Friday, March 13, 2009

The math of Acts

It's reassuring, I think, to discover the flaws in our heroes, to learn that they might be giants but they have feet of clay.  Though I aim for their substance, the jewels in my crown that they clearly have in theirs, I can't quite squint my eyes enough to actually see myself doing what the Booths, who began the Salvation Army did--going into bars, turning ditties into hymns in order to reach the unreachable of 19th c London, giving up all--a life of ease and contemplation--to travel via boat to India and begin a ministry to children, like Amy Carmichael, or to the dying of Calcutta, like Mother Teresa.

And though sometimes I hunger to have walked the world when Jesus' feet were also dusty from walking, or to be in the assemblage when the disciples, speaking in every language the dis-separate factions of a large city required, just to be standing there when Peter stood up and said, "This man Jesus, whom you killed--just two months ago?--God made Him LORD and Christ--yes, the very Christ you've been waiting for.  Repent, be baptized and you'll get exactly what we have--the Holy Spirit!" Can you imagine that day? And I'm wished to have been the one walking the dusty road with Saul when God struck him hard. Turning even that kind of enemy into His chosen tool.

I've been reading Acts, you see. Stumbling through their efforts, which, because of the Holy Spirit, were the very epitome of world-changing.  Imagine marrying your feeble, human abilities with the mighty wind of the Spirit to add, then multiply the number of people who belong to Him (don't you just love the math of Acts? It's about the only kind of math I can actually understand!).  Man, I'm ecstatic when one person responds to something God directs me to speak. 

The thing is, these men (and presumably women) were no different than we are.  I was just reading this little vignette (which means 'a small graceful literary sketch') in Acts 15 that packed a punch with me.  Paul suggested to his traveling companion Barnabus that they should check back on all the places where they'd preached.  Good plan, Barnabus thinks, but he wants to take John (Mark--the gospel writer) with them.  Paul's all like, "No possible way.  He turned tail and left us."  Apparently this disagreement flared into quite the argument. resulting not only in Barnabus taking John (Mark) and sailing off for Cyprus. Paul enlists Silas to be his new companion on the 'encourage the believers' return tour. 

(Note, I've always wanted to visit the Mediterranean--Greece, Italy, Cyprus.  Don't you think it's lucky that they got to do mission work in the place of fantasy vacations?)

The point is (yes, I'm getting there), this vignette points to a not very pretty trait in Paul.  He held grudges, was stubborn.  This story is the last time we hear of Barnabus and John (Mark) in Acts.  Paul didn't change his mind.   Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe Paul was just being prudent, had spent a whole lot of time on his knees about the young man, and very little time arguing about it.  But that's not how it reads to me.  It reads like, "Sorry buddy, you weren't loyal to me, so I'm cutting you loose."  That sounds like the timbre of this moment between two previous friends and co-workers. I think Paul sturggled with forgiveness, I really do.

And somehow, rather than putting me off, this actually warms me to him.  He was a real person, Paul was.  He made mistakes, had strong opinions (some of which I definitely struggle with--that whole women not cutting their hair, wearing hats to church, not teaching in public stuff gets stuck in my craw!), and was proud, so proud he actually said he thought others should be like him (think of his stance on marriage).

You know, he sounds a whole lot like me.  Struggling to forgive, holding grudges, having strong opinions, thinking I'm such a spiritual giant others should follow my example.  Yep, I'm unfortunately very Paul-like in some ways.  Not ones I'm proud of (though I am proud!).  But there it is.

But here's the thing.  A man like that, so clearly not perfect, so clearly human, could do and speak and write what He did.  God took the good, the bad and the ugly of Paul and had a set-apart purpose for his life.  A world-changing purpose.  And that, my friends, is the most important point of connection, because I believe--without a doubt--that He has that same kind of purpose, specific and uniquely suited, for me.  For each of us.  He looked at Paul, saw the flaws and knew what He could do with him.  He looks at me, at you, and sees that same possibility.  We are not the sum of our flaws, we merely have them.  No, the math of Acts tells me that He is more than able to use us, no matter what. One addition--the Holy Spirit to humble, flawed us--and the possibilities multiply.

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