A Walk Through Acts 17

I know I am not the only one who thinks he belongs in a different time. I’ve been a fountain pen user since 1973 when our general conference hotel placed us next to a drug store. Like all 12 year-olds I had to check out the stationary isle to see their school supplies. My affair with real writing instruments started with the purchase of a $2 Sheaffer fountain pen. This morning I am using a 1950’s Conway Stewart No 58 with a wonderful stub-ish medium nib. The sepia ink came from Charles, a good friend in Singapore who gets it. My paper is Japanese Midori paper with heavy cotton content that I pick up when I can stop at Anderson Pens in Appleton, Wisconsin. I know I’ll have to use my MacBook later, but I have a few more moments to enjoy the aesthetics of writing the way I like it a bit longer

I wore bow ties when I had to find vintage ones, have mom make them, or pay overpriced specialty stores for them. Thankfully they have reached cool status recently, so I am now stocked up for the next 50 years or so. I also wear fedoras rather than baseball caps most of the time.

Some things just cannot be found at a reasonable price. I have yet to find an outlet store with lounging jackets that look like a cross between a tuxedo and a house coat. Beautiful! People wore them when they read books or dressed for dinner. People did not generally use their car steering wheel as a dining table in those days. Several years ago I found one at an antique store in a beautiful mulberry color. The padded collars and tasseled sash were perfect. The price was in my discretionary income budget, and, since no vintage fountain pens were in sight, I bought it. I proudly took it home even though it did not fit my top end weight at the time. With some tonnage reduction the last couple of years I have shrunk. The lounging jacket now fits. I smile.

Acts 17 has so many misfit stories. Synagogues, market places, and the Areopagus debate club all had restraints on the Creator’s plan for humanity. Jews in the synagogue became jealous of the oversized dimensions of Paul and Silas’ God, so they protested the pending upheaval to the civil authority. They would rather call Cesare king and forget the hope for a restoration of David’s throne than to open their lives to the Messiah that suffered, died, and rose again. The Jewish leaders from Thessalonica even felt threated by the Bible study in Berea. Perhaps this oversized God would not stay confined to the city about 45 miles away. The threat rose to a level where the men undertook the day or two journey to stop the God that was too big for their synagogue.

Berean Jews had scalable faith. If someone opened their understanding of the text, then they searched and studied for themselves. Of course they did this the old school way without Bible study software. Their software was a set of scrolls. Since the Isaiah scroll alone took about 35 feet of papyrus, they truly had to search the scriptures. And they had to search the scriptures together.

Paul stopped in Athens, the large intellectual center of that part of the world. People still visit the city today and think about its capacity to give space for human thought and art. Its 30,000 sculptures of gods and heroes seemed to have the capacity to hold any idea, yet it was still too small to hold what God wanted to do for humanity. They sought for truth while God waited nearby.

Athens could not put down their preferred containers to receive God’s gifts. They mocked a theology where the Hero died and rose again. The same challenge limits humanity today. Looking back to a golden age of thought, art, heroism, family or human achievement always leaves a container too small for God. While Jesus people understand human efforts from yesterday do not fit God’s vision, they often shrink God’s plans for today by what He has before. I love to hear the stories of yesterday — of evangelists riding the train or sleeping in their cars. I love to hear of tent meetings and brush arbors. The Azusa Street story still sounds amazing, but those memories are too small for what God wants to do today. If Jesus told His disciples they would do greater works than Him, certainly He says the same today. Greater works will we do than what our grandparents in the faith did. Everything else is too small. We have not gotten any larger or increased our capacity … we just have not reached the dimensionless nearby God.

My vision just exploded. The only thing I can do now is pray.

Dear Lord,

Oh! Your vision for humanity’s restoration goes so far beyond my capacity to grasp. In the end, all will be reconciled back to You. My vision sees the anger, division, selfishness, misuse of Your glorious gifts, anxieties, and depression. My study and experiences show the threads of what You are doing, but it is like I used a microscope to zero into a tiny group of cells rather than seeing the universe of change You want to do.

Forgive me, Lord. Sometimes I and my people think the need is to be smarter, work harder, discover new strategies, or market You like You were a new Nike sneaker. Perhaps a bit better, but still inadequate, we think we need to develop some new spiritual discipline that gets You to finally bring an end-time Pentecostal experience our world needs. Forgive me for thinking I am the one that brings Your Spirit to the world. Purify my mouth, my heart, and my hands, I pray. But today I really need my eyes purified. 

