Friday, September 27, 2013

A Voice in the Wind-A Book Review

Truth hidden inside a parable.  A story with a moral.  Hope in the pages of a novel.

Those are the concepts that flood my mind as I think about Francine Rivers’ A Voice in the Wind; the first novel in her Mark of the Lion series.

The series was recommended to me by my wife and daughters, and being the guy that I am…a guy who loves novels with gun battles, car chases, or monsters that threaten suburban communities…, I was a tad reluctant to pick it up.  Boy, am I glad I did.

The story of little Hadassah, a teenage Jewish Christian girl is captivating.  But, more than that, it is on the one hand inspiring, and on the other hand challenging.  It will both inspire and challenge your heart of faith.

Hadassah is captured in the fall of Jerusalem by the Roman army.  She is taken as a captive on a long journey to Rome where she becomes the personal slave to a rebellious and petulant Roman girl who is close to her own age, but is bent on the selfish pleasures found in first century Roman society.  The girl’s parents are kindly, but lost in the emptiness of idol worship or the pursuit of financial wealth.  The girl’s older brother is lost in his pursuit of personal pleasures.  Her “owners” know that she is Jewish, but are unaware that she is a Christian.  She keeps that fact a secret while she faithfully and lovingly serves both the girl and her family for several years because Christians were routinely sentenced to death in the Arena.  All the while, her devotion, humble service, and extraordinary affection for her captors begins to cause ripples in the waters of their lives, and ultimately her true faith begins to come to the surface. 

Over time, her quiet faith becomes both a balm and a thorn to various members of the family, and the story culminates with a climax that is both devastating and at the same time incredibly inspiring.  Tears of both joy and sorrow will flow as you read the last several pages.  You will feel so many conflicting emotions, and it will make you reconsider what you really believe, and just how deep your own convictions go.

While some may view this book as a Christian romance story and there is some romance to be found, it is much more and much beyond that simple categorization.  This book will challenge you to your core.  It will make you reexamine your faith at a level you didn’t realize needed to be reexamined.  It will inspire you to new highs of love, service, and selfless devotion.

I recommend this book to every Christian, every person who is thinking about becoming a Christian, every person who used to be a Christian, and any person who is remotely curious about what it really means to be a Christian.  This book depicts Christianity as we rarely see it in 21st century America, and the core of our faith is found in the parable it contains.

Well done Francine.

Now, on to Book Two.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Thorns and the Grace of God

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  –Paul  2 Corinthians 12:7b-9

I’ve been contemplating writing this post for some time, but it just never seemed to be the right moment.  I’m still not sure that this is the moment.  But, I’m going to give it a go and see what happens.

The verse above is one of those highly intriguing passages in scripture.  What was the thorn?  That is what we all want to know, right?  It’s been debated for centuries.  In Bible College, it was strongly suggested to me that the thorn was a physical issue; particularly Paul’s poor eyesight.  I read and article recently that suggested that the thorn was the “Judaizers” who were afflicting Paul by influencing the Gentile believers to embrace the Jewish Law in the face of the freedom of God’s Grace. Personally, I tend to think that he had some personal battle with a sin that he couldn’t quite conquer.  (See Romans 7:14-25) 

Maybe it was a real thorn.  Maybe in some of his travels he walked through a thorny shrub and got a big one stuck in his flesh and couldn't get it out.  Maybe.

In this life, we will never know.  And, that’s okay because what it was doesn’t matter nearly as much as what the Lord told him about dealing with it: 
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

My grace is sufficient for you.

Whatever the thorn was, it wasn’t going away anytime soon, and the Lord wasn’t going to take it away.  Paul was going to have to rely on the grace of the Lord.  Grace was just going to need to be enough.

The question I’m asking myself…and you by extension…is this:  Is God’s grace sufficient for me?

Is grace enough?

You see, I…like so many others…live in a vicious cycle.  I do pretty well with a spiritual life for a while, and then I fall short in some way.  Falling short leads to guilt.  Guilt leads to beating myself up mentally.  Eventually, I feel a little better…get a little spiritual streak going again…and then the cycle starts over.

Will I ever change?  Will I ever beat these issues?  Did I really do that again?  You’ve got to be kidding me!  What is wrong with me?

Guilt.  Shame.  Embarrassment.  Discouragement.  Depression.

My grace is sufficient for you.

So, then, I remind myself that God loves me.  I remind myself that Jesus died for me and my sin…which, by the way, makes me feel even more guilty…, and I remind myself that nothing that I can do will make God love me any less.  After all, he orchestrated all of history to bring about my redemption.

Still, the words of David from Psalm 51 bounce around in my mind:  “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”

Somehow or another, even after reviewing all of the pertinent facts of the Gospel, I just don’t seem to be able to accept that the Lord’s grace is enough.  Somehow, grace isn’t good enough.

I want the Lord to just take this mess away.  I want Him to fix my errant ways and make me a good person.  Paul pleaded three times.  I’ve pleaded many more than that.

My grace is sufficient for you.

Ah, but there’s the second half of that sentence.  Jesus said a little more:  “…for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s thorn was manifested in order to keep him from becoming conceited.  He hated it.  It was a burden; a discouragement.  He wanted it gone.  He pleaded.  It stayed.  Why?

…for my power is made perfect in weakness.

Apparently, if the Lord had removed this “thorn” from Paul, he would have grown exceedingly proud, and in doing so, he would have limited the power of Christ in his life.  As a result, Paul needed to embrace his weaknesses.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.     

Sometimes, I wonder if God allows certain struggles we have with sin to remain a burden on us so that we remain useful to Him.  Does that sound like a paradox?  An oxymoron?  It does to me. 

But, hear me out.

If I, with the Lord’s assistance, were to snuff out the struggles and the sins in my life completely, the result would be a wonderfully righteous and pious life for me.  Fantastic!  I would begin to feel so good about myself.  No guilt.  No shame.  No discouragement.  Boy, that sounds just wonderful.  After a time, I’d start to feel so good about how I’M doing.  I’M such a great example to the world.  They should just follow MY example.

Pride.  Conceit.  Judgmental Attitude. 

I become unapproachable…unrelateable…Unuseful.

…for my power is made perfect in weakness.

Now, let me say what I’m NOT saying.  I’m not saying that we should just go out and sin with abandon…have a fantastic time driving the nails into His hands and His feet.  Nope.  I’m not saying we just give in to the temptations that come our way.  I'm not saying any of those things.

What I am saying is that we should just stop beating ourselves up.  We should stop feeling like God has abandoned us.  We should stop feeling like we are worthless…or maybe less than worthless.

…for my power is made perfect in weakness.

Maybe we should embrace our weaknesses as a tool to demonstrate the grace of God to a lost world.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal live.  –Paul  I Timothy 1:15-16 

Paul said that the above statement is a trustworthy SAYING that we should all accept.

When we fall short, it gives God an opportunity to show His patience…His love…His grace.

My grace is sufficient for you.

If we accept that the Lord’s grace is enough, and we embrace our weaknesses as a tool in God’s toolbox, we can be the way He makes His power manifest before those who are lost. 
We can be the vessels of God’s grace to a hurting world.

I think Paul’s thorn was always a burden to him.  Our struggles will always be a burden to us.  That said, I feel confident in saying that God’s grace was sufficient for Paul, and once he ascended to be with the Lord, his thorn was removed.  The same awaits us.  We will always struggle in this life…in one way or another…but, once we cross that border into the New Jerusalem, our thorns will be removed as well.

And, then we can say with confidence that His grace was sufficient for us...and also for all those who have that eternal life with us because we were willing to let Christ display his power in our lives.