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Changes in Life

The following quotations are from Charles R. Swindoll’s book, “Paul---A Man of Grace and Grit,” published in 2002.

 

“Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who is called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.

While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’

Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus.” (Acts 13:1—4,13)

 

For me, one word best characterizes the essence of obedience: Change. Just reading that word may cause you to shudder. I know very few people who enjoy change. It threatens our comfort, interrupts our routines, challenges our priorities, and introduces anxiety. Yet, I’m convinced that living a life of obedience is an impossibility if you and I are unwilling to change. That’s much easier to write than it is to put into practice. Either way, I’m convinced the statement is true.

There’s a strong possibility that, as you open this chapter and begin to read these words, you (or someone close to you) faces the challenge of change. It may have to do with your work setting—--a change in your employment status. Or you’re pulling the details together to launch a cross-country move. Perhaps, after waiting and working hard for so many years, the suddenly slower pace of retirement caught you by surprise. You aren’t as prepared for the changes as you thought. I could fill two more pages with the possibilities because change is inevitable.

In our study of the life of Paul, we watched closely as that remarkable man of grace and grit handled many crucibles of change. They marked him in ways that prepared him uniquely for the task God had planned for him.

Little did he know it, but Saul was in for a few more big-time changes. No one could tell by looking, but the church at Antioch was about to lose two-fifths of its staff. Change. Change. Change. Change. Change.

 

CHANGE . . . THE UNFINISHED SENTENCE IN LIFE

Webster’s Dictionary provides a strangely wonderful definition of the word “change”: “To make different in some particular.” It appears to be an unfinished sentence. You want the last word, don’t you? But it stops with the word “particular.” The definition goes on to include “to transform, to undergo a modification, to become different.” Maybe that explains why it’s so challenging; it isn’t easy “to become different.”

Though change is good, it’s rarely easy or pleasant. We’re most interested in pursuing the comfortable route. We prefer the road more frequently traveled. But change leads us down unknown paths filled with narrow passages and surprising turns. Everything within us scrambles to stay on trails already blazed.

Several years ago, a friend of mine who lived in the Santa Barbara Canyon area of California went through a frightening ordeal. One parched summer, fire swept through the region devouring thousands of acres of forest and destroying countless homes in the canyon. His home sat at the base of the long canyon. He didn’t have much time to prepare his escape, but he had longer than those at the top. He could see the flames and smoke in the distance and knew he had only a short while before his home would become engulfed in fire. He hurriedly made a list of those possessions he most wanted to save. As it turned out, he didn’t have time to grab any of them. When the whole ordeal was over, he stood looking at the smoldering heap that was once his home. All that remained was the list he had clutched in his hand. The impact that destructive event had on his family marked each one of them so deeply, they were never the same.

They lost everything, except of course the useless list of items they thought they couldn’t do without. The fire, though unbelievably devastating, became a catalyst for changing them into a closer, more grateful family. In short, the change made them different.

No doubt the songwriter, Eddie Espinosa, understood the invaluable benefits of change when he composed these words:

Change my heart Oh God, make it ever true.

Change my heart Oh God, may I be like You.

You are the potter, I am the clay;

Mold me and make me, this is what I pray.

Change my heart Oh God, make it ever true.

Change my heart Oh God, may I be like you.

 

We love to sing that song of worship at our church. Every time we do, it stays on my mind for the rest of the day. Though those words are a delight to sing, bringing them into the reality of our lives is another matter. Allowing someone to mold and make us into something different is uncomfortable and, at times, downright painful. If we were like clay—--moldable and flexible and easy to reshape—--changes would be a lot easier. But we’re more like hard pottery—--brittle and inflexible.

That tender song is based on a familiar biblical metaphor: God is portrayed as the Potter and we, His children, as the clay. Read carefully the following Scripture passages that use the image to drive home that crucial truth.