Your purposes will be achieved in the earth, and You have invited Your church to participate by believing and living the message. Like Paul and Silas, I must see the many ways the death, burial and resurrection challenge every culture. Our society’s containers cannot handle the reality the message conveys. I wonder if I can handle it. 

Bless us with vision, I pray. Bless Your church with a vision to see both the horrors of our world and the dimensionless wonder of Your grace. You still want to bless those who study Your Word. You still want a church that can speak to hungry Bible study students and to professors like Dr. Dionysius from Athens. But a new shoot of faith says You will do as yet unseen things in this hour. Maybe I have wanted to be like the first century church when You are wanting me to be part of the church today, a church that can see the dimensions of 2000 years of faith and stand ready for what only You can do.

I do not need to get out of my box; I need to let You out of the one I have used to constrain You.

Is that what it means for Your kingdom to come and Your will to be done? What does that kingdom look like for nearly 8 billion people? My eye has not yet seen, my ear has not yet heard, and my mind has not yet conceived what Your death, burial, and resurrection want to do in the human chaos today.

Lord, I believe; please help my unbelief. 

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen 

A Walk Through Acts 16

Transparent bowtie40 A Walk through Acts 16

The author of Paul’s biography, A Man in White, spent his early adult life in West Germany as a Morris code interceptor for the US Air Force. Setting at his radio equipment in Europe he must have felt worlds away from his hometown in impoverished rural Arkansas. The young man excelled at this mission; his officers prescribed amphetamines to keep him alert and on task for longer hours. He would struggle with the resulting drug addiction for much of his life.

Though the young staff sergeant had the best ears and mind in the business, he really wanted to sing. He bought a $5 guitar and began to play. He wrote a few songs as well. After watching a movie about prison life in 1951, SGT Johnny Cash wrote his song “Folsom Prison Blues” while still in the Air Force. He would record and sing the song a number of times before performing for the Folsom prisoners in 1968. He says he wrote the startling line “Shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” after trying to imagine the absolute worst reason for killing another human being. Listening to the recording 50 years later I was still haunted by the applause from the audience until I learned the producer added the responses in the studio as he prepared the album for release. Folsom prison sat silent while Mr. Cash yearned for a train to take all of them far from their prison bars. In fact, the man in black felt like all people live in some kind of prison bars.

Acts 16 recounts prison bars, singing, and true freedom sought by all humanity. The chapter begins with a story to help me realize freedom includes voluntarily laying down my own prerogatives for the good of others. Luke takes his readers from the highly contentious Jerusalem conference where all agree not to hold new converts accountable to Jewish traditions, to the circumcision of Timothy under the approving eye of Paul. Fortunately Luke explained the paradox – many Jews were in the mission field and they knew of Timothy’s mixed heritage. Timothy lived free from all prison bars – so free he could give up his own preferences and comforts for the mission.

Am I that free or do I hear the gospel train’s whistle at a distance? How can I hear the missionary whistle and respond for the needs of others rather than live just for me? How can I love others as Timothy did? Or do I live my life in the condition Eric Fromm calls “escaping from freedom”? Living for self and avoiding the focus needed to live a purposeful existence may look like life without bars, but it actually represents an escaping from freedom to the comfortable confinement of self-imposed prison. Freedom trains can become rolling cells if saints live beneath their missional privilege.

The prison theme becomes even more raw after Paul and Silas bankrupt the local fortune telling franchise. For some reason the preachers became deeply irritated at the demonic advertisement. They cast out the demon to get a little rest for themselves.

Systems around Jesus’ kingdom will always revolt when we witness kingdom advancement. Those who owned the girl thought this new religion robbed them of their rightful property. Attacking personal property and privacy will bring opposition. I wonder what would happen to the economy if all alcoholic users were set free from the bars of their addiction tomorrow? Breweries and taverns would hand out pink slips, and farmers would lose markets. Bottle makers, canning machine manufacturers, and label printers would need to retool. Advertising agencies would have to think of some other use for Clydesdale horses and mountain stream images. The federal government would lose $9.6 billion in excise taxes; ATF would become just TF.

