Friday, April 29, 2011

Acts 21:17-40; Not Ideals

I hear what the Jerusalem Christian leaders said and then look at what Paul was teaching. In ways, there seems to be a disconnect. The leaders in Jerusalem were very concerned not to break too much with Judaism. Paul and his work seemed to have already made the break. Yet, Paul obeyed the advice of the leaders in order to maintain peace. (Obviously it didn't work but I think that no matter what Paul tried at this point it would not have worked; he was too volatile a figure for the Jews.)

The fact that Paul listened and complied impresses me. His heart was not proud nor was he stubborn in his ways. Many of us would have argued with the leaders and stood on our ideals. Many of us would have followed the American Way instead of the Jesus Way by breaking away to start our own movement. Paul, on the other hand, surely could have argued about multiple points with the advice and beliefs of the leadership but he chose not to. He chose to stay in a relationship with the people of his heritage. His goal was to connect people with Jesus; not to be right on every point. I admire that quality. It is not an easy one to acquire and speaks highly of the values of Paul.

The older I get the more relationships, heritage and community seem to grow in value and the more being right - especially being recognized as right - seems to diminish. It also seems that the older I get the more I try to undo the idealistic stances I developed in my younger days. What once seemed like "fight'en-words" doesn't seem to matter that much anymore. Sometimes life needs a reset button.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Acts 21:1-16; Will of God

Lately my personal study has been on discerning the will of God. Does God have a specific will for each person and joy comes by figuring it out and living as exactly as we can? Or does God have a general moral will for all of us and we are free to exercise judgment and free will? Or does God have a specific will in some circumstances but not others? And the questions go on while the answers are slow to come. Paul, however, seems to get an "F" by most everyone's current standards of figuring out God's will.

The Holy Spirit gave him clear teaching twice (in this section, not counting previously) to not go to Jerusalem. His community begged him not go and he would not listen. So personal revelation and the community were totally ignored; that deserves an "F". However, this is God's apostle and God goes on to use him in great ways. The irritating thing about all this is the response of the community when Paul does not listen to anything or anyone. They back off and say, "The Lord's will be done." But it obviously wasn't since Paul ignored revelation and community!

So did Paul sin? Did he disappoint God? Did God just look at him the way I do my son when he makes a bad decision but then let him go in order to allow him to learn? Did God know that was a poor choice but really was OK with it?

No good answers; just questions. My leaning presently is that God lets us grow up and make poor choices along the way. He probably was not thrilled with Paul's choice but allowed it. The fascinating thing to me is to think of how Paul's story might have ended had he listened to the Spirit and to the community. I wonder what did not get accomplished that might have been? Grrr. More questions; no answers. I fear I am becoming postmodern.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Acts 20:13-38; Task Driven

Paul openly declared that he was task driven. We admire business people who are task driven; we even think that only task driven people can make it in business. We associate task driven people with politics and change. Yet when it comes to ministry, it often is looked down upon. That has always bothered me.

As Paul explained his ministry to the elders, it all sounded very personal. He talked of relationships, working, teaching and even crying with people. Paul's task was to proclaim the news of Jesus but he knew that meant personal communication and relationships. We often focus upon Paul as the synagogue speaker and guy who caused riots. But this recounting of personal history includes three years of less glamorous discipling.

I think we all tire of people that try to make the church of Jesus into a business of Jesus. I tire of new models, trends and programs. I tire of the constant analysis. No one ever complains about too many caring relationships though. I have yet to here anyone frustrated because their congregation is way too much like a family. Love doesn't seem to have a max. So when the task is people not programs, no one complains. Maybe then there is a place for task oriented people, as long as task oriented people (like me) remember their place -- which is in relationships.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Acts 20:1-12; All Night Long

Paul must have preached a total of about 8 hours, maybe even up to 12. I find that amazing. I wonder if it was a recounting of the life of Christ or if he pieced together different themes or if he was answering specific questions that had been raised? At any rate, it is impressive that he could have spoken so much.

Yet even more impressive is that his audience stayed with him! Eutychus left early but that didn't turn out so well for him initially. When he woke up he was back in the room with Paul shifting into the second half of his message. Everyone else just sat and absorbed the words of this man of God.

