Friday, September 22, 2017

Romans 8:1-4

Romans 8:1-4
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Do you feel free?  Do you feel like you walk according to the Spirit?
  If you're like me, you probably don't.  And I think this is a critical point for Christians to know and understand -- it's not about how you feel.  What happens to a lot of us is that we focus on ourselves -- on our thoughts and our actions and our lives, and we let those feelings make judgments about what kind of Christians we are.  We feel compassion fatigue when we see the third wave of hurricanes sweeping across the lives of the vulnerable, and we feel guilty, and we decide that we aren't good enough Christians, and we beat ourselves up.  We do this over and over -- I'm still thinking about whether or not I responded faithfully to the homeless guy who hit me up for money on my walk to the car.  We get these thoughts and questions into our heads and they rattle around in there and pretty soon we feel terrible about ourselves, right?  Or am I the only one?
  What Paul is teaching us here is that our worth is not determined by our inner feelings.  Our value is based upon what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  In Him, there is no condemnation.  In Him, we have been set free.  That's it -- it's not conditional!!!!  We are free because God has sent his own Son, and our lives are forever changed because of Him!!!  So let us give thanks, because our worth isn't dependent on how we feel -- Paul doesn't say that there is no condemnation for those who feel good about their walk of faithfulness.  Paul says that we who are in Christ are set free due to his amazing love  Let us give thanks with a joyful heart for the steadfast love and faithfulness of God!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

1 Timothy 1:12-17

1 Timothy 1:12-17
English Standard Version (ESV)

  I'm convinced that you could spend the rest of your life plumbing the depths of this paragraph and likely never reach the bottom.  Just when you think you can grasp the beauty and wonder of God's love for us, there is more.  That's how I understand heaven -- a place where there is always inexhaustible beauty that continues to astound.
  Here is Paul, a self-admitted blasphemer, persecutor and insolent opponent.  Take a moment and think of all the negative labels you can hang on yourself.  I know I have plenty with which I can describe myself.  And all those labels -- they have not determined our fate, because Christ's purpose is to save people exactly like ourselves!!!  Christ didn't save us by accident.  He didn't come for the perfect people only to be disappointed that there weren't any and revert to us as plan B!  He came expressly to save sinners, and when he found us, he used us as an example of his perfect patience!  God showed up and was gracious towards us, knowing that we weren't going to get it right the first time, knowing we'd need a lot of help, and through his patience he continues to express his love and is encouraging us to move towards grace and away from sin.
  This is the God we worship, and due to his patience and grace and love, he is due all the honor and glory forever.  When we slow down enough to realize that God came precisely to save people who had turned against him, it is astounding to think of the depths of his love and patience that pursues us wherever we are!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ephesians 4:1-7

Ephesians 4:1-7
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Paul lists a group of traits that don't seem like they're in popular demand these days.  Humility.  Gentleness.  Patience.  Selfless love.  Seeking unity above all else.
  In a culture of pride that seeks to create a memorable persona so people will know who you are, these aren't traits that are admired.  In a social-media dominated culture that defines popularity by the number of followers and the ability to create a brand that others will follow and imitate, these aren't the types of qualities people will seek out.  But when building authentic community that will require people to be vulnerable and build trust, this is what you need.  When you reach the depths of life's valleys and need a companion to walk with you through the darkest chapters of life, these are exactly the type of things you look for.  When you need a friend and the world has turned its back, this is what you're looking for.
  In summary, authentic relationships are built on our willingness to be humble and consider the needs of others, to selflessly serve the community and think not of our own needs first.  When we build relationships and trust, we are able to share the Gospel effectively, out of genuine love for the other.  We are stronger when we think of another first and ourselves last.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Colossians 1:3-8

Colossians 1:3-8
English Standard Version (ESV)

  When you pray, who are you celebrating? Are you praying that those who are serving well might continue to be strengthened by the Spirit?
  When you go out today, are you remembering that your ultimate hope is in Heaven, allowing you to keep the day in perspective?  Do you cling to your hope in Christ, recognizing that all else will pass away and one day, only the Kingdom of God will remain?  Are you giving thanks for the day when you heard the Gospel and came to understand the grace of God in truth?  Do you give thanks for those who continue to faithfully go into the world to proclaim the Gospel to those who have not heard, and do you support their ministry?
  There is so much Good News in the Gospel, and so many ways that we can be encourage and then encourage and support others.  The Gospel is hope and joy and peace and grace -- and may we pray for the message to go into the whole world and continue to bear fruit and increase!

Monday, September 18, 2017

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Hurricane Irma yielded some interesting photos of the freeways in Florida -- everyone is streaming north while the southbound lanes are barren.  No one wants to head into the storm.
  In Christ, God enters into the storm of human sin.  He doesn't have to, but he chooses to, because he knows that entering into sin is the only way to save us, and he loves us too much to allow us to continue down that path.  For our sake he became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.  It's an amazing trade -- he takes the pain and brokenness and agony of sin, while we receive the glorification that rightfully belongs to Christ.  It's completely unfair in our favor.
  Paul makes this case in Corinthians, urging the Corinthians to live as ambassadors -- to go out into the world and carry the message of hope and peace of the Kingdom of God to the corners of the world.  We are charged to go out in love, carrying within us the joy of a people set free by the love of God.  He entered into our storm and gave us hope.

Friday, September 15, 2017

2 Corinthians 1:18-22

2 Corinthians 1:18-22
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  All the promises of God point toward Christ.  And what do we find in Christ?  Unlimited love, unmerited favor, endless grace, forgiveness and peace and abundance.  All of the beautiful things in this world point to Christ, the Word made flesh, the one who shows us what true love and beauty are.  Christ is the one who poured out himself on the cross to teach us how God's love has no limits.  Christ was the one who rose from the grave to demonstrate his power and invite us into his kingdom, where death cannot touch us and there is no place for hatred or sorrow or fear.
  Everything points to Christ, and so we pray for the wisdom and courage to orient our hearts towards Christ, to let our lives show our love and devotion, to give all in the hopes of gaining life with him.  There is nothing better, nothing greater, nothing worth more than the unsurpassed love of God, shown fully in Christ.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Romans 12:1-2

Romans 12:1-2
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Someone once said that the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep trying to crawl off the altar.
  This is such a wondrous and challenging verse --  it defines our call as Christians, to somehow live a life that is fully dedicated to God, seeking him above all else, trying to follow his will, which is better than our own.  It involves our bodies and our minds, resisting pressure to conform and always seeking the most faithful way at any cost, trusting in the Lord our God.
  But the world tells us to do otherwise, and so often we would prefer to take the easy route, to go away from faithfulness and seek easy happiness or pleasure.  We want to be comfortable more than we want to be faithful -- we have a hard time trusting that God's will can lead us to ultimate fulfillment and abundance, so we choose what offers pleasure here and now.
  So we take up the challenge day after day, praying for the wisdom and strength to be faithful, to pursue God's will and to find a way to use our body and mind for his glory.  This is a lifelong challenge, and God promises that it is worth our dedication!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Acts 28:23-31

Acts 28:23-31
English Standard Version (ESV)

  For two years, many people came, in great numbers, to hear the words of Paul.  And as we read them, we realize that these weren't always easy words Paul was proclaiming -- they were often tough messages.  Paul was telling them that their hearts had grown dull and that they weren't listening to God.  Paul was telling them things they probably didn't like to hear, but he loved them enough to proclaim the truth to them.  He loved them enough to be honest and give them the truth they needed to hear.
  So let's not sugarcoat the Gospel.  Paul's experience shows us that we don't have to deliver easy news to bring people.  We can say the tough things that we need to say, as long as we do so in love, trusting that serving the other selflessly will lead the closer to grace.  Let us tell the whole truth of God's great love, and let us not be afraid to speak of sin, and we will engage with society selflessly, graciously, listening and loving, and sharing the Gospel with boldness and without hindrance!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Acts 28:17-22

Acts 28:17-22
English Standard Version (ESV)

