Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Acts 5; Fear

Fear seems to tie these stories together. Ananias and Sapphira did not fear God and paid dearly for it. The end result of their lives demonstrated that a healthy fear of God is a good thing. In fact, it is what all the people had after they heard the news about the couple. A healthy fear (respect, awe) seized everyone. It permitted the church to meet unmolested and elevated the respect given the apostles by the people.

The Jewish leaders, however, did not fear the uneducated apostles. They only feared the crowds and the loss of their prestige. It took an old sage among them to introduce the idea that perhaps the apostles were working for God. Even after that, the Sanhedrin still did not fear God in their hearts or they would not have beaten the apostles. Yet it was enough to convince their heads and win the freedom of the apostles.

So summing it all up, I think this means that without a healthy fear of God we tend to be selfish and fear people. With a healthy fear of God, we tend to be courageous and respected. Surely all of us want the latter more than the former but are we willing to change our view of God to get there? Are we willing to let God be the God of the Old Testament who punished people, wiped out nations and released death at times? Are we willing to let him be the God of Revelation from whom the four horsemen ride out? Honestly are we even willing to let Jesus be the guy who kicked over tables, drove people out of the temple, refused to heal a woman till she begged and condemned leaders? Are we willing to follow a Holy Spirit that killed Ananias and Sapphira? If not, I guess that means we end up on the side of the Sanhedrin.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Acts 4; Dilemma

"They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened." That would be a comical line if it were not so true. . . and I don't mean for them. I can recall many times in life that I have sat in on meetings where church leaders were concerned about something good that was breaking out but that was not being done in a way that seemed orthodox. A new work in a part of the city that the church had not specifically planned, outreach that several youth started that had grown amazingly quickly or social justice work that the church never planned.

In this story, the Jewish leaders were trying to figure out how to stop a new act of God. In my story, church leaders have often been faced with the same dilemma. When we define church too narrowly, God seems to break out in other places. When we limit his activity to that which we have figured out and anticipate, he always comes up with surprises.

As I get older, I think I like surprises less and less. Yet, I really don't want to be that guy who is left behind when God does something new. I don't want to be part of the crowd that speaks out against something good. These poor Jewish leaders looked bad as they tried to figure out how to stop miracles occurring. I don't want to be that kind of leader. I think that means saying goodbye to the false security of having God figured out.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Acts 3; Listen

I am struck by two different things in this chapter. First, there is Peter's statement to the blind man. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you." How often do we think that change can only be made by those with big budgets? How often do we think in terms of "The silver and gold that I do have, I give you." The sad thing is that we then go on our merry way feeling as if we had done something outstanding. We miss transformation moments because we give people financial assistance rather than Jesus.

Second, Peter preached the words of Moses which basically said "listen to the Messiah or be cut off." Those words made me think of the many people who have never heard of the Messiah. They made me think about people I knew that have died without hearing them. They also made me consider the time we spend bickering over how to interpret some of those words. When its all said and done, perhaps the most important thing it made me think of was "am I still listening?"

I was raised with the mindset that God spoke and it was recorded. The revelation was concluded and now we refer back to those words. Yet I believe there is more. The timely words of a friend, the advice of a coworker, the recorded words of a wise author -- surely the words of God take shape in human voice. I imagine he speaks much more than I listen. In addition to the recorded word, he has a history of speaking through prophets, dreams, burning bushes, and even donkeys. Scripture rarely refers to a deficit in his communication; rather, it is the phrase "he who has ears to hear, let him hear" that seem to show up with frequency. So if he still speaks and Peter calls us to listen or be cut off, the question of the day is "Am I listening?" Are my ears attuned to his voice? Do I hear a phrase or receive a message and perceive who the real author is? Do I allow him outside of the book? Am I listening?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Acts 2:14-47; The Message

I've heard many messages throughout the years directed at evangelism. The sermons and classes range from "come be a part of our great community" to "get out of hell" to "this is the best life you can have now" to "health and wealth". It makes us sound so Walmart. "If you want it, we got it. We can meet every need and make this fun at the same time. You are a consumer and we have what you want."

Peter wasn't preaching any of those messages. His singular point was Jesus. This was the son of God that we crucified but that God exalted by resurrection. Respond to this man. Then God will forgive you of your mistakes and empower you to be different by placing his Spirit in you.

We can claim that we have adjusted the message to be a better cultural fit, but I think that is an excuse. Paul preached to both Jew and Gentile. His approach would vary but his core message never did.

