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?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Acts 18:18-23

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

  What's your plan for the next five years?  What about next year?  Next month?  How about tomorrow?
  We all make plans.  We make plans about where we'll vacation and when we'll see people and what our careers will look like and where the kids will graduate and what retirement will look like.  We make plans based on what we know to be true and what we hope to be true.  Sometimes they are plans, sometimes they are dreams, usually they are a combination of both.  We make plans and we save for the plans.
  Throughout Scripture, God gently reminds us not to get too wrapped up in our plans.  God's will doesn't always align with our plans.  Sometimes we are called in different directions.  Sometimes, life happens and things just don't work out like we had planned.  Sometimes that's for the best.  Sometimes... not.
  The warning for us is not to get so wrapped up in our plans that we forget what we depend on.  We live and move and have our being in the hands of God.  We live for his glory, not for our plans.  We must not hold our plans too tightly, for if we have to abandon them, God is still with us, still in our midst.  When plans don't work out, we shouldn't blame God for that -- we should remember that our plans are just plans, and that in the midst of whatever life throws our way, we will trust God's will and look for the hope and peace he brings to every situation.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Acts18:12-17

Acts 18:12-17
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Supreme Court rulings are interesting to me -- so much depends on how 9 people are interpreting a case.  People gather around the court and wait to see if something will be allowed or not.  Their rulings truly echo through generations, as they either enable or ban certain activities.
  As Christians, we're called to be good citizens, but we aren't called to sit around and wait for us to receive permission from others to share our faith.  Just imagine if Paul and the apostles had gone through all the proper diplomatic channels to begin telling the story of faith.  They could have followed the approval channel up through the proper delegates before hopefully having a hearing in Rome to get the blessing of the right people.  All along the way, the opposition could have tried to derail the movement.
  Instead, Paul and the apostles went forth and proclaimed the Gospel, overcoming hurdles as they appeared.  They were dragged to court and arrested and persecuted, but all along they followed their conviction and proclaimed the Gospel in love.  They were not violent or cruel - they took whatever was handed out, always focusing on the Gospel, not allowing themselves to be distracted.
  So let us not wait for the time when all is right.  Instead, may we follow the call of the Gospel to spread the love of God in word and deed in all we do.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Acts 18:1-11

Acts 18:1-11
English Standard Version (ESV)

  How persistent are you?
  Here's Paul, who travels the known world proclaiming the Gospel, hated and reviled at most stops, occasionally thrown in jail.  He has his life threatened, and yet time after time he returns to preaching the Gospel.  It's not something he does when he can -- it's part of who he is.  His identity is wrapped up in what Jesus Christ has done for him, and he can't not talk about it.  He's compelled to engage in debate, even when it leads him to dangerous places, because he believes this is a message that the entire world needs to hear.
  And so he keeps going back, unafraid to risk his life, because his life is caught up in what God is doing.  When he is opposed and reviled here, he went elsewhere, but he continued to preach the Gospel, continued to invite others to experience the grace and love of Jesus Christ.  And when opportunities presented themselves, he stayed -- for 18 months here! -- and preached the Good News, teaching and preaching and showing and loving, so that all may know the Gospel.
  So we, too, are invited to live within the Gospel, to show up day after day and look for how God is at work, watching and waiting to see what God has in store for us, loving our friends and neighbors and enemies, telling others of how good God is.  You're part of the story.  When opposition arises, how will you respond?  Will you look for other avenues, continuing to show up?  Will you search for those who haven't heard?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Acts 17:22-34

Acts 17:22-34
English Standard Version (ESV)

  The Cincinnati Bengals, it would seem, are wired to lose playoff games.  It's a yearly tradition, if they're fortunate enough to even make it to the playoffs.  Their identity, at this point, seems shaped by their failure on the big stage.
  Some people are wired to be happy.  No matter what, they look at the world through a positive lens, always upbeat no matter how fiercely the storms of life may rage.  Some companies seem wired to be great places to work, while others might be less so.
  Humans, Paul is saying, are wired to worship God.  There is something inside of us that recognizes that we are not our own Creator, that there is a greater force at work in the universe, that we are loved beyond measure by a God who intends for us to live an abundant and gracious life.  The world is not as it should be, and there is a God at work to restore things to the way they should be.
  We don't always get the worship of God right.  I'd go so far as to say we rarely do, but prophets and preachers alike do their part to redirect our worship away from false gods and back to the one true God.  We go to church and read the Bible and gather together in an attempt to direct our hearts to worship God and our lives to rejoice in the Savior who loves us more than we can ever ask or imagine.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Acts 17:16-21

Acts 17:16-21
English Standard Version (ESV)

  It's so easy to shrink back from conflicting ideas.  You can close a browsing window or just walk away from a person now.  Or, there is the preferred method of making disparaging comments and discarding their entire argument simply because it makes you uncomfortable.  We see this a lot in both political parties -- we use labels to shut down debate.
  Here, 2,000 years ago, they did that as well.  But some people weren't afraid to engage -- they brought Paul in and wished to know more.  They asked tough questions in order to find the truth.  They listened, they shared, and they were changed through the experience.
  One of the things I love most about Christianity is how robust it is.  It has been intellectually challenged for thousands of years.  People have been poking it, prodding it, exposing every weakness and trying to find a fatal flaw.  At its best, Christianity doesn't back down from these challenges, but engages them, willing to listen and be examined because of our confidence -- not in ourselves, but in our Creator and Savior.  We are willing to allow people to ask big questions because we trust that what we believe is true, and we believe that the questions will only make us more amazed at the depth and love of God.
  So let us not shrink back from examination, or be afraid of questions, and even opposition.  For centuries people have been trying to disprove God.  The Gospels are the most examined pieces of literature in human history.  We can engage in debate and conversation, because we trust in the Truth of the message and the One who delivers it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Acts 17:10-15