 How many items are competing for your attention at any given time?  It's likely that there is a television and a phone and several people, all of them vying for your limited attention.  In these busy times, the quicker we can make decisions, the better we are -- if we can quickly disprove or approve of something, we can turn our attention towards other, more pressing matters.
  Here, the local leaders do the opposite.  They've heard lots of negative things about the sect, but they want to hear from Paul what his views are.  And this, I believe, is the opportunity for the Gospel.  The great thing about the Gospel is that it is the single greatest Truth in the universe -- there is no argument that can prevail against it, for everything else falls short.  And so when people open themselves up to consider it, to hear the Gospel message, there is a chance for the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth and beauty of the grace of the Gospel.  But people have to be willing to hear it, rather than to just listen to the various bad news and discard the opportunity.
  The Good News for you and I is that the truth of the Gospel doesn't depend on the speaker -- it shines through us, no matter how sinful we may be.  God uses clay vessels to deliver this wondrous message, and so we are presented with a great opportunity -- to be used by God to deliver the message of God's great love to the world around us.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Acts 28:11-16

Acts 28:11-16
English Standard Version (ESV)

  September 11 will forever be a strange day in our nation's history, a day filled with haunting memories of the tragedy that struck and wars launched as a result.  So many lives have been forever changed by the actions of a few that day, and we are surrounded by reminders of their hatred -- every time we go to the airport, our travels will never be the same.  The impact of hatred lingers on.
  What's dangerous is that we begin to live out of fear.  We see threats lurking behind every corner, so we hide, changing our lives to avoid the unknown, afraid and trying desperately to protect what we have.  We're afraid to reach out and encounter others, because we begin to see threats.
  God calls us to engage with the others, with the unknown.  God reminds us that we once were lost, strangers, foreigners in a strange land, and that through the work of God we have been reconciled and redeemed.  Not through out own work, remember, but through what God has done.  Our life is a gift, and our salvation cannot be taken from us.  So not only do we have no reason to fear, but also we have been given a gift, and we are to share the amazing news of that gift, in the hopes that others might come to know the giver as well.
  So we should not fear, but rather trust -- the God who has brought us this far, buying us with a price, will continue to carry us home.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Acts 28:7-10

Acts 28:7-10
English Standard Version (ESV)

  You and I have journeys that face detours every day.  We have a certain idea as to where a path is leading, and suddenly there is an interruption that leads us down another road.  Often, we go down that road with frustration, wondering what might have been or regretting the change that forced us to alter our path.  (Which makes me think of another point -- I think smartphones/social media are reducing serendipity in our lives.  We're so plugged into our individual lives that there isn't much room to meet someone unexpected anymore.)
  When our path changes, how do we greet it?  Do we recognize that the Spirit may be at work, leading us into a new place with fertile soil where we might be used for the glory of God?  Or do we sulk because we didn't get our way, waiting until this chapter is through and we can get back to what we think is important?
  Scripture is filled with examples of people who were willing to be flexible, going with the Spirit's direction into new situations, trusting that God was at work.  So today, when your will is frustrated and you end up on another path, look for opportunities to point to what God is doing.  Trust in Him and look around to see how you might spread the Gospel message.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Acts 28:1-6

Acts 28:1-6
English Standard Version (ESV)

  There's an old saying in football that you're never as bad as people say you are after a loss, and you're never as good as people may say after a big win.  The truth is often somewhere in the middle, and believing the first can lead to despair while the second can lead to an overinflated ego.
  In the same way, Paul escapes from a shipwreck only to have a viper grab hold of his hand.  At the time, the locals assume Paul was a murdered and had some pretty nasty karma working against him.  But it wasn't this bad, but Paul also isn't as good as the god they assume him to be when he survives.  He's in the middle -- a sinner redeemed by the blood of a Savior, redeemed by the Lamb and made whole by the grace of God.
  We, too, are not as bad as the devil tries to tell us we are.  We are not lost and hopeless.  We are not alone or forsaken, and God loves you as you are.  Never give up on yourself, never despair -- we are not beyond the grace of God.
  We are not, however, gods.  We are not perfect, and we must be wary of the sin of pride, of assuming that we are better than we are.  We are still sinners who turn from God and pursue our own will, our own gods, our own interests at the expense of our relationship with God and others.  We have far yet to go, and we are not there yet.
  We are in the middle of a beautiful story -- saved by grace, and yet God is still at work in us.  Believe in God, trust in him, remember from whence we have been saved and the future that lies before us, and cling to our hope in Christ to carry us forward.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Acts 27:39-44

Acts 27:39-44
English Standard Version (ESV)

  The Gospel is an amazing story.  The Word of God, the long-awaited Messiah, comes to us as fully God, fully human, offering us the hope for which our souls have longed ever since we were separated from God in the Garden.
  And just as we're starting to see the beach, as we think we are saved from our sins, Good Friday happens.  The religious leaders of the day, with Judas' help, intervene to snatch victory away, crucifying Christ on the cross and thinking he is locked safely in the tomb.
  The great joy of the Gospel is one of reversals.  The lame walk and the poor are rich in God.  The sorrowful laugh and the despairing rejoice.  When death looms, life breaks through.  Resurrection changes everything.  Just as the centurion intercedes to save Paul and the others, God breaks through and saves us from death, offering us eternal and abundant life through Christ.
  And so it is that we are brought safely through the storm

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Acts 27:33-38

Acts 27:33-38
English Standard Version (ESV)

  What makes the sea so terrifying to many is the unknown.  You can't see what's down there, and there are a few creature who aspire to do more than just nibble on your toes.  Being in a small boat in the midst of a storm in the dark and chaotic ocean fills the heart with uncertainty -- what will happen to me?  Can I make it to shore?  Are the waves too much?  Can I endure?
  These are questions we ask of many situations that face us.  Do we have the strength to persevere in the face of trials?  Do we have the resources, the energy, the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other when the waves of life are crashing?  Is there hope beyond the next wave?
  To the 250 souls in the boat, Paul assures them that they will not perish.
  To the depth of your soul, God assures you that you will not perish.  Through the power and love of Jesus Christ, who established that death itself cannot hold him, you have seen that God is stronger than violence and Christ is stronger than death.  We worship the Victor, who not only triumphs over darkness but also abides with us in the midst of the storms.  When the darkness surrounds us and the waves crash upon us, Christ is with us, reminding us of the power of the Spirit and pointing us towards the hope within and beyond us.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Acts 27:27-32

Acts 27:27-32
English Standard Version (ESV)

  There are always people interested in getting out early.  Unconcerned about the community, they notice an alternative that seems like an easier way and seek to slide out under some pretense, perhaps slipping out the back door never to return, unwilling to be a part of a solution to whatever problem the community is facing.  Unfortunately, what often happens is that these people end up in peril as well, just as these sailors who were trying to slip away in the small boat would likely have ended up in greater peril in a small boat in the storm.
  So it's worth noting here that we are called to remain together in difficult times.  God calls us into community, and we work together to move forward through problems. It's certainly not easy, but it makes us so much stronger, and gives a more complete witness to the community.  We have to be selfless and gracious and humble, and we don't always get our way.  It's easier for a time to be on our own, but we miss out on the richness of learning other points of view.  We miss out on the love and support that comes with a community, but this comes with a cost.  People are complicated, but God is always teaching us that we gain far more than we lose by being richly involved in one another's lives and learning and growing as we deepen our sense of community, learning more about how God interacts in the Trinity, which is constantly filled with selfless love.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Acts 27:21-26

Acts 27:21-26
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Sometimes, the way out doesn't seem all that appealing.  Here's the ship, in grave danger, with the passengers fearing for their lives.  You hope for a grand parting of the waves and a pass to freedom, but instead you have Paul telling them that they need to crash the ship onto a nearby island.  You start to wonder if there isn't a better Plan B...
  As Christians, there is something in our hearts that is always looking for Plan B.  We don't like the reality of sin and our guilt, so we convince ourselves that it's not so bad, that there is some easier way out, that God isn't really all that upset about sin.  But the truth is that we cannot be in the presence of God with our sin, and so it must be wiped clean.  The only way to do this is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and so we must kneel before the cross and submit to his Lordship.  We try and stash away our guilt, preferring not to confront it, but to confront it is to allow God to heal and to forgive, to make a way forward through death and despair into new life.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Acts 27:13-20