Perhaps the real issue here is not so much what our ministers and our churches preach in order to gain members but rather what do I preach by my life? Does my life show that my primary concern is being just good enough to not be condemned to hell? Is the message I exude simply "I love my community"? (which sounds a lot like "I love my bank"). Or maybe "this is a really good life?" All of those are open to subjectivity; each can be debated. The life that states "I follow Jesus", however, is a life that preaches a relationship. It might include all the other messages but they are quite secondary to the message of life with God.

This Christianity thing is about a man, a person named Jesus. Everything else flows from that one point. Anything else as our primary message means that we are unfaithful to that man and it is no longer Christianity.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Acts 2:1-13; Good Question

People in the crowd asked "What does this mean?" Great question. Some did not ask a question at all; they simply drew a conclusion. It seemed obvious to them that the apostles were all drunk; the explanation came easily. But it came too easily. They could only see what they looked for. The truth came to those who asked questions.

It was an open question that allowed for answers outside of what they expected. It was a question that a child would raise as his eyes spread wide with the wonder of a new site. Most importantly, it was a question that would allow room for God to reveal something.

I believe that God is still very much at work in this world. I don't believe that he always works in the ways or people that I anticipate. My fear is that I often see new things and respond with old explanations. Instead of questions that invite God into my worldview, I give answers that lock him out. Answers are always much more comfortable and secure. Asking a question invites change, which can often be difficult. Yet, it was only those who asked questions that eventually saw the truth. So perhaps instead of focusing upon an answer to every problem in life, the real key is to have a question for every event in life.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Acts 1:12-26; Wait

Acts 1:3 says that Jesus appeared to the apostles over a period of forty days. Chapter 2 starts with the day of Pentecost. That leaves a gap of ten days in which 1:12-26 occurs. Ten days of prayer and discernment. Ten days of waiting -- just like Jesus told them to do in verse 4 ("wait for the gift").

We love life when things are happening; we hate waiting. As North Americans we are particulary bad about it. In this society, to wait is to lose time and opportunity. To wait is to be unproductive. Yet, if truth be told, perhaps the real reason that waiting is so hard is that to wait means to listen to my own thoughts. It is to hear what is really inside. In the busy times, there is no opportunity for reflection and change. We simply react with little thinking. In waiting there is no external activity, no crowds, no accolades; there is only the silent company of memories.

Before launching his church, Jesus had the apostles wait. He did not speak to them for ten days. They waited. Sat. Contemplated. Lingered. Questioned. Remembered. Surely their understanding of Jesus was crystalized in those quiet moments. Surely their understanding of who he was, who they were and what they were to do became starkly clear. Only after this would God use them.

Today we want to skip the waiting and the quiet. We believe that we are lazy people if we sit, contemplate and linger. Perhaps that is why our busyness never leads to the productivity we truly crave. Perhaps God is still hoping to launch some of his greatest works on earth but he needs his people to wait first. After all, a night alone on the mountain led to choosing the twelve, solitude in the garden led to the cross and waiting in the upper room led to Pentecost.

I wonder what waiting in my life might lead to?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Acts 1:1-11; Began

Luke starts out this book with a definite transition section. He says that his first volume was about what Jesus "began" to do and teach; then he quickly moves into the promise of the Holy Spirit. From word go this is going to be a continuation story in which the baton has been passed from Jesus to the Holy Spirit.

It is that little word "began" that amazes me. More often than not I think of the life of Jesus as a complete entity, something that was not just a beginning but was a beginning and end like all of our lives. Yet that is not the impression I get here. Luke did not write saying Jesus came and went; now we all look back to him. Rather he writes that Jesus only began. There is more to the story. He launched something that is greater than just his life. He seems to say, "don't look back; that was only the first act in the play."

Jesus' story was intimately tied with the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church. One was the ongoing story of the other. Yet, the same spirit continues working in us today. What a message, that we are now the ongoing story of Jesus. We are now the next act in the play. I am more than just one person in a billion who will soon pass away. No, my life is the ongoing story of the Messiah who broke into this world in a powerful way to advance the kingdom of God. Jesus only began the play but I get to advance the same play. He began; we continue.

(Walt Whitman: O ME! OF LIFE!)
O ME! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Joshua 24; Looking back

Looking back, Joshua traced of God's work among his people. It was faith building and challenging. If I did the same, it might sound like this.

