Acts 09 – Here comes Paul

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Paul: From Persecutor of Christians to Author of most of the New Testament

I’ve made it over a year in this project and have only mentioned Paul – aka the Saul of this passage – three times in passing.  It’s time to remedy that.  Paul’s importance cannot be overstated.  He has been definitively named as the author of seven out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.  Traditions over the centuries have linked him to thirteen out of the twenty-seven books.  Even in some of the letters where his authorship is highly doubtful, it is often accepted that the actual author was a follower of Paul, influenced by Paul’s teachings.  Like I said, it’s time we gave the guy some attention.

As as alluded to here in the beginning of today’s chapter (and directly described in chapter seven of Acts), Paul actively persecuted early Christians before this divine intervention on the road to Damascus.  Remember, saying that Jesus was the Son of God and Messiah was radical to the point of heretical, a threat to not only Jewish but also Roman authority, and therefore a punishable offense through multiple avenues.  Paul was a man quashing rebellion and upholding the society of which he was a part, yet he became God’s chosen instrument.

God’s Chosen Instruments are often new and strange people.

God’s chosen instruments are some interesting people.  Abraham was a 100 year old man with a ninety year old wife, promised descendants more numerous than the stars after decades of being unable to conceive.  Jacob was a trickster who cheated his brother out of his rightful inheritance.  Jesus chose the socially undesirables of the time – tax collectors and prostitutes – to be among his closest friends and carry on his message. Now here comes Paul, hater of all things Jesus becoming one of the biggest missionaries in Jesus’ name.  Despite their shortcomings, maybe because of their shortcomings, God chose all of them.

I think that’s an important message to remember when we see something going on in Jesus’ name that isn’t appropriately “church-y” enough for us.  I’m not saying throw out all your beliefs and traditions every time something new and strange comes along, but do pay attention to it.  Social changes only come when the status-quo is challenged.  Sometimes that is uncomfortable to the point that we fight against it.  For example, Paul, as a Hellenized Jew, was protecting the societies of which he was a part (Roman and Jewish both) when he persecuted early Christians.

Perhaps we should be actively seeking the “new and strange” messengers.  If God chose David as a favorite son when he was just a young musician, what right do we have to dismiss Autumn Peltier, a fifteen-year-old Indigenous clean-water activist (and others like her)?  Maybe we shouldn’t even write Kanye off, yet, either.  I honestly don’t know what to think about Kanye and am inclined to believe he just needs some help…but there have been crazier people cannonized:  St. Vladimir performed human sacrifice and had so many kids he lost count before converting to Christianity, and everyone’s favorite St. Francis literally tried to get himself martyred by going on a quest to convert an Islamic Sultan.  But they all challenged the societies of their – and in the case of Autumn and Kanye, our – time.

Regardless of our opinion of Paul, he pushes us forward in Spiritual Learning

So really, Paul is just one in a long line of strange converts, strange messengers within Christianity.  It took Jesus literally smiting Paul off his horse, yelling at him, and striking him blind to get it to happen, but it happened.  Jesus shook Paul out of his complacency with the social status quo Paul had been a part of.  I think you would have to be open to new ideas after that experience, right?  Hopefully it won’t take the same amount of intervention for the rest of us.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to discern what is done out of love and compassion and what is done out of greed and fear.  If we approach people with an open but discerning heart, we will be able to make that judgment call when presented with something that isn’t part of our current set of beliefs and values, and possibly presented by someone new and strange to us.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Paul  as we dive into the book of Romans next post.  He was a controversial figure in his own day, and continues to be so today.  Perhaps you don’t like – or even agree with – all of his writings.  In all honesty, I think some of the most abused passages from the Bible come from Paul.  All that shit about women being subservient to men and not being able to lead in the church etc etc?  That’s all Paul. But maybe that makes listening to him extra important.  Even if we don’t agree with everything Paul says, (or everything that has been written about what Paul says), perhaps it has pushed us to examine our beliefs, come to a deeper understanding of them and of Jesus’ message, and taught us to do the same the next time we hear something new and strange.

Isaiah 62 – Conscious and Joyful Work

10 Pass through, pass through the gates!

    Prepare the way for the people.
Build up, build up the highway!
    Remove the stones.
Raise a banner for the nations. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

There is work to be done, and we are called to do it

I love this chapter.  I found it by Googling “Bible Passages for Christmas Eve.”  It’s so joyous, so regal: Perfect for the birth of the person we call our Lord and Savior.  I also like how grounded it is, despite all it’s jubilation: There is work to be done to prepare for this party, and this chapter recognizes that fact.

I’d like to compare and contrast this chapter to another passage we haven’t yet read in this blog, but one you are probably familiar with if you’re a regular church-goer or Bible reader:  the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.  In it, there are five wise bridesmaids, who keep the oil for their lamps full while waiting for the bridegroom – who was very late – to arrive.  The five foolish bridesmaids did not plan ahead. When they did not have enough oil for their lamps they had to go buy more, missing the entrance of the groom, and were unable to gain admittance to the party afterwards.  The message: making sure you are prepared at all times for (the return of) God.