Would I have sat there? I'm sure I would have shifted in my seat to keep different body parts awake but would I have stayed? In the US culture we are programed that everything lasts one hour. A business meeting, a church service, a doctors visit; all are given one hour. When I lived in Venezuela and Costa Rica, time was allocated based upon the importance of the moment. A birthday party might take six hours. A quinceƱera lasted all night. We prioritized people and adjusted time rather than prioritizing time and adjusting people. The people in Troas made a huge statement about the priority of their faith by sitting at the feet of Paul all night long. I wonder what I say about my faith by my schedule?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Acts 19; Submission

A few days ago I played in a soccer game where a young man kept covering his mistakes by shouting jokingly to the others, "I can do what I want!" Soon others took up his chant and shouted it back to him; it was all in fun. In a team sport, doing what we want as individuals is usually not beneficial to the team. The same can probably be said for life in general.

Paul wanted to enter the theater to speak to the crowd. He was great with crowds, no doubt. This was a chance to speak to a multitude (the theater held 25000 people). It was a chance to enter into a major city-wide discussion that could have huge implications for the future of the city. Yet, he never even entered. He submitted to the wisdom of the disciples around him and the provincial officials who knew him. Even the great Paul did not live by the phrase, "I can do what I want!"

Submission is a very difficult concept. In fact, it is one of the most irritating and non-North American concepts ever developed. Its like giving a sixteen year old a revved up red Ferrari convertible and then telling him to never drive over 30 mph. We spend all of life trying to grow and develop only to hit a point where we are told to do the opposite of what we think is best. Seriously annoying. When I submit myself to comply with what I think is a stupid decision by my elders, it is annoying. When I give up my individual rights in order to comply with a group decision at work, it is irritating.

It does, however, have a second effect in addition to just rubbing me wrong; it causes me to remember that life is a team sport. I am part of a community; my actions greatly affect others. To submit is to hold up a mirror in which I see that I am not alone. He who is not part of community can do as he wishes while those who are engaged in relationships must learn to submit for the good of others. Put that way, submission sounds a little more like love. Maybe its not so bad after all.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Acts 18; Spirit Orchestration

Aquila grew up in Pontus and moved to Rome. He and his wife Priscilla were forced from Rome to Corinth. Paul was journeying from Thessalonica through Berea and Athens and stopped in Corinth. Together all three then moved on to Ephesus where they split up for some reason. Paul continued his journey and the couple stayed. Meanwhile, a young scholar from the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt moved to Ephesus as well. Who had gone down to Alexandria to teach him? We don't know. Acts 2 mentions Jews from Egypt who were present at the Pentecost event; maybe one of them took the gospel to Alexandria. And so a traveler from Jerusalem touched an Alexandrian who bumped into a Pontus couple that just left Rome and Corinth to reside in Ephesus after having lived with Paul in the middle of his long journey. Either it is fascinating circumstance or amazing orchestration by the Spirit.

Did they know that the Spirit was guiding them to these meetings in order to evangelize the known world? Did they have inner leadings, signs or dreams to guide them? Only Paul is recorded as having any vision and that did not regard any of the locations mentioned above. It seems far less glamorous and far more subtle in the text. The Spirit accomplished his will through dedicated people but in a "low key", almost imperceptible way.

Occasionally we are blessed to recognize God at work in the moment. Even more rarely we get the chance to know what he will do in the future. Yet it seems we most commonly are able to see his handiwork in retrospect. Occasionally I lose a golf ball after a long shot on the course -- thankfully this is a less frequent occurrence than it used to be. The way to find the ball is to go where I thought is was and then align myself with the tee box and the objects (hills, bushes, cart path, etc.) that the ball flew over. When I turn back to the course, I am able to better understand where to look for the ball next. Often, anticipating where God will be next or where he would most probably use me is much the same. By looking back I see where I used to be, recognize the way he has led me up to this point and then can turn back to the future following the trajectory of the past to better align myself with his desires -- whether that be in Ephesus, Egypt or elsewhere. To see his work in retrospect is to anticipate his work in the future.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Acts 17:16-34; God's Address

As I read this sermon, two points jump out at me for us practicing evangelical Christianity. Paul starts out with an admonition that God does not live in temples nor need anything from humans. The way that many of us live, you would think we have not yet learned this simple lesson. We often treat church like it was going to God's house, similar to going to Grandma's house. God lives in the building and we come and go from our visits with him. Sometimes it is a good experience and we are excited at the thought of coming back for another visit. Sometimes it is more like having to eat the beets or lima beans on your plate -- you choke it down and hope that is not your last memory. Then we leave Grandma and God at their house and go on about our life. Its really about the same as the Greeks visiting the temple of Athena when you think about it.