Acts 17:10-15
English Standard Version (ESV) 

  The Word spreads throughout the known world.  3,000 years ago, who would have predicted that the Gospel could spread as it did, like wildfire across the prairie, racing around the known world through the passionate proclamation of the apostles and disciples?  It's a miracle to think of how the Gospel spread from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond.  The Holy Spirit was using ordinary people to deliver an extraordinary message to a vast audience.
  Fast forward to today, and the cacophony of the world is deafening to a message of humility and servitude.  The Gospel calls us to selflessness in the face of a world that preaches the gospel of self.  We are called to lay ourselves down in a world where we build monuments to ourselves through our social media platforms.
  But just as there was fertile soil then through the work of the Holy Spirit, God is still alive and on the move today.  God is calling people to live out the Gospel, to proclaim the love of God, and to share the message of grace and peace with all the world.  It's not an easy call, but we are all part of how God is calling us to live -- as missionaries in the world, caught up in God's work, focused on others before we focus on ourselves.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Acts 17:1-9

Acts 17:1-9
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Do you read the comments on links of news stories people post to Facebook?  I will admit to occasionally doing so, and the one thing that stands out, more than any other, is that most of the people commenting don't actually bother to read the articles.  They read the headline and get the general gist of the story, assuming they know everything else they need to know.  Their argument is formed from the headline.
  Now, a good headline writer can capture the general sense of the article, but no one can grasp the nuance and complications of real-life stories just by reading the headlines.  That takes an investment of time, but in our over-busy and headline-driven world, we don't really bother to do more than read the headlines, even if we have time or interest.  We just assume we have a full understanding of the situation.
  So when I read that Paul spent three days reasoning with the good people in Thessalonica, I'm a bit amazed.  It reminds me a bit of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where they would debate for hours with a huge crowd gathered.  They would take a break, everyone would go home and eat dinner, then they would come back (!) for more hours of debate.  People wanted to know the detail and nuance.
  If we're going to grasp the entirely of the Christian story, the truth of God's love and come to a full understanding of what the Gospel means for us, we can't just invest in soundbites.  We can't settle for only a verse of the day or an inspirational snippet -- we have to invest our time, our energy, into growing closer to God.  We have to be interested enough in what God has to say to us that we put ourselves in a position to listen to what God has to say, and it may take days, weeks, month, years.  Spiritual development is a serious investment, and if we expect instant results after a headlines' worth of time, we'll be inevitably disappointed.
  The people of Thessalonica heard enough to be interested, but they kept coming back for more, until they had the full story.
  Will we keep coming back, day after day, to be fed by the Spirit and nourished by grace?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Acts 16:35-40

Acts 16:35-40
English Standard Version (ESV)

  I will freely admit that I don't know what things will look like at the end of the world.  The book of Revelation provides some clarity on these things, but there's still a lot we don't know, so we trust in God that things will work out according to his promises.
  What we do know is that good will definitively triumph over evil.  God will win the day, and at the end, evil will recognize its peril.  Those who are devoted to evil will have the scales fall from their eyes and see how they have missed the truth and glory of God.  They will recognize that they have been opposing the truth, and there will be sorrow and lamenting.
  Here in Acts, Paul refuses to leave without an apology.  He has been wrongfully imprisoned, and he demands an apology.  At the end of the day, those in power recognize their mistake and apologize out of fear.
  It is a healthy reminder that the Word of God will always progress, will always move forward.  Nothing can oppose God's Word.  At the end of the day, those opposing God will be defeated.  It is our responsibility, as Christians, to ensure that the Word of God is proclaimed in all we do, that the Gospel might be shared as widely as possible, so that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Acts 16:29-34

Acts 16:29-34
English Standard Version (ESV)

    If you're in a position of power, you're not used to serving others.  The way the modern world works, the world bends to serve the rich and powerful.  There are typically legions of servants ready to tend to every want and need of those who are privileged with power.  It's interesting to see how much infrastructure rotates around those with means.
  So watch the jailer.  He is a man in power, and he is accustomed to having prisoners in his power.  And yet, as soon as he accepts the Lord Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, what happens?  He is washing the wounds of his prisoners, serving others who would have previously been beneath him.
  When we accept Christ as King, we take on his attitude of service.  There is no longer anyone beneath us, but all around us are worthy to be served by us, no matter what.  We can wash their wounds and set food before them.  We can seek ways to serve anyone and everyone, because that is what Christ did -- he died on the cross to serve those who loved him and those who hated him, and everyone in between.
  No one was too lowly for Christ to serve.  May the same heart and mind guide our words and actions.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Acts 16:25-34

Acts 16:25-28
English Standard Version (ESV)

  We read these stories quite a bit, and we're always amazed at the incredible things God can do, but we tend to skip over an important step -- Paul and Silas were busy praying.  There they were, in jail together, and they put their time to use praying and singing hymns.  They could have been arguing that they were wrongfully imprisoned or looking for an escape, but they instead opt to worship God.
  Now, contrast this to today's world.  What does everyone do while they wait?  Go into any bank, or airport, or any place where people routinely are waiting, and we're all staring at our phones.  I'm not sure I could say exactly what we're all doing, but it's highly likely that we're not spending that time in prayer.
  Think about how you wait.  Do you think of idle moments as opportunities to pray?  When you're waiting, do you seek ways to spend that time with God?  Or do you let idle distractions fill your time?  I know which end of the spectrum I often land on!
  It's about paying attention and looking for opportunities to pray and worship.  It's letting God shape our hearts so that we get excited about these chances, these little windows of time where we can open ourselves to God.  It's hard... but slowly it will shape our character into the kind of person who seeks God at all times, and reacts to life through prayer and worship.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Acts 16:16-24

Acts 16:16-24
New International Version (NIV)

  In the midst of transition, you always wonder how things are going to settle in.  You're often curious how much change there is going to be, and what that means.  You wonder if life will be the same, and if it changes, will it be better, or could it be worse?  For many of us, myself included, we tend to orient ourselves around fear -- when we see change, we immediately become afraid.  We wonder what we might lose.  There is a general sense of anxiety, where it feels as if we're tenuously holding onto what we have and afraid that our hands might slip and we might slide into some unknown and uncomfortable new way of life.
  As Christians, God calls us to give the entirety of our allegiance to Christ.  When we do, nothing is the same -- the landscape of our lives are inexorably changed, and we see everything through a lens of grace and selflessness.  It's a hard adjustment -- being willing to die to ourselves daily isn't a natural sensation, and there is much that could cause us to be afraid.
  Fortunately, Christ assures us through the promises of Scripture that the unknown to us is better than what we know.  He promises us abundant life, defined by peace through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  When we let go of what we have been holding onto, we will slide into the arms of Christ, and he will not lose those who have been entrusted to him.
  Here in Acts, the owners of the slave react in fear and anger, for they have lost what was profitable.  They do not recognize the freedom and wonder that has been granted, and they don't want to be amazed at the power of God.  They focus their eyes on what has been lost.
  May we have the wisdom to focus on what we gain in Christ -- eternal life, peace with God, unbounded joy.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Acts 16:11-15

Acts 16:11-15
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Lydia is an interesting model of discipleship.  Here she is, financially successful and a worshiper of God.  She's doing well.
  And yet, God has a next step for her.  She may be comfortable, thinking that she has it all figured out, but God intervenes through Paul's preaching and calls her to another level of discipleship.  She's called deeper into community, deeper into faith, called to give even more of herself to the church.
  If you go hiking, you're always grateful to get to a level spot after a tough uphill section.  You appreciate the chance to rest your weary legs.  But to give up then, staying at the plateau, means missing out on the views from the mountaintop.
  In the same way, our walk of discipleship often calls us to ascend touch climbs, pouring ourselves into our walk with Christ as we go deeper and deeper.  God is always calling us forward, not to wear us out, but because he wants to invite us into the abundant life.  God calls us deeper for our own good, and he wants us to join him at the mountaintop, to join in the beautiful community of the Trinity.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Acts 16:6-10

Acts 16:6-10
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Sometimes you believe things are going to work out and they just don't.  Everything seems like it is lined up and you believe you're doing the right thing, but for one reason or another it just doesn't work out.
  Here, the Holy Spirit seems to be preventing evangelism in Asia.  It doesn't seem like that would be the case -- why would the Holy Spirit prevent evangelism anywhere?  From our perspective, it's hard to wrap our minds around this.
  It's a humbling thing, admitting that our minds and understanding are limited by our perspective.  God sees from a different perspective, but we so want to understand, to wrap our minds around God, but to do so would mean that we could comprehend the fullness of God, and we aren't meant to do so.  In Christ, we see the fullness of God, his love and mercy, and we get a glimpse into the riches of heaven, but until we pass through the veil of death and into eternal life, we can never fully understand, as we are limited.
  So may we accept the leadership of the Holy Spirit, trusting in the wisdom of God.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Acts 16:1-5

Acts 16:1-5
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Here's Timothy, living a life of integrity, probably never imagining that he would be read about thousands of years in the future, never dreaming that a book of the Bible would be named after him, let alone two.  Timothy probably had no idea what God had in store for him - but lived in such a way that others spoke well of him, and eventually he rose to a position of prominence in the church, influencing others to serve Christ.
  Most of us lead ordinary lives.  We aren't famous, we aren't renowned, we aren't well-known.  But if we lead lives of integrity, God can and will use us to influence others.  We may not get books of the Bible named after us, but we can set an example and be an encouragement.  We may not be as well known as Timothy, but we may point someone else to Christ, and if we can have an eternal impact on the lives of other people, what more could we ask for?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Acts 15:36-41

Acts 15:36-41
English Standard Version (ESV)

  There is sometimes the perception that everyone in the church gets along peaceably.  The problem this creates is that if someone thinks everyone in the church gets along, they are let down when they actually enter the church and discover that people disagree in the church just as often as they do outside of the church.
  There should, however, be a difference in the way people in the church disagree.  We can disagree over decorations or doctrine, but we need to remember to love one another.  Just because we don't see eye-to-eye on something doesn't mean that we can't treasure and care for one another.  Do you wish the best for people with whom you disagree?  Can you separate issues from individuals?  Can you care for people with whom you disagree?
  It's important to remain rooted in love while we undergo disagreement.  The church should be able to stay united while we disagree, continuing to love and serve in the midst of all we do.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Acts 15:30-35

Acts 15:30-35
English Standard Version (ESV)

  How would you feel if you got a handwritten letter from someone that was meant to encourage you, to tell you all the ways someone feels that God has blessed you and how they will be hoping and praying for you to move into the future with hope and joy and what a blessing it is to know you.  That would be great, right?  It might make your whole week.  It's the kind of thing that someone might stick in their pocket and carry around for days, or even months, re-reading it whenever they needed a shot of encouragement.
  We can do this for each other.  Who can you write that letter to?  Someone you are close to, or maybe someone you were once close to.  Be an encouragement -- drop someone a note to let them know you are thinking of them, that they are a gift, that God loves them and cherishes them and treasures them.  Encourage them to be strong and courageous, to be grateful.  May we, as individuals and as the church, encourage those around us.
  Who can you encourage?  Who can you bless?  How can you set aside five minutes to spread some love?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Acts 15:22-29

