church, is even more painful, especially if God’s holy name is used to justify wounding and destruction. Sadly, this is nothing new. I’m grappling with bitter historical realities in my research for Treasure Hunt 1904.

But God had a plan for Saul, and we’ll get to that in the next chapter of Acts. The time came when Saul, known later as Paul, wrote, “In my insolence, I persecuted God’s people. But God had mercy on me. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was!” (1 Timothy 1:13). God offers mercy and hope of transformation to anyone willing to hear his voice of compassion. Even the perpetrators. Inexplicably, he loves our broken world.

Paul continues telling Timothy that despite human arrogance, “He alone is God” (verse 17). God’s not rattled by my sense that the world (and even the church) has gone crazy. He’s still on his throne–remember Stephen’s vision? He has a plan.

So I offer to you, Lord, my sorrow and grief, my anger at what I see as manipulative and unjust, my worry about what’s happening in the U.S. and the world, my frustration with my own limited vision and frail faith.

And now maybe I can go back to sleep.

Deer again ate my pansies–though not down to the dirt this time.

But God reveals his glory

Acts 6:15, 7:54-56 [Jewish leaders arrest Stephen because men lied about him.] At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s. … The Jewish leaders were infuriated and shook their fists at Stephen in rage. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!”

Three and a half-year-old Caleb ran ahead of me up the hill to the walkway around our local reservoir. I followed more slowly, carrying his fifteen-month-old sister, Talita. When we reached the top and could see the water, Talita said one word, “Wow.”

Shutterstock: Phongsak Meedaenphai

Caleb was distracted by a family of ducks, with four little ducklings. “Grammy, why aren’t they saying quack, quack, quack?”

But Talita still stared at the sunlight dancing on the water. A toddler vision of glory.

One morning in church (pre-Covid) as I worshiped the Lord, I saw the angels in Heaven praising the Lamb on the throne. They were singing with us, our music. An affirmation. The memory of that vision still gives me goose bumps. It was so unprecedented for me I have seldom spoken of it.

Wow.

All three members of the Trinity were involved in the glorious vision God gave Stephen. I love the fact that Jesus stood to receive him, and that Stephen said so out loud, so witnesses could know what he was seeing and transmit it to us. Almost every other time in Scripture, Jesus sits at God’s right hand.

On this Lord’s Day, may God grace us with a glimpse of his glory.

Nothing else will matter.

But God brought them out

Acts 5:16-20, 32, 40-41 Crowds came from the villages around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those possessed by evil spirits, and they were all healed. The high priest and his officials were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. Then he told them, “Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life!” … [When they were arrested again] Peter replied to the high priest, “God raised Jesus from the dead … We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.” … The high council had them flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go. The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus.

What imprisons you?

For me, as I mentioned in the last blog, it can be fear, or worry that I’m not capable of doing things “right,” in a way that will bless other people. Sometimes I’m paralyzed by anger at human injustice, deception and manipulation, and the suffering people endure at the hands of others, rather than using the energy of that anger to try to make a difference. Old messages from childhood can creep up and cripple me. The enemy of our souls knows where we’re vulnerable.

But God frees and heals me as I turn to him. He longs to free and heal you, too.

In Brazil, my husband Dave started a ministry of emotional healing called REVER. The acronym means “to see again,” or “to take a second look.” It stands for “restoring lives, equipping restorers.” Our kids grew up in the context of healing prayer ministry in our home and in our church. We watched God do one miracle of release and healing after another, as dramatic as the physical healings in Acts 5. Our church doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size as people met Jesus and experienced his love for them. Under Brazilian leadership, REVER has spread across Brazil and is active now in several Spanish-speaking countries. The Holy Spirit is alive and well!

Take a risk. Show God your shackles and your wounds. Ask him to release and heal you. If you know someone who loves God, ask him or her to support you in this prayer. Find people who can walk with you as you grow into freedom and health. Discover for yourself the joy of God’s care for you, the message of life he is speaking just for you.

I want to share with you one of Karis’s favorite songs: