Paradise Restored

“you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” Rev 2:3—4

“Look at us Lord, we are working diligently, getting it done, inexhaustible and persevering just waiting for you to return and find us working!”

Yeah butdo you love me? Are you still doing the things you did at first when your heart was bursting with joy and hope as you realized and received my gift of love and forgiveness? Or are you just trying to earn it now, or worse, impress others with your godliness? Sorry, but I’m not impressed—come back, rediscover your first love.”

Such is the gist of the first of Jesus’ letters to the churches; to the church at Ephesus.

Revelation 2

“To the angel of the church of Ephesus write,

‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first loveRemember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” ’

A short letter with a lot of depth to be sure. It starts with a revelation of who Jesus is, followed by a commendation, turns into a rebuke and a warning, and ends with a promise that those among them who listen to the Spirit, and overcomes that for which they have been rebuked, that they will eat from the tree of life in Paradise.

Just that last line alone opens up a whole mosaic of imagery, revelation and questions. Who would not want to be in God’s paradise? What and where is that, is it different from heaven? Is there really a tree of life? Is it the same one that Adam and Eve had access to until they ate from the bad tree?

Is that the paradise Jesus referred to when he told the thief on the cross he would be with him in Paradise that day?

Well, if you read further into Revelation you will see the Tree of life growing along the river of life that flows from the Temple in the hew Jerusalem come down from heaven to earth.

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, . . . Rev 22:1-3

Sounds pretty literal to me. But aside from the grand unimaginable beauty of a crystalline river flowing from a temple built by God himself lined with trees that never cease to bear fruit, is the implication of it all.

Everything that happened in the Garden of Eden that sent the world and mankind down the path of death and decay, that gave our rightful dominion over creation to the ancient serpent and opened us up to never ending abuse and pain—all of that will be undone, reversed and set back in perfect order—even better than before. The curse will be removed and so will the devil and his minions.

Trying to dissect this simple statement at the end of this letter will just leave you with more questions than answers—but the obvious implication is—we are going to end up in a beautiful place that all of the senses will find extremely pleasing, and the struggle will be over.

 The struggle against the selfish and corrupt flesh, the struggle against the wiles of the devil, the struggles against sin and shame, the struggles against our weak flesh which always seems to come up with some new ailment or affliction to torment us until the day it fails completely—usually causing great pain to all we love—that will all be over.

If, we just listen to what the Spirit says.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” ’ Rev 2:7

And the Spirit of the Lord says; ‘Trust me, love me, listen to me, because I have given all for you, and I want you in the paradise I created just for you.’

We dream and fantasize, long for and invent stories of paradise, never really comprehending or grasping the fact that we will be there, in fellowship with our God and in perfect harmony with the creation where we are restored to our rightful place as kings and priests, as we are even today—but then with no opposition or need to fight for our rights as children of God.

For all will be restored by the one who walks in our midst and checks that our light has not been diminished by our propensity to grow cynical and doubtful, lulled to sleep by the weariness of our souls and the lies of those who claim to know our God, but don’t.

Do not be deceived, do not lose heart and remember your first love.

Jesus never forgets us nor does his love grow cold. We see in the beautiful imagery of this letter that Jesus not only walks among us, but that we are in heaven, in the throne room, shining before the Father as an illuminating flame on a beautiful golden lampstand, placed there and made Holy by the blood of the lamb who walks among those beautiful lights that are his church, tending to, trimming the wicks, keeping the oil reservoirs full and fanning the flames with the breath of the Spirit.

Have faith, our day is coming, and now is. And Paradise will no longer just be in our hearts, our hearts will be in Paradise.

Every Eye Shall See

Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. Rev 1:7

Jesus is returning, of that we can be certain. That promise has been the hope of the church, the assurance of justice served and wrongs made right, the triumph of good over evil, and the comfort of tortured hearts since the day that the resurrected Jesus first departed from that hill outside of Jerusalem to return to His rightful place alongside the Father on the throne of Heaven.

We have the promise made by Jesus himself both before and after his resurrection, as he stood before the Sanhedrin on the day of his murder proclaiming that he would return on the clouds of heaven, and as he assured his disciples on that same night that he was going to prepare a place for them and that he would return for them to be with him there. A promise that holds true for all who believe.

John 14:3

This is a promise that has been echoed throughout the New Testament, and again by Jesus himself, as he reveals the events to surround his return to his Apostle John in the Revelation, who is a prisoner on an island rock quarry that serves as a forced labor camp for enemies of the state.

John is an enemy of the state because his hope and his allegiance is given to a King and  Kingdom that is not subject to Rome or its Caesar, a kingdom that resides in his heart via the Holy Spirit of the King he has chosen to follow, a kingdom which is more than just a memory and a promise, a kingdom that is very real and very close although it cannot be seen with the natural eye.

Yet John, the Apostle and friend of Jesus the Messiah, is going to get a glimpse of that Kingdom and be encouraged to write of what he sees so that all who call on the name of the Lord and King of Heaven, the Alpha and Omega, the First Born from among the dead, will know that this kingdom is real and that there is indeed a place there, prepared just for us. A Place secured and prepared by the man we knew as Jesus, who turned out to be the Son of God, who loved us with an unimaginable love of which we will never fully fathom, but can only benefit from.

And on that day, every eye, including ours, will behold the glory of the coming King as his Spirit within us rejoices at the grand reunion of the entire family of God with their Lord, the Groom, coming to gather us for his wedding feast. Proving to all once and for eternity, that He is the way, the Truth and the Life—the only,  way, truth and life.

When will this be? Soon and very soon.

 I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.  If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. Rev 3:11—12

Patience

It may seem that having waited for two thousand years now, that his return has been far from soon. But when he returns, the span of eternity that is suddenly before us, with the realization of eternity past, and the blip that our lives were in light of that, those years will be but a blink of the eye in the context of our forever reward in the Temple of our God—in the house of our Father.

In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.  John 14:2-3

Love built this house, and love will get us there. In the fullness of time.

Love is patient; the Lord wants to give all a chance to return his love and find their place in that house.

So today I am pondering the first chapter of the Book of Revelation. The opening verse refers to it as “the Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show his servants”. Thus this book is indeed a revelation, given to us from our Lord Jesus Christ to share with those who love him, just what his Father has planned, how the victory that Jesus won on the cross and in the tomb is fully and finally implemented, and just exactly how he intends to return.

But it is more than just a revelation of things to come and a tantalizingly marvelous look into the throne room and the workings of heaven itself, it is also a beautiful and magnificent revelation of our resurrected Lord in the fullness of his glory. A glory that, when revealed to all, will bring even the hardest of hearts trembling to their knees in fear, awe and worship. 

A glory that can overwhelm and terrify, yet is beautiful even in that brilliance for us who know him, because we’ll see through that magnificence, the man who came to live and die for us, we’ll see the heart of love and the burning desire and passion that drove him to shed his blood, to be pierced, for us, his creation, his children, his friends. We’ll see the scars that he chooses to still carry to remind us of his love and devotion to us for whom he became flesh and blood and died.

Rev 1

He also carries the scars so that even those who mock and deride him, his message, and his people, will know just exactly who it is that is coming on the clouds on that great and terrible day when every eye shall see the one whom we call Lord. And blessed are those who have not seen, who have not placed their fingers in the scars, and yet believe.

For we who believe now are a kingdom of priests—kings and priests—and we who serve and honor him now will rule with him when he places all the world’s thrones under his feet. But even until then, we are his and we bow down to no other on this earth or in the heavens.

We are his bride; we are the church. The church built on the rock of our confession that Jesus is the Christ. The church for whom he cares enough to send us–even as we await his return–words of encouragement, correction, warning and promise; to reveal to things to come, things to watch for, and our place in all of it. If we dare or care enough to hear with our ears and to see with our eyes and to set our hearts to understand what the Spirit is saying to the church–to you.

Every Eye Shall See

Stop, and See the Trees

Every tree has a story to tell, if we’ll stop and ponder—try to understand.

“Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand;
And seeing you will see, and not perceive;
For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,

And their eyes they have closed. Acts 28:26-27

Swaningson Lone Cone

There’s an old saying—“I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.” It has to do with not being able to see the big picture because you are focused on the one or two things right in front of you. And those things  become your overwhelming concern. But I think it works the other way as well, we often can’t see the trees for the forest.

When I’m hiking down a mountain trail in my beloved Beartooths, surrounded by majestic trees, brush and undergrowth where it all seems like one or two large brush strokes of shades of green and grey have just been tossed onto a canvas just to block the view of what’s behind it, I am often struck by the sight of a single tree that may stand out to me for one reason or another. I like to look at the trees.

It may be a huge ancient looking Ponderosa that seems to be so much larger than those around it, and I stop to ponder how this tree survived when all its contemporaries apparently did not.

Was it the sole survivor of a fire? Or was it just a lone tree, a seed from a pine cone that a now long dead squirrel had for lunch one day, that took root here in a high mountain meadow that became the nurse tree of what would eventually become a forest?

Or I’ll puzzle at the strange kinks and bends in what should be an arrow straight Lodgepole pine and try to imagine what traumatic event this tree survived to be twisted such as it is. Or the great Douglas fir that seems so full and sturdy that turns out to be two trees that have grown so close together that they appear to be one.

Or the stand—offish Quaking Aspen that, with numerous others of it’s kind, has taken over a bare spot that seemed fit only for rocks and wildflowers otherwise, creating a quivering spectacle of shimmering leaves as the breeze makes the copse come to life in brilliant contrast to the stoic still pines beyond.

I love the high mountain trees because the extreme environment they grow in creates such unique and interesting configurations in many of the trees, in what from a distance just appears as a uniform carpet of green waiting with outstretched branches to receive their yearly blanket of brilliantly white, crystalline snow.

Every tree has a story to tell, if we’ll stop and ponder—try to understand.

Such is God’s word, and the ways of the Holy Spirit and his prophets. We, as God’s people can become so immersed in the forest of his word, the lessons, the promises and the warnings, both written, spoken and impressed on our hearts, that we no longer see and hear the import of the things that are spoken to us, and for us, as individuals and as a people.

Things that we need to focus on here and now. and not just say, “well isn’t that something”, and move on, forgetting what we just heard or saw as we just keep blundering ahead, blissfully ignorant and unmoved by the majesty around us. Or perhaps even annoyed at the obstacles of deadfall and rocks or the discomfort of dew dampened shoes and the maddening whine of mosquitos and deerflies, hoping to get through the forest to wherever it is we think we need to get to on the other side of this woods.

“I know where I’m going. I don’t need to be bothered by any of this, or wonder if I missed a turn somewhere. There’s a quiet lake and a fishing pole waiting for me up ahead. Don’t distract me!”

“What, did you say something? Who are you anyways? Get out of my way!”

The Lord warns against this dangerous attitude:

“The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,

 ‘Go to this people and say,
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.

Acts 28:26—27 NRSV

“I’ve seen it all and heard it all, and I’m fine.

No, you’re not. You were supposed to sit on that rock back there under that big Ponderosa and let the Spirit of God reveal to your heart just were it is you’re supposed to be going next, and what it is you might need to be letting him work on in your heart.

Swaningson Be Still

You need to stop, and remember why you started walking through this forest in the first place. And while you’re here, ponder why that lodgepole is bent like a bow, and how it survived the crushing snowfall or the wind sheer that nearly broke it, and how it managed to keep growing and pointed back toward heaven again.

You need to understand how that Doug fir is stronger because it is paired to another and what made all those trees lying on the ground— that you have to keep stepping over—fall. Seek to understand why are they dead and fallen in the first place.

And consider what makes that Aspen tree unique even though it seems lost in a crowd of others who all seem to be trying to get noticed. Yet for all their efforts look just like the trees next to them. And notice the treasures that grow among the broken granite beneath their quivering limbs, the short lived Columbine, the delicate mountain daisy and the glorious Indian Paintbrush.

Swaningson Mountain Daisy

Look at the trees and consider that our God knows the story of each and every one and the richness of the life they influence, enrich and even enable. And be encouraged.

Because, says the Lord, when I look out at my blessed creation and see all my beautiful children, I don’t see a sea of humanity, arms lifted to me for uniform blessings, I don’t see a distant sick forest of trees being overtaken by dying Pine beetle infested trees slowly dying off. I see you.

I see you striving and reaching, seeking the sunlight as the shadows threaten to overtake, clinging to the precious and thin top soil as the winds threaten to uproot, and desiring to be one who is strong enough to nurse others along into straight healthy individual creations, whom together are a beautiful sight.

I see you as the beautiful and unique creation that you are even when you feel like you are invisible, lost in a delirious blur of shining leaves that you think you must be an integral and conformed part of to be accepted.

I see you as beautiful, says the Lord. But never more beautiful in my sight than when I see you looking back at me—when it’s just the two of us—you seeking understanding and actually hearing what it is I would say to you. Just—

Be still, and know that I am God… Psalm 46:10

When you do that, says the Lord, then you will turn and find your healing, then you will be as an oak of righteousness planted by streams of living waters. Then you can see the forest again for what it is, a beautiful living kingdom of which you are a precious and essential part.

When you look into my eyes, unashamed and unhurried, then you will understand. Then your despair will turn to joy.

Swaningson MN Woods

Here, Hold My Wine

Are you kidding me with this? You think this is going to stop me? Pass the marshmallows and let me tell you a story about a man, three days dead, who walked out of a tomb and into my heart.

Castaways

So our band of castaways from the shipwrecked Edward Spitsherald finds themselves on the shore of an unknown island. They are greeted by a band of natives who are amazed to find this group of foreigners amidst a scattering of broken boards, barrels, and oars. They were amazed because, the big lake it’s said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.

Hours before the captain had wired in that they had water coming in, and the good ship and crew was in peril. But since electronic communication had not yet been invented their Mayday pleas went unheard. Fortunately the Lord was watching over them and they all made it to shore, cold, wet and exhausted, but alive and glad of it.

Yet here they are, mysterious miracle men from the sea and they are ushered to a place where it’s dry enough to build a big bonfire and try to find some comfort and relief from the weeks of cold, wet, and terror they have been experiencing on that storm tossed boat.

No doubt these islanders are a little nervous about this bunch. Seasoned sailors, Roman soldiers, prisoners, all looking pretty haggard and desperate. Yet they are given great favor by the Lord and shown, in Luke’s words, unusual kindness.

No doubt all these castaways are grateful for anything that doesn’t involve the threat of drowning. Just hours earlier as the ship was breaking up on the rocks offshore the captain had said, Fellas, it’s been good to know ya. But now here they are, safe and sound, absorbing the heat of a blazing fire on a beach surrounded by all those they thought they would never see alive again this side of eternity. even with the continued rain and wind, it must have seemed like heaven.

“Woohoo! We’ve made it! We’re alive! Remember how we had almost given up? Lost all hope? Wow, God is good!”

I can only imagine the relief Paul and Luke must have been feeling, high on the very goodness of their God who had seen them through the storm of the century and spared them from becoming just another song of lost voyagers on a stormy lake.

But this is not heaven and they are all soon reminded. This island is a haven for false gods and the devil knows full well that his newest nemesis Paul is going to stir things up. So he stirs up his kin, the local snakes.

Snake!

But God just laughs and says, snakes and goddesses my eye, I’ll show you who’s in charge, this one belongs to me.

When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” Acts 28:4

Paul, who is still a prisoner, is standing there among the group huddled around the fire as those in charge try to explain to the Malta natives who and what they are. Apparently he decides more fuel is needed for the fire and he turns to Luke; “Luke, hold my wine, I’m going to get some more wood for the fire, I saw some dry brush over there under that overhang when we walked up here.”

So Paul grabs up a big armful of the brush and as he approaches the warmth of the fire he’s about to toss some of it on to, he feels a sudden sharp pain in his hand-Thorns? Aahh!are you kidding me? A snake!?

Dr Luke, a man who has been around and no doubt has treated his share of snake bites calls it a viper, a deadly poisonous snake. Also known as an Adder.

So much for God’s favor—well, not so fast.

Seriously?

Imagine if you were Paul-‘I’ve survived a weeks long storm, a shipwreck, many attempted assassinations including being nearly executed by my guards just before the ship broke up, plunged into a stormy sea, tossed over the rocks and onto the shore in the dark on a piece of busted wood only to be bitten by a stupid snake? Come on!’

No. That’s not what Paul said at all. He simply shook the snake off into the fire, took back his cup from Luke, sat down and made himself a smore.

He was apparently not concerned in the least. He knew his Lord had not brought him this far simply to forget his promise to him about witnessing in Rome simply because some random snake, probably another desperate attempt by the biggest snake of all, to kill him once again.

How frustrating it must be to be the enemy. But it’s, no doubt, not a lot of fun to be Paul either. He seems to be living rent free in the mind of the enemy who constantly sees Paul through the scope of his 50 caliber apostle blaster gun. But he just can’t seem to do any more than irritate or at best wing him.

But Paul is feeling the heat, yet he keeps pushing on, confident that he is doing what he is supposed to be doing and that he is where he is supposed to be every step of the way.

Let the enemy huff and puff, he’s not blowing Paul’s house down. He is built on the rock and he still has work to do. His days are numbered yes, but they are numbered by God and not one of them will be taken away until his race is run.

The enemy keeps trying to stop him but he just keeps arriving at the next stop along the way.

Here’s just a partial list of the attacks he has endured to keep bringing the gospel to the world:

 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,  I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.  1 Cor 11:24-28

Paul has suffered and toiled mightily for the gospel. But that’s what Apostles, evangelists and pastors do. The kingdom often advances with violence, but advance it does.

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. Mat 11:12

So this little old viper—Are you kidding me with this? You think this is going to stop me? Pass the marshmallows and let me tell you a story about a man, three days dead, who walked out of a tomb and into my heart. And by the way, he promised his followers that neither poison nor snakes would harm them.’

And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mark 16:17-18

Paul’s life is a living sermon illustration, and he takes full advantage of it. ‘Yeah, this and this happened—but let me tell you why, you see there is this Son of God they called Jesus of Nazareth… and he said this snake thing would happen but we were not to worry about it, so I’m not.’

Paul is doing here just what he has been commissioned to do, what we all have been commissioned to do; “Making disciples of all nations.” Even if you end up in nations you never intended to go to and aren’t even sure where you are when you arrive.

Just keep preaching Jesus.

You Have Arrived. . . again

Paul, you’re going to Rome, you’ll arrive—eventually.

Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar. . . Acts 27:24

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta.  The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Acts 28:1-2

Have you ever noticed that on the way to where you are going there are a lot of steps, and stops? Many of which you did not expect? Or that even when you get to where you are going, you don’t get to stay there as long as you thought you might?

What struck me as I was studying chapter 28 here at the tail end of Acts, much of which has been devoted to Paul’s ministry, is that he was always heading somewhere, and when he got there, he always seemed to be being prepared for the next adventure. All of his arrivals, whether planned or not, led to another journey and another arrival.

Yet, for all his itinerancy, Paul always made the most of whatever time he had wherever he found himself, working like he only had a short time, and investing like that was his home and these were his people.

 He never looked at any stop in his journey as just another distraction or delay in getting to his ultimate goal, and the people he found himself amongst were never a bother—except maybe for those who tried to kill him, and they were plenty. But even then he tried to convert them, to open their eyes to Jesus.

Here in Acts 28 he finds himself washed up on the shore of a random island on his way to Rome. He has to ask, where am I? And then he soon finds himself ministering to the whole island, simply because he kept putting one foot in front of the other while looking for opportunity to bless and help people.

He always had his eyes on the prize, but he always kept his hand to the plow along the way. Tilling, seeding and harvesting. That was Paul’s life. And he planted many a field along his way.

If you think about it, nearly every significant person in the Bible was moved from place to place, usually many places. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Joshua, the whole nation of Israel for that matter.

King David, Elijah, Ester, Ruth, Jeremiah, Mary and Joseph, even Jesus. All of them lived as sojourners on this earth, their home being wherever they set their feet as the Lord led them knowing that ultimately, this world was not their home.

And that may be the very reason the Lord does things that way—because this world is not our home. Our home is the Kingdom of Heaven and in this life, the kingdom of heaven makes its home in us, and is wherever we are found.

Reflecting back, that’s pretty much been my life, the always moving around part. Always having a goal in mind yet being amazed and even dumbfounded at how I got there, often just to find out after a season that the goal has moved. The Lord is calling from down the road saying, ‘Alright, it’s time to move on.’

‘Oh by the way, there may be some side trips, mishaps and storms along the way, but it’s all good. We’ll use them as opportunities to grow and plant more seeds.’

We are just passing through, this world is not our home. Yet, our home is always in our hearts, and we share that home with those who share that heart. And that is a beautiful thing.

“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Ruth 1:16

Oh that we would all have the faithfulness to follow, the discernment to see the wisdom of God’s plan before us, and the courage to follow—or stay, and to choose the right.

Sailing Through the Storm

Emphasis on through.

Acts 27 records the shipwreck saga that marked the next leg of Paul’s God given mission to Rome. A mission that thus far has been totally out of his control, yet keeps moving forward despite a seemingly concerted effort by the devil to stop it. How frustrating it must be to be the devil and have every one of your best evil schemes turned against you.

So, Good news for Paul, he’s finally getting out of the basement of the governor’s’ house in Caesarea where he has been imprisoned for two years. Bad news, he’s about to sail right into a hurricane. Good news, Paul survives the hurricane, bad news, the ship doesn’t.

When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. . . . a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. . . .  the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf. . . . He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land.  The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely. Acts 27:1, 14-15, 41,44

–Good news, they survive to continue their journey.

You ever feel like you’ve just jumped from the frying pan and into the fire? Or like you’re just in survival mode and have no control over where you are going? That’s pretty much what this chapter is about. Again, it may look to the rest of the world, and to Paul in his weak moments as well, that his life is totally out of control, and certainly out of his control.

Paul goes from what was probably at times a mind numbingly boring captivity—where every day is just like the day before, and none of them are what he would have chosen— straight into a weeks long storm of epic proportions on a ship that is totally out of control and in constant danger of being swamped or dashed to pieces. Neither Paul, nor anyone else on this ship, even knows where they are anymore. Sheer terror for sailors, guards, and prisoners alike. But once again, Paul, the mad ex Pharisee turned Jesus freak, is the only one who seems to have a grip, who knows where he is going, even if the day to day is totally out of control—or so it seems.

We all love and claim for our own, the promise the Lord gave through Jeremiah, that the Lord knows the plans he has for us, “plans to prosper us and not to harm us”, “to give us a hope and a future.”

The part of reality that catches us off guard, not because we aren’t warned by God’s word, but because we don’t want to hear it and because preachers don’t fill churches by preaching it, is that there are often storms, big storms, on the way to our future of prosperity, and that prospering is not always what we might imagine.

Dollars, and the things they buy, are our idea of prosperity. But the Lord measures wealth much differently, and in the end his idea of wealth is what makes us happy. And I’ll take that hope and future any day—storms and all.

The real blessings of health, family, love and peace of mind, in truth they all can be threatened and tossed by the storms, but when we get to the other side of the storms, those riches are beyond compare.

Sorry if that doesn’t square with your prosperity message— refrigerator magnet, Facebook meme—theology, but that’s our present reality as citizens of Heaven living in the realm of this present darkness. But do not fear, for our Lord has overcome the darkness and no matter how overwhelming it may seem, there is always a light shining to see us through, to whisper to the storms in our hearts, Peace, be still. This storm around you, that’s just temporary and cannot touch your soul.

The calm in your soul is the one that matters. How can I be calm when all Hell is breaking loose? Well, that’s the beauty of our God, that’s the gift of grace and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, that we would have a peace that passes understanding.

let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:6—7

You may feel totally out of control—but you are not supposed to be in control. That’s the whole point of the Bible from start to finish. God had a plan for Paul, he has a plan for all of us. And God’s plans cannot be thwarted.

Tell Your Story

(I think myself Happy II)

“…one day it dawned on me, that I was going to have to tell my three sweet innocent little daughters that their Daddy used to be a drug addict and did a lot of stupid things.

In Acts 26 Paul finds himself standing before a lot of people who want to hear his story. He’s supposed to be on his way to Rome, his new God given destination. But he’s, shall we say, being detained a bit. It’s not always where we are going that is important in the day, it’s what we are doing with today. Telling our story is also an important element in the journey. It reminds us of where we’ve been and why we want to keep moving forward.

I have no doubt that Paul was not proud of who he had been nor eager to share what he had done. Except that reminding himself and others of the kind of person he was gave stark contrast to the person he now is in Christ, and gives his testimony as to the redeeming power of God through his Son, credence. And reminds Paul of why he wants to keep following his Lord.

Our sins are forgiven, but if we forget—we will fall back into that snare that is our sin.

Paul was not a good person. But Paul knew, as we must, that the person who committed those sins, the person he was before Jesus, is now dead and gone, A new creation in Christ, it is no longer Christ who lives but Christ who lives in him—and in us who receive as well.

 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me Gal 2:20

It’s Hard

The old sinful person we were is dead, but the story lives on. We all have stories to share and share them we must with those who will hear. Because many of those who hear are still living that story and must know that there is a way out of their nightmares.

It can be hard. Many of our stories are embarrassing. I’m sure Paul didn’t revel in the fact that he was responsible for the death of many of the saints he was now counted among. No doubt he would like to have forgotten all that, put it all behind him, never talk about it or have to share the horrors of who he was with anyone again. Just pretend that he has always had it together, always live a righteous life and never hurt anyone.

I know I do. So why did Paul think himself happy to share the story? Because it proves the love of God for us sinners, and shows that no matter how bad or destructive you were to yourself or others, you can be forgiven and redeemed—even changed in an instant.

Yes, the stories can be hard to share, embarrassing and shameful. But we must remember that the person who once was is no more. And that story— keeps it that way.

I have such a story. A story of night and day, drunken, stoned,—do whatever feels good and I can get away with—Dan on one side, and ‘Holy Smokes Jesus is real, he loves me and he’s right here!’ on the other side.

And I set out from there, from my Damascus road experience, to share my story with everyone I could. Because I wanted everyone to experience the freedom I was. How could anyone not want to know this Jesus that showed up in my living room and set me free from a life of drug addictions and anxieties?

So I told my story to all my friends, in the Jails, at youth detention centers, and at churches. I saw many, many people find hope and give their hearts to Jesus as a result.

Stupid things

Then one day it dawned on me, that I was going to have to tell my three sweet innocent little daughters that their Daddy used to be a drug addict and did a lot of stupid things.

It was shortly after we had helped start Hope Center on the south side of Billings and I was getting more and more involved in ministering to those struggling with addictions. My daughters were getting to the point where sooner rather than later they were going to hear my testimony, I could no longer keep that part of my ministry away from them.

One of the hardest days of my life was when I had to explain to my girls that I was once dumb enough, and weak enough, to have used drugs. And those were the words I used. I explained to them that yes, I had done these things but I no longer did, nor did I want to, because Jesus had set me free and the person who once did those things is no more. So long as I keep choosing to trust and follow Jesus.

Now there’s incentive to stay away from the old life, to keep the sinful flesh at bay. I do not want my girls, my wife nor my grandchildren now, to know that old me before Jesus. I want them to know only the new creation that I am in Jesus Christ. A new man who loves them, will sacrifice and work diligently to serve them and the Lord who blessed me with them.

I actually felt a bit of relief coming here to pastor in Red Lodge. Getting away from some of the more intense ministry to addicts, because I don’t have to share the story of that old man quite as fervently and frequently as I once did.

But that story, and the many Jesus stories I have been blessed to experience since then, are still my greatest weapons in my fight to advance the Kingdom of God and I consider myself fortunate every time I get a chance to share my story, the story of my Savior.

I love to share from the pulpit, in my writings, and in my many web platforms. But I still look for and find opportunity even apart from the various pulpits.

I told the story just last week to an electrician on my job. I didn’t plan it, the opportunity just presented itself and I thought myself happy to share.

And another arrow was taken away from the quiver of the enemy as a result, one aimed either at me, or at my electrician friend. Probably both. Because the scripture tells us that that is how we overcome him the enemy.

“Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down.  And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.” Revelation 12:10-11

Whether or not it seems anyone is listening, the power of heaven is released when we tell our stories. And in that is our victory because the Lord is listening, and the enemy is listening, one is magnified and the other diminished.

 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you do believe.”

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.” Acts 26:27-28

Agrippa is nearly convinced by Paul’s story. But he is too proud to receive the grace that could have freed him from himself. He refused the power, and would forever be the villain in his own story.

Redeemed

I told you long ago, when we were doing our series on overcoming the wounds of sexual abuse, Wildflowers, that we need to redeem our stories.

That’s exactly what this is all about.

Redeem your story.

Take the power of it away from the enemy. My story isn’t about what the devil did to me, it is about what Jesus does for me.

Your story is no longer about what happened to you, it’s about what Jesus did for you—and what he continues to do.

Let me tell you ‘bout my Jesus!

E Mails

Can you here me now?!

Is it just me or has anyone else stopped receiving emails when the bloggers they follow post? I just went to my “WordPress Reader” and saw several posts from my favorite bloggers that I did not receive notifications of. It seems the more Scriptural, or conservative leaning a post may be, the less likely I am to see it in my Gmail inbox. Hmmm

If you follow me and are not seeing at least one blog a week come through your inbox than someone is censoring someone here. And if you have not heard from me for a while in regards to your post, it’s not because I gave up on you–I’m just not getting your stuff.

Dan

I Think Myself Happy

“I think myself happy, King Agrippa, because today I shall answer for myself before you concerning all the things of which I am accused by the Jews…” Acts 26

“I think myself happy.” As we talked about last week, Paul has found his happy place, and it is in his heart where the Holy Spirit of his Savior dwells.

Now, Paul is happy because he gets to once again tell the story of how he met his Savior and gained eternity, the assurance of resurrection and a passion and a purpose to share that news with all.

His persecutors think him mad. Those who dare to listen with their eyes and their hearts open think him wise. His Lord thinks him loved and Paul thinks himself happy, or fortunate, as other translations read. And Paul is never happier, or feels more fortunate,  than when he gets to tell someone about his Jesus, when he gets to tell his story. Because his story is now Jesus’ story.

We all, anyone who has met and received Jesus Christ as Lord has a story, a Jesus story, that ties your heart to his and makes you bullet proof against the lies of the enemy who would kill your spirit with accusations and slanders. The enemy cannot touch our spirits if we keep reminding him and ourselves of where our hope lies, of the life that cannot die and the Father that loves us so that he would give his Son for us.

The Testimony

What is Paul’s story? He stands before King, leaders and governors and tells of his Jesus encounter. The blinding light experiance on the road to Damascus. In part:

 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. Acts 26:15

These words from Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, jumped out at me. Who was Paul actually going after? The church. He was seizing men and women who were suspected of believing that Jesus was a resurrected Messiah and bringing them before the powers that be in the temple to be excommunicated or stoned to death.

So Jesus is telling Paul, you mess with my people, you mess with me. I find that encouraging actually. The Lord takes the persecution of his people personally. And no one will get away with it indefinitely. There will be a day of reckoning. Fortunately for Paul, his day led him to believe in and receive the Lord whom he had mocked and rejected.

Grace truly is amazing, and Paul lives to share the story.

Paul recognizes that his testimony, his own personal experience, is powerful. The other apostles had the personal stories of having walked with Jesus, of having seen him crucified and then resurrected. That is their testimony, the good news that saves us all if we accept the truth of it.

But Paul, although he knew and told the story himself, as all who hear it should, it was not his personal experience and thus didn’t have the power of a firsthand account.

Paul’s own conversion story did. And combined with the Holy Spirit’s testifying to the hearts of those who hear as Paul speaks, it was powerful.

The thing is, we all have those stories. We all know the gospel— the amazing story of how Jesus came from heaven, lived as one of us, laid down his life and was resurrected and returned to glory. And if we have been born again, filled with the life giving, healing and loving Spirit of our God, taking us from hopelessness to hope, light to dark, death to life, then we have that story, we have that testimony that is irrefutable—because we lived it.

And there is power in that because the same Holy Spirit that gave Paul and the other apostle’s stories credence, goes before us and touches the hearts of those who hear. We plant the seeds, the Lord sends the rain that waters those seeds.

The fertility of the soil that receives those seeds, well we cannot control that, but we must keep planting, we must keep looking for opportunity to tell the stories and consider ourselves fortunate for each and every chance no matter how unexpected, or what type of duress we might be facing.

Whether it’s being dragged out before Kings, governors and rulers as Paul is here, or just a chance encounter at work. We have to be ready, looking for opportunity and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide our stories.

I think often of Peter’s words in his letter to the church.

 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. “And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.”  But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; 1 Peter 3:14—25

Keep telling your stories my friends.

Get a Grip Festus (part two)

Plan and scheme all you want, in the end God’s plans will not be thwarted.

No, not that Festus!

Nature abhors a vacuum and when God is missing from a heart, anger, stress and even hatred will move in at the first opening. We sure see that happening here in Acts 25 as the religious and powerful all conspire and scheme to destroy one man.

No matter how many rules and verses may be in the mouth, or the head, if Jesus is not in the heart and the Holy Spirit allowed his place as counselor and guide in your life, the corrupt flesh will have you doing things you never dreamed you would be capable of.

I imagine these highfaluting men in their expensive robes and even priestly garments, laying in the ditch along a road with knives clutched in their squishy businessmen’s hands, waiting for this one itinerant evangelist to come by so they can jump on him and stab him to death in a bloody fury of blows.

Then what? Are they going to kill or outrun the Roman guards that are escorting him? Their hatred has blinded them and driven them mad. But they don’t care, They have lost control and they will do anything to get it back. They are frustrated beyond rational thought. They pretend it’s for God but surely they could care less anymore. This is all about their pride and power.

What a sad place for them to be in. All they would have to do is open their eyes and allow the Lord to reveal the truth that is right before their eyes in the very scriptures they profess to defend, and listen to the man, one of their brethren and peers, who once was more hate filled then all of them—until Jesus showed up and knocked him on his butt.

Then picking him up and setting him on a new path. One with no hatred, malice or anxiety, only assurances of a reward at the end and a life of meaning and purpose in the meantime. The reward being eternal life and the purpose being sharing that with the world—that’s all.

Paul knows this and it is why he is fearless and largely unflappable.

Unlike his antagonists who are being used like cannon fodder against him by the enemy of their souls. But God has a plan for Paul and these Bozos are not going to stop him, in fact, they will advance the plan, giving Paul reason to appeal to Rome. Where Jesus has told him he would witness for him.

The Scripture

“But Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favor, answered Paul and said, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and there be judged before me concerning these things?”

So Paul said, “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know. For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Acts 25:9-12

 Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, “You have appealed to Caesar? To Caesar you shall go!”

There’s my out! thinks Festus. But Festus has a problem, he needs to have a crime to charge Paul with, and a coherent case to present to Caesar. He can’t just charge and condemn a man because he is unpopular. Much to the chagrin of the mob.

“King Agrippa!”

Verse 22

“Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I also would like to hear the man myself.”

“Tomorrow,” he said, “you shall hear him.”

 So the next day, when Agrippa and Bernice had come with great pomp, and had entered the auditorium with the commanders and the prominent men of the city, at Festus’ command Paul was brought in.  And Festus said: “King Agrippa and all the men who are here present with us, you see this man about whom the whole assembly of the Jews petitioned me, both at Jerusalem and here, crying out that he was not fit to live any longer.  But when I found that he had committed nothing deserving of death, and that he himself had appealed to Augustus, I decided to send him.  I have nothing certain to write to my lord concerning him. Therefore I have brought him out before you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after the examination has taken place I may have something to write. For it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner and not to specify the charges against him.” Acts 25:22-27

The Sideshow

As much trouble as he was, Paul is becoming somewhat of a sideshow in the minds of the Romans by now. An entertaining if not brilliant oddity that provoked thought and debate, something the open-minded Hellenistic Romans thrived on. It made them feel smart and sophisticated.

But the best part about Paul was that he drove the pesky Jews crazy. These close-minded arrogant priests, Pharisees and rabbis, whatever they all chose to label themselves, had no tolerance for new ideas and had no respect whatsoever for other gods or those who worshipped them.

Then along comes this Paul proclaiming simply that a Son of their God had walked among them, had been killed at their insistence, and then—here’s the crazy part—came back to life.

Now that part, as thot provoking and entertaining as the notion is, is embarrassing to the Romans because it was under their watch that the Nazarene’s corpse had disappeared, giving them leeway to spread this wild story.

To the Jews, Paul is a major obstacle to their tenuous hold on the nation of Israel. ‘If we don’t have the full devotion of the people to the temple worship and sacrificial system then Israel is no longer separate and, holy and blessed.’ And their power and source of wealth is gone, as is the nation, in their eyes.

“We have already lost the throne and our sovereignty, we can’t lose our religion too. We have to hold out until God sends the Messiah to rescue us from our enemies and restore the kingdom to the greatness of David and Solomon!”

“This Jesus was not it, he didn’t save us from anyone or retore anything! Oh how wrong they are, but their arrogance the  unwillingness to admit they may have missed it has driven them mad with hatred and rage—they have totally lost it.

King Agrippa and the lovely Bernice think they are pretty big stuff, all pomp and circumstance, but this Paul and Festus come along and makes them feel foolish and empty with false flattery implying that they should know and understand all this Messiah and resurrection stuff because they are the King and Queen of the Jews.

Therefore I have brought him out before you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after the examination has taken place I may have something to write. Acts 25

Fakers

Everyone in this story is a faker, except for Paul. And they know it. Which is why Paul drives them mad.

In their hearts, Agrippa and Bernice know that they are but puppets of the Romans and have no true power, that they have little real knowledge of the law or the prophets of God because they just never cared all that much.

And now Festus is expecting some great legal insight that he can use to present his case to Rome against this rogue Pharisee who claims to talk to a dead carpenter. A dead carpenter who claims to be the true king of Israel.

This is all just a little too much for Agrippa, and he can hardly keep his composure or contain his distain, yet he feels like a fool and a faker at the same time, I think I need a drink! Let’s get this charade over so we can get to the feasting part.’

The high priest and the Jewish religious thugs have lost it and are looking to Felix. Felix has lost it and is looking to Agrippa. Agrippa never had it and is just trying to find it, Bernice is just along for the ride hoping she can keep living in luxury, and they are all just trying to save their behinds and cover their own ineptness so they can keep the fragile status quo.

The only one in this story who hasn’t lost it nor is he anywhere losing it, losing his grip on sanity, reality and peace. The only one who is not in turmoil over what to do and how to facilitate their agenda is the one who seems to have no control, who seems to be the madman and would appear to be totally at the mercy of others— and that is the accused prisoner, Saul of Tarsus, now known as Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ. He is the only one who still has a grip—who has a handle on reality.

Why? Why is the one being persecuted, ridiculed, accused and abused the one who seems to have it all together, who seems to be the adult in this story and is unflappable? Because he does not have to wonder what truth really is, he does not have to worry that someone else’s truth will supersede or displace his, and his truth has a name and lives in his heart. Jesus Christ.

His fate and his mission are totally in his Lord’s hands and he is totally sold out and trusting in his Savior. Thus he has no fear whatsoever.

And he can reflect back at the end of each day and marvel at how God orchestrated yet another attempt by the enemy to destroy him into another opportunity to proclaim the gospel.

Now Paul is not a passivist nor a drone here just going along for the ride. Paul has a passion, he feels the fire in his belly and he desires nothing more than to be out there sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, defending the church against false teachers and warning them of hard days to come.

He is not afraid to call evil to its face and challenge those who would come against him and the gospel. But his passion is far different from the pride driven frenzy of his detractors.

Paul knows that he is on the right side, that he is where he is supposed to be and that his words are not his alone, he speaks for Jesus and his Spirit is ever faithful.

He is in God’s hands, and that is a fine place to be. He doesn’t need to worry about hanging on, God is hanging on to him.  


          Paul has found his happy place. It is in his heart, it is wherever he is—with Jesus.