Then Paul asserts that God manipulates human events so that he is accessible to everyone. I don't think most of us believe that -- though I think we are getting better. For years as I listened to people returning from short term mission trips or well meaning deacons I would hear the language of battle. Phrases like "when we go in" or "efficient machine" were thrown around. There seemed to be zero recognition that God was already there and at work. Yet Paul asserts that God is working in the world to make sure that he is within reach of everyone. I think believing that would change not only our language but our missions.

So the message is basically that God does not live in the church building but lives very close to everyone. Its a simple message but if we really believe it, it changes everything.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Acts 17:1-15; The UnMartyr

Often reading a text helps me see where my bias has given me wrong impressions. I have always viewed Paul as being the guy willing to stick it out, engage any mob and lay down his life anyplace, anytime and anywhere. But that is not what happens in his story.

In Acts 9 the new convert Paul was lowered by a basket out the window of the city wall in order to escape. In chapter 14 he and Barnabas fled Iconium. Now in chapter 17 he is sent away from Thessalonica by the church and then escorted out of Berea by caring brothers. Four out of four times Paul chose to leave so that he might preach in other places. Apparently he felt called to missions more than to martyrdom.

Interestingly enough, I don't see Jesus praying in the garden saying, "Thank you so much for this time to finally die. I've been looking forward to it."

I wonder if our glorification of martyrdom in the life of Paul and Jesus has served to make them less accessible to us. We think that they were made of different stuff than us; that they had another level of spirituality because they were martyrs. The truth seems to be that they were more like us than we care to admit. Maybe that makes living like Jesus a little too realistic for us. Maybe it is safer to leave them as inaccessible in order to not be threatened by their examples. After all, if I can't identify with them or understand them, then I can't be expected to live like them. Then I can go to Walmart, spend money on myself, ignore the needs of others and lead a much more comfortable -- and much less meaningful -- life.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Acts 16:11-40; Polarizing

There is something intriguing about the juxtapositioning of Lydia and the slave girl. They were two women in the same city that Paul encountered on the way to a place of prayer. Our impression of Lydia comes from her seeking after God (even before she meets Paul), being at the place of prayer already, having a respectable business and practicing hospitality. I think I would have been drawn to Lydia; she gives me the impression of being calm and personable.

Then there is the slave girl. She encounters Paul on the way to the place of prayer (she is not at the location), she follows him around making proclamations until Paul is totally annoyed. Her story is closely linked to the mob that later has Paul flogged without trial; they seem annoyed but more at Paul than at the girl.

Funny how speaking up for God polarizes people. Lydia is drawn to the preaching but the mob apparently had had enough. The quiet heart was responsive but the enslaved heart was not. Jesus also seemed to polarize people during his life.

It makes me remember the verse in Luke 6 that says, "Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets." Getting along with everyone is much more inline with the American way. Who wants to be the "annoying religious guy"? Yet, truth be told, the non-polarizing guys never have the blessing of watching the Lydias come to faith; in fact, only those who truly and intentionally seek God get to see him at work during this life. I think the key is that Paul and Jesus did not go out of their way to be social porcupines; their message called for people to change and it was that message that made them polarizing. We now live in a time when calling someone to change is called "intolerance" and intolerance is the only thing society cannot tolerate today. So the challenge seems to be am I willing to risk letting the truth of the gospel (not some distorted way of presenting it but the core message itself) make me a polarizing agent or am I content with being a non-stand-out tolerant North American?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Acts 16:1-10; Keep Walking

I used to watch an old cartoon (An American Tale) with my kids. There is a great scene where the daddy mouse keeps having to tell the son, "Keep walking, keep walking." It seems that Paul had the same idea in mind.

Paul replaced Mark with Timothy and circumcised him in order that they could be accepted by the Jews where they visited (Paul usually taught in synagogues). Then they kept walking. The text says that the Spirit impeded Paul twice and gave him a specific call once. The positive call was a vision but the others are not clarified for us. What impresses me and what I think Paul did different than many of us when we are waiting on God is that he kept walking. After having doors closed to him, he simply redirected the journey but never lost his zeal nor his purpose. He certainly did not sit and wait.