Acts 27:13-20
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  At what point did you give up?
  Think of your life as sailing a ship.  We navigate through whatever is before us -- sometimes this is calm waters, a pleasure to sail.  Often, there are turbulent storms, rocking us this way and that.  Sometimes the breeze disappears and we aren't certain what comes next, waiting on God to give us direction while we twist in uncertainty.
  At a certain point, we realize that we can't bring the ship into port on our own.  We realize that all of our strength and all of our wisdom and all of our energy can't save the ship.  At a certain point, the storms are too strong and the waves are too high and the night is too deep -- and we realize that we cannot save ourselves.
  At this point, we recognize the sovereignty and love of God.  At this point, we bow the knee to Christ.  Some are wiser and do so before the height of the storm, allowing them to brave the storm with the confidence that there is one stronger than the storm that protects them.  Others wait until the depths of night in the thick of the maelstrom to realize that only God can save.  All of us come to the realization at one point or another -- we must give up control to our God and King, and he alone can bring us safely to port, to finish our journey and lead us home.
  How long will you run in the storm, fearful and worried, before letting the peace of God calm your heart?  How long will you fight with the rudder and battle with the sails to try and do on your own what only God can do?  When will you acknowledge him as Lord and rest in his arms, at peace with God?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Acts 27:9-12

Acts 27:9-12
English Standard Version (ESV)

  The other week I was out riding my bicycle with the kids in the trailer.  There was a sign on the path that said 'Road Closed', so I read it and then went around it, seeing no obvious danger ahead.  Sure enough, in about 150 yards there was a fence across the road.  The detour was up a steep grassy hill to the right, so I obviously decided not to turn around and go back but instead unhitched the trailer and started trying to pull it up the hill.  You can guess how well this worked out in the end...
  The lesson here is that we don't always pay attention to warning signs.  Unless there is obvious danger, we often proceed as we want, assuming we can deal with whatever shows up later.  We neglect doing small things now and often end up paying  larger consequences later on.  We think we know better, just as the centurion does here -- Paul warns him, but his warning falls on deaf ears.  We can all think of plenty of examples.
  What small sins do is lead us down a path that isn't ideal for us.  We ignore the dangers of small sins and seemingly innocent flirtations with temptation, thinking we can handle them, and later on, we discover ourselves in far greater danger than we realized was possible.  We ignore the warnings about them, thinking they aren't that dangerous, and they end up consuming more and more of our time and energy.  We often look back and recognize the folly of our short-term thinking, but it's usually too late by then.
  So when God tells us he wants complete submission, he's trying to help us avoid these situations by keeping our attention on the little things.  By avoiding the small sins, such as not telling little lies that lead us into bigger lies later, we learn to be obedient and recognize how much greater life is when we serve and follow God in all things.  God desires us to experience freedom in Christ, and calls us into discipleship so that we might enjoy that freedom in the here and now.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Acts 27:1-8

Acts 27:1-8
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  At times, our journey takes to the sea, leaving behind what we know and finding ourselves in the midst of something far bigger than ourselves, something that we cannot control.  If we have lived with the idea that we will be in control of everything possible, these legs of our journey can be shattering to our worldview, because you cannot look out at the sea from the midst of a boat and feel like you are in control.  You cannot look at oncoming clouds or an endless channel of waves and believe that the world revolves around us.
  At time, the chaos of the larger world ensnares us.  It is hard to believe some of the pictures coming out of Houston, the nation's 4th largest city, as immense amounts of water continue to flood the streets and freeways and houses and businesses there.  What has taken decades to construct is being pummeled in a weekend, and for many, life will never be the same.
  As the church, it is our job to recognize that our brothers and sisters in Houston need us.  We have a responsibility to remind them that the light still shines in the darkness, that the chaos of this world is a reminder that things are not as they ought to be, and that our God will one day set things right.  Financial gifts are the most immediate -- World Vision is the resource I trust to serve in the name of Christ.  Our prayers are important.  Mostly, I believe its important to keep the eyes of our hearts open so that we might hear when God calls us to action, so that we might be the kind of people ready to assist one another when the chaos of the seas comes crashing into the lives of the vulnerable.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Acts 26:30-32

Acts 26:30-32
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Paul is brought before them in trial, an accused man, and yet he leaves with the best wishes of the ones who had heard his case.  What they heard from Paul did not match the accusations, and he left a positive impression.
  As Christians, we go out into the world, living as part of it.  I think we all go forward as missionaries, letting the light of Christ shine through us.  May we relate to others wish love and peace, in such a way that we leave the same impression -- that others wish us well.  In doing so, perhaps they may see the grace of God shining through us.
  The Christian church doesn't always have the best image in the world.  People say and do things in the name of Christ that don't always line up with the Gospel, and the entire church is tainted because of it.  While we can't control our brothers and sisters, we can relate with humility, loving and serving all regardless of their race or creed or nationality, and love as Christ loved, freely and sacrificially.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Acts 26:24-29

Acts 26:24-29
English Standard Version (ESV)

  This is the power of the Gospel -- that a man in chains, a prisoner of the Law, might be able to tell a King that the King is enslaved and the prisoner is free.  There is no greater power than the Gospel that sets prisoners free and brings the dead to life.  Each and every one of us is enslaved by sin and death -- it binds itself around our necks and around our souls, and no physical chain compares to it.  The Gospel of grace promises us true freedom -- freedom that extends beyond the grave, freedom that goes beyond our external circumstances.  It is the great leveler, in that we all bear the same chains and have the same opportunity for freedom.
  So what does this power mean for you?
  It means that your circumstances should not define you, for in Christ, you are rich beyond measure, and your wealth cannot be torn from you.  You are loved beyond compare, and no force in the universe can separate you from this love. You have been redeemed by your God, who sent his only Son to suffer and die so that you might be set free for life.  You have been destined for life, and the chains that bound your soul have been severed from you forever.
  So do not believe for a moment that whatever trials and tribulations you face define you.  May you have the same boldness as Paul, setting aside the struggles in life and being defined by love and grace, and having such compassion for others that you do not hesitate to extend the offer to all of eternal life and grace and peace.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Acts 26:19-23

Acts 26:19-23
English Standard Version (ESV)

  CS Lewis said that it's not the parts of the Bible that he doesn't understand that scare him, it's the parts of the Bible he does understand.
  When Paul heard his commission from God, he followed it.  It meant turning his back on everything he had known and following a new path, one that would be very costly to him, ultimately costing him his life.  He believed it was worth it, because he had the chance to proclaim the greatest Truth, that the promises of the Old Testament had been fulfilled in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
  So we, too, are charged.  We're charged to go forth and serve, to love and humbly reach out to those around us.  We're called to proclaim the Truth of the Gospel in word and deed, and to give out of our abundance, to give sacrificially, and to recognize that everything we have belongs to God.
  Jesus makes this all clear, but we twist it because it's a hard challenge.  We're not interested in offering up everything, so we convince ourselves that the call of the Gospel isn't on everything, just on some parts of our lives.  We opt for an easier disobedience.
  The amazing thing about the Gospel is that there is grace for us.  We are given a new day to fall into the grace of God, to confess that we fall short and to be reassured by the promises of God.  You are infinitely loved, and you are called into a life of discipleship.  May we have the wisdom and courage to follow today.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Acts 26:12-18

Acts 26:12-18
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  And with this message, lives were changed.
  Just think of how different the world is -- Paul takes the message of the Gospel, the hope of life beyond death and joy beyond desolation, and proclaims it across the known world.  His letters are read for centuries, and today we still read his words and take hope, because he was willing to listen and obey, to humbly admit that he was wrong and that the Lord's will for his life was greater and wiser.
  How many missionaries have followed his example?  How many pastors, how many faithful servants have been willing to heed the call, to recognize the light of the Gospel and to follow wherever it may lead?  How many lives have been changed by the light of the Gospel, piercing our darkness and pointing towards a better way?
  God's hope and light and joy and life are on the move, and we have the chance to join them, to follow them, to let God lead us.  I don't know what God has in store for me or for you, but I do know and believe that it is greater and more abundant than what we would plan for ourselves, for God knows our hearts better than we, and he wants greater things than we can ask or imagine.  We serve, and in our serving the Gospel we find ourselves richer than we can imagine.
  Let the Gospel lead, and may the same Spirit that spoke to Paul call you deeper into discipleship today!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Acts 26:1-11