Generations ago my ancestors were led to pursue God. A great-grandfather I never knew raised his family as part of a new religious movement called the Stone-Campbell movement. His son Mack was upstanding and gentle. God placed a song in his heart which he always sang or whistled. His daughter met and married a man who was quite head-strong but who would eventually become part of the same movement. Though he struggled with bringing some aspects of his life into submission before God, he raised his children to seek the Lord. As a teenager I pleaded with the Lord for two things, i.e., to find a good wife and to find a congregation that lived out New Testament discipleship. In answer to this, I was admitted to veterinary school earlier than anticipated; my roommates led me to a congregation that focused upon the discipleship of university students. There I met and married Frances, the greatest blessing of my life. As a veterinarian, God birthed a restlessness inside me that eventually led me to language school in Costa Rica, religious studies in Memphis and church planting in Venezuela. When the local church was mature and needed the opportunity for local leaders to rise up, he led me to Abilene Christian University to continue to live out the implications of the missional restlessness that he gave me as a younger man. Now I spend my days serving in an institution that I did not build and raising four wonderful children. My time is dedicated to passing on missional restlessness to a new generation with the hope that they will seek God and be the answer to someone else's prayers.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Joshua 23; Outspoken

Joshua was so politically incorrect for today. As Israel's leader that conquered the Holy Land, he had earned the right to speak boldly to his people. His life had been one of boldness and his words matched his life.

He reminded the people of all that the Lord had done for them. He recalled the promises that God would still give them if they obeyed. Then he reminded them of the potential curses for disobedience.

Today Joshua would have been attacked and dismantled by the popular media. Not only was he speaking negatively but he was implying that God was more than a Santa Claus in the sky. He was teaching that God hands out discipline as well as blessings. He was calling the people to hard decisions that could be interpreted as exclusivistic. He was calling for religious intolerance.

So where have all the Joshua leaders gone? Those who speak as he did rarely do so out of a lifetime of service; their credibility is often questioned. Those who serve rarely speak up; Mother Teresa was not known for long discourses. It seems that modern Joshuas are rare . . . but very needed. There are a few people in my life that could tell me anything at all and I would accept it. I would do so because of their life history. Unfortunately, there are only a few. My hope is that one day someone(s) will place my name on that list. How we all covet truth spoken from a lifetime of integrity.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Joshua 22; Unity

There is a large town here in west Texas that I pass through on trips. Most of the town lies to one side of the major highway while on the opposite side there are four church buildings. What is odd is that there are no houses or other buildings between them. There are simply four church buildings in a row.

I often ask myself what message is given to UnChristian people by this scene? Surely it screams a message of disunity, distrust and division. No sermons need to be preached nor messages displayed in front of the buildings to communicate loud and clear. Any passerby gets the point, i.e., these Christians do not get along with each other.

Oh that Phinehas could have shown up before all four buildings were completed; his conversation with the Reubenites avoided division. The open dialogue avoided war and brought harmony once again to Israel. Understanding was gained and values were shared.

Just like the case in this chapter, we will all have disagreements and miscommunications in life. Some will be on a personal level while others will be on a larger scale. All will have implications personally and / or socially. My prayer is that we will learn to follow the example of Phinehas who went as a priest -- not a warrior like Joshua -- to engage in a dialogue of understanding and bring about peace from shared values. Then maybe passersby will get a different message from our lives.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Joshua 21; Good Life

The chapter ends with a comment that "not one of all the Lord's good promises to Israel failed." It is more than a matter of fact statement; it is a statement meant to build faith. It is a statement for future generations to consider in order to respond to the Lord the way that Joshua did.

So why don't we? Somewhere along the way we concluded that following the Lord really is not the best way to live. We watch enough TV and movies to believe that if we follow God, we are sacrificing and missing out on the good life. Somehow we bought into the concept that drunkeness, drama and multiple sex partners is equal to happiness. Few books or movies show the fallout from those decisions and so we blindly follow the Pied Piper of society into disaster. Then we cry out to God and scream "where are you?"

Joshua and Israel followed the commands of God and were blessed with a life they could have only dreamed of. Today I have a wonderful wife, four children of fine moral character and a job that lets me work around the world. I come home to a loving environment and a home full of laughter. It doesn't sound like I'm really missing out.

So if you are reading this and you are younger than me, take it from the older guy that the Lord's promises are good and he does keep them. There might be times when you walk through a desert for a while or you have to search your soul to find out why you just failed at something that seemed small, but those are the bumps in the road. The big picture is that the good life is not on the other side of a screen but rather on this side in the here and now.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Joshua 20; Intent

There is a bumper sticker that reads "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." I don't see it as often as I used to; maybe we have grown wiser. God doesn't have as black and white a vision as we like to project upon him. On the other hand, he does set law and expect compliance. Somewhere in-between black & white harshness and technicolor tolerance lies his perspective.

If a murder was accidental, refuge was to be afforded to the perpetrator. His case was handled differently than someone who murdered intentionally. The intent was the determining factor; the heart was the key. In the life of Jesus, both Peter and Judas wronged him. Peter and Judas, however, had different hearts and were treated differently.