Acts 15:22-29
English Standard Version (ESV)

  This is an interesting section to come upon in the day of fake news.  It seems like the last few months have been a desperate time for people to try and figure out what is really happening in the country and in the world.  We've known for a long time that no news source was completely unbiased, but it seems (to me at least) that there has been much greater emphasis on this topic lately, to the point where we wonder what the truth is and just how to find it in an age where too much information is far more likely than too little.
  The church in Antioch was faced with a similar situation.  They weren't sure what the faithful path to follow was, and they needed guidance.  In this case, the church sent Barsabbas/Judas and Silas to illumine they way.  They wanted these believers to have the best information, so they personally reached out to help guide their way.
  In our own lives, it may not personally affect us when we try and make decisions about some of the news articles.  But some of them matter to us, and in other times we need to make important decisions in our lives.  In these times, it's vital to lean into the church and let ourselves be led by the community.  The church should be willing to pray with one another, to listen and to discuss how the Spirit is at work among us, that we can make decisions informed not only by our own reading of Scripture and our own prayers, but also the witness of our faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, who are willing to dive in and help us discern just how God is on the move.
  Let us not struggle alone.  Rather, let us practice community by sharing our lives with one another and bearing one another's burdens.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Acts 15:12-21

Acts 15:12-21
English Standard Version (ESV)

  History can be a wonderful gift to us -- it has much to teach us about how we can live, about the consequences of mistakes, about what truly matters in life.  Here, in the 15th chapter of Acts, the church council is leaning into their own church history to learn about what God is doing.  They draw upon the words of the prophets to better understand their current situation, and they make a decision informed by their common history.
  Memorial Day is an interesting holiday.  It's the start of summer, and so we're interested in being outside, in celebrating a long weekend and looking forward to recreation and relaxation.  And yet, the day itself is set aside to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.  Thousands have put their lives in jeopardy for this country, and they have given their lives for freedom.  This is our common history -- and we are wise to remember the sacrifices that make our freedom possible.  Informed by the cost of our freedom, we should celebrate what we have with an eye on honoring those who have made it possible.
  This is what we do in the church as well.  We remember the cost of our freedom in Christ -- it was not free, or easy, but Christ paid the price so that we might be free.  Remembering that, we should be willing to live in such a way that honors the sacrifice, that is filled with gratitude, that looks forward to a future with hope based on what has transpired in the past.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Acts 15:6-11

Acts 15:6-11
English Standard Version (ESV)

  What if the best thing in your life happened not by your control?
  We don't like to admit that we're not in control.  America was founded on the idea of manifest destiny, that we could wrestle our futures into our hands through our own efforts.  We believe in the idea of independence, that hard work can help you rise above, that we can shape our lives through our hard work.
  And yet the Gospel runs counter to all of that.  In the Gospel, we confront the radical truth that our own efforts cannot save us.  We are not good enough on our own, and we must accept our weakness and confess another as Lord.  True life can come only through admitting that our own choices lead us to sin and death.
  We are saved by grace through faith, not by our own works, but rather by the work of another, by the blood of the Lamb that gave his life on the cross.  He, and he alone, has the power to save, and he gives this to us as a free gift.  It is not ours to earn, but rather ours to accept.  We have life because he gives it to us.
  It runs against how we are trained to think, but only in Christ will we find the freedom our souls were made for.  Our next step is through Him, in Him, and only in Him.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Acts 15:1-5

Acts 15
English Standard Version (ESV)

  What a timely section for us to come to, as our nation seems to grow a little more divided each and every day.  We seem to spend a lot of time and energy trying to find labels for each other, especially when people often end up defying the stereotype we have attached to certain labels.  We start to think we understand one another, and then people have this habit of surprising us.  It's exhausting, right?
  In the early church, there was division.  There was debate.  And people inevitably divided into two camps about things.  But what is beautiful is that they gathered together to discuss it.  They were deeply divided over whether the Jewish laws and customs would apply to new believers.  Remember, the early church believed they were being faithful Jews and worshiping the long-awaited Messiah.  They didn't see their beliefs as a radical departure from the expectation.  They thought that others who wanted to follow Jesus should accommodate to the historical traditions of the faith -- they didn't completely comprehend all the new that God was doing.
  So the church debated.  And it wasn't always neat and tidy, and I'm sure there wasn't always perfect resolution where everyone got along and sang hymns together at the end of the debate.  But the important thing is that the church continued to be the church.  The church has debated various things over the centuries, but it has always remained, and there is always room for debate within the church.  We don't have to agree on every little detail -- we can welcome and love one another even while we debate some things.  The important thing is to remember to be humble, to love one another as Christ loves each of us, and to remember that we are part of a community that stretches back thousands of years.  Whatever storms the church is in, it will survive, and it will thrive, because Christ is our Head and nothing shall ever defeat him.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Acts 14:24-28

Acts 14:24-28
English Standard Version (ESV)

  So if you want to learn something, how do you approach it?  Some years ago, I started to learn how to play the piano.  Rather than pound away on the keys on my own, I spent time with an expert, someone who could lead me and teach me and show me the way.  The more time I spent with him, the better I got.  I would practice on my own after lessons, but I always needed to return to follow-up.  The deeper I wanted to go, the more I needed to listen, to learn.
  So often, however, when it comes to matters of spirituality we seem to believe that we can do it on our own.  We don't seek out community, we don't seek out tutors, we just stubbornly try and do it all on our own.  A lot of the time we guilt ourselves, convincing ourselves that we 'should' be better at this, as though we come out of the womb with fully formed spiritual lives.
  If you want to learn how to pray, if you want to grow spiritually, ensure you are spending time with people who have a deeper faith maturity than you do.  There is a lot of time where you'll need to practice on your own, but it's vital to be in community with people who have more spiritual discipline, because they can teach you.
  And if you have spiritual maturity, whatever level you feel like you are at, spend time with people who are still growing, who are younger in the faith.  It's vital that we practice our faith together, that we may benefit from the strength of one another, that we might grow together and encourage each other.  It's how the Lord works through us, one by one and all together, to build his Kingdom here on earth.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Acts 14:19-23

