God’s Call: Suffering and Happiness

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Acts 9:15-16

Sometimes I think we’re a bit more poor than we think we are in the United States’ Church.

It’s easy to look at other places in the world and feel sorry for them, to look at their poverty and feel pity, send money, and think that we’ people with so much money, so much material wealth, so many good things in our lives, are somehow more blessed, that we won the cosmic lottery because we were born in this country. We say: “We are blessed. These people are not blessed.” We draw a line between us and them, and mark ourselves as the givers of mercy, charity, and help.

While I certainly don’t think I’ve got my theology all together, or that I know a whole lot about what the Bible really means or anything, but I cannot help but think this line demarcating the blessed and those who are not blessed is a bit more difficult than this. After all, Jesus did say it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Wealth does not necessarily equal blessing. Material goods do not necessarily equal being in God’s good graces.

This week, during Pentecost, it can be easy to slip into the triumphalist attitude, that as long as we’re with God, as long as we’re following Him, everything will be fine. If we’re doing His will, everything will work itself out, and be smooth sailing. When we follow God, we’ll be happy.

But this only leads to another question: what does it mean to be happy? What does it mean to follow God, to be in Him, and to have Him in my life in a “real” way?

Cognitively, we would say that has nothing to do with shallow blessings, such as cars, clothes, nice homes, a good job, popularity and the support of lots of people around us. And yet, from the way we bemoan the fact that we don’t have those things in our lives and ask God to give them to us, along with security, safety, a comfortable life, means that’s what we believe in our heart of hearts. When we pray and ask for these things, make our prayer life about what God can give to us and not about what God can do in us, we’re equating God’s call with our own comfort and sense of happiness.

When the Spirit of God fell on those people on Pentecost, it did not suddenly erase all their problems and make their lives more comfortable. It instead dismantled the lives of those in the early church, radically turning them upside down, inside out, people who lived in closer community than ever before, people who did not have possessions, people who went to the ends of the earth, speaking in languages that they didn’t even know.

When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul was struck with blindness. And when Ananias was sent to Paul, to deliver God’s message, it was not a message of comfort. The glory of God that Paul preached throughout the world was also the source of his suffering in death. And yet, Paul in the same breath is able to account his suffering as blessing; he finds joy in God, regardless of the fact that he has been deserted by his people, has been sentenced to death, has been stoned. The plan God had for Paul was fulfilled:

Paul was an instrument of God.

Paul suffered (and died) for God’s sake.

When we align ourselves with God, we can expect the same. When we pray for God’s spirit and work in our lives, we are not requesting an easier or more comfortable life that melds with the rest of the world. In many ways, we become failures in the eyes of the world, cursed, the unfortunates, the people who are labeled “crazy,” “dangerous,” or “pitiable.”

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Something I’ve been challenged in lately is smudging the border between black and white ways of seeing the world and understanding that a lot of life exists in the gray areas, and this is one of those places. Because we live in a broken world, a lot of the work we do for God, a lot of our efforts to do His will looks a lot like unhappiness and misery, the curse of God. But at the same time, I want to see the beauty in that struggle, the beauty of life pushing through the dirt, stretching out its tendrils and leaves through the refuse, the stifling garbage that’s all around us. We may be scraggly, we may be a bit crooked, a bit broken, but that doesn’t make us an object of scorn, an example of failure. And it doesn’t mean we need to get dug up, transplanted to a place that’s sunnier, prettier, nicer, more comfortable, easier to grow in. Because God sees that scraggly plant as part of something beautiful; he sees beauty even in the refuse.


Spring Outreach Challenge: Update!

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Spring (now Summer) Outreach Challenge Update: Some of you might be wondering what’s up with some of the later events (UConn event and Habitat for Humanity) and whether you can still be involved.

1.) We’re going to do a UConn event this Summer: It’s just a little different than you thought. St. Paul’s is going to have a prayer small group that will be doing prayer walks on campus. Even if you aren’t in the prayer small group, consider joining and walking the campus with them sometime.

