Choosing Our Own Adventures

When I was a kid, I remember reading the “choose your own adventure” books by R.A. Montgomery. If you missed out, they went like this: You were the main character of the story, as a deep sea diver looking for Atlantis, or a mountain climber looking for the elusive Abominable Snowman, or a space explorer–you get the idea. At pivotal points in the story, you had the opportunity to choose. To follow a guide, to stay and fight, or try and escape. Depending on what you chose, you either found the lost city, or worse, fell to a certain death. The beauty of these books was that some of them, while only a little over one hundred pages long, had something like over forty possible endings.

Have you ever thought about what your life could have been, had you not made certain choices?

Life is a series of choices.  But sometimes we feel we are not free to make the choices we want to make.

For the last several weeks, at our church we’ve been looking at a letter from a man named Paul, who ended up writing the majority of the New Testament letters.  Something happened in his life that apparently brought him to a place of freedom.  He later writes in this letter, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

In this letter, Paul seemed to be free from a lot of things that consume our thinking: free from others’ opinions of him, free from pleasing others, and now, free from what he once was. Paul seems to want to make his readers know this truth:

God loves us as we are…
and wants to set us free from what we were.

There is an honest tension here.  When you read the Bible honestly, you see that it is an invitation from God to move a person, and a people—from what they were into what they were meant to be.  Now the difficult part is this:  When someone comes to us and says, I want to move you from where you are to where you need to be, we resist.  We might think they are trying to sell us something. Or, we can interpret that as a message that they don’t accept us as we are. 

But that isn’t what God is saying.  He loves us with an everlasting love.

While we were still apart from God—enemies of God—Jesus came for us.  He so loved the world He sent His only son for us.  His love is beyond words—it is a sacrificial love—as Jesus laid down his life so that we might be set free.  God doesn’t wait until we clean up our lives before accepting us and loving us. He loves us as we are.

AND YET—there is something greater he is inviting us into.  He wants to set us free from the things that still enslave us.  Maybe it is regret from our past, or ongoing struggles in our present.  This is why he says, “Follow me.”  Not just once, but for the rest of our lives.

This is important for us to grasp. If we don’t get this–the invitation from God to learn from Jesus, be changed by him, and join in his work (see Bobby Harrington’s definition at–our faith will stay stagnant.  Jesus can remain only a Savior who you turn to when you do something wrong.  Nothing else. 

Paul had a greater vision of who Jesus was.  Where did that come from? Let’s look at his remarkable conversion, found in the book of Acts, chapter 9:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

In short, Paul had an experience seeing the risen Jesus Christ.  Ever wondered what would have happened if he had decided this was just a dream?  That he was hallucinating?  Like the “choose your own adventure” books:

If Paul thinks it is a dream, go to page 23.  If Paul believes it is real, turn to page 24. 

Obviously, Paul believed that what he saw and heard on that day—on the road to Damascus—was real.  And true.  And that Jesus was worth reorienting his entire life around.

He didn’t just say, “Wow, Jesus took care of all the bad things I used to do.”  He goes and spends time with Peter, the man who spent three years walking with Jesus.  Paul learns from him the eyewitness accounts of what Jesus did, some of which we get to read in the gospels. 

Then, get this, he goes to Damascus—the very place he was headed when the risen Jesus showed up.  Damascus—the place where he was known to be an enemy of the gospel.  And he begins to preach that Jesus is God’s Son—alive, risen—and worth following.  Forget what is behind, Paul says.  Follow Jesus.

And so what Paul once was changes.   He knows what was being said about him now:

They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they praised God because of me.   Galatians 1:23-24

What would be said about you?  The man—the woman—who used to…now is…. 

I’m a part of a group of pastors that meet together monthly. At a recent gathering, one of the pastors asked this question: How do you know when you are lined up with the heart of God? After various responses, this is what I said: “When instead of anger I find myself responding with gentleness and compassion.  When instead of despair I find myself holding on to hope.  When instead of just trying to make people happy I find myself speaking the truth in love.” In other words, when I see a change taking place: from what I once was, to what God is inviting me to be.

So how do we get there?  

How do we really embark on this journey of being changed by God?
The journey to discovering God’s love, and where we need to be set free cannot always be done alone. Most churches offer all kinds of opportunities: small groups, mentors, classes. But I remember my earliest part of my own growth was with a group of my peers in high school. We just got together and studied a book together. We weren’t part of one church, but were classmates trying to figure out how to follow Jesus as 17-year olds. We were in the midst of making decisions for our future, and trying to figure out how to turn to Jesus to help with the struggles we had.