As a culture we tend to be so busy and anxious that we often don't listen for God. In those moments, "be still" is the hardest and most helpful thing. Yet there is another extreme that we can engage in and that is sitting and waiting until God makes everything clear. It seems he rarely does that. Most of Abraham's, Moses', Jesus' and Paul's lives were spent walking. They were given direction after they obeyed and acted on their convictions. As an old preacher that I respected used to say, "God doesn't give direction to a stone." It seems that our convictions are to be lived out and along the way the direction will come at the appropriate time. So, keep walking.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Acts 15; Discernment

Figuring out God's will has always been a major concern for humanity. Did God want the Gentiles to become Jews first (keep the OT law) or could they skip Judaism to become followers of Jesus? Great question. I was a tough enough question that it required special attention.

What I see in this chapter is that interpreting what God's will is for my life is not always easy. It is not as simple as a leading in my heart or what I think is a sign. When the people that walked with Jesus tried to discern God's will they included community, referred to scripture and listened to the Spirit. It is easy to think that Peter and Paul did not need all that and that they simply moved forward all of their lives via the guiding of the Spirit. Yet, here they sit in a large council trying to discern the will of God.

So why should I expect less? Why should I think that a commitment to Christ means that deciding the next step will be easy? Somehow we think that; we expect that. In our heads we believe that we have made the tough choice and now God is supposed to make the rest be a matter of "follow the leader." Yet, he did not set up life that way. Figuring out the next step was never easy, not even for the apostles at times.

Referring to scripture and listening to the Spirit are not that tough a challenge for me. Letting others in on the process and risking outcomes by including the opinions of others, that is hard. Probably each person rates those components differently in regards to difficulty. Yet each of us will agree that difficulty is involved.

In a way, I'm really grateful that this chapter was written. I would hate to think that it used to be easy but now its not. Its nice to know that discernment has never been easy.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Acts 14; Only Human

We tend to idolize or at least idealize Biblical people. We build Paul up to be the perfect missionary and attribute him with special gifts and blessings that we could only imagine. Yet, this chapter reads very much like a normal human caught in some tough situations.

To begin with, Paul could not convince everyone in Iconium anymore than the next missionary. When he was informed that a plot was afoot to kill him, he fled. Idolized leaders don't do that; real people do.

In the next city Paul and Barnabas were afflicted by the Achilles heal of many missionaries -- language. The people responded to their message by shouting out in the local language; Paul and Barnabas had no idea what was going on. It went on long enough that he priest outside of town had enough time to gather sacrifices and come into town. Finally they understood what was happening but even then had trouble stopping the progression of worship to them.

Scholars often mention that Paul might have been blind or became blind. He mentions problems with his eyes and writing in big letters. So added together we come up with a man who fled from danger just like us, struggled with intercultural communication just like us and had personal physical problems just like us. So much for the ideal. Yet knowing this should only lead us back to admire his conviction and effort. Instead of praising all of his methods and blindly idolizing the man, let us recognize his shortcomings and appreciate his heart. Yet perhaps most importantly, let us recognize once again that just like with Noah whose first act after the flood was to get drunk, Abraham whose first act after the call was to lie about his wife or David the man after God's own heart who committed adultery, we have this story recorded for us not to teach us about a great man but rather to lead us to the great God who was working through and in spite of the man.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Acts 13; My Enemy?

I grew up in a time when debating was popular. I did not participate in it but was instructed to look up to those who were great at debating. What I never liked about the whole thing was that it always seemed like an excuse for good people to argue. As I grew I also was frustrated with the message it sent to those who were "outsiders looking in". It seemed to give us a reputation of bickering; in the process it spawned the understanding that anyone that does not agree with me is my opponent or enemy.

This text has two distinct encounters, i.e., Paul with the Jewish sorcerer (obviously not a really good Jew morally but only ethnically) and the synagogue. Only the sorcerer was viewed as an enemy. He opposed Paul and tried to keep others from believing. The Jews in the synagogue were seeking to follow God; they needed more information and direction. They were not enemies to Paul.

Very few in our society sit in the seat of the Jewish sorcerer; most are like the synagogue attendees -- good people at heart that need a little direction. It might not sound like a big deal to some but I think our world has seen enough of the debaters. So my hope today is not for boldness in proclaiming Christ but rather wisdom in discerning who I am talking to -- a sorcerer or a seeker. There was only one sorcerer; there was a crowd of seekers. My hunch is that the distribution is still the same in our society but that our society sees Christians mostly as people stuck in debate mode ready to attack enemy sorcerers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Acts 12; Fair?

So why did James die and Peter receive deliverance? From my point of view, it makes no sense. I wish I could move on to something more profound and demonstrate the answer. Honestly, I have no clue. I accept that God knew what he was doing. I accept that somehow James' martyrdom was better for the kingdom than his deliverance. I accept that Peter went on to great works and was saved for that. But if I am James or James' wife or James' children, the whole thing looks unfair.

I know that fair and equal are not the same. At least I know that on a good day. Yet my heart often doesn't listen to my head and in my heart the word "unfair" screams out at me. It does the same thing when I see privilege and blessings go to some people that have not worked as hard as I have or when a plan does not work out for me while it does for someone else. Usually what is at stake is my pride and personal desires, not the kingdom. I've learned that when my pride gets injured I can put together really good sounding arguments but I know inside that they are just a smokescreen for the pain.

The truth is that I don't have the right to scream unfair about life. I was born into middle class educated America. I sit this morning in my home and will soon depart for a good job. I have four healthy, wonderful children and an amazing wife. I do not have any major illnesses. It is only a small percentage of the world that can claim any of those blessings. They all look at me, at my blessings, at my privileges and scream "unfair". And they are right.

An old professor used to tease our class and wrap up different discussions with the remark of "Well, that is part of the job description of being God; you get to make up the rules as you go and are not limited." So I'll sit here this morning in my blessings and try to shape my heart to where it is grateful under any circumstance. I'll use the words of Job as my own and try to see my life the way others do. Job 2:10, "Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?"

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Acts 11:19-30; Barnabas Effect

Barnabas had helped Paul in Jerusalem by personally bringing him to the leaders. He put his reputation on the line for a young convert who had previously pledged to persecute the church. Once in Antioch, Barnabas sought out Paul in Tarsus in order to once again bring him into the community.

Without Barnabas there would never have been a Paul as we know him. Barnabas believed in the young man when others rejected him. Barnabas placed his reputation on the line for him when it would have been much easier to look the other way. Barnabas went out of his way to seek out Paul for ministry. He brought him into a young community where Paul could grow in the use of his gifts. Without Barnabas, no Paul.

One of the falacies of US culture is our staunch appeal to individualism. We insist on "do-it-myself" attitudes. The cars we purchase, the sports we choose, the products we buy all reflect a culture focused on "me" over "us". In the process, we begin to think that each of us arrived at our present state of maturity and development through our own efforts when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Personally my inventory must include people like my grandfathers, one that I recognize now as a kind and gentle leader of our church and the other that shaped me on a daily basis. I recognize an old professor that asked me to be his assistant when I was a freshman so that he could mentor me; without him I would never have made it graduate school. I recognize another professor that called me to her office after class and asked me how I was going to use my gifts; she then coached me through the application to vet school (I was admitted on the first try and ranked 10th in the class . . . she did a great job!). My father-in-law taught me to raise sons, Wilfredo taught me to walk humbly, my wife taught me devotion and the list goes on. Like everyone else, I am a product of the people that God has placed in my life.

Years to come, someone will sit down to reflect on who has shaped them. It seems to me that being on that list is the only way we really live on in the world. As Christians we believe that death is not the end and we will live on with the Lord. Yet to live on here means leaving a piece of ourself in the hearts of those around us. It means taking risks and investing a part of us in the lives of others. It means leaving Antioch to seek out the Pauls that others might not believe in. It means having the Barnabas effect on others.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Acts 11:1-18; Following

The Jewish believers were upset that Peter had associated with Gentiles. Their particular hangup was that he went into the home of non-Jews -- not that he had baptized them. There was a direct command against the former; the latter was still new to everyone. In his defense, Peter explained that God had communicated through visions, direct words of the Spirit and signs. His conclusion statement was basically "If God is doing this, who am I to stand in his way?" It came down to who was in control; who was running the church?