For Paul and Silas, the prison bars became space for what they always did – worship. We do not know what was on the police blotter that night, but I wonder what offenses lingered in other cells. All of the other prisoners listened to the singing that doubtlessly included unintended sour notes and sharp intakes of breath. Rod-ripped flesh and leg shackles restricted movement, but it fueled worship. Worship and prayer during suffering still serves as a primary mission tool. I wonder if I am free enough to be that kind of worshiper.

Walls fell.

Men stayed in their cells. I always thought the supernatural event could be seen in the stone dust in the air and abandoned chains on the ground, but the real power was in all of the men staying with the two worshipers. Something rooted them to the ground rather than doing the natural thing after being sprung from prison.

More walls fell for the attempted suicide victim. The warden accepted the reality that his life was forfeited due to the act of God in the earthquake. The worshipers prevented the tragedy by pointing to all of the prisoners waiting for instruction. The man used his extra moment of life to ask an important question, “What must I do to be saved?” The question came because free men remained in a prison without bars. Somehow dust covered wounds convicted the warden of his own sin.

Minions of a police state experience salvation the same way as everyone else. If he believed in the Lord Jesus, then he and his whole household would be saved. The household undoubtedly include his family as well as servants and employees. Paul shared the Gospel in a way that demonstrated the power of being truly free. They all experienced prison break that night by going down to the river. The warden washed Paul’s back while Paul washed the man and his household’s sins away.

Hospitality followed the baptismal service as it did for Lydia’s household earlier in the chapter. Hospitality served as a powerful sign of freedom from sin’s prison. The chapter ends back at Lydia’s house where the believers shared fellowship and heard encouraging words from the bruised men.

I think I need to pray.

Lord,

You promised us everlasting life and fathomless joy as part of your new creation. Forgive me for setting the parameters of that new life through my old eyes. My old eyes see pain free, luxurious days of ease as freedom. Release from the prison of old eyes lets me know true freedom emancipates me from the restrictions of self-centered, pleasure driven existence. You have healed my eyes many times, but I still see a few men as walking trees.

Could you help me cast out demons before they irritate me? Would you help me understand the system shattering effect Your kingdom has on absolutely everything around me? I do not think our world needs another gentle, easily integrated kingdom that looks like just one more software update.

Oh! Just to think of the freedom You want to give Your people makes me weep. I do not know the kind of freedom that calls me to stand in the collision between Your kingdom coming and the intrenched world order. I think my people and I would rather You just get good people elected to political office to fix stuff. But You have already walked us through the choir practices that prepare us for prison concerts – concerts where the stripes may be on our bodies as we sing of Your goodness to the outcast. Prison wardens will hear. Suicide will be prevented. Midnight wound washing and sin scrubbing will result.

When I pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,” today, I do believe it sounds differently than it did yesterday. I hear a distant whistle calling me out of my cell; I think it is the sound of Pentecost.

Your grace is sufficient.

In Jesus Name,

Amen

A Walk though Acts 15

Transparent bowtie40 I miss those days when little people lived in my house. I do not miss the need to buy new sneakers when they outgrew them every three months, and I certainly do not miss parent-teacher conferences. This morning I am missing the opportunity to share great literature with one of my daughters or son in my lap after work or before they went to bed. Even before they could understand the words and thought the pages were for eating rather than enjoying the wonderful illustrations we would share those moments.

For example, I have not been able to read words like these for quite a while:

I AM SAM. I AM SAM. SAM I AM.

THAT SAM-I-AM! THAT SAM-I-AM! I DO NOT LIKE THAT SAM-I-AM!

WOULD YOU LIKE GREEN EGGS AND HAM?

I DO NOT LIKE THEM, SAM-I-AM.

I DO NOT LIKE GREEN EGGS AND HAM.

WOULD YOU LIKE THEM HERE OR THERE?

WOULD YOU, COULD YOU, ON A BOAT? I COULD NOT, WOULD NOT, ON A BOAT.I WILL NOT, WILL NOT, WITH A GOAT.I WILL NOT EAT THEM IN THE RAIN.NOT IN THE DARK! NOT IN A TREE!NOT IN A CAR! YOU LET ME BE!I DO NOT LIKE THEM IN A BOX.I DO NOT LIKE THEM WITH A FOX. (Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess)

Oh, what passion, plot, characterization and playful use of the language! I have to smile as I think about the building tension in the story where Sam-I-Am evangelizes the unnamed Other. Other began by disliking Sam-I-Am before disliking his message. Eventually Other overcame his prejudice long enough to sample the delicacy. The story ends with celebration and thanksgiving for Other’s stretched palate as well as for Sam-I-Am.