This challenges our outlook. I used to think all prostitutes were bad people until I spent time in Bolivia and discovered that most of these young girls were sold into prostitution as children. They have no desire or intent to be there; they are enslaved. Likewise, society tells me that the homeless guy on the corner needs to quit being lazy and take a job. After visiting with some I discovered that their PTSD from defending this society in war prevented that.

Life happens to us all, whether good or bad. External appearances and quick judgments are not as reliable as we like to think. Proper understanding takes time and a willingness to admit gray zones exist. Maybe I'll print a bumper sticker that reads, "God said it. I believe it. Now tell me your story."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Joshua 18-19; Initiative

“How long will you wait before you begin to take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you? Interesting question. It highlights the Divine-Human interaction. God gave but they had to "take possession". They were not to sit in camp and wait on God to do everything. They were to respond to his promises.

There are big issues where this idea has been lost. I have no idea how many church fights, debates and articles have been generated by the grace - works debate. I think Joshua would have weighed in on the debate saying "yes" to both sides. By grace God gave them the land; by works they took possession of it. So, "yes" to both.

It would be easy to scoff at those who spend hours in these debates were it not for the fact that we all live out the debate personally. Do I pursue a career or wait on God to drop an opportunity on me? Do I exercise disciplines to become holy or does holiness come as a gift from God? If I believe God wants me to move somewhere, change jobs or talk to someone, then do I wait on him to do it or do I start working?

There seems to be a fine line between religious laziness and waiting on God. Likewise there is a fine line between religious fervor and not waiting at all. To take action in God's name without listening to him is disastrous. To take no action because we are always in a state of waiting is negligence. To do both is the goal of the Divine-Human interaction.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Joshua 15-17; Finish Strong

This is not exactly the most exciting section to read. If I were a personal descendant of one of these tribes, maybe it would be different. Honestly the only thing that stood out to me was the almost obedience, which is an oxymoran. Jerusalem was taken but the Jebusites continued to live. The same occurred in two other sections (16:10 & 17:12-13) where the Canaanites were not dislodged but eventually became slaves, or at best subjects. Israel did not complete the conquest with the same total obedience that it demonstrated earlier. Later, problems from the influence of intermarriages with the locals became a thorn in their flesh.

I wonder why they did not finish strong? Why did the Jews back off in the fulfillment of what God asked of them? Whether we feel comfortable with the concept of taking no prisoners or not, it is clear that Israel did not fully obey. That phrase -- fully obeyed-- that shows up over and over in the book is missing from these chapters.

Perhaps the deeper question is do I finish strong? I see a pattern in life of crisis leading to conviction leading to response that runs out of steam over time. After being embarrassed by a sin, my conviction leads me to seek change with all my heart; yet three months later the focus is lost and I fall back into old ways. I think the same can be said for the majority of us; yet it is not what we think when we speak of Moses, David and Jesus. These finished strong spiritually and stand out to us. They seem to have done it not by will-power or effort but out of a relationship with their Creator. They did not let that aspect of life lag and it fueled everything they did. Like an electronic device running out of battery, we slowly cease to function well; they, on the other hand, never unplugged.

I wish the conclusion was more complicated. I wish I could say that Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah and countless others were supermen or something. The sad and convicting truth is that they were not and I have no excuse. I become unplugged from God via negligence but they did not. The difference comes down to one choice, i.e., they obeyed the words of Jesus to "remain in me." One choice. One simple conviction. Everything else flows from that.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Joshua 14; Wholeheartedly

Who wouldn't have followed Caleb into battle? He probably looked like grandpa to most of the soldiers but his heart was vigorous. His heart was still fully convicted of what God would do. In the text it says three times he followed "wholeheartedly" and that he spoke "according to my convictions."

Many people follow but few follow wholeheartedly. Likewise many look at life but few see via their convictions. The day Caleb spied the land, he had on a different set of glasses than anyone else. It caused him to see opportunity, fulfilled promises and blessings from God. Others could not see it; they died for their lack of vision. Caleb, however, still had the same vision. The oldest man in camp knew that the cities were fortified and large. Yet he saw them through the eyes of faith.

So what convictions adjust my vision? Am I convicted of God's love for people and therefore view others as loved regardless of who they are? Am I convicted of the destructiveness of sin and therefore fight against it? Am I convicted that there is a spiritual dimension to life that is unseen yet very real and therefore stay alert spiritually at all times? A wholehearted follower of God would. A wholehearted follower has a reason to be excited about life's possibilities which others call challenges or obstacles. To a wholehearted follower, life is pregnant with possibilities no matter what others say, no matter the circumstances and no matter the age. Since his convictions come from his heart, they are totally within his control. With that being the case, none of us have reason to let circumstances dishearten us; rather our hearts determine our convictions about our circumstances.