Acts 14:19-23
English Standard Version (ESV)

  If I was Paul, this first verse would occupy the vast majority of the book of Acts.  I'd want everyone to know what I've gone through, so they'd know how much I suffered and how dedicated I was.
  Also, I wouldn't go back into the city.  At all.  If I managed to survive such an event, I would go in the exact opposite direction after the disciples dragged me out from underneath the rockpile.  I don't think I'd have very nice things to say about my enemies, either.
  But for Paul, it was all for the sake of the Gospel.  No matter what he had to endure, he took these burdens on so that the Gospel could be proclaimed.  He risked everything for the sake of Christ, so that others might hear of the wondrous goodness of the King of Glory.  He wanted the name of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed, and even if it meant his own death, he was willing to take that risk.
  Valuing the name of Christ that highly means treasuring the relationship, seeking to deepen it above every other thing in life, and recognizing that only that relationship endures beyond the grave.
  May we hold so dearly to Christ that we shape everything else around it, and may we love one another enough to want to share this life-changing Gospel with them.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Acts 14:8-18

Acts 14:8-18
English Standard Version (ESV)

  We've been elevating our religious leaders above the status they rightfully deserve for thousands of years.  It's easier to do this, to assume they are perfect and to worship them, then to deal with the messy reality that even the best of our leaders are broken and flawed.  We aren't called to worship our leaders -- we are called to worship our Lord and Savior.  Only he is perfect, and only he can save.
  When we worship our leaders, we set them up for failure by giving them unrealistic expectations and inflating their egos.  They will disappoint us, they will let us down, because they can't live up to the standards of perfection.
  This doesn't mean you need to call your pastor and tell them they are a terrible person.  But remember that they are a sinner seeking a Savior, just as the rest of us are, and that they need companions for the journey.  It's not easier for them, and they aren't closer to God than anyone else is.  God has given them certain gifts, and they are called to use those for leadership, but they are to remember their place as well.
  So let us pray for our pastors, that they are empowered and blessed and have the presence of the Spirit to walk with them every step of the way, that they may remain humble and let the Word of God speak to them and through them.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Acts 14:1-7

Acts 14:1-7
English Standard Version (ESV)

  When we're working with financial data, there is a saying that applies to a lot of areas of life -- Garbage in, garbage out.  In other words, you can't do much if you have bad data to start with  No matter how much you process it, it can't portray anything accurate because the original data is flawed.
  I think the way verse 2 is phrased is really interesting.  You get the feeling that many Gentiles were listening, but the Jews stirred them up, poisoning their minds.  They probably spread lies and rumors and mistruths, convincing the Gentiles things that weren't true.  They put garbage in their minds so that the Gentiles would then repeat these lies to others, turning others away from the truth of the Gospel.  Garbage went in the ears and out the mouths.
  When you think about how you spend your time, do you take in things that will enrich you, that will build you up?  Do you take in things that are good?  Or do you mindlessly pay attention to garbage that fills your minds, then coloring your words and thoughts?  If we attune our senses to things that do not glorify God, these will influence how we think and talk.  In the same way, if we focus on what is good and true and enriching and lovely, these things will help tune our hearts to pay attention to what God has to say to us.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Acts 13:44-52

Acts 13:44-52
English Standard Version (ESV)

  I'm always curious what the apostles talked about when they were between cities.  Surely there were days when they gathered around the water cooler and lamented the suffering they were going through, wondering if it was all worth it, wondering when the struggle would stop and people would realize the wisdom of accepting Christ as Savior, no matter how much of a challenge this might be to their current state of mind.
  But you don't get that feeling.  The Apostles were so single-minded that they kept going back, time after time, no matter how much abuse they took.  People rose up, threatened their lives, and they proclaimed the Gospel, because nothing else mattered as much as the Gospel did.  Above all else, Jesus Christ was Lord, and this good news needed to be told to everyone, everywhere, no matter the cost, even if that was their safety and security and their very lives.
  What's it look like for us to value Christ above all else?  What kind of security and false idols do we need to set aside to pursue Christ?  What are we called to risk?  Who are we called to share the Good News with?  What might we need to give up?
  These are hard questions that take a lifetime to answer, but its absolutely worth the pursuit.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Acts 13:36-43

Acts 13:36-43
English Standard Version (ESV)

  We serve our kids pizza sometimes, and they get so excited they want pizza again the next night, and then the next night.  It's so good to them, they cannot wait until they try it again.  Rachel and I went out to eat on Sunday night, and we were commenting that if we had gone to that place on Saturday, we would have gone back on Sunday, because it was that good.  Unfortunately, our trip had ended and we had to go home.
  Here, the Gospel is proclaimed, and the people love the message so much that they are begging for it again the next Sunday.  They've been fed the Gospel truth, and they can't wait to have more.   They are eager.
  I think there are two things at work here.  The first is that God's Truth never gets old or stale -- the heart of the Gospel is always deeper than our faith maturity.  There's always more.  No matter how much we know or how long we have followed, we should be excited to hear more, to learn more, to draw closer to God.
  The second thing is that we need to recognize our true hunger.  So often we mask it by sating our appetites with lesser things, but it's important to remember that we are sinners and Christ is our needed Savior.  The reality of our redemption and new life in Christ should excite us, energize us, and draw us back to the Gospel day after day after day!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Acts 13:26-35