I admire Peter for his openness. He allowed God to be God and stayed in the role of follower. Through dreams, direct revelation and signs on top of his years of walking with Jesus, Peter was leadable. He was truly a follower.

We don't talk much about followership. We all want to change the world rather than let God change it using us. We see needs and respond; that's easy. Seeing God meet the needs and falling in line with what he is doing is a little more challenging. It might not make sense to everyone around us; it might not make sense to us. Yet Peter followed with total commitment because he could point to specific interventions by God and the overall outcome looked a lot like what Jesus had often done. I think that radical ideas proposed by those who have a "leading" void of specific interventions (direct voice, vision, signs) and the outcome of which does not necessarily look like one of Jesus' priorities, should be suspect. Yet radical ideas backed by specific interventions of the Spirit that lead to outcomes like those in the life of Jesus, need to be embraced.

I anticipate that the Spirit is much more active in guiding us today than we recognize. I also anticipate that the attribution of personal desires to the Spirit's leading is becoming more and more common, even when the Spirit probably has not done a thing. Hence the two ends of the pendulum swing, i.e., ignorance of Jesus with attribution to the Spirit for a license to do what I want versus an amazing depth of Biblical understanding resulting in an orthopraxy so strong that not even the Spirit could break us out of it. It seems that Peter found the middle ground where a rich understanding of the nature and goals of Jesus were married to a clear vision of the work of God in the world today.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Acts 10:9-48; Next Level

Peter had a very strange vision for a Jew. God was telling him that one of the most important things he had believed all his life was wrong. He was saying that one of the key distinguishing features for which he and his people were known should not exist. It would be like having a vision that God did not want us to participate in communion anymore. Is it any wonder that Peter was perplexed? (I find it comical that he was so lost in thought that the Spirit had to speak to him again just to get him to go downstairs and open the door.)

Two days later Peter entered the house of a non-Jew and explained his vision. Basically he said, "Its ok for me to enter your house; God gave me a vision that permits it." Only later did he really understand the significance of the vision and confessed, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right."

It seems like God has this pattern of pointing out something in our lives, letting us think we have developed it and then taking it to a new level we did not anticipate. Joseph became a good household manager, then prison manager and then prime minister. David was a good shepherd, then military leader and then king. John was dedicated to his brother, then to Jesus (even during his trial and crucifixion) and then to the church (becoming known as the apostle of love). I became aware of my prejudices, then was given a roommate of a different race and then became a missionary. I learned to be evangelistic in the dorms, then became a missionary and now train mission teams.

Here is what excites me, i.e., you never know what characteristic God is going to take to the next level. Just when it seems we have life figured out, God shows up with new opportunities. It is humbling to take a new step and realize how little I was doing before. It is faith-building to take a new step and see God show up to secure my footing. It is exciting to take a new step and realize that I can still grow. I wonder what the next step will be?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Acts 10:1-8; Good People

I used to see people as in or out. They were part of the kingdom or not. They were Christians or not. Basically in my mind that meant good or bad. This is one of those stories that calls into question simplistic dichotomy.

Does God hear the prayers of "unchristians"? Obviously Cornelius was not a Christian (that comes later in the story) but he was clearly heard by God. He was a good man, good enough that an angel was sent to him and told him that the Father Creator was very aware of him. I have never had that experience nor know anyone who has. So much for "good" being equated with "Christian". And so much for "good" being equated with "saved".

My understanding from this part of the story is that God loves his creation -- each and every one of us. When one of us wants to get closer to him, he finds ways to make that happen. Jesus was not God's only intervention in this world; over and over throughout history he has maneuvered and manipulated people and events so that those who seek him can find him. Jonah knew this when he went to Nineveh. He wanted bad people to be destroyed but God wanted good people to have a chance at a relationship with him.

When we paint the world simplistically as good and bad, where good is defined as "you believe like me" and bad people who don't look like me are "out", then we quit looking at the world like God does and we stop treating it like Jesus did. We can't see him maneuvering for the benefit of those who seek him. We become Jonah-like wanting to condemn people who are bad, thus proving ourselves right and others wrong, rather than serve others because they are beloved children of the Creator. It is easy for us to accept God's love but so hard to remember that we are loved not because of what we do, think or believe but rather because of who he is. We, just like everyone else that has ever lived, are loved because a loving God made us. Thus my role in this drama is to be willing to leave Jerusalem in order to be used by the Creator as he maneuvers and manipulates the lives of those who seek him.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Acts 9:31-43; More Greatness

Now that I have read through the rest of the chapter I lament that I did not include this section in yesterday's thoughts. As I thought more about greatness and the "little people of insignificance" that lie behind those we know well, I began to realize just how common it was. Recognition truly falls to only a few; this section is another great example.