Acts 26:1-11
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Who likes to admit that they're wrong?  I certainly don't, and when I discover that I am wrong, I'd much rather just ignore it and hope nobody remembers what I said or did.  That's much easier on my pride.
  But here is Paul before the King, openly admitting that he was wrong in persecuting the followers of Jesus.  He had grown up deeply entrenched in Judaism, and he assumed that these new followers were deviating from the Truth.  But he found out on the road to Damascus that he was wrong, and he didn't hide the fact, didn't hope that everyone else would forget who he had been -- he owned it, because only through admitting his brokenness could he explain how he had come to new life in Christ.
  In the same way, when we pretend before God that we have it all together, we miss out on the chance to God to heal our deepest hurts.  We are all broken, each of us uniquely struggling, and God wants to heal us completely, redeem us from our sin.  But it's up to us to let go and admit that the sin is there, that it has power over us, and to let God heal it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Acts 25:23-27

Acts 25:23-27
English Standard Version (ESV)

 Isn't it amazing where Paul's journey has taken him?  He was on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians, and now he's in Rome with the chance to talk about Christ before kings!  He wouldn't have predicted this, couldn't have expected this, and yet God has used his life in wondrous ways to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.  Now, 2,000 years later, we read his words and marvel at the love of God.
  So don't give up.  Don't ever think God is finished with you.  Don't believe for a second that you know how your life will turn out.  We have no idea what God has in store for us, and his plans are greater than we can ask or imagine.  Our lives are but a blip on the timeline of history, but God can use them for amazing purposes if we entrust him with all that we are.  Trust in him, fix your eyes on Christ, and let him guide you into the eternal journey of faith.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Acts 25:13-22

Acts 25:13-22
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Stories will occasionally surface of cults who get carried away by a charismatic leader.  Sometimes the results are tragic, often they fizzle out when the hypocrisy of the leader is exposed.  The end result is delusion and frustration, and there is usually a good amount of collateral damage caused in terms of broken relationships and damaged finances.
  What every church should encourage its members to do is read the Bible for themselves.  They should listen to the pastor and his/her interpretation of Scripture, but they should be reading it for themselves and asking questions if they don't understand something.  In reading it for themselves, they are better able to spot errors in leadership.  It's a good thing to trust in leadership, but it's the role of a responsible member to be actively paying attention to hold the leadership accountable.  Leadership should welcome tough questions, because they should see it as an opportunity to grow together, and if the leader is failing in a direction or struggling with an issue, the members should compassionately join together to encourage the leader.
  It's hard to be a community together.  But we all have to be active -- we can't be free riders, blindly trusting that things will work out.  Read Scriptures so that you know for yourself what the source documents say.  Ask questions.  Listen attentively.  And may we grow together, each of us stronger in faith today than we were yesterday.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Acts 25:6-12

Acts 25:6-12
English Standard Version (ESV)

  What's best about Paul's trial is that he doesn't doubt himself -- he's lived in such a way that he has no reason to doubt himself, no reason to wonder if he has lived well.  Think about his journey -- he went from persecuting Christians to proclaiming their Gospel, and he's entirely confidant and comfortable with his identity.  He knows he has been saved by grace, and he's proclaimed that message, and he has nothing to fear.  There is no doubt within Paul.
  It's hard to imagine living this way.  Each of us has things in our past that we'd love to pile dirt over and let disappear.  We have things that shame us, things that concern us, things that wake us in the middle of the night and leave us wondering if we're good enough.
  The message of grace is a hard one to hear -- we are so busy trying to earn God's love that we often forget that God loves us unconditionally.  Our path is not to be caught up in fear, but rather to be caught up in God's grace.  We shouldn't spend our lives looking back at what has happened, but rather should invest our energy in looking to the unlimited grace and unmerited favor that is poured out upon us.
  Paul isn't afraid to go on trial, because he knows he is innocent.
  In the same way, we shouldn't be afraid to stand before the throne of God, because we know that we are covered in Christ and completely forgiven washed clean by the blood of the lamb and born again to eternal life.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Acts 25:1-5

Acts 25:1-5
English Standard Version (ESV)

  The human story has been one of slowly grabbing control.  Think about it -- we grabbed control of fire, and soon we could control when it was dark and when it was light.  We began to cultivate crops, and we were in control, no longer at the whims of hunting and gathering.  We built houses, now able to control how the weather affected us.  We soon built machines to do work for us, controlling how much effort we had to contribute.  We continue to gain control, over travel and DNA and medicine, bringing so much of life under our control.  It's easy to forget that we're not in ultimate control -- it's easy to forget that the universe doesn't revolve around us.
  God is the center and author of life.  In Him, and in Him alone, is light and life and truth.  He is the one who grants us life, and our lives are meant to be about worshiping Him.  If we think our lives are about being in control, we'd panic in situations like the one Paul is in, where it seems like we're small and out of control and unable to know what is coming next.
  But if we trust God, we learn to relax and trust that whatever our circumstances may be, God will use them for his glory.  It's hard for us to relax, but God is at work, and our job is to trust in Him -- He is control and can use every situation for his glory.  Trust in Him -- our life is not meant to be about us, and he is at work for us.  He loves us and will not forsake us, so trusting in Him is a step of faith on the path to eternal life.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nehemiah 5:6-11

Nehemiah 5:6-11
English Standard Version (ESV)

  We'll get back to Acts shortly, but given everything that has gone on over the weekend, this is a worthwhile diversion.
  I'd recommend going back and reading the whole chapter/book, but in summary, the rich in Nehemiah's time are oppressing the poor, forcing them to sell off everything (including their children) in order to pay the punitive amount required for grain in a time of famine.  The country is divided, and strong leadership is needed.
  Here, Nehemiah steps up.  He recognizes the evil that is at work, the way that some people are caring for themselves over the needs of their neighbors, and he clearly declares the evil in their actions.  But he goes a step beyond simply talking about it -- he leads the way into a solution.  He gives what he doesn't need, and he invites others to dine at his table in his own expense.  He forgoes his salary.  The people react beautifully -- they admit their sin and change their ways, and the community is able to heal.
  This weekend has revealed some open wounds in this country.  Our communities are often divided, and it's easy to live in blissful ignorance of this if we are not directly affected by it.  In such a time as this, God often uses events to open our eyes to see the pain of our neighbors and friends.  Having opened our eyes, we are then called to be agents of reconciliation.  We are called to be a people who love selflessly, who sacrifice willingly, who reach out to the stranger and the enemy so that they might come to know what boundless love looks like.
  I don't have easy solutions to the cauldron of fear and hatred that can drive people to certain actions.  I don't know what it takes to bring the country together and work through the many things that divide us, but I believe in my heart that the church is called to stand in the gap and love each and every person in this world, to not only tell them that there is grace for them but to show them the same love that compelled Christ to die for the unworthy.  And since the church is called to this, you and I are called to it, because it's not someone else's job -- it's the job of every churchmember, to love the people around us and to go to those who have not yet heard the Good News.  I am often so very comfortable that I don't breach the corners of the world in which I live, but I pray for the wisdom to allow God to send me and use me so that I might somehow do my small part to promote peace and grace in times of pain and heartache.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Acts 24:22-27

Acts 24:22-27
English Standard Version (ESV)

  When life hands you lemons, right?  Here's Paul, wrongfully imprisoned by his enemies, and yet God is presenting him with opportunities to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of his situation.  Rather than pout or sulk, he recognizes this opportunity and does everything he can to proclaim the love and grace of God, even in the midst of a less than pleasant situation!
  It's hard to think like this -- how is every situation an opportunity to proclaim Christ?  We're so accustomed to life as usual that I think we miss a lot of chances to do so.  How will we pray for the Spirit to open our eyes and hearts today?  How can we share the love of God in all situations, good and bad?  It's hard to set aside our own mess and focus on the opportunity, but that's exactly what Paul does, and it's how we're called to live -- grateful for grace and caught up in the love of God, so full of peace and wonder that we invite others to come, to taste and see that the Lord is good.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Acts 24:10-21

Acts 24:10-21
English Standard Version (ESV)

