© 2015 Lynn Abbott
To this day, I don’t know who started the trouble. It could have been either Peter or Bobby.
Personally, I suspect it was Peter…he had perfected mischief-making and during his reign and had led the boys to historic achievements…
Typically, he and I shared that dubious platform. But I had not included him in this particular scheme. My mistrust, therefore, is well-founded.
Regardless, at the beginning of my low tech, movie theater production,the boys began to improvise.
“Yahoo,” one called.
“Bravo!” another hollered.
“Encore,” snorted Bobby as the reel-to-reel audio began to roll.
As I tried to negotiate myself through all the rudimentary technology that I had contrived for the production, popcorn began to sprinkle. It wasn’t long before the gentle pop, pop developed into a torrential downpour.
I scuttled attempting to avoid the fluffy white stuff when suddenly we lost all sound. I fidgeted with my father’s reel-to-reel.
Horrified by the prospect of facing my father with such a revelation, I emerged from behind the set like Linus’ much anticipated, Great Pumpkin in the proverbial Peanuts’ patch.
However, I did not intend to bestow pleasant gifts upon all the boys of the Woodstock world.
“You…” I shouted, and scowled as I pointed at the culprits.
They turned, and fled through the garden gate as fast as they were able. But my fury propelled me, and I clipped their heels.
I gained on Bobby, who glanced back to see a Tasmanian devil in hot pursuit.
He tripped, but scrambled just in time to avoid justice, meted out by an infamous tom-boy clad in faded, hand-me-down pink.
Yup, I worked magic that day. But it wasn’t a cinematic “happily ever after.”
It was over three weeks before the boys dared to tread the sidewalk on the right of Woodstock Lane.
Without a doubt, my marketplace venture had failed. Yet, I took great satisfaction in knowing that I had taught those boys a lesson.
Yes, I was zealous on behalf of my father. Rules were rules. Right was right.
No boy should ever cause trouble for my father. And obviously, at age 9, I viewed the boy’s behavior as an extremely serious infraction.
There could be no question of that. After all, they had violated the rule of law and order and had also disregarded all precepts of polite conduct.
Of course, looking back at it in later years, my father and I shared a hearty laugh.
And even now, I can’t help but giggle at the irony that is my life…
Indeed, that in itself is an example of Abba’s great mercy. And His sense of humor.
That child who once insisted that the other children on the playground follow the rules to the letter of the law, however, learned the hard way that she herself fails again and again to keep every law perfectly. And often inadvertently.
In fact, I had that figured long before I reached adulthood.
Uh, huh. As a child I may have given Anne Shirley a run for her money, but my hot temper passed quickly like a summer’s thunder. And once I became Abba’s child, I began to learn grace.
But I had already trampled on a few neighborhood “law breakers.”
Even though I have long regretted the hurt I caused with my overzealous, outspoken sincerity, I nevertheless take some comfort in knowing that the apostle Paul tread a similar path.
That’s right. If as a child, you attended Sunday School, you’ll certainly remember Paul’s history. Talk about a guy who loved to enforce rules!
Paul, or Saul as he was called at the time, had “rule making and following” down pat.
Educated as a Pharisee, he passionately persecuted the fledgling church.
He stood by as Stephen was stoned. He acquired letters from the high priest to track down Christians and punish them.
No one doubted his sincerity or his zeal. His religion was iron-clad.
Until he met the Grace Giver.
And on that road to Damascus, Saul suddenly encountered incarnate God. The young Pharisee discovered firsthand that rules were a poor substitute for a relationship with God Himself.
Although Christ asked Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s conversion revolved not around what Saul had done but rather upon the identity of Christ.
“Who art Thou, Lord?” Saul asked.
You see, Saul did not understand the ramifications of his actions. He didn’t know who it was that he persecuted. He simply enforced laws, but had never had a personal encounter with the Living God.
Of course, Saul thought he served God. He followed a list of rules and demanded that others do the same. For Saul, rules were everything.
Through rules, Saul attempted to establish a relationship with God. He passionately pursued those he felt had violated God’s law, and sought to punish them. He was truly zealous; he likely felt he could win Yahweh’s favor by persecuting Christ followers.
Interestingly enough, although Christ corrected Saul’s ignorant yet sincere assumptions, the Savior didn’t scold or punish.
Nor did Saul die on the spot in retribution for Stephen’s stoning. Although Saul trampled on others, he himself received grace.