Of course, I enjoyed reading Bible stories to my children as well. Oh, what passion, plot, characterization, and playful use of language! How could I not laugh with them as we thought about picking little bugs from our teeth while trying to swallow a camel… whether it was one hump or two.

Sometimes the plot got a little too thick to explain to little children. Sometimes the Gordian knots of disagreements became so entangled that even I had to read and believe without understanding all. While those days with little children in my house are memories from the last millennium, I still wrestle with the plot and promised resolution when all things would be reconciled back to the Creator. I still smile when I read the Word, but I must confess I weep a little too.

Acts 15 could be taken from church conferences or ministers’ bulletin board chat pages today. Well-meaning disciples from the Pharisee tradition went from Jerusalem without authorization to make sure the new disciples in Antioch had experienced full salvation. They were appalled to see the lack of circumcision and violation of so many 613 laws from the Old Testament. Perhaps they wanted to add many of their own additional protections to the law to make sure the new Jesus followers kept all of the traditions.

Peter listened to the extended debate before responding.

Much debating and much listening play key roles in becoming a missionary people. Passions flair as deep emotions come to light. Each side lines up their arguments like 17thcentury military tactics that arranged soldiers in nice little rows. Practiced debaters ram the arguments home as so many musket balls driven down the barrel of flint lock weapons. Such rhetoricians live to win, to display the bloodied corpses on the battlefield.

Then someone mentioned God’s work, the gospel, the Holy Spirit, faith and grace. A couple more brothers stood and spoke of signs and wonders in the battle field – a battle field of human redemption rather than triumph of one faction over the other.

Then a godly leader placed aside his own preferences to remember prophetic words where both the tent of David and seeking Gentiles would be saved. The mission won. No party lost. The mission won. They wrote a letter and sent it by the hand of two prophets, Barsabbas and Silas. The prophets went into a place filled with “unsettled minds”, brought words of encouragement and strength, and left the place occupied by the Prince of Peace.

No party lost – the mission won. Confusion and marginalized status left. Prophets brought healing words.

But wait … as we giggle with hope and healing, the plot thickens once again. Another disagreement comes to the surface between two brothers who had seen the angry mob of disappointed idol worshippers. They could stand together against external threats, but the split over disagreements from within. Jesus promised offenses would come; He even told us the real offenses would come from within the body. Demonic forces could not separate the two apostles. Mobs and government agencies failed to divide them. Considering restoring an immature leader did the trick. A chapter with much hope and grace reminds us that we never will outgrow the need hear God’s voice above the arguments of others. More critically, can we hear God’s voice above our own arguments?

God did (and still does) amazing things in sending the Gospel to new people groups through His faithful Sam-I-Ams of evangelism and care. God still calls Sam-I-Ams and Others to focus on the mission rather than the things that separate them.

I prefer to eat green eggs and ham the right way – on a china plate with nice cutlery and a cloth napkin across my lap. I hear some of my brothers use paper plates and plasticware. I hear some of my sisters scramble their green eggs before mixing them with diced ham and jalapenos in a corn tortilla. Will there be no end to the differences? Can I hear grace speak louder than my preferences as we live the green eggs and ham way in the world? Can I go beyond tolerance of my fellow Southeast Asian culinary experts and assist them as they wrap their green eggs and ham in banana leaves before feeding the hungry? Will we ever stop testing God?

I think I really need to pray.

Lord,

Forgive me for avoiding conflicts in the body. I resist the debate to keep the peace. Instead of sharing the responsibility to find missional unity together under the superintending power of the Holy Spirit, I tend to line up the arguments as tin soldiers in my mind. Walls build. I resist the spiritual gifts of others and lose the opportunity to bless others with the grace you have given me.

Help me to realize the real sufferers in our arguments is a world that waits for You. Give me the courage to examine the yoke I carry and expect others to carry. Help me to give space for other voices rather than just finding five people who agree with me to settle the point for us.

Heal my eyes so I can see again. I really want to see what you are doing in the world today. I really want to see where You call the body to labor together even though our cultural garments, diets, and worship styles may look a little different. Help me to see vital points of agreement must be maintained as we labor together. Help me know what does not matter. Help me hear both the strict James-like party and the testimonies of signs and wonders. You have placed so many different people in Your body. Help us labor together for the sake of the mission.