  There aren't really two halves to the Bible.  It's one story, rooted in what God has done in the Old Testament, where so many promises are made that come to fulfillment in the New Testament.  It's one story, about a God seeking to redeem his people, about a God who loves people without limit and will do whatever it takes to redeem his people.  It starts in darkness, with God hovering over the face of the deep, and it ends in light, with God himself as our light, having fully completed the redemption from sin and death.
  And so Paul reminds those who are listening - he is merely living into the fulfillment of the promises.  He hasn't started something new.  The first Christians didn't see themselves as starting a new religion -- they saw themselves as blessed because they were seeing the fulfillment of the OT promises.  Many of the Jewish leaders were so caught up in history that they stopped paying attention to what God was doing then and there, but Paul was awakened, and so many others were as well, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  So you are a part of an old, old story, and we have the benefit of history, of seeing how God has fulfilled promises.  So let us be a people of hope, living into a new and exciting future where God is on the move, alive and dynamically at work in the world, calling us deeper into the old story, to discover what new things God has in store for us today!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Acts 24:1-9

Acts 24:1-9
English Standard Version (ESV)

  The truth can be an amazing force.  Once it is allowed into the light of day, it can liberate people from all sorts of oppression, but it can also bring structures crashing down.  If a way of life is built upon lies, when the truth finds the light of day, it can destroy the structure and those who depend upon it.  Here, we see the leaders afraid of what Paul has to say.  They're counting on the Romans to squash this rebellious movement, and they'll say and do anything if it means someone else will take care of their problems.  They're not afraid to hide behind a lie, because they believe that will secure their place.
  What they don't realize is how convicting the truth can be.  In the same way, we often hide from God.  We tell God half-truths about our intentions, forgetting that God can see through our actions to our motives.  God sees our hearts, and he knows how flawed we are.
  The beautiful thing about grace is that our true identities is not something God turns from.  No, God sends his Truth to liberate us, to reveal a greater truth -- that God loves us and wants us to be free from sin.  We can hide from it, as the leaders are doing here, in the hopes that it won't disturb our lives, or we can embrace it, allowing it to tear down the unhealthy structures that imprison us and set us free to live in the light of grace and peace and truth and love.  That's our choice -- but once we accept Christ as Savior and King and allow him to rule our lives, it won't be easy -- it might even hurt a little, but the end of the journey of faith is a wondrous place if we are willing to let Christ lead us there.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Acts 23:32-35

Acts 23:32-35
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  Do you notice how everyone is silent in an elevator?  The liveliest conversation can be stopped in its tracks by the closing of elevator doors, as though anything but silence might break the spell and send the elevator crashing down the chute.  I've never quite understood why we universally accept silence on elevator.  Our minds aren't silent -- we're thinking about where we're going and what we'll do when we arrive, what we'll say and what kind of impression we'll make.
  Think of Paul -- there is so much going on around him, constant action swirling around his presence as others prepare for him to be on trial.  Doubtless, he has thought about what he's going to say, how he'll tell his story, what kind of witness he'll be for the Gospel.
  What would you say?  What story would you tell?  What about your life is distinctive due to the claims of the Gospel on you?
  I know that the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say when we need them, and we are to be completely dependent on God for guidance, but we can still reflect on how we will tell the story, on how we will share the love of Christ with those around us.  Sometimes, we'll have hours and days to prepare for such conversations.  Other times, perhaps not.  So let us be wise and be ready, always ready to praise our God and speak of his wondrous deeds.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Acts 23:23-31

Acts 23:23-31
English Standard Version (ESV)

  I bet Paul never thought he would end up here.  For so long, he was a Pharisee, caught up in the church world, passionately defending the church and what he thought to be the truth at the time.  Then God intervened, and suddenly his world became much larger, and his vision was expanded.  His mission became about the whole world, God changed his life and elevated his eyes from the path he had been walking to one that was vastly different from what he thought he understood his mission and purpose was about.
  And so it comes to us.  We get caught up in our lives, and so often our vision shrinks, to the point that we're only focused on the problems before us, just trying to eke by.  What prayer does, I believe, is help reset our vision, so that we're no longer laser focused on our own problems, but we lift our eyes to the world around us, and to God's greater call on our lives.  When we spend enough time in prayer (often decades!), God continues to expand our vision so that we, too, see our mission as much bigger.  Our world expands, and the church in China and Cambodia and in different neighborhoods around town becomes part of our church.  We are connected in Christ, and we are responsible to one another.  What we thought wasn't part of us is now suddenly beloved by us.
  So let us pray for broader vision, and when it comes, may we recognize that it is only by God's hand that we love and serve one another.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Acts 23:12-22

Acts 23:12-22
English Standard Version (ESV)

  I've always found this passage fascinating.  Here are the Jews, afraid of what Paul is teaching, and so they dedicate themselves to his termination.  They refuse to eat or drink until they had killed him (I can't help but wonder what happened after their plot failed.  Did they go back to eating and drinking?  Did they starve or whither away?  I need answers!!).  They were obsessed with eliminating this thorn in their sides, to the distraction of everything else.
  What would have happened if they had dedicated that energy to good?  What if they had focused on loving others and serving the people with all that pent up hatred?  What if they had re-dedicated themselves to engaging in intellectual debates rather than shrinking back in fear?
  We all spend too much energy on wasted things.  We obsess over people we despise.  We plot out the demise of our enemies.  We worry about things beyond our control.  Our mental wheels spin and spin and spin, and we exhaust ourselves thinking about all these things.
  What if we were so focused on loving God and serving our neighbors that we didn't have room left for these things?  What if, whenever our minds drifted towards negative thoughts towards our enemies, we re-directed these towards productive goals, useful goals, thoughts that brought glory to God?  How much more useful to the world could we be?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Acts 23:6-11

Acts 23:6-11
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Sometimes you're caught in the middle of opposing forces.  Here, the Sadduccees and Pharisees are arguing about resurrection, and Paul is in between, his life going back and forth as these groups violently discuss it.
  In today's church, we're often caught between the republicans and democrats.  They are arguing over various topics, and it sometimes feels like the church isn't quite sure how to act in the midst of this environment.
  The key to thriving in such an environment is to remember where our ultimate loyalty and security lies.  Much of the life of the early church was rocked by trial and tribulation because the powers of that day and age wanted to secure themselves against any threat the early church might pose.  Our task is the same today as it was then -- to preach the Gospel in word and deed, to proclaim the love of Christ without concern for ourselves, and to trust that God will lead us to where we are most needed, just as God assures Paul that he will be led to proclaim the Gospel in Rome.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Acts 22:30-23:5

Acts 22:30-23:5
English Standard Version (ESV)

  I can't imagine that I'd fare that well under persecution and arrest. Paul is so confident in his position as saved by grace through faith that it doesn't seem to phase him -- he knows his role and he knows what his future is, and he's determined to live out his days serving Christ, no matter how obstacles are in his way.
  We spend our lives searching for our identities -- we bounce back and forth between being children and employees and parents and friends and neighbors, and each of these roles asks something a little different of us, and we often change shape as we go from role to role  Our faith can become another hat we wear.  What's different for Paul is that faith is the only hat that he wears, the central part of his being, and it defines how he lives in every other part of his life.  He has one identity, and it guides his every word and thought and interaction.  His life is captive to his faith.
  So remember today, I pray, that you are a child of God.  You are destined for eternity.  You are loved and treasured by God.  Be grateful that God came to save you, and was willing to pay any price to do so.  Nothing will change that, and your responsibility today is to accept that grace.  Don't forget that today -- cling to that fact, and see how your day is different.  I bet it will uplift your spirit and help bring you true and lasting joy.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Acts 22:22-29

Acts 22:22-29
English Standard Version (ESV)

  So here is Paul, about to be whipped, when he mentions that he is a Roman citizen, and he is snatched from the peril into which he was about to be cast.  In this case, his identity protects him from suffering in this way.
  In the same way, when we become Christians and accept the love and grace and salvation of Jesus Christ, we are freed from the suffering that comes with the fear of death and sin.  We don't have to fear the power of sin anymore -- it is broken, because our future is decided by Christ, who is stronger than sin and death.  We are joined to the strongest force in the universe, and he has promised to never let us go.  Who can threaten us and bring us fear?  What force can cause us to tremble, when the Lord our God is for us, is with us, and will never leave us?
  May we wisely cling to Christ, trusting that he is stronger than our fears and devoted to our cause.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Acts 22:17-21