Although Jesus briefly mentioned Saul’s persecution of the church, Christ didn’t dwell on it. Jesus recognized Saul’s erroneous understanding and sin, but that was not the focus of the Damascus road interview.
Instead, our Savior told Saul to rise and go to Damascus to await further instruction.
Without a doubt, that’s undeserved favor.
In fact, Abba not only forgave Saul, but gave the zealot a new name, identity and purpose.
Grace goes beyond all that we could ask or imagine. Because of what Christ has done, God sees us in light of who we will become rather than in the shadow of wrongs we’ve committed.
Through Christ, our redeemed and renewed relationship with Yahweh trumps the violated rules. Abba celebrates the return of His prodigals.
The irony of Saul’s situation was that he had pursued Christ’s followers relentlessly. He demanded the letter of the law. He considered followers of The Way, as the early Christians were called, to be blasphemers, deserving of the death penalty.
I imagine that Saul thought a lot about his misguided zeal during the three days that he waited in Damascus. He definitely had a lot of time to think because after his encounter with Christ, he experienced three days of blindness.
However, he’d been spiritually blind for years.
And having exacted severe punishment from the innocent, from those who served God, he certainly feared the next step.
But Abba sent Saul a valuable object lesson through a disciple named Ananias. Of course, when the Lord first told Ananias to visit Saul, Ananias balked.
“‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priest to bind all who call upon Thy name,” (Acts 9:13-14).
I completely understand Ananias’ reticence. I, too, would have questioned the advisability of meeting with a man of Saul’s reputation.
However, God answered Ananias’ doubts, “‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine…”
Grace showed up in a big way.
Thus, the Pharisee’s poster child became the chief spokesperson of Grace. From that point forward, the former legalist, Saul, championed God’s grace.
Paul eloquently expresses his transformation in Philippians 3:4-7. He lists and evaluates his accomplishments according to the law: “a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”
From a human perspective, Paul had it all. Yet, when faced with the reality of the risen Lord, Paul’s rules were a loss. The law could not transform him. Nor can it save anyone, for that matter. No one can keep it perfectly, (Romans 3:23).
The apostle fully understood his own need for grace, and delivered Abba’s message of mercy in the marketplace for the remainder of his life.
On one particular occasion, Paul addressed the Athenians. And in fact, examining the account in Acts 17, it becomes extraordinarily clear just how far his understanding of grace had grown.
The Paul in Athens bears little resemblance to the Saul on the Damascus road.
Scripture tells us in verse 16 that while Paul waited for his friends Silas and Timothy in Athens, his spirit “was being provoked within him as his was beholding the city full of idols.”
Of course, Saul would have raged against the Athenians. Referencing the Mosaic law, Saul would have loudly and vehemently condemned his hearers.
But Paul had personally experienced Abba’s love and forgiveness.
Was Paul still zealous for his heavenly Father? You betcha.
Did he speak the truth? Most certainly.
But Paul spoke gently and humbly. The Holy Spirit had transformed the once hardened legalist into ambassador of God’s love and forgiveness.
And Paul wrote, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person,” (I Thessalonians 4:6).
While their idolatry disturbed him, Paul did not scold them for what they clearly did in their ignorance of Yahweh. Saul, the enforcer, did not speak that day.
I suspect he thought of Damascus.
And although he briefly referenced their idols, he turned the focus of his communication to Christ.
He identified and addressed their longing for a relationship with God. His tone exuded compassion, understanding…
Gentle drops of Living Water.
Standing on Mars Hill, he spoke of their spiritual longings, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you,” (Acts 17:22-23).
As I read more of the apostles throughout the New Testament, I find that gentle grace, as Peter points out, punctuated their testimony: “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence…” (I Peter 3:15).
And I read in the book of Titus that I am to follow their example: “showing every consideration for all men. For we also once were foolish ourselves… but when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy…”
That’s right. The early church had a clear understanding of Abba’s love and mercy. Thus, while believers witnessed boldly, they spoke words heavily seasoned with Abba’s Grace.
And Abba used their testimony to transform lives.
Grace like rain. In the marketplace.
Sign me up. I want to be a part of that. After all, it was by God’s grace, through faith, that my life transformed.
And if those neighborhood boys could see me now, I’m sure they would agree, I’m so much better for it.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law,” Galatians 5:22