What about you? Can you think of one thing you are struggling with right now, that a year from now you’d like to be able to say, “That’s who I used to be.  But Jesus has changed that.”

Spoiler alert: in book #2 of the choose your own adventure series, Journey Under the Sea, you are a deep sea adventurer, seeking the lost city of Atlantis. You dive down deep into the ocean, go through a grotto, and discover a strange group of people, with a different language. They tell you (through an interpreter) that they are enslaved to a wicked king. You have to make some difficult choices. They ask for your help. If you help, if you then ask for their help, you end up leading a revolt to overthrow the evil king. And the book ends with, “You and the people are free.”

In some ways, that adventure is like what it’s like to join a church.  You are seeking.  You find a group of people that is also looking to be set free.  This group of people–church people–at first seem different, with a different language and everything. You have to make hard choices to join them.  But in the end, you, and the people, find yourself living free. 

God loves us as we are, but wants to set us free from what we once were.

Esther Mae Jones and The Greyhound Bus Ride

Over twenty years ago now, when I was a seminary student in New Jersey, my girlfriend (now my wife!) lived in Virginia.  To go and see her, I often took a Greyhound bus.  On one particular trip, I sat next to a woman who introduced herself as Evangelist Esther Mae Jones.  I remember her to be a small fiery African American woman, with graying hair, wire rimmed glasses, with a lunch neatly placed on her lap.  We chatted for a bit, and I told her where I was going.  “To see my girlfriend,” I said.  “You’re going to marry that woman,” she said.  We had been dating about nine months at that point, so I wasn’t sure what to make of the prediction. 

But she was right.  We’ve been married twenty one years now.

We talked some more.  I told her I was a seminary student.  She had all sorts of warnings for me about that.  Not to let my education get in the way of what God might want to do, not to get distracted by all kinds of theories and teachings.  Then she got to teaching herself.  She told me to write these things down.  “Do it!” she said.  I remember getting out a yellow post-it pad, and began writing.  She watched me to make sure I got these things right.

“The only thing that God cannot do is fail.”

“Let God do it for you.”

We need to hear those wise words from Esther Mae Jones.  God cannot fail.  And He will do it for you.

I think Esther Mae Jones and the apostle Paul would have been friends.  Especially that last part:  Let God do it for you.  Because that is another way of saying what Paul said to the churches in Galatia.

He writes,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

Strong words for Paul.  He is extremely concerned that some folks have come into the very place where Paul preached freedom for people, telling them they needed to do some other things to really be accepted into God’s family. 

I was listening to another sermon on this, and was reminded that  Paul is a man who claims to have seen a resurrected Jesus Christ.  We have to decide if he is deluded, if he hallucinated, or is a real eyewitness of truth.  For this man goes on to write more letters, and his letter helped shape this movement of following Jesus.  He went on to suffer hardship for this message:  beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment.  Ultimately, according to at least two traditions:  he was beheaded by the emperor Nero. 

At the end of the day, we need to decide if he’s telling the truth.

Paul is frustrated that the Galatians are “trading in” the greatest news for a different gospel.  The greatest news is that Jesus has secured their salvation through the cross as a free gift from God. It’s Jesus and nothing else.  That’s a lot of church words, but I’ll explain more in a future post. 

Why were they doing that?  Why were they trading that good news in?

Paul says some others have come in to “trouble and distort” the gospel that was preached to them.  The word “trouble” means to stir or shake up.  I thought about the things that “stir” or “shake” our belief that God is for us and with us.  First and foremost, pain and suffering.  When we experience pain and suffering, we often attempt to control our situation, and can often fall into impatience, hijacking perhaps what God wants to do in His timing.

Think about that:  you believe something being taught to you.  You receive it, embrace it.  It becomes a part of who you are.  You experience joy because of it.  A sense that it is right and true and good.  You feel hope.  And then something bad happens.  Sickness, an accident.  You lose something or someone.  And then someone comes and tells you, “Well, that’s because you were believing that message; let me tell you how to get out of that predicament.”

And the message they try and sell you isn’t all wrong.  In fact, parts of it sound like the other message.  It just distorts some things.

The word “distort” brings to mind one of those carnival mirrors.  It distorts the picture of who we are.   So too does a “gospel” that says you have to do all of these things to stay right with God.  

The basic “distortion” Paul was wanting to point out was any message that proclaimed:   “Jesus and…”  In Paul’s day, it was believe in Jesus, AND Obey these rituals.  Believe in Jesus AND Obey these days and seasons.  Believe in Jesus AND Obey these dietary laws.