Acts 13:26-35
English Standard Version (ESV)

  One of the things we talk with the kids about quite often is that their attitudes are their choice.  No matter what has happened, their reaction to it is a choice that they make.  Even if things don't go their way, they don't have to whine about it -- they can choose to move forward with a positive attitude.  (Whenever I talk to the kids about this, I realize that I need to listen myself!)
  In Acts, the Apostles are often preaching the Gospel, and they don't sugarcoat the messy history, that the Jews cried out for Jesus to be condemned to death.  but they don't dwell on it, and they aren't just sending people down a guilt-laden road.  They're pointing out the sin, but they're inviting all to move through it and into forgiveness, for God conquered sin through death, and all are invited into new life in Jesus Christ.  Peter and Paul are adamant that all are invited into the new covenant -- it's not only for the perfect or for those without sin in their lives.  Whoever has sinned, and whoever is guilty, that's all in the past -- the current choice is how to move forward.  Should we cling to sin, or cling to the righteousness of Christ that defeats sin and offers new life?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Acts 13:13-25

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

  Because I love to make rampant generalizations, I'm going to say that we, as a collective society, are really into ourselves.  When society has reached a point where people are having plastic surgery to look better in their selfies, I think it's safe to say that we think very highly of ourselves.  We spent a lot of time thinking about ourselves, and when we're not thinking about ourselves, we're thinking about how to make other people think about us.  Social media is great at this -- look at this!  look over here!  Like me!  Favorite me!  Me!
  As Christians, we're rooted in a long line of church history.  It's not about us, and it's not even about here and now.  We stand in a long tradition of people who have been faithfully living selflessly, serving one another, and if we're going to be serious about telling people about God, we can't just talk about ourselves, we need to talk about what God has been doing throughout time and space.
  See, in today's world the message is generally "What's okay for you is fine as long as it doesn't affect me."  We personalize everything and let others do the same.
  But when we point out that God has been moving in an arc that transcends the here and now, that reaches back into history and binds people together, creating connections through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that God has never broken a promise and is building this amazing Kingdom with singular purpose throughout history, we tell a much more powerful story than the one that just talks about God and me.
  It's important to link ourselves as part of the story and part of God's story, but by giving it context, we point out how much bigger God is, and then the love of God is even more amazing and more compelling, because the God who is that big reaches down into human history and intercedes on our behalf, on your behalf, to forgive our sins and love us as individuals.
  That's a great story.  Let's tell that story.  Let's live it!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Acts 13:4-12

Acts 13:4-12
English Standard Version (ESV)

  I consider myself a (somewhat) patient parent, but when my child whines about what color their dinner plate is for the 16th night in a row, I tend to reach the end of my last nerve and perhaps don't always react as Christ would have me react.  At a certain point, I feel compelled to let them know exactly how unimportant the color of their plate is and the repercussions of what will happen to their dinner if they continue to protest their assignment of dinnerware.
  We all reach this point, right?
  What's good is when the church finds the balance between loving selflessly, with humility, and standing up and speaking out when the time calls for it.  Often, the church needs to listen and love.  At other times, when forces or people are making crooked the straight paths of the Lord, it's time for the church to rise up as one and announce that the Lord's will, that the love and mercy and grace and truth of God, will conquer against those who stand in its way.  We need to act out, to love boldly and to take the message of repentance and grace into the streets.
  I'm not going to pretend to know exactly how to discern the best times to turn the other cheek and when to speak out with passion, but that's why we gather as a community -- to listen to one another and help us know exactly how the Lord is calling us to be the people of God.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Acts 13:1-3

Acts 13:1-3
English Standard Version (ESV)

  If I had to hazard a guess, I'd imagine that most of us don't feel 'set apart'.  We don't think of ourselves as particularly useful to the Kingdom of God, and we look with envy upon those who are better able to understand and utilize their gifts to spread God's word.  We feel like we're important parts of the church, but we have a hard time understanding our own fit and often feel like we're just another face in the crowd.
 The great thing about God is that he is unbounded.  He doesn't have the limited attention that we do -- he can attend to each of us at every moment.  He's not like an earthly parent, whose attention is limited to one child at a time, often leaving another child doing something dramatic in order to capture that precious attention (this is a concept we are VERY familiar with in our house!).  God can pour himself into each and every one of us as though there was no one else, for his love and attention are truly limitless.
  So when you think about being set apart, don't think of it as being some rock star that everyone else in the church will look upon in wonder.  Think of the fact that God has called you to serve a role that only you can serve.  You have been gifted for this time and place, and the relationships you are in can be used by God to proclaim his love and majesty.  You are here and now for a reason, and as a good friend of mine has said, you may well be the answer to someone else's prayer.  You have been set apart because God has called you in this precious time to do what only you can do as well and as faithfully as you can, and to point those around you to the majesty and glory of the Risen Lord.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Acts 12:20-25

Acts 12:20-25
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Everyone loves a happy ending?  The Bible is not short on examples of what happens to those who oppose God's will.  Some of these characters meet ends that make me wince and wonder if a few of these details could have been left out, but then I remember that this was written in a very different time and place, when the church was violently opposed and the death of the oppressors was a great encouragement to the church members.  They saw God making roads for the church to grow through the deaths of their enemies.
  Now, I certainly wouldn't recommend that we start praying for those who oppose Christianity to be eaten by worms, (I'm pretty sure the Bible tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us), but we should look for ways that God is at work making it possible for the church to expand and reach more people, and we should celebrate when obstacles are removed and the church can spread in places where it once was outlawed or oppressed.  The Word of God is mighty and will not be denied, but many seek to silence its voice.  In these times, there are faithful disciples working to smuggle Bibles (that image always excites me) and spread the radical Word of God no matter what, so let us pray for their continued success and that all will come to bow the knee before the throne of glory!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Acts 12:12-19