Help us make space for immature apprentices when they ask to rejoin the team.

Finally, pour more grace on us when we fail to labor together. We must not succumb to cynicism, pride, or despair when we cannot agree. We must learn offenses will still come from within the body, but Your grace is still sufficient.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.

In Jesus Name,

Amen

A Walk through Acts 14

Transparent bowtie40Perhaps we have all heard someone exclaim, “That will leave a mark!” after witnessing an accident of some type or a particularly vicious looking weapon. Both speaker and hearer give thanks for not being a part of the crumpled steel or on the receiving end of the weapon.

Not all marks present themselves for visual inspection. Children who have repeatedly suffered from neglect, violence, or verbal shame carry marks on their spirit. While children are quite resilient in being able to survive harsh circumstances, they carry the marks of abuse where there should have be marks of love.

Some external marks do not convey the depth of spirit wounds. Surely the tattoos of holocaust survivors only reveal a tiny amount of the distress experienced on the inside. Those who suffer violence may have a scar where wounds once oozed the stuff of life, but the trauma of PTSD can shatter spirits for a lifetime. Humans have tools for accurately tracing pock marks on the moon, but we are at a loss to accurately measure marks on the human spirit and the impact of those wounds. Some wounds even get passed from generation to generation. Sin has marked all people, families, and elements of culture.

As I read Acts 14 I see many mark-leaving events. As I seek to place myself in the traveling disciple band, the sights, sounds, smells and texture of the marks jump from nearly every sentence Luke transmits to us. I can hear them “speak in such a way” that a great number of Jews and Greeks believe. The Gospel leaves marks that way. The hearer either accepts the grace marks or gives voice to the poisonous marks in their mind. Grace exposes the marks of sin even as it transforms the old wounds to healing paths that draw us to God, each other, and the Master’s mission in the world.

When a life-long disabled man listens to Paul’s talk, he dared to believe twisted limbs could be reformed by grace. When Paul saw faith begin to mark the man’s face, he commanded the man to stand. The man’s faith went even further; he sprang up and walked. At that moment the whole city saw grace marks and had to respond.

Marks are subject to interpretation. In this case the city misinterpreted the results of grace. Part of their collective psyche was an ancient story of gods visiting their city. The city rejected the gods except for one poor couple. When judgement fell, only the hospitable couple survived. The city went into god-welcoming mode when they saw their brother walk. Unfortunately they did not have adequate experience in reading the signs of grace even though all of nature declared God’s grace. Because of grace, God witnessed through the life-giving rains and fruitful seasons that brought gladness even to idol worshippers.

Plans for worshipping Barnabas and Paul as Zeus and Hermes escaped the apostles’ attention until the garland adorned oxen approached the city gates. The priests’ best attire, glistening knives, and smiling faces in the crowd told the men what the foreign tongue couldn’t … they were about to be worshiped as gods.

They tore their garments to mark the blasphemy of the occasion. Their explanation barely stopped the grievous outcome.

When the two men rejected the crowd’s interpretation, the people had to choose between two alternatives. Were these men witness of a new God as they claimed or were they some malevolent force that came to overturn all of their city’s traditions? Rejecting the praise of humanity frequently leaves a mark. Jesus would not be the kind of king Jerusalem wanted, so honor changed to angry mob action and Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul went from a god speaking for Zeus to a villain to be stoned. No middle ground existed. Paul could not accept worship for a while until he could transfer it to Jesus.

They left him for dead. They inadvertently helped Paul clarify his theology.

As the apostles made their way back through the various disciple bands they encouraged the new believers with a strange message. They would enter the kingdom by faith and by suffering tribulation. As I sit in on the Bible study held under the flickering light of an oil lamp, the bruises of the speaker must have punctuated the words more than a Hammond B3 organ. The word ‘tribulation’ sounds different when spoken through broken teeth.

The marked man offered his Bible study group the chance to be marked like him. Marked by faith in God’s offered grace and marked by the opposition. Evidently enough heard the call as they took the cup and bread that night to call for the appointment of new elders.