Acts 22:17-21
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Sometimes we convince ourselves that our past determines our future.  We think that previous choices have chartered a set course for the future that is inflexible, and we are forever labeled by our history.  I think the devil uses this to his advantage, keeping our heads buried and focused on our mistakes that we are unable to look to the hills, from whence our help comes.
  The beautiful news of a gracious Savior means that once was is no longer -- the sin that lurks in the past no longer has power over us.  In Christ, we take on his perfection before God.  He has atoned for our sins, and we are commissioned into a new identity with a new role -- we who were lost are now charged to tell the story of amazing grace to others.
  And so when those painful memories rear their heads, remember that you have been found in Christ, and your worth in his eyes does not depend on your past, but rather on your identity as a Child of God, rescued by the blood of the lamb and forever free in the abundance of God.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Acts 22:12-16

Acts 22:12-16
English Standard Version (ESV)

  One of the points where many leaders fail today is that they stop asking for help.  At a certain point, they assume independence and break away from the assistance that helped them rise to a certain point in their career.  Wise counsel no longer reaches their ears, and as a result they often make critical mistakes that might have been otherwise avoided.
  Paul is reminded that leadership isn't an independent task.  Ananias, who I don't think receives enough credit for his willingness to go and serve a man who might otherwise have threatened his life, serves Paul and enables him to receive his sight, which he had lost on the journey.  Ananias opened his eyes, but he also sends him out with a charge and a blessing -- to go and be baptized, trusting in the God who has called him and sends him out.  Ananias serves Paul and reminds him of his need for repentance in Christ Jesus.
  May we lovingly remind one another of how deeply we depend on Jesus, may we never be afraid to serve one anther, and may we also willingly accept the service of others.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Acts 22:6-11

Acts 22:6-11
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Some things are for you and for you alone.
  It must have been humbling for Paul -- here he was, surrounded by his fellow travelers, many of whom held him in high esteem as intelligent and passionate.  He was seen as a leader, and suddenly he is on the ground, blinded by an unseen light and talking to an unseen voice.  The voice of God speaks, but only Paul can hear it.
  God speaks to us as individuals as well.  Some things aren't meant for the whole world -- they are meant to quiet your soul, to assure your faith, to support your life.  Jesus reaches out to us as individuals because that's how he loves us -- individually, passionately.
  So just as Mary treasured the words of the angel, treasure the moments when God reaches out to you, but don't be afraid to reach for the hands of those around you as well.  There are times we will be so overcome by what God has in store for us that we need the support of the community to move forward.  They may not understand exactly what we are going through, but they can help us forward nonetheless.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Acts 22:1-5

Acts 22:1-5
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Humans have an amazing capacity for self-delusion.  Think about it -- we exist for a glimpse in the billions of years of history, and we live on a rocky outpost of a solar system that's one of many in our galaxy, which is one of how many galaxies in the universe.  We're pretty small, and yet manage to convince ourselves that we are in control, that we know what's going to happen from one  moment to the next.  We forget our position quite often.
  It's obviously important that we don't spend all of our time and thought thinking of how small we are, for if we did we'd be paralyzed by anxiety at the thought of it all, but it's also important to remember our position.  We exist by God's great grace, and it is only through his mercy and love that we are given the gift of life.  God calls us into existence, and our lives unfold through the will of God.  We have choices that impact our lives, but we cannot control the future.  It is in God's hands.  We convince ourselves that we are in charge, but we aren't.
  It's amazing to think of Paul, setting out for Jerusalem, thinking that he knew exactly how things would go, just as I set out for my day, thinking I will know how things will go.  Sometimes I am right.  Often times, I am reminded of how little I know and control.
  So we entrust ourselves to God, remembering that he is merciful and faithful and loving and kind, and because he has proven himself to be so, time and time again, we can rest easy, assured that we are held in his eternal love.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Acts 21:37-40

Acts 21:37-40
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  So what do you say?  You're up in front of the people and you're given one chance to speak.  You don't know if/when you'll ever get a chance like this again (No pressure, right?).  What do you say?
  My gut instinct is to come up with something that will really impress people -- to capture the spirit of Paul and knock their socks off with some high-sounding oratory.  We all want to be eloquent, and it seems like if we can just say the right thing, then people will be won over.
  But I think the wisest thing we can do, when presented with an opportunity, is to be honest and tell our story -- to tell what God has done for us.  It may not feel like the most impressive story to tell, but the honest reflection of what God has done in your life comes off as honest, as believable, and it communicates the eternal truth that each and every one of us matters to God.
  Tell your own story.  Give space for other people to tell their stories.  When we are honest about the things God has done for us, we allow others to see and hear what God is doing in ordinary lives.  Sometimes, we feel like our own story isn't dramatic, but take a step back -- the eternal God of the universe, the One who carved the mountains from the sea and set the stars in the sky, cares enough about us to redeem each and every one of us by name from the powers of sin and death.  Tell that story -- tell the story about how and why that matters to you.  That's a great story, and it needs to be heard!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Acts 21:27-36

Acts 21:27-36
English Standard Version (ESV)

  We see here that there often isn't room for nuanced debate in the midst of a passionate crowd.  Paul didn't have the chance to explain why the crowd was wrong and that he was teaching the fulfillment of the Law -- he's lucky to have escaped with his life!
  We have to remember that the forward movement of the Gospel isn't dependent on us coming up with the perfect words to win over an individual or a crowd.  It's dependent upon God.  Paul could have considered himself a failure because of this escapade, but instead he trusted that God would lead him forward.  A failure like this didn't crush his confidence, because his confidence wasn't rooted in his ability, but rather in God's.  He was willing to trust that God would continue to lead him and use him, and the opposition wasn't directed at Paul, but at the truth of the Gospel message that many were resistant to.  Paul didn't take it personally, but continued to focus on Christ.
  So let us not lose heart and feel discouraged -- the Gospel is bigger than us, and resistance to the Gospel isn't necessarily directed at us or our words.  When things go terribly wrong, as they sometimes will, may we remember that God is a God of new beginnings, of resurrections, and that the most terrible day of all became the first Easter Sunday.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Acts 21:17-26

Acts 21:17-26
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Think of all the things you talk about on a given day.  Many of these may be logistical details about when and where and how.  You probably have many surface-level conversations with colleagues and acquaintances.  You may have deeper conversations with closer friends, and I hope there are people in your life with whom you can discuss your deepest fears and your most closely-held hopes.
  As the people of God, we should be ready to talk about what God is doing in our own lives and in the community.  Of course, this means that we need to pray for Holy Spirit-led hearts to see things through the lens of what God is doing, and then it means we need to talk about these things.  We need to share the news, that others may hear and glorify God, just as the church in Jerusalem does when they hear Paul's report.
  One good practice for us is to ensure we are receiving news from international and evangelistic mission bodies.  These groups are on the front line of sharing the Gospel, and their stories of transformation will encourage us and lead us to glorify God.  My personal favorite is the Outreach Foundation, but there are countless organizations that offer stories of encouragement.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Acts 21:7-16

Acts 21:7-16
English Standard Version (ESV)

  It's a different worldview that allows Paul to believe this way.  Paul is so deeply committed to the central truth of the Gospel -- that real life is in Christ alone, and that any price the world exacts for pursuing this life is a trifle compared to the eternal peace and joy that we find in Christ is worth paying a thousand times over.  Paul has seen both sides -- he has pursued status in the world and has seen where that leads, and he has pursued Christ and recognized the abundant life that is available only there.  He has made his choice, and nothing in the world will make him go back.
  I am certainly no Paul, and not many of us are.  We are caught up in the world and our lives and countless distractions, some worthy of our time and others less so.  We have probably not experienced the voice of God calling us on our own road to Damascus, and we have experienced a very different church than the one Paul did.
  But we are confronted with the same choice -- will we pursue life in Christ at any cost, or will we not?  It's not that simple, but in a way it is an easier choice than we often make it out to be.  The benefits offered to us are the same offered to Paul, and so is the price -- it is a free gift, but to pursue it costs something, and we are often reluctant to give up anything in order to follow Christ.
  And so today, I think the challenge for us in our lives of prayer is to seek what the next step is -- how do we go deeper?  How do we eliminate the distractions and single-mindedly follow Christ, wherever that may lead?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Acts 21:1-6