In Isaiah 62, just as in Matthew 25, we are anticipating the start of a large celebration. But this is not just passive waiting, in both passages we are called to do the work of preparation. And there is much to be done.  In the Matthew 25 parable, that work is summed up in the keeping of the oil, but here, Isaiah is a little more elaborate: we must keep watch, as the bridesmaids did; but also pray – pray until God has no rest; we must prepare the way for the people, build up the highway, and raise a banner.  There is also reference to harvesting grain and gathering grapes. Now, I’m not a literalist: I don’t think there is a highway waiting to be built that will literally bring God down to us.  So, if it’s all a metaphor, what does it mean we need to do?

Spiritual Callings can be fulfilled in many ways

I think it means we need to be engaged in conscious and joyful work.  We need to find our callings, and follow them.  This is not career advice, necessarily, though good on you if you’re bringing home a paycheck in an area about which you’re passionate.  But it can be through other ways, too.  Take this blog, for instance: It’s something I was moved to do after witnessing too many self-professed Christians making excuses for Trump’s deplorable behavior towards women, espousing hateful Islamophobic rhetoric, and disowning children – literally abandoning them on the street – for coming out as gay.  That is not what Christianity is, and I felt I needed to add my voice to those counteracting the worst examples of so-called Christian morality.  Am I a full-time writer? I wish…maybe one day.  Am I a theologically trained clergyman? Definitely not, and unless I win the lottery and can go to seminary school just for kicks, that’s never going to happen.  But it is still a calling, it is still something I am committed to do.

Other people achieve this type of work by volunteering, some are activists, and others are just caring individuals who feel called to kindness and stewardship of those immediately surrounding them.  So like I said, this conscious and joyful work may not be your main hustle, but I think it is something we all need to find time for in our lives.  Finding a cause that is larger than ourselves creates new relationships with others, enriches us spiritually and socially, and reinforces the best parts of society through stewardship.  This is the type of work that will metaphorically build the highway for the return of Jesus.  So follow the advice of this chapter: keep watch through close observation: see what needs are out there, and what makes you passionate. Pray to God for guidance in these passions (it took me two years, a lot of self-doubt, and a lot of prayer to actually get around to starting this blog after my initial idea), then go forth, do the work, and raise that banner: proclaim it to the world.  This is not to be boastful, but to let others know where you stand, and to rally them to your cause. In doing so, we have already become “a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of our God,” one of the Holy People, the Redeemed, and the Sought After, fully ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the promise of the second coming of our Savior, and the reward that is with him.

Hosea 11 -The Love Demanded by a Baby

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
    the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
    and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
    taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
    it was I who healed them. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

 

This is one of the most tender chapters read to date in this project, and I so, so identify with it as a parent.  Recently, I got mad at Betty.  She was whining about something her sister did (which was really nothing) while they played play-doh side by side.  I had had enough, and curtly told her to knock it off or I was going to take the play-doh away.  She started crying, but also picked up her toy scissors and started playing forlornly with the play-doh.  When she looked over at me with big, teary eyes while trying to cut the play-doh like I had shown her, I felt like a complete monster for yelling.  I simply could not be angry with her, even though she had been in the wrong.  Even when she is determined to turn from me, how can I give her up? How can I turn her over?  If God loves us like I love my girls, then this chapter must be divinely inspired.

We only have a few days of Advent left.  It is a time when we are preparing for the (second) coming of Christ.  We prepare for a Christ of terrible judgement, but also an infant-child Christ, and the tender analogies presented here reminded me of that.  In fact, it reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of writing about God.  In Kristin Swenson’s God of Earth, she reminds us what we do with babies: “Babies demand full attention and all of our energy. We fetch them things, smile when they do, and weep with exhaustion at their impossible demands.  We kiss their feet,” then she goes on to say, “Well played, God. To come to earth and be of earth, not as a gigantic dictator, not as a volcano, a great white whale, a celebrity princess or a hurricane — but as a baby.  Stroke of genius.”

And it is.  A baby, for all it’s helplessness, demands (and receives) adoration in a way that none of the great things listed above could.  I know this passage wasn’t written about Christ – it was written about the unruly and hard-headed children of Israel – but the similarities remain.  Not to get to sappy, but it is a beautiful circle of love:  God loves us as Xyr children, we love God the infant Christ.

We are all children of God.  I think I say that nearly every post.  But I want you to stop and think about that for a minute.  We are all children of God.  Beloved infants.  It is hard sometimes to do so, but try to remember that everyone, even the worst of us, was a helpless newborn. A chubby baby. An unsteady toddler.  A small and wondrous being, worthy of love.  At the very least this thought may help calm you down when someone in front of  you goes 10 MPH below the speed limit for 15 miles.  My hope is it helps you let go of any lingering resentments you may hold towards anyone who has hurt you in the past.

Lots of bad people are out in the world doing bad things, and this isn’t a plea to just paper over the worst so we don’t see it.  In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.  If you see everyone as a child loved, it is harder to stand by while those terrible things happen.  Would you want to see your baby in a border detention center?  Would you want to see your baby denied healthcare for a pre-existing condition? Would you want to see your baby hungry, cold, or lonely? Of course not, and that’s the way God feels about all of us.  This Advent, let’s prepare for the return of Christ – both terrible judge and lovable infant – by remembering our brothers and sisters in need.  If we love God, we need to love them, too.

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