As I finish the journey with the missionaries, a journey that required walking 60 to 100 miles between cities after being left for dead, I have to come home to Texas. I cannot stay with them. I cannot worship them any more than the cities could. Like most people I want to leave some kind of mark on the world. But the apostles’ words still ring in my ears and I can still taste the cup and bread, tokens of Jesus’ suffering and hope, on my tongue. Am I willing be carry all the marks of grace, or do I want to be worshipped for having done something?

I think this calls me to pray.

Oh Lord,

Thank you for your boundless grace! My family and I carry so many grace marks that we have lost count. We know each day starts with new mercies. All we have to do is pray and receive.

I repent of the various ways I have accepted worship that only belongs to You. Sometimes I have lived faithfully and done good works to be noticed, to find value in that performance. Those efforts marked me those I served in a negative way. In those moments I have exchanged the boundless love and value you placed on me for my feeble efforts to produce value for myself. Forgive me I pray! Even now as I pray I know your grace washes over me afresh. Today has new grace marks.

I pray for the strength we all need to accept and even value the tribulations that accompany entering the kingdom. Surely identifying with You and Your kingdom will place us in opposition to a world that prefers idols of their own making, idols they control, rather than worshipping the Creator.

Finally, I am so blessed that I do not have to walk this way alone. The Holy Spirit guides my brothers, sisters, and me on this kingdom journey.

As I recount my marks today. I give you glory all over again. All glory and honor belong to You. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.

In Jesus Name,

Amen

A Walk through Acts 13

Transparent bowtie40  Living in Missouri for 21 years provided the opportunity to go to Branson, a cultural center for some mid-west folks, on quite a few occasions. The trip always included visiting at least one of the entertainment palaces: country music, comedians, troubadours on horseback to accompany meals eaten with fingers, outdoor dramas, biblical character productions, Asian jugglers and magicians. I tend to enjoy most productions because of the fellowship with friends and family setting with me. One venue, however, had to be endured through sheer will power. Attending a magic show rates right down there with root canals and colonoscopies.

Other audience members audibly respond to the tricks while I selfishly wish someone would pull the fire alarm to put me out of my misery. For some reason the tricks do not peak my curiosity. I can’t make myself care enough to figure out how the hankies change color or the lovely assistant gets bloodlessly bifurcated. I know they are highly skilled craftsman; I just find more excitement in watching small ripples in a quiet pond at a much cheaper price point.

Magic is not so innocuous in some parts of the world. Witch doctors control villages in many cultures. Powerful world figures consult them to make important discussions. That kind of magic goes back beyond the days of King Saul. In Acts 13 we see an Apostolic encounter with a sorcerer or magician. The encounter made visible the protestations of evil ordered against the dawning of a new day in God’s salvation history. Bar-Jesus, the Jewish magician, saw the threat to his power position. He misrepresented the Lord’s straight way and sought to keep the governor from the faith.

Other established Jewish leaders reacted in a similar way to the upstart Jewish sect. They heard the same message as the common Jew and God-fearer Gentile, but envy kept them from really hearing the Word. Rather than magic, they resorted to their position and tradition to stir up the city power brokers.

Acts 13 demonstrates the stark difference between the Holy Spirit on one side and the human defenses of witchcraft and slander on the other. Envy served as a powerful motivator that blocked the ability to see and hear the gracious Gospel message. Bar-Jesus was physically blinded for a season while the synagogue leaders experienced spiritual deafness. Paul certainly knew what both of these Gospel responses looked like. At one time he defended what he knew against the new Jewish sect. He too had experienced temporary blindness for his efforts. Paul’s solitude prepared him to hear the disciple who would pray and share grace with him. Paul knew how to confront the resisters … because he once used the same emotional rejections to the preached word.

Have I mentioned I don’t enjoy magic acts?

I really don’t like them when I discover my own use of God’s gifts devolving into the realm of magic. Sometimes I have used the Name as a magical enchantment to get my way. If I call on the Name the right way while increasing frequency and fervency, then the door should open as I want like Alibaba and the 40 thieves chanting “Open Sesame.”

I have seen well-meaning people use church attendance, fasting, holiness “standards”, and tithing as magical tokens as if these talismans would protect us from physical, financial, and spiritual evil. We think to ourselves, “If I do these things, then I should not have to actually walkthrough the valley of shadow of death.”

While all of these practices have tremendous value for followers of Christ, they are not our magical tools to get our way. Envy and pride blocked Bar-Jesus and the synagogue leaders from seeing the Holy Spirit work, the Word preached, and grace dispensed.