Acts 21:1-6
English Standard Version (ESV)

  We live in very transient times.  If you decided this morning to travel to Europe, you could reasonably expect to be there within 24 hours, no matter where on the earth you were, assuming you had a credit card with a generous limit and some flexibility.  Also, there wouldn't be a lot of uncertainty about your travels -- you can post pictures of your adventures to social media from Venice just as easily as you can from Venice Beach, and we can track your progress (with jealousy, most likely!) as you leapfrog from Venice to Milan to Rome and back.  The likelihood of calamity is rare, and most troubles encountered while traveling can be easily surmounted.
  Obviously, life was a little different in Paul's time.  Travel wasn't easy or quick or as reliable, and news certainly traveled much less frequently.  Paul's status updates might take months or years, and he wasn't constantly checking with the nearest courier to see how many likes his latest update received.
  There is something grand that is lost in all of our progress.  We aren't as emotionally tied in to one another.  We're accustomed to various comings and goings, and we're often so wrapped up in our own little corner of the world that we tend to forget about whomever has left until they're back.
  So what does it look like for us to invest ourselves in the lives of another, to pray with them on the beach and entrust them to God, not knowing what to expect in the future?  That's a hard thing to translate, but there's something beautiful about the idea of blessing one another as we go out.  In doing so, we both offer our best wishes and entrust one another to the hands of God, where we all reside anyway.  Also, in blessing another, we are praying for a fruitfulness upon their arrival -- it's more than just wishes for a safe journey, but a hope that their journey will be filled with abundance, and their arrival will be the beginning of something new, no matter what it may be.
  So may we intertwine ourselves in the lives of our faith community, to the point that we are truly paying attention to the journeys we are taking, that we might not be so wrapped up in our own that we forget what the others are doing.  May we journey together, hand in hand, praying blessings upon the footsteps of others.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Acts 20:28-37

Acts 20:28-37
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  In this day and age, I think this is a helpful passage.  We are reminded that Christianity has never been, and is not intended to be, easy.  The church of God was obtained through the blood of Christ.  Here, the listeners are warned of fierce wolves that will attack the flock, and others will come to deceive the flock.  There is much danger that abounds, and there is still danger for the church.  While in the West, we may not face the physical threats that many in the early church did, there is still much that threatens to pull us away from the church, forces that vie for our attention and our hearts, and if we are not careful we will fall away from the Gospel and seek other, lessor gods.
  So Paul notes this danger, but he doesn't linger on it or use it as motivation.  He tells them to be alert, but no more.  It is a danger and it is real, but let it not keep us from doing the work of the church.
  It is to this that Paul turns with his final words.  We are charged to work hard and remember the weak, to give rather than build up.
  There are many threats, and there always will be.  The church will persist.  At some points, it may appear as though the future of the church is in jeopardy.  It is not.  When time concludes and the universe is folded up, only the church will remain.  So let us not be a people defined by fear, but rather by hope, by hard work and by service, that others may be invited in to the joy and boldness of the Gospel.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Acts 20:17-27

Acts 20:17-27
English Standard Version (ESV)

  In business school, we talked a lot about adding value.  Some people add value to conversations by being in them, some companies add value to your experience by the way they approach their field.  In marketing, its vital to communicate the value of a certain product or brand, and when it comes to data you're trying to distill what the real value is among all the noise.
  When Paul is talking about his approach, he looks at everything through the lens of communicating the Gospel.  He says that the only value he wants to bring to life and his relationships is the value of Christ, and that if he's not communicating Christ, then he doesn't add any value and all is lost.
  Think about that for a second -- strip away everything in your life that isn't done with the sole end of bringing glory to God and communicating the love of Christ to loved ones, friends, strangers and enemies.
  It's a challenging exercise, but a good one, I think, because it forces me to think about what I do and why I do it.  I operate mindlessly often, staying in a routine or getting things done simply because they need to be done.  I often lose sight of what truly matters, and here Paul is reminding us that what truly matters is all that truly matters -- if he's not doing it for the sake of the Gospel, then he doesn't want to be doing it.
  Paul's worldview is rooted in the deep waters of discipleship, and it takes a long time to get there.  This doesn't happen overnight, and it certainly doesn't happen without the leadership of the Holy Spirit  So be bold and courageous in pursuing a deeper relationship with Christ, that all else may be stripped away and his love is all that is left, sustaining you and leading you to love and serve others.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Acts 20:7-16

Acts 20:7-16
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  We're a pretty scheduled people.  I'm guessing that I'm not the only one who has a calendar that runs my life, framing up how I'm going to spend my days, allocating blocks of time to this project or that interest.  Some things, I'm just checking off the list to move forward, while others I will linger over for a little while longer.  What I love is when something catches my interest so deeply that it runs over its allocated time slot, and I find myself wrapped up in it, barely noticing as the hours slide by.
  When you think about your relationship with God, what kind of place does it hold for you?  Is it something that you give some time to every day, doing your duty and then moving on, able to check that box? Perhaps it's not even on your daily schedule, but maybe you just set some time aside for God each Sunday and then move on to other things.  Or do you find yourself getting lost in God, unable to confine your passion for God by a time slot, as you find yourself lost in wonder and praise, wrapped up in the mystery and love of God?  That's the kind of relationship I long for.  I don't have it, but I'd love to sit in worship of God and stay there beyond an hour or two, caught up in love for the One who came to save me before I even knew I needed saving!
 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Acts 20:1-6

Acts 20:1-6
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Over and over again, there are highlights of the Biblical journeys that sum up what the disciples were doing by describing their actions as showing up to encourage others.  I'm sure they were busy doing other things as well, but they spent a lot of time encouraging one another.
  Rightly or not, the modern world often pictures the church as a group of people opposed to lots of things.  The church doesn't always deserve this label, but we sometimes get very caught up in what other people shouldn't be doing.  Now, I'm not at all saying that there isn't a time and place for the church to name sin and to define things as dishonoring God and damaging our relationship with Him.  What I am saying is that the vast majority of our lives should be spent encouraging one another, our friends and neighbors, and our enemies, in love.  We should be so busy encouraging, with our words and our deeds, that other people give thanks for our presence in their lives, because we're reaching out to lift people up.  Even our admonishments of one another can be encouraging, if done in love.
  We forget to encourage one another, or we just take it for granted, and so we often end up skipping it, thinking that maybe it's frivolous or a waste of time.  I promise, it's not --thousands of years later, we still have tales of how Paul and others stopped to encourage other Christians on their walk with Christ.  May we endeavor to serve with the same love.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Acts 19:35-41

Acts 19:35-41
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  When we go out into the world, I think we find an important lesson here.  Paul didn't rush into Ephesus eager to tear down society, eager to condemn and berate the people for the way that they were living.  Paul instead showed up and tried to open the people's eyes to the presence of God that was already around them -- he didn't want them to turn their backs on everything they knew, rather to open their hearts to the presence of the Holy Spirit that was already calling out to them.
  When we rush in and condemn and tear down, people are defensive, rightfully so.  When we instead rush in and are quick to love, offering forgiveness and hope, there is a different reaction, I believe, one of curiosity that allows for trust to be built.
  This doesn't mean we have to shrink back from naming evil.  What it simply means is that we are called to do so with grace and humility, unafraid to put forth our own weaknesses and willing to trust that God can use broken vessels as ourselves to proclaim a message of love and hope.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Acts 19:28-34

Acts 19:28-34
English Standard Version (ESV)