You turn things around! Shall the potter be considered as equal to the clay, that what is made should say to its maker, “He did not make me”; or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:16)

Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker—--an earthenware vessel among vessels of the earth! Will the clay say to the potter, “What are you doing?” (Isaiah 45:9)

Does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? (Romans 9:21)

 

When our wills are like clay, we understand that change is inevitable when placed in the hands of the Potter. That’s why David, many centuries ago, wrote the words to his own worship chorus—--poetry forged on the anvil of change:

Be gracious to me, 0 God, according to Thy lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity; and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight, so that Thou are justified when Thou dost speak, and blameless when Thou dost judge.

. . .Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:1—4,10)

 

 In that fifty-first psalm, David called upon the Lord to change ugly habits that had held him in their grip much too long. Hypocrisy, murderous thoughts, adultery, rationalization, and a stubborn will distanced him from his Lord. Realizing the depth of his sinful condition, he acknowledged, “I need my heart changed and only You, Lord, can make it happen and cause it to last.” And so he opened his heart and invited His Lord to clean it up and reshape it.

Heart surgery is God’s specialty. Though the process is painful, the results are magnificent.

Turning back to the scene we left in the Book of Acts, Saul and Barnabas are having the time of their lives, ministering together amid one of the most remarkable revivals in early church history. The church is growing, lives are being transformed, and an entire culture has come under the influence of the Spirit of God. The scene is wonderfully exciting. Every day the excitement intensified. The worship, the harmony, the conversions, the growth--—all so contagious. Suddenly God stepped in and everything changed. There’s that word again—--everything changed. Chances are good that some of the believers in Antioch might have resisted even the thought of change, at least initially. Not Saul. I don’t believe he struggled with it even for a moment. He and change had gotten very well acquainted during the previous years of his life.

We need to pause and remember his remarkably pure life was directly related to his willingness to accept change. I’m convinced the main reason the man lived so cleanly before God had to do with the constant regimen of change he learned to accept.

Rewind the tape in your head. On his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, a light came from heaven, and he was converted to Christ. A radical transformation. He was then led to live and serve among a whole new group of people—--the very Christians he once persecuted became his colleagues in ministry. Another dramatic change.

And then there was Arabia. Change in surroundings. Change of pace. Change of lifestyle. Though we don’t know all God accomplished during that lengthy desert sabbatical, we do know this: Saul changed. From there he went to Damascus then back to Jerusalem and then (of all things) back home to Tarsus, where he stayed in the shadows for years. The man changed, changed, and changed again. Doubtless rejected by his family and excommunicated from his familiar ties to Judaism, he lived cut-off from all he once held dear. A converted Jew, living in his hometown, a man no one wanted... friendless, homeless, directionless. For multiple years he lived as a hermit, if you will, willingly submitting to the Potter’s firm, but gracious hands.

Finally, one day he hears a familiar knock at the door. To his delight it’s Barnabas. He’s come to enlist him back into service. Barnabas needed a point man for the enormous undertaking in Antioch. Another complete set of changes. Imagine the shock to Saul’s system—--going from the obscurity of Tarsus, where few wanted anything to do with him, to the limelight of Antioch, where throngs hung on his every word. There he and Barnabas teamed up in a teaching ministry that lasted an entire year. Who knows who may have been recruited and equipped with the truth, thanks to their mutual ministry?

And in the midst of that wonderful, fruitful, growing ministry, something totally unexpected happened. God decided to change things up again. He had plans to uproot the two of them and put them on the road. What a change! Let’s zoom in for a closer look.

 

THE DREAM TEAM AND THE CHURCH ALIVE

The growth pattern of the church at Antioch would have made even George Barna’s head spin! Talk about a model of health and effectiveness. Read again the account and try to imagine yourself in the midst of all that was happening.

Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul. And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:1—4)

 

To begin with, Antioch Community Church was the place to be. Not only did they have incredible spiritual growth, the staff was the century-one Dream Team. Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul—--how’s that for your starting line-up? The believers in Antioch were under the influence of five choice prophets, preachers and teachers par excellence. Each was called, gifted devoted, and set apart for the Lord’s work. That’s exactly what the growing new church needed—--the right leaders to lay a strong foundation. How wonderful it was. The congregation loved it because they got substantive truth, incredible encouragement, and great worship. Remember that. This was no religious entertainment center that dumbed down the truth. The place thrived on the solid meat of the Word. The diet was wholesome and nourishing. The teaching was rich and deep.

Though written over a century ago, Charles Spurgeon’s words have a ring of relevance for our day. Read them slowly and carefully:

Sermons should have real teaching in them, and their doctrine should be solid, substantial, and abundant. We do not enter the pulpit to talk for talk’s sake; we have instructions to convey important to the last degree, and we cannot afford to utter petty nothings. Our range of subjects is all but boundless, and we cannot, therefore, be excused if our discourses are threadbare and devoid of substance. If we speak as ambassadors for God, we need never complain of want of matter, for our message is full to overflowing. The entire gospel must be presented from the pulpit; the whole faith once delivered to the saints must be proclaimed by us. The truth as it is in Jesus must be instructively declared so that the people may not merely hear, but know, the joyful sound... Nothing can compensate for the absence of teaching.

 

To be honest, among the most important factors in deciding where you and your family should attend church, the commitment to consistent delivery of substantive teaching should rank first. It isn’t enough to attend a church simply because you have friends who go there, or because you enjoy a particular style of music. You need good food to survive! If you’re like me, your soul longs for a regular diet of substantive meals to nourish, strengthen, and fortify your life.

Every great restaurant has one primary element that draws crowds night after night, week after week, and year after year. Great food! Most of us would sacrifice ambience, atmosphere, location, and even quality service, to savor the best food in town. Now, a few folks in other states may prefer candles and romantic music to good grub. But I can tell you, Texans like the meat—--thick, choice cuts, cooked right and delivered to our table in a tasty manner. Now let me ask you: What makes the difference, no matter where you live, between a great restaurant and a mediocre restaurant? The chef. Though we rarely meet these talented folks, the better the chef, the better the food. And, the better the food, the more popular the place. Antioch served the best spiritual grub in Phoenicia. And it was prepared to near perfection by a group of five great chefs.

Saul fit that group like a master chef fits a great restaurant. It was a choice setting for him to exercise his gifts and deliver his best stuff I would have loved to have been a part of that congregation. It must have been magnificent to listen to Saul of Tarsus open the ancient scrolls of the Old Testament and teach God’s Word. I can only imagine how those growing babes in Christ savored and swallowed every rich morsel of truth. They learned all about grace and grit from the original man of grace and grit. Suddenly I’m envious!

I think I would have reacted as Peter did in the midst of the transfiguration (as recorded in Matthew 17:4). “Lord, let’s just set up a sacred tent and stay here. Let’s just make it permanent.” The problem with that sort of response is that in God’s work there’s no permanent campsite on planet earth. Eventually, the time comes to pull up stakes.

 

RELEASED IN ORDER TO OBEY

While they were ministering to the Lord, fasting, singing, teaching, witnessing, and praying, the Holy Spirit said, “Okay, hitch up the wagons, fellas . . . westward ho!” (Swindoll revised paraphrase.) “I need Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

Can you imagine how some would react today? “You can’t be serious. You’re gonna take two of the five chefs and send them to another joint? We’ll starve! You’re gonna reach down in our ranks and pull two of the best adult fellowship teachers we’ve got and move them to some distant mission field? That’s two-fifths of our leadership. We can’t let these guys slip through our fingers!”

But none of that occurred in Antioch. As soon as those folks realized it was the Spirit of God who was sending them on, they released them. And the change occurred (don’t miss this!) “while they were ministering.” It didn’t happen in a lull, when giving was way down, or during a period of leadership transition. God lifted men from that exciting setting while the church was at its zenith, steaming ahead full-bore. People were coming by the cartload, deep needs were being met, souls were being saved, lives were being transformed, families were getting healthy, the place was electric! Still, the Spirit said, “It’s time for change.” Who would’ve ever imagined? But God is full of surprises, since He sees the big picture while we focus mainly on the here and now.