We hear some of that in the New Testament and can dismiss those things because they’re not a part of our culture.  But what about this…

Well, the way you really show your devotion to Jesus is through serving here.  

The way you really show that you’re serious about your faith is if you volunteer.  

Or give money. 

Or go to this class, this program, this retreat, embrace this discipline, that discipline, on and on and on.

I wonder sometimes if some of you have feel that way when you go to church.  I don’t think it is the intent of some churches to do that.  I know my hope is to create a space for people to discover the person of Jesus, and become a life long follower of His.  To know His grace and love.  I believe when we begin to do that, we’ll join Him in His already existing mission of transformation of our neighborhood, our city, and the world.  But I wonder if sometimes people hear something different. 

There’s a subtle difference between a message that says, “We’re offering these things because it might be a pathway for you to grow in this relationship with Jesus;” and, “You need to do these things to really be accepted by Jesus, and be a part of us.”

Paul feels very strongly about this.  He says that if anyone–even an angel from heaven–is preaching something like that latter message, that they should be cursed.

This word curse is the Greek word  anathema. The first definition I came across in a dictionary was  “a votive offering set up in a temple.” “Devoted to the divinity”–either consecrated or accursed. In other words, Paul was saying, “Let them be devoted to God–for Him to deal with them.”  By the way, Paul says he would wish himself were accursed from Christ for the sake of his brothers in Romans 9:3.

So this is a serious message:  We do not need to turn to earning God’s love or favor; it is by grace we have been saved.

Examine your heart and mind on this:  How many of you are hearing that message and saying “Yes Yes I know.  But I have to do this too…”

Paul would cry out and say “No!”  If you begin to believe that, you begin to leave Jesus behind, in essence saying He is not enough.  He says he’s astonished that the Galatians are “deserting” the one who called them live in grace…God’s free gift.

Jesus is enough.  He is more than enough.  At the core of our faith is a belief that He came to be with us and for us.  To have a relationship with us–we do that through prayer, through studying His words, through learning from one another.  Don’t abandon that relationship by believing you have to do something more to earn His acceptance and love.

I was thinking this: 

“The good news is so good that we try to be good, or do good, to stay good. But we don’t have to.”

Esther Mae Jones would say:  Let God do it for you.

God loves you.  Let Him do this for you.  He has set you free.

Free from others’ opinions of us…

I was in fourth grade when I first started wearing glasses.  I was in fourth grade when the girl I had a crush on said to me, “I don’t like your glasses.”  I remember saying, my 10 year old heart hurting, “Well don’t look at them then!”  It sounded like I was confident in that moment, but I wasn’t. 

The fact is that we can remember people’s words and people’s opinions, especially when those opinions have something to do with us:  what we look like, what we wear, what we do for a living, what we said.  So my story of my 4th grade crush crushing my heart with a few words might be a silly example.  But people’s words hurt, and people’s opinions hurt.  (Otherwise I wouldn’t remember it nearly forty years later!) 

But what would it look like to not be worried so much about others’ opinions of us.  If there was a security in our identity—

The author Henri Nouwen says we have a tendency to believe three lies about our identity.

I am what I have,

I am what I do,

and I am what other people say or think about me.   

Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

There is a book we are studying at my church, a letter written to a group of churches in Galatia (modern day Turkey). This letter to the Galatians addresses these lies in different ways. 

The man who wrote the letter was first known as Saul.  We are introduced to him in the New Testament in the book of Acts, and discover that he once persecuted followers of Jesus.  But in the 9th chapter of Acts, Saul becomes Paul, when he has an encounter with the risen-from-the dead Jesus.

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson puts who Paul was this way: 

 “Paul believed the lie that God was against everyone who deviated from a certain path.  He believed the lie and so was against everyone who didn’t follow the path.  As he lived out this lie, he became obsessed.  Paul’s idea of God was that he was an angry bachelor uncle, impatient with the antics of romping and undisciplined children.  Paul’s response, along with many others, was to shut up the children and make them sit in a corner until they learned to behave in such a way that they wouldn’t disturb the old man, and if they wouldn’t shut up, send them off to boarding school.” Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light

So, if this wasn’t what God was like—an angry bachelor uncle—what was God like?  Peterson goes on…

 “God was not against but for. This truth about God came to Paul in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ showed him that he had had it all wrong, that what he had followed was a ‘gospel contrary.’ He convinced him that God is on our side; he persuaded him that sin is not God’s excuse to get rid of us, but the occasion for entering our lives and setting us free.” Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light  

Sure enough, this idea of being “set free” shows up in Paul’s first sermon in Acts,  preached to one of the churches in the region of Galatia.