If I am not careful I could miss God’s missionary work in the world today because a magical gospel protects who I am rather than propel me into the world as salt and light. Paul and Barnabas used the same texts and synagogue structure to proclaim the Gospel, but they did so on behalf of the world as witnesses sent by the Spirit.

What results came from authentic use of spiritual resources?

  • The Word was preached.
  • Jews and Gentiles heard and asked for more.
  • People were filled with the Holy Spirit, gladness and joy.
  • A promising mentee withdrew from the team and went home to safer prayer meetings.
  • The disciple team got kicked out of town.
  • The mission continued to the next city.

I think I need to pray.

Dear Jesus,

Thank you for all of those prayer meetings with teachers, prophets and other saints. The Spirit spoke. Thank you for letting me know that even when I pray alone, I pray with my brothers and sisters. The Spirit still speaks! Thank you for sending us into the world today just as you sent Barnabas and Saul in Acts 13.

I repent of defensive prayers and attitudes towards those who do not yet see. I repent of taking rejection personally when I have honestly taught the Word to offer the pure wonder of grace to people in need.

But I really must intercede for forgiveness for efforts to control the moving of the Spirit through some kind of holy magic. I truly do not want controllable grace or programed witness to the world. I do not want to control others, for then I would rely on my own ability and want the glory for myself. You want to do a different, unbelievable work for all people.

As I turn from magical use of the Name and spiritual disciplines. I pray my spirit opens to the Wonder Work You ARE doing in the world today (v. 41). I pray for humility to see all of the Spirit’s work in my brother and sisters’ lives. When we follow the Spirit’s directions, then the contrast between a dark world and Gospel light will be sharpened. Hungry people will follow. Temporary blindness will lead some to reflect on the Light. Defensive spirits will be exposed.

You will be glorified.Your kingdom will come, and Your will shall be done.

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen

A Walk Through Acts 12

Transparent bowtie40  Every family has a sleep walking story or two. Those stories get told at family gatherings where members feel safe; they can celebrate belonging enough to recount the events with laughter rather than shame. My family has old sleep walking stories from when we were children as well as new ones now that our family has expanded to include in-law daughter and sons. Sorry, I can’t tell those stories now though they bring a smile to my face just thinking about them and anticipating the family get togethers this fall.

Perhaps you have never experienced sleep walking, but we all know what it is like to do automatic driving. We have gone down the same road so many times that we no longer see the passing scenery or the pilots of neighboring missiles zipping down the highway at ten miles over the speed limit. As we shut off the ignition at home we wonder how we got there.

Peter slept. The night awaiting execution in a cell where his good friend James’ life had ended with a sword was not enough to keep him awake. Luke carefully points to the calendar as well. The Passover 10 or 11 years before had brought him the greatest shame he had ever experienced. Somewhere in that decade Jesus’ recall recorded in John 21 had wiped away all shame. Maybe placing his hands on another sinner who thought he had no hope gave him the opportunity to recount his own “unforgivable” past that could not block the power of God’s love. He slept shamelessly, freed from worry. The church would survive without him. The Holy Spirit would see to that. He was about to experience the transition from this life to the next … that last journey held joyfully anticipated mysteries. Even prison shackles could not disrupt his sleep.

Acts celebrates many prayer and prison stories. Prayer tuned the saints’ lives for kingdom purposes and opened their eyes to what God planned for them (spoiler alert, chapter 13 will start with another prayer meeting). Prayer revealed open doors. So did prisons. They were free in every location, so incarceration just provided another context for the Holy Spirit to do His work. They expected imprisonment for the gospel. The sharp contrast between the light of the gospel and darkness of sin around them guaranteed jail time. They worked toward overthrowing the darkness rather than overthrowing governments.

Peter did not know he was free until he reached the street. The angel’s job, girding up his cloak and lacing his sandals didn’t arouse him. The street did. Once awakened his first thought was to go to a prayer meeting at a saint’s house. Just a bunch of saints praying in one of the sister’s residence. The leaders were not in attendance; the saints followed the Spirit’s lead in prayer. Peter wanted to be there to share the testimony of divine deliverance.

Then Peter just left and “went to another place”. We only see the apostle one more time in Acts 15 when he reminds the church of the day the Lord opened the door to the Gentiles. Then he faded away. The lead apostle acknowledged James and the brothers took the visible leadership positions now. And the church multiplied.