Acts 12:12-19
English Standard Version (ESV)

  You have to wonder if Herod didn't suspect that something miraculous was going on.  Peter had disappeared from under lock and key, and there was no good explanation  He had the sentries put to death, as though punishing them might ease his mind about who was at fault, but surely he had to wonder if there was a more powerful force, if God was at work in the world, building his church, person by person.
  So often there are things that happen in the world that present us with a choice -- how are we going to interpret them?  Are we going to trust that God is at work, leaning in and wondering how we can join in with what God is doing?  Or do we choose to sit back and assume that something else is going on, maybe a simpler explanation?  If we choose to believe that God is at work, then I think that crafts a mindset within us, one that is always looking for evidence of God's handiwork, a spirit that is ready to follow, willing to trust.  We'll have to take things on faith, but it will shape us into the kind of people always wondering how God is at work in the world and in our lives and in our relationships, and I think that's the kind of person I want to be.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

  I finished reading Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others last night.  It's a collection of short stories, which I usually don't read, but this one has pretty stellar reviews on Amazon.com (which means it has to be good, right?) and one of the stories is the base of the movie Arrival, which looked interesting from the previews (which means the whole book has to be good, right?).
  Well, I wasn't a big fan.  Based on the movie previews, the movie is a huge departure from the story, which consists of aliens who set up camp in tents, learn to communicate with Americans, then leave.  Seriously -- that's all that happens.  The most exciting part of that story is... well, there actually aren't any exciting moments.
  Several of the short stories experiment with space and time, and there's a pretty interesting story about a man who is disinterested in God for his entire life until the moment before his death, in which he suddenly realizes the vast and incomprehensible love of God, only to be destined for hell and suffer miserably because he learned, too late, what he was missing out on by turning his back on God.
  The stories aren't connected to each other, and I was forcing myself through the book just so I could finish it.  Maybe I'll someday find some short stories that I love to read, but I don't connect with many of them.  The comics are about the only collection of short stories I like to read.

Acts 12:6-11

Acts 12:6-11
English Standard Version (ESV)

  So God intervened when Peter was in jail, leading him out between sentries, dressing him and leading him through two guards and out the gate, and only then did Peter realize that God was at work.  The rest of us read this story and wonder just what Peter was thinking while he was being led out of jail.  He must have thought it was a dream, but God was at work, freeing Peter for ministry.
  In the same way, someone else might look at your life and see different ways God is at work.  They might look at what is happening and see the hands of God working, but we're often so close to the action and so emotionally tied up that we don't notice how God might be at work.  We wonder where God is, while others look at us and see God right in the midst of our lives.
  This is why it's important to be in community, to hear what others think God might be doing in our lives, and also why we need time for silence in our prayer lives, that we might hear just what God is up to and how God is leading us.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Acts 12:1-5

Acts 12:1-5
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Sometimes people wonder what will happen to the church in the future.  I have no anxiety about the future of the church.  I'll admit that I sometimes wonder what the place of the church in society will be, but I have total confidence that the church will still be alive and active, because I've read the end of the story.  The church is the body of Christ, and Christ is coming to defeat sin and death at the end, riding a white horse and wearing a robe dipped in blood with a sword coming out of his mouth.  He's the victor, and nothing will stop him or thwart his purpose.  He shall be victorious, and he'll bring his church with him into the eternal victory.
  So fear not for the future of the church.  Rather, let your life be a celebration of Christ's triumphant victory, and may we spend our lives inviting others into the joy of Christ as triumphant victor!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Book Review: Joy on Demand

  How could I pass up a book called Joy on Demand?  It is written by Chade-Meng Tan, who was the happiness guru at Google.  Pretty cool title, right?  And if I can get to a place where I have joy on demand, that would be great!  I don't think anyone would call me the most joyous person ever, but I am trying... everyone wants to be happier, right?  And if I could read my way to happiness, all the better.  Now if only there was a solution that didn't ask anything of me...
  Joy on Demand is all about meditation.  It's another in what seems like a long line of books that promises happiness if we meditate more.  Happiness teaches us detachment, and the root of the story is that if we aren't so focused on external stimuli, we can find more joy, because we can find peace within us.  External things are unpredictable and can rile us.  If we discover all we need internally, we can discover peace and stop developing a ceaseless anxiety.  Meditation teaches us contentment, and contentment leads to peace, and peace leads to joy.  Simple, right?
  You can read the book if you're interested in the meditation techniques.  I don't think anyone comes here for that.  What I think is interesting is that Paul taught us about the idea of contentment thousands of years ago:  Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13).
  What Paul is trying to teach us is that in Christ, we can be content, because in Christ, we are enough.   We don't earn our way to God -- we come to God through the gift of Christ.  It's unearned grace and unmerited favor, and when we realize that it is a free gift, we stop striving and anxiously fretting, and we can rest easy in his love.  It's unconditional, and so all our work will not bring us closer to God.  When we accept grace as an unearned gift, we can discover contentment, because we recognize that all the money and all the fame in the world cannot bring us before the throne of God -- only Christ can bring us to God, and Christ does this as a free gift, not because we've earned it.
  So true contentment comes not from focusing on ourselves, but rather from focusing on what Christ has done for us.  When we accept the gift, our worrying can cease, and we can live from a place of gratitude and freedom.