It was God’s way of telling Barnabas and Saul it was time to move. By the way, the Lord did the speaking. In those days the Lord revealed Himself in a number of ways. Today, I believe He speaks to us through His Word, through the gentle nudging of the Spirit, and through the collective witness of His people. Then it may have been in a night vision, or during a time while the disciples were praying, meditating on the Scriptures, or while fasting. A couple of the leaders sensed the Lord’s leading in a new direction. Others verified the voice. The Lord said, in effect, “I have work for two of you to do elsewhere. Not all of you, only two. . . and My plan is best. Release Barnabas and Saul. They are the two I’m calling elsewhere.”

There was no preliminary leading. The change of direction came without warning. No memo was sent out ahead of some meeting for prayerful consideration. The Spirit spoke and the church listened. In order for Barnabas and Saul to obey, they needed to be released. They did. . . and they were. Isn’t that great?

I need to pause to make a couple of observations about the nature of ministry. The way God chooses to lead His ministry is often difficult to get our arms around. Finding direction in the corporate world comes somewhat easier. There’s a clearly stated bottom line, shareholders to report to, and defined markets that guide company decisions.

Ministry matters are rarely that obvious and objective. We serve a Head we cannot see, and we listen to a voice we cannot literally hear. Often we feel as if we’re being asked to follow a plan we do not understand. And I need to repeat here, during the process of discovering God’s leading, we are subject to enormous changes. These are changes we must embrace in the power of the Spirit, if we are to obey our Lord’s lead. Though we are accountable to the churches we serve, ultimately, each one of God’s servants answers to God. Without that sort of single-minded devotion to the Lord, we run the risk of becoming people-pleasers. Christian leaders who become pawns as they focus on pleasing people are pathetic wimps.

Honestly, there have been times in my younger life when I stumbled onto that slippery slide. I look back on those few occasions with only regret. Nothing good ever comes from a ministry devoted to pleasing people.

Rather than being a warrior for the King, it is easy to become an insecure wimp, relying on human opinions and longing for human approval. By His grace I’ll never go there again. I’ve learned so much from these biographical studies I’ve been writing. My responsibility is to deliver what God’s people need, not what they want. As I do, that truth hits me with the same authority as it does the folks to whom I communicate. May God deliver every honest pastor, every truth-seeking board of elders, and every church leader from the bondage of pleasing people.

As in the situation at Antioch, God often reaches into a smoothly running ministry operation and says, “That person is to go, and this person is to stay. I’m calling him to leave this setting in order to go and serve else where.” Too often we cling to those folks too tightly. God has to pry our fingers away and give us the grace to release, so his chosen servants can obey. Selfishness wants to keep, not release.

Let’s be willing to release gifted men and women without reluctance. Think of it this way: By releasing them we enable them to obey. And when you are called by God to go to a place you would never have expected to go, there’s no need to be afraid of change. Change brings adventure, and adventure stretches your faith. All that spells growth. Growth happens within us when we face risk. Head-on. Faith and risk go hand in hand. That may be a completely new concept for you.

I recently reread John Eldredge’s book, Wild at Heart. It’s a book for men and about men. But many of the author’s principles transcend gender. Allow me to quote extensively one particular section of his engaging work. Picture the scene John paints, and imagine yourself in his place.

There is a river that winds its way through southern Oregon, running down from the Cascades to the coast, which has also wound its way through my childhood, carving a path in the canyons of my memory. As a young boy I spent many summer days on the Rogue, fishing and swimming and picking blackberries;. . . I loved the name given to the river by French trappers; the river Scoundrel. It gave a mischievous benediction to my adventures there—--I was a rogue on the Rogue. Those golden days of boyhood are some of my most cherished memories, and so last summer I took Stasi and the boys there, to share with them a river and a season from my own life. . .

