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 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 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.