Acts 11:27-30

Acts 11:27-30
English Standard Version (ESV)

  Did you know there's a famine going on right now?  In parts of East Africa, there's a massive famine that is endangering the lives of thousands.  There's so much else going on in our lives, we may not have even noticed, and even if we do, there's a feeling of helplessness, right?  What are we supposed to do about a famine in East Africa?  I think it partly tests our theology of prayer -- do we think our prayers really matter?  I was at a monastery once and heard a monk describe their responsibility as being in prayer for the world.  At that moment I realized that they don't view their lives as withdrawn, but rather as engaged with the entire world through prayer.  It's a deep theology of prayer that trusts in God to hear our prayers, and that our prayers matter.
  So the famine in East Africa should matter to us.  (If you want to learn more about it, click here:  https://www.worldvision.org/hunger-news-stories/matthew-25-pray-hunger)  The neighbor's strife should matter to us.   The plight of the homeless should matter to us.  The struggles of our family members and friends matters, just as our own struggles matter.
  When we care, when we really care, we set aside resources -- whether it is time or energy or attention or money -- and we reach out, personally or in prayer or through mission agencies, to let the love of God bind us together.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Acts 11:19-26

Acts 11:19-26
English Standard Version (ESV)

  I love dramatic movies.  Within two hours, the characters experience a range of emotions from joy to despair, and by the end they've found some inspirational rallying point to push forward to a new level of understanding, often through some poignant teachable moment.
  In real life, things grow in fits and spurts, and it takes time.  In Antioch, Barnabas and Saul spent a year meeting with the church and teaching people.  For a year they were building, waiting, watching, teaching.  We often hear of overnight success stories, but we don't see the years of work and risk that went into the venture.  We only see the neatly-tailored story that follows.  Reality requires hard work and investment of sweat and tears.  In Antioch, they spent years building the church, teaching the people, trusting in the Holy Spirit and whatever speed God was choosing to work.
  In our own lives, we've got to trust that God is at work, and so we show up, day after day, leaning into the Holy Spirit, waiting and watching, knowing that it might take days or years to see the changes God has in store for us.  The Christian life is a whole-life journey, and there often aren't dramatic moments neatly wrapped up -- it's an investment of a lifetime, but the promise of Christ is that it's completely worth it!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Acts 11:11-18

Acts 11:11-18
English Standard Version (ESV)

  There's a great Biblical history of people who decide against standing in God's way.  They recognize that God might be up to something, and so they go along with it, recognizing the futility of trying to oppose God.
  Granted, there are a lot of people who decide to try and oppose God.  It doesn't work out very well.  It would be like standing on a beach and telling a hurricane to turn around and head back out to sea -- one of us is a force to be reckoned with, while the other has overestimated my own power!  When God is at work, trying to see something through, it will be completed.  His Word goes out into the world and does not come back empty.
  That's why I don't worry about the future of the church.  With God behind it, the church will not be stopped.  The church may look different in 100 years than it does today, but there will still be a church.  There will always be a church.  To believe otherwise is to think that the ways of the world can thwart the church's appeal so powerfully that not one will still bow the knee to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
  But there will always be those who recognize that the abundant life can be found only in Christ, and so we get out of the way, joining in what the Holy Spirit is doing and glorifying God every step of the way!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Acts 11:1-10

Acts 11:1-10
English Standard Version (ESV)

  A community is a gift.
  So often we're trying to figure out what God is doing or how God is leading us.  On our own, we're left tossing questions back and forth in our minds.  In community, however, we receive the treasured gift of friends who are willing to engage in the discernment process with us, listening to what God is calling us to do, asking tough questions and helping us arrive at a better understanding of how God is on the move.
  Alone, it's a challenge to perceive the work of the Spirit.
  In community, we have others to confirm or correct what we think God is up to.
  So find a faith community, one that strengthens and encourages and challenges you, and dive in, with a willingness to be vulnerable and to help others hear how God is on the move!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Acts 10:44-48

Acts 10:44-48
English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Spirit Falls on the Gentiles
  44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

**********

   A co-worker recently ran the Boston marathon.  He described how challenging the race was and how poor he was feeling by the end of the race.  His experience was such that it affirmed my desire to never run for four hours straight.
  But imagine just keeping going after you cross the finish line of whatever race you're running, whether it's a 5k or a marathon or an ultramarathon.  Imagine getting excited to see the finish line fade in the rearview mirror as your momentum carries you forward, never stopping to rest on the laurels of what you have completed.
  That's what the Christian life is meant to be.  Baptism isn't a place to stop -- it's a starting point, a launching pad, a booster shot that launches the Christian life even deeper into relationship with Christ.  Here, the Gentiles are baptized, but they ask Peter to stick around for some days, because they want more.  Their appetites are growing stronger, and they want to learn more.  Baptism isn't their finish line -- they are just getting started, and they are hungry to learn about their faith, to grow and mature in their relationship with Christ.
  Are you still hungry for growth?  Are you still seeking Him?  It's easy to get comfortable and rest.  But we are called to dive deeper, to grow more, and to love more freely each and every day.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Acts 10:34-43

Acts 10:34-43
English Standard Version (ESV)

  At a certain point, we have to admit that there are things we simply cannot grasp about God -- there are ineffable qualities that escape our ability to comprehend.  We get into trouble when we become so certain of things that our minds cannot be changed, because then we stop listening to what God has to say because our minds have formed a certainty.
  It would have been easier for Peter to shut off his mind and stay focused on what has always been true.  Instead, what Peter does is listen to the Holy Spirit call him into a new understanding of the Gospel.  Peter could have remained in his old understanding that the Gospel was only for the Jews, but instead he allows God to change his mind, to challenge his way of thinking, and through Peter the Gospel flows into people who had not previously heard the Good News.
  It requires a certain humility to be a Christian, because we aren't God.  We don't know all the answers -- we understand what we can through the lens of Scripture, and we trust that God will give us the strength and wisdom to serve and love those around us.