There is a rock that juts out over that river somewhere between Morrison’s lodge and the Foster Bar. The canyon narrows there and the Rogue deepens and pauses for a moment in its rush to the sea. High rock walls rise on either side, and on the north—--the side only boaters can reach—--is Jumping Rock. Cliff jumping is one of our family favorites, especially when it’s hot and dry and the jump is high enough so that it takes your breath away as you plunge beneath the warmer water at the top, down to where it’s dark and cold, so cold it sends you gasping back for the surface and the sun. Jumping Rock is perched above the river at about the height of a two-story house plus some, tall enough that you can slowly count to five before you hit the water (it’s barely a two count from the high dive at your local pool). There’s a faculty built into the human brain that makes every cliff seem twice the height when you’re looking down from the top and everything in you says, Don’t even think about it.

So you don’t think about it, you just hurl yourself off out into the middle of the canyon, and then you free-fall for what feels like enough time to recite the Gettysburg Address and all of your senses are on maximum alert as you plunge into the cold water down below.

. . .After that first jump you have to do it again, partly because you can’t believe you did it, and partly because the fear has given way to the thrill of such freedom. We let the sun heat us up again and then. . .bombs away.

I want to live my whole life like that. I want to love with much more abandon and stop waiting for others to love me first. I want to hurl myself into a creative work worthy of God.

 

Releasing and obeying requires that kind of fearless devotion to God’s will. Learn to welcome the risk. Stop waiting for all the answers. All your ducks will never swim in a straight row. Such a guarded mentality requires very little faith, and involves absolutely no adventure. There’s a word for those who take all the risk out of living. . . boring!

Now, back to Antioch. Pay attention to the response of the church. The Scripture says, “When they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (13:3). How commendable. How refreshing. No questions asked. No spirit of suspicion. No selfish clinging as if those two men belonged to them. They met with the Lord, made sure His direction was clear, and then took prompt action. They released God’s men to the work the Spirit was calling them to do. And the two men, once released, jumped! They plunged into the new calling like Eldredge and his sons hurled themselves off Jumping Rock.

Incidentally, I’ve left most other ministries I was involved in when there was nothing wrong. In fact, I departed at a time when everything was right. Inevitably, folks would come up to me and wonder what had gone wrong. Surely there must be a problem or I wouldn’t be leaving. It was almost humorous. Some said, “Hey, Chuck. Psst! What’s really wrong?” I smiled and told them, “Why, nothing. The Lord has called me to Dallas to be a part of the leadership team of Dallas Seminary.” Some simply couldn’t believe God would lead in such a way. Life was going along too well. The church was healthy and continuing to grow. People’s lives were being transformed. There was a unity in the staff and among that body of believers other local churches longed to experience. Ultimately, everyone now sees how God was leading. . . and His timing was right.

Funny how human nature is put together, isn’t it? Since we’re often ill informed, we form false conclusions and struggle with reality. Not in Antioch. Nobody questioned God’s leading. No strong-voiced leader stood up and attempted to block the board’s decision. None of that. The Spirit spoke and God’s people unselfishly responded. We read in verse , “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus” (13:4).

Talk about change! Barnabas and Saul struck out on a brand-new adventure onto foreign soil, with the Lord out front, and the Antioch church fully standing with them. But this was no pleasure cruise they had booked. Life became dicey quick. The rigors were enough to cause young John Mark (an individual we’ll later examine more closely) to leave the team and return home.

While in Lystra, Saul was stoned and left for dead. Imagine, they left Antioch for this!

Serving in the center of God’s will can be dangerous business. But whether in times of relative ease or abject hardship the primary principle stands: Obedience requires change.

 

RELEASING AND OBEYING, LIKE CLAY IN HIS HANDS

Keeping the clay of your will supple and flexible calls for constant attention along the way. Once you grow hard and brittle to God’s leading, you’re less usable to Him. I want to take the truths we’ve wrestled with here and make them into a softening ointment you can regularly apply when a change is on the horizon. The ingredients in the ointment you need to apply include a pinch of the negative and a smidgen of the positive.