 “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”Acts 13:38-39 ESV

Paul preached to the churches in Galatia:  we’ve been set free. 

We have to understand that this is a radical claim.  And Paul heard that others had come up to stir up division in the churches, and they did it by trying to disparage the character of Paul.  Saying that Paul had just gotten this idea of being set free from some other teachers, and he was passing it off as his own.

That is why Paul begins the introduction to his letter to the Galatians by emphatically stating:  I’m an apostle:  One sent by God—but I’m sent not by men, but by God Himself. 

Now when we hear someone say those kinds of things now—God sent me, God told me—we get skeptical.  And rightly so.  And the only way we can test to see if this is true is by seeing if what is being taught and said holds up.  Does this gospel of freedom stand the test of time.  Does it produce what it is meant to produce?  Is the one delivering the message trustworthy?  Does their life match up with what is being taught?

In another letter to a church, Paul talked about how he shared his life and message deeply with others, and when he heard that others were saying negative things about him, his only defense was this:  “Remember how we were like a mother to you—gentle among you.  Remember how we were like a father to you, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy…”  [see I Thessalonians 2:7 and following) In other words, remember how I lived among you.

Paul is simply saying:  look at what others are saying about me.  Then remember how I lived among you.

We should probably do this with the people who lead us and teach us.  Does the teaching stand the test of time?  Is it proven somewhere?  Can we test it somehow?  And, does the person doing the teaching—do they live in such a way that seems trustworthy? 

Paul knew there were critics, and seemed to expect them.  He knew that what he was saying would not just “ruffle feathers,” but make people vehemently angry.

Back to the boy in the glasses.  When I think back to those years, I see a young boy that desperately wanted to be liked.  And that is still within me today.  But over time, I’ve discovered that it’s a greater thing to be loved:  by my wife of 21 years, by my children, and most of all, by the God who says “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  Not everyone will like me..  I will probably always be misunderstood, misinterpreted, accused of things, and more.  People won’t like me for a variety of reasons.  But I cling to the fact that I am loved.  I share that with you because I believe someone else needs to hear that today.  You’re working so hard to manage everyone’s expectations of you, trying to fit in, trying to be liked—you need to hear, as I do, that you’re loved.

I think that is what Paul is saying in Galatians.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll hear him say it more and more.  He knows people are saying that his message and teaching—he just stole it from other people, he’s just saying what other people told him to say.  To all of that Paul insists that he is sent from God, and comes out of the love of God.

Now:  on to why I wanted to study this book, this letter written centuries ago.  Noticed how divided we are in our world today.  By race, by class, by political affiliation.  Even within the church—the followers of Jesus have divided themselves by how we think about baptism, the Lord’s supper, music, what we wear, how it is people come to know Christ.  What happened in Genesis when God created the heavens and earth; what will happen when Jesus returns.  With so much division and hatred everywhere, it is a dark time. 

Underneath the book of Galatians is division.  Between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians—different races, different ethnic groups.  There was fighting, arguing, and division. 

One group saying to another, “to really be a follower of Christ you have to be like us.”  [Any of that sound familiar…anywhere?]

To all of that Paul says rubbish.  Hogwash.  Fill in your strong-word-of-choice.

And we’ll discover that he is well aware of the division, and what others are saying about him.  He knows who called him, he knows who rescued him, and he knows who gave him this commission to preach good news.  And he knows that the gospel:  that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came to rescue us from our sins through his death on the cross, and was raised back to life as a promise of our new life here and in the life to come.  We receive all of this as a gift—it is God’s grace.  We don’t earn it, we don’t have to work or add to it. 

That should unify us all.  Nothing more, nothing less. 

“According to Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that this God is now building a new family, a single family, a family with no divisions, no separate races, no one-table-for-Jews-and-another-for-Gentiles nonsense. Jews believed that when the Messiah came he would be Lord of all the world; so, Paul argues, he’d have to have just one family. ” NT Wright, Galatians For Everyone

We are a new family.  One family.  Gathered around one table.  Unified by one true gospel. 

God came to be with us, so that he could be for us. 

Remember Eugene Peterson’s words again:

“Sin is not God’s excuse to get rid of us.  It is the occasion of entering our lives and setting us free.”

Jesus gave himself for our sins.  This is the gospel.  We don’t earn anything.  We are free. 

Free first from what others say and think.

Free from others’ perception of us.

Free at last from the sin that used to hold us, and free to live a new life because of Jesus.  

In the words of the honorable Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are:

Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.