Peter had traveled out of Jerusalem (but not out of Judah) to visit other Jewish Christians. When we read the story of his time in Joppa, we walk away remembering the name of Peter and the name of the lady Tabitha that he healed. But I think more lies behind the scenes.

In Venezuela we lived in a hot city; a cold winter night was 70 and a hot summer day was 115. In our city, embalming was very expensive. There were not many funeral homes and the process was so costly and inefficient that it was rare that a complete embalming would be performed. So when a person passed away, a "partial" embalming was performed that would at least slow down the decay process a little. Most bodies were then taken home to lie in state in people's living rooms. If the family was lower middle or poor class, there would be no AC in the house and ice would be placed under the table holding the body to again delay decay. Even with all that work, the body would start to deform, ooze or do other ugly things in 24 hours.

Now flashback to Tabitha who lived in a port city (modern day Tel Aviv) and who would not have had any embalming at all. Her body would have decayed very fast, producing an intolerable situation for those who loved her. Yet, they delayed. They heard Peter was in a nearby town and they sent for him. Would the messengers find him? Would he come? Would he delay? Would he be willing to do anything once he arrived? Yet, they sent for him and waited with the body.

We don't know the names of a single person involved in that decision. A decision that defied logic and culture. A decision that put the family name at risk. A decision of faith. Yet we know the name of Tabitha and the work of Peter. They achieved greatness in our memories. Without the acts of faith of the family, however, no healing would have occurred. But they did act. Tabitha would remember that all her life. The friends, family and neighbors would never forget. And God surely remembered each one by name . . . the names of people of great faith.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Acts 9:1-31; Greatness

Paul was sincere; no one could question that. He was sincerely wrong for a while and it cost the lives of many people. But he was always sincere. Likewise, he was transparent. What he believed, he proclaimed -- whether it was the message that the Messiah had not come or the message that he had. Perhaps it was for these characteristics that people were drawn to him and that God used him in great ways.

But was the work of Ananias and Barnabas any less impressive? Ananias knew why Paul was coming to Damascus and responded to God's call anyway. Probably he and his family anticipated that this was a call to martyrdom or at least imprisonment, which would mean pain and poverty for his family. Barnabas had no vision from God to prompt him when he reached out to Paul. While others ran away, he ran towards. Taking Paul in as a new believer meant risking his reputation and perhaps his life as well.

I know a few Pauls that are well recognized public figures; I am also blessed to know a few Ananias & Barnabas people that launched the Pauls. Without them, the well known figures would never have existed. Several of them have passed on now, dieing like they lived, in humble obscurity. Yet they died knowing they had responded to the visions and calls in their own lives. They stepped into the gap when others would not and God used them to accomplish one major work that led to thousands of works in someone else.

We spend a lot of time honoring the Pauls and ignoring the Ananias and Barnabas people. Seems to me that we don't have a lot of control over which type of person we will be -- that is up to our gift mix and how God decides to use us. What does lie within our control is whether or not we will respond when God calls. Paul, Ananias and Barnabas each had a choice to be obedient or not. Each stepped out on faith. Each was blessed to be used by God.

As humans we can't see far enough down the road to know how we will be used but we can see windows of opportunity -- a chance to help someone, a moment to do a good deed, an opportunity for kindness or mercy. These we can see. These we can respond to. Greatness is not ours to choose; obedience is.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Acts 8; The Socercer

All of us come to scripture with some form of cultural glasses on. As a kid I grew up in a full-blown modernist world and this greatly influenced our interpretation of scripture. Since witchcraft and sorcery did not exist in a modern world, then Simon was renamed. Of course, he was not literally renamed since that would have been tampering with scripture; yet, he was taught not as Simon the sorcerer but as Simon the con-artist. We are not sure how he did it, but he could trick people just like David Copperfield. This produced a little confusion for me since the modernist explanation of a miracle is not the breaking of natural law but rather such a complete understanding of natural law that one can manipulate and control outcomes. So, if that was a miracle and that was also pretty much the definition of being a con artist, Simon always gave me problems.