First negative: Do not remove any possibility. Stay open to whatever it is God may have for you by removing all the limitations. Yes, all. None of those folks back in Antioch would have expected God to lift Barnabas and Saul from the mix. (I would have chosen Lucius and Manaen. I mean, who’s gonna miss those guys?) But it’s so like the Lord to select the very people you and I wish would stay forever. Erase all the boundaries. Tell the Lord you’re willing to cooperate. But don’t forget, you may be the next Barnabas or Saul the Lord decides to move. Remember, we’re dealing with change—--changing so we might obey.

Second negative: Do not allow a lot of activity to dull your sensitivity. Remember, God spoke while they were ministering. You can be so busy in church activities you can’t figure out what the Lord’s saying. Those men in Antioch didn’t let that happen. Howard Hendricks, one of my mentors and longtime friends, has said, “The greatest threat to your ministry may be your ministry.” I think he’s right (He usually is!). Be sure you’re carving out regular time to be with the Lord, keeping an open mind, meditating on His Word, remaining devoted to prayer, and taking sufficient time to relax. Only then can you hear and discern His still, small voice amid the din of church activity. When you begin to sense He is speaking, stay sensitive, and open and ready.

First positive: Let God be God. He is selective when He moves people. He picked two and left three. That was His prerogative. He could have chosen all five or only one. It’s His call. Our sovereign Lord does as He pleases, and when it’s clear, our response is to obey. Or as one old preacher used to say, “Salute and charge!” And if you’re not chosen to go, rather than feeling badly, rejoice! God has His plan and He has His reasons for choosing whom He chooses. Others are called to leave—--you’re just as called to stay. Let God be God. You’ll never regret it. Don’t assume anything beyond this moment.

When Cynthia and I were building our new home in Frisco, I said to a friend, “You know what? This is our last place before death.” It suddenly dawned on me, that would be a tomb! So, I don’t say that anymore.

The Lord never said Frisco, Texas, would be the last place He would use me. He’s the Potter; I’m the clay. He’s molding me. If it were up to me, I’d instruct Him. “Ah, don’t push there. Don’t make me look like a vase. I want to look like Michelangelo’s David, ministering right here in Frisco, for crying out loud.” How silly. Let’s relax. Let Him do His work.

Second positive: Be ready to say yes. Don’t wait for all the details to be ironed out before you agree to release and obey. Sure, there will be hardships, some uphill stretches in the road. So what? Be ready to say yes and trust Him to take care of the rest.

I need to add something here: Don’t feel guilty if He doesn’t include you in His list of missionaries to Africa. If He isn’t leading you there, He doesn’t need you in Africa. If He leads you elsewhere, go there. And if He says stay, relax, and give it all you’ve got right there where you’ve been all these years. No need to make it complicated. Grace abounds. Enjoy it.

I know that sounds crazy in our detail-conscious, bottom-line, ultra-serious, intense culture. But it takes both grace and grit--—the stuff of men like Barnabas and Saul.

 

A PERSONAL HEART CHECK-UP

Only you and the Lord know the condition of your heart. Is it soft and pliable clay, ready to be molded and shaped by the Master sculptor? Or has it hardened into brittle and fragile pottery from years of faithless living? You know exactly what God is asking you to do. It may be well beyond the boundaries of logic and far outside your comfort zone. You may even have a few friends telling you that what you believe He’s asking you to do is wrong, completely wrong. Still, His leading is clear. Only one thing is needed: saying yes. Oh, I almost forgot. You also must be willing to risk.

Remember the story from the Rogue River and the view from Jumping Rock? Okay, close your eyes and imagine yourself tip-toed on the edge, straining to see the water’s edge below. . . it’s quite a drop!

Are you there? Okay, take a deep breath. . . smile. . . now. . . Jump!

Good for you! 

Let the adventure begin. . .(121-135)

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