2.) After contacting Habitat for Humanity in Willimantic, it looks like they’re just about wrapped up with their current house. However, they will probably be starting a new house in the fall, so they’re going to keep us posted as to how we can help them out!

3.) VBS: Jesus Loves Pirates! Our annual VBS event is coming up, and we’d love your help! This is a great opportunity to invite friends with children to be a part of St. Paul’s. There’s lots of fun games, and the kids get to learn about Jesus.


Water into Wine.

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May my life be a mosaic: a work of art made up of fragmented and broken pieces brought together by the Master Artisan, who creates in me a masterpiece most perfectly reflected when his light strikes through me.

from The Artisan Soul by Erwin McManus

Sunday’s message was focused on the idea we’re not Prada totes, but paper bags (a twenty-first century version of Jars of Clay from 2 Corinthians). It can be easy to take that message, that idea that you’re not so special, and see it as some kind of put down, as a way of putting people in their place, that we’re not all that important, that we don’t matter. But the second half of that message is that it’s not the bag itself that matters; it’s what gets put inside of it. And the stuff that gets put inside of it, when it comes from God, when it is His life and His blessing, then that changes everything.

I recently finished Erwin McManus’ book The Artisan Soul, and in it he writes about how God is an artisan, He is the creator, and He has shared that unique creator role with us, with people. Part of our existence, part of our responsibility as people who exist on earth, is to embrace this role and our innate creativity and imagination, to make, to create, to worship God with that gift that all people contain.

But something that stops us from doing this, something that makes us shy away from this innate quality we all have is that we think it’s about us. We either say: “Oh, yeah, I’m super creative and brilliant. I’m a great artist, and I am capable of such great and beautiful work.” Or (and I think most of us fit into this category) we say: “I’m not really that creative. I’m not that original. I’m not very talented, and I can’t do that kind of great work. So, I won’t.”

In light of yesterday’s message, it would seem we aren’t so great at fully understanding what the paper bag is, exactly. We think that we are empty and lifeless. When you open us up and shake us out upside down, nothing comes out. But that’s not what Paul writes in Corinthians:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 2 Corinthians 4:6-7

We are paper bags filled with that same light that shines out into the darkness, and it comes from God. It is the same light with which God started creation. It is a miracle that doesn’t start with us: it begins with God.

McManus makes a similar parallel when he points to Jesus’ first miracle: turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. He reads the choice of water, one of the most basic of materials that exists, being turned into the finest wine the wedding guests had ever had, as parallel to what God does in us. True, we are nothing but paper bags, nothing but water, but that is the basic material God is used to using to reveal His glorious being.

For me, this is encouraging. I recently went with my mother and sister to Orchard House in Concord*, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, and I couldn’t help but think: “Okay, so she knew all these famous people, she lived in a different world, she wrote for 14 hours a day sometimes. Her sister trained the sculptor who made the Lincoln Memorial, for crying out loud. Yeah, no wonder she became a literary icon.” But this is kind of stupid: I saw her home, I saw the pictures of her family, I heard their stories: they weren’t anything all that special or different. Sure, Henry David Thoreau helped her dad survey the property before they built their house, but they had their struggles, they had their sins, their losses and sorrow, perhaps even more than I ever did. The Alcotts were nothing but water. I’m nothing but water. But the good news is God can do something with that water. As McManus puts it: “It’s hard to escape the voices that let us know we are nothing but water, yet they become a point of celebration when we realize that God has special expertise in using common materials.”

It isn’t that we’re just jars of clay. We’re jars of clay filled with life and light. It isn’t that we’re just water. We’re water that’s been transformed into wine. This isn’t about humble-bragging: it’s putting the emphasis where it needs to be. God does great things through us. And we create, because the power of Christ makes us masterpieces, even in these fragile and fallible human shells.