It wasn't until much later in life that I had to deal with the occult. While in Venezuela, I learned that there was much more going on at times than simple tricks. If the good side of the spiritual realm exists with miracles, prayer and God, then surely the evil side of the spiritual realm exists with its power, dedication and Satan.

In the text, Simon apparently laid aside his evil ways of sorcery but his heart lagged behind in changing. The ego boost he received from being called the Great Power of God was intoxicating. When he saw the apostles performing miracles for the good-guys, he wanted in on the action. Peter saw through the situation and called him out. Peter spoke to his heart where pride was as big an evil as sorcery.

The last line of the movie "Devil's Advocate" is spoken by Satan and is, "Pride. Definitely my favorite sin." We are so quick to condemn sorcery but are fine to let pride slide. We would never overlook a witch in our fellowship, but we turn a blind eye to egocentrism. We could not fathom a cordial relationship with the leader of a cult, but we could actively pursue a relationship with prideful stars and leaders. We contemptuously condemn Simon for his former ways of life in sorcery but would we have called him out on pride? In our fellowship we hold tightly to the idea of restoring New Testament Christianity. Perhaps we need to do a better job of restoring the heart of it as well . . . and calling out each other on issue of the heart . . . which are just as diabolically dangerous as sorcery ever was.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Acts 6:8-7:60; God-with-us

Stephen's story and words catch my attention in several ways. It is amazing how his story parallels that of Jesus; surely the way the story was told by Luke emphasized certain aspects that made that possible, i.e., false witnesses, speaking out against the Jewish leaders using Jewish history, forgiveness just before death, etc. I am also impressed by the frequency of mention of wisdom in the account; Biblically there is more interplay between wisdom and the Spirit than I used to think. I am also impressed by the side thought of Moses as the adopted child looking for his identity and then being forced into the desert with even more questions than he had before.

The conclusion of the sermon, however, is what has has always grabbed me. I would have preached on through the exile and return; Stephen cut off the story of the Jews at the building of the temple (900 years before Jesus). He jumped straight from the temple to resisting the Holy Spirit. I never understood that until I spent years in the Torah; now it makes more sense.

The message of the rescue from Egypt was that God wants to live with his people. That was provided for by the tabernacle and then the temple and then Jesus. It is a logical sequence once the primary point is understood. Stephen was focusing upon how God lives among us. The Jews totally understood step one and two but utterly rejected step three, i.e., the Incarnation of Jesus. Recounting history was not his point; recounting God-with-us was the point.

Very often we preach about living well, how to have a good family, ethics, etc. I think what we really need to be hearing is the same message that reaches back to the garden. God still wants to walk with us in the garden in the cool of the day. That message is powerful in any culture at any time. It is as valuable to the homeless as it is the rich; it is as significant to the Caucasian as it is the Asian. God still wants a relationship with his creation. Everything else falls out from that; it is the central point. If we lose it, we become a self-help association or country club. If we lose it, we lose the power of the gospel. If we lose it, we lose our identity -- just like Stephen's Jewish audience lost theirs and therefore became content to be the maintainers of the buildings where God used to live rather than the community where God now lives.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Acts 6:1-7; The Complaint

Here is the 2011 updated version: In the Church on Elm Street, the moms from school district A complained that their families were not as well taken care of by the church as the families of school district B. For example, they claimed that they received fewer family visits and calls, that their football schedule was not considered when plans were made, their kids events were not visited by ministers, etc. It generated hard feelings in the church as moms on both sides of the issue felt offended. The church leaders responded, we refuse to be sidetracked by this fussing; our effort to evangelize those who do not know Jesus in this town is far more important than your complaint. At the next church assembly we will have the church elect a small group of members who will find a way to resolve the issue so that we don't have to give time to it. The church responded very well and elected a small committee. In the meantime, the leaders were able to connect with key leaders in the marginalized community downtown resulting in many converts to Jesus.

If that played out in most churches today, the script would be followed up to the moment of the leaders response. The response would be more like, "We will drop everything and tend to your every need because we can't stand for anyone to be unhappy."

Seems to me that the apostles had different priorities than most US church leaders and the vast majority of church members.