Meanwhile soldiers died for losing their charge. The penalty for the prisoner became their own as was customary for the day. (Humm, this sounds similar to Jesus’ own death for letting us go free.) Herod would die more slowly than they did. Due to his pride the Roman vassal received an angelic visitation as did Peter. He died of some intestinal worm disease. Josephus said it took him four or five days to succumb to their infestation. I doubt he slept very much.

Acts 12 ends quietly. Luke simply gives the plans for a 400-mile trip by Barnabas, Saul, and John Mark – the one nourished on prayer in his mother’s house. The two evangelists had finished their mission to deliver financial aid to the Jerusalem church, so they went back to their disciples in Antioch. While Peter would only get one more mention in Acts, the Spirit was about to do an amazing new thing through these three men even though they did not know it at the time.

Peter didn’t mind. His sleepiness was not lethargy … it was contentment that his whole life belonged to the Lord. The Lord could use him in accordance with His purposes. To live or die was the Lord’s good pleasure. The Lord’s plan would be achieved in startling and unexpected ways, and the Lord alone would be glorified. No wonder he slept. Psalm 127:2 had never been truer.

I think I need to pray.

Dear Jesus,

Sometimes I sleep walk and sometimes I just can’t sleep. I sleep walk when my life has become automated with little appreciation for the work You want to do today and little anticipation for what is to come. Have mercy. How many angels have I missed?

You are calling me to a peaceful existence in a turbulent world. A place where I can find rest in prison or in the prayer meeting. A place where I can trust Your divine leadership plans and step aside to whatever work You have next for me. A place where I can finish one task and then go home with friends.

I wonder what awaits the church in these troubling times. I know You have something mighty in store for the church on behalf of the world. I look forward to laboring with others in whatever small or big place You have for us. You will get all of the glory.

We will find our rest in You without fear of sword, gut worms, or of being without value in Your body. You have promised to lead us. We will follow.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen

A Walk Through Acts 11

Transparent bowtie40 Public discourse seems to have lost its civility these days. Periods of rapid social upheaval contribute to a combustible atmosphere where even moderately heated discussions create flash fires and ground shaking explosions. As a lifelong member of academic communities (from the beginning of my academic career at 5 years old in Galatia, Illinois, to receiving professor emeritus status from Urshan Graduate School of Theology last year when I was 55), I always thought universities where places to explore ideas in a respectful way. Now major universities have ‘safe zones’ where students can hide from ideas that challenge or threaten them.

Safe-zones supposedly protect students from encountering emotionally challenging ideas. Proponents suggest such places keep students emotionally comfortable at all times. While the image of God should never be attacked in a person by considering them less valuable than the majority group, constant emotional comfort is not an option for adults or even children. The freedom to discuss ideas, respectfully challenge positions of others, collect data from various perspectives may be too old fashioned to support in our diverse world.

Shuttering places to share diverse perspectives kills the perspective taking need to understand others. Refusing to listen hardens differences and actively contributes to culture wars, civil unrest, and conditions for violence.

Not every idea is good. Not every perspective will stand the test of time, but healing cannot happen until voices can be respected enough to be heard. Historically silencing opposing voices has led to dictatorships that often progress from silencing voices to murder and genocide in the guise of creating a safer, purer environment for a brighter future. If this is true of society in general, how much more it is true for the church.

Luke’s story that began with angel voices announcing John Baptist and Jesus’ birth continued through to the disciples taking the good news to the world. Many growth moments sprang from the soil of misunderstanding and disagreement. Often I wonder how the Holy Spirit could work with such people. Then hope breaths again in my chest… maybe the Holy Spirit can still work with such people like me today.

Reading Acts 11 reveals Luke’s appreciation for redundancy. He frequently retells stories to help the reader see beyond the travelogue surface of the book. Like a historian from the last generation, Kenneth Scott Latourette, Luke told the story of missionary work rather than a diary of events. Retelling the story reveals the key actors, the plot, and the conflict. Jesus was always the key actor. The plot always led to multiplication of disciples. More threats came from within the church than from society around them.

In Acts 11, Luke exposes threats to missional faithfulness by celebrating the Spirit’s work in settling disagreements. The Spirit worked to encourage the ‘conservative’ leaders to confront the ‘liberal’ leaders. Conservative forces sought to keep the church