  It's fascinating to read this tale from 2,000 years ago and realize how little has changed.  Today's culture is filled with people who rush to conclusions by reading the headlines, who storm into arguments and debates without first coming to a full understanding of the issue.  We speak and live in soundbytes, hoping for something to go viral without worrying about context.  As a society, we are often a mile wide and an inch deep.
  This is why I appreciate Tim Keller's preaching so deeply.  He tackles the biggest issues of the day, and he does so with great intellectual depth.  His preaching is robust and unafraid, but it is also informed -- primarily by Scripture, but also by culture.
  In my mind, there are two ways to win an argument.  The first is to rush in head first, gathering a crowd and a head of steam and overwhelming the opponent by brute force.  This seems to be the preferred method in today's social media landscape.  The second is perform deep analysis of both sides of an issue, grasping the nuances and then entering into a two-sided conversation with humility and boldness.
  When we speak of faith, when we tell the story of Christ, when we invite our friends and neighbors into discipleship, it is my hope that we would do with humility, having a deep knowledge of Scripture and an awareness of how it intersects with the lives of our loved ones and colleagues, that we may speak with hearts immersed in the love of God and the condition of the world, that our witness may be informed and authentic, and that our neighbors may see us as willing to lay down our lives in love rather than overtake them by force.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Acts 19:23-27

Acts 19:23-27
English Standard Version (ESV)

  It's easy to be a follower without a cost.  That's why I find the numbers of people who sign online petitions somewhat misleading -- people talk about how many people have signed such-and-such petition at various petition websites, but it doesn't cost them anything.  You don't have to give up much to sign that petition -- you just click a few buttons and you've signed it.  There's no cost, no follow-up, no commitment to anything.  What if they charged you $1 to sign it?  What about $5?  Then we'd only sign the petitions we really cared about, right?
  Here, Demetrius the silversmith gets upset when the disciples come along and threaten his business model.  He makes shrines of Artemis, and when the worship of Artemis is threatened, he comes to her defense.  He dresses it up as though he's defending Artemis, but it's really about his business -- he's worried about his bottom line.
  So what we have to decide is straightforward.  How committed are we to the cross of Christ, and when it starts to cost us, how much are we willing to pay?  When we look at what Christ sacrificed for us, are we willing to be selfless, to bear any price, to pour ourselves out?
  Or when discipleship starts to cost something, will we shrink back?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Acts 19:11-22

Acts 19:11-22
New International Version (NIV)

  If God was still active in this way, would you live differently?  If you heard a modern telling of aprons touched by disciples curing the sick, would you make different choices?  Spend more time in prayer?  If you heard of sorcerers voluntarily throwing away their manuscripts, might you offer up more of your own treasure to the service of God?
  It's tempting to tell ourselves that we're waiting on God, that we'll act when God makes it clear what we should do.  In doing so, however, we train our hearts in a certain way -- we train ourselves to always be waiting, never acting.  At a certain point, we stop looking for the evidence, and we tell ourselves that we're just waiting on God.
  God is already on the move.  In Jesus Christ, God reached out to you before you could even think to ask for a Savior.  God offered forgiveness before you realized you needed it.  God moved, and then our call is to respond.  If we simply wait for some definitive moment before pouring ourselves into the deep waters of discipleship, we train ourselves to passively wait and never to act.  So let us seek God first, actively pursuing his will for our lives, reaching out in love and service, trusting that God will guide us and reveal his will to us as we go.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Sapiens

  Well, I finally did it.  I had a book end up being overdue at the library.  It's been a long time, and I feel a bit guilty because I knew it was going to be overdue but I couldn't bring myself to turn it in, knowing that I had already started reading it.  Besides, if over 3,200 people have already reviewed it on Amazon, then I had to read it, right?
  I read Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari's tale about how and why Homo Sapiens  ended up as the dominant species rather than neaderthals or wombats or any other option.  It's a fascinating journey through our common history -- it's easy to forget that humans have only been around for the blink of an eye when compared to the history of life on this planet.  We obviously can't imagine life without us, but Mother Nature did just fine for billions of years before we showed up and started using dinosaur remains to fuel our cars.

  There's two theories that Harari puts forth that I think are worth mentioning.  The first is his theory on why Homo Sapiens evolved into the dominant species.  He posits that it is our ability to imagine things that do not exist in the material world.  While a monkey can talk about a nearby tree that is loaded with fruit or a lion on the prowl, we have the ability to talk about things that do not exist in real life, such as an idea or corporation or religion.  You can't see or touch God, but we can tell stories and share a common belief in God, despite not being able to see him.  Harari suggests that this ability allowed for humans to act for a common cause in a way other species couldn't do so.
  As a pastor and a Christian, I have a strong belief that humanity exists because we were created in the image of God.  Harari disagrees, seeing no truth behind any of the meta-narratives that bind us together.  He sees them as merely collective acts of imagination that have been harnessed by cultures to unify humanity.  I see our collective grasping of religion as evidence that we were made by a power greater than us, designed with a hunger for God as part of the hard-wired system, and that the beauty of the earth points to the one who designed the earth out of creativity and love.

  The second theory that I think is worth mentioning in a brief review is that Harari talks about wheat domesticating humans.  When we were foragers in the woods and another tribe threatened us, we could simply move about and continue to live off the abundance of the land.  However, wheat demands time and attention.  It demands a commitment to the land, and once you've made that commitment, you have to work the land, and you have to defend the land, so you develop societies and armies and industry to cultivate wheat.  Before long, you are enslaved to the seasonal cycles and thinking about wheat all the time -- how to grow more and store more and make it through the winter.  You no longer own the wheat -- it owns you.
  I think this is fascinating because God warns us about the power of material things to enslave us.  If we're not on guard, the things we think we own, they end up owning us.  We don't have freedom any more because we're trapped by stuff.   We have to maintain a certain lifestyle to support our stuff, and we forget that we made a choice to have all this stuff -- it becomes our life.  We work ourselves to the bone so that we can continue to own all these things that are owning us, all the while forgetting that it doesn't have to be this way.  Our things, and the maintenance of them, shouldn't rule our lives.

  It's a great book, and it will certainly make you think, which is reason enough to read it.  I don't agree with all of the conclusions, but am better for having considered them.

Acts 19:1-10

Acts 19:1-10
English Standard Version (ESV)

  In the age of social media scandal and outrage and the general lack of human decency we see at every level of society, there is a story that ought to be the lead in every major news channel out there.  An umpire was walking to a baseball game in Pittsburgh and noticed a woman in despair climb over the railing of a bridge, about to cast herself into the murky depths below.  He rushed over and held her, refusing to let go, refusing to allow her to fall to the fate she thought she wanted.  When she told him that he would forget her, he said he'll never forget her.
  This is the Gospel, wrapped up in real life.  When we pursue what we think we want, unaware of the true cost of our actions, God rushes to us, holding on so tightly that we cannot break free from his love, and he whispers words of love and assurance into the depths our hearts when we are breaking in despair.  This is the Gospel, that when hope is about to disappear into the murky depths, God appears from on high and radiates life back into our bones.  This is the Gospel, that people are called to act out the selfless love of God in one another's lives, rather than just sit back and watch as society, as lives, crumble into the dust that surrounds us.
  I don't know that I've heard a better true story than one of man refusing to let go of a stranger who simply wanted to resign herself to despair.  When her hope had run out, he was willing to share his.
  Friends, this is how God loves you.  He never lets go, he never gives up, and there is hope beneath the pain.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Acts 18:24-28

Acts 18:24-28
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Let's all be honest  -- at one point in our lives, we've been the person spouting off facts that we have later discovered weren't exactly true.  We had heard something somewhere and hadn't bothered to check into it, and it turns out that our source either wasn't reliable or we didn't hear it correctly, and if we're lucky it wasn't that embarrassing and no one was listening to us anyway.
  While we really don't want to be spouting fake news, it takes a special kind of courage and wisdom to play the role that Priscilla and Aquila play in this story.  They confront Apollos -- but not in an effort to make a fool out of him, like some might do, but rather to redirect him towards the truth.  They reach out in love to encourage and correct, in the hopes that his enthusiasm might not be dashed but his information will be correct.  What an amazing gift they have given him, and he uses this wisely -- to continue to show that Jesus is the Messiah.  Priscilla and Aquila deliver the message in such a caring way that he carries on with his goal, encouraged by the love that was shown to him.
  So the next time you come across someone who doesn't have their facts straight, consider your approach.  In the social media age, it's tempting to try and score points by embarrassing someone else and making them look bad.  To follow the example here, though, means encouraging someone and potentially sending them down a road that will lead others to be transformed.  Which is the better path?