Sidenote: I freely admit I could have picked a different, less violent mosaic at the start of this post, but that’s the amazing mosaic in the foyer of the Worcester Art Museum, and my Massachusetts pride wins almost every time.

*Okay, my Massachusetts pride reared its head twice. 


God’s Pleasure and Family Resemblances.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

A real area of growth for me in the past year has been letting go of some of the “high standards” I’ve set for myself. These standards didn’t come from anywhere good; they were mainly about trying to prove myself somehow, to make myself a more acceptable and worthy individual, since I was convinced that the way I was, naturally, was terrible and had to be fixed. 

There are a couple things wrong with this line of thinking. Sadly, I think it is very common,though, since this world we live in (as Brene Brown explains so well in her book Daring Greatly) tells us we’re never enough. I knew I wasn’t enough, was overwhelmed by the fact that I could never be enough, and was fighting against that haunting fear tooth and nail. It was kind of like getting into a fist-fight with high-tide: no matter how much you punch those waves, you’re going to get pummeled anyway, and also kind of look like an idiot. 

How often are we kept up at night, worrying:

What if I can’t do it? What if at the end of my life, I realize I failed? What if I let my family down? My friends down? What if I try, put everything on the line, and it ends up being all for nothing? 

There’s an underlying false assumption under these concerns though: it assumes it’s possible to create our own intrinsic worthiness. And here’s the bad news: we can’t. We are incapable of making ourselves more or less worthy of anything.

But that’s where this idea about God’s pleasure comes in, as well as the importance of family resemblance. God delights in His Son who looks just like Him; that’s easy enough, but not always super-tangible to me, especially when I’m feelings especially bad about me and my life. So I turn instead to my own family, and where I see this reflected there. And I find it clearly in my niece and nephew, and the way I see them and love them. 

For example, my niece doesn’t have to do anything to bring me happiness when I spend time with her. She only has to run over to me, call me “Nonnie Emma!” and lift up her arms to be picked up. I can’t help but light up and grin from ear to ear when I see her. My nephew just has to tell me a funny knock-knock joke, and I’m done. I rehash the things they do and say to my husband ad-nauseam. I find so much pleasure in them, not because of anything they actually do. They didn’t earn my pleasure at all.

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Me and my niece, watching my dad and her brother sledding. 

 

And on that note, my family will spend a lot of time talking about the ways my niece and nephew remind us of how they look or act like someone else in the family. Sometimes it’s something that’s a bit negative; sometimes it’s the way they look, or their interests. Regardless, these similarities are celebrated, seen as a badge of pride, almost, that even though they’ve only been around for a few years, they’re a part of the larger whole. They got it from the family, the same DNA: They’re a part of us all.

So when Paul says that on this side of heaven, we’re still being transformed into God’s likeness, from one degree of glory to another by being in God’s presence, this is the same kind of pleasure God gets from his children. Because we’ve been adopted as God’s children through Jesus Christ, we take on that glorious resemblance. We didn’t have to do anything to earn this pleasure, and there isn’t anything we can do to destroy this bond. Certainly, this doesn’t give us carte blanche to do whatever we want, but this does take some of that legalistic pressure off of us: 

We are loved, accepted, and transformed by God. We live in a covenant of freedom. There’s a family resemblance between God and His people, and we bring Him pleasure as his children. 

 


St. Paul’s Tag-and-Bake Sale!

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Looking for things to make your household complete?
Decor, furniture, small appliances, gardening tools?
Stuff for your kids like toys, games, books?
Clothing? Jewelry?
Maybe some plants for your garden?
Need a snack right now or to take home?
Park your car once and shop for all that you want/need!

With your purchase, you will support foreign missions AND yourself by making your buck go further! This event is in the church cafe from 9AM-3PM on May 17th.


Call Pam Riddell for pick up or questions at 860-742-0254 or text her at 860-268-8746. She’ll be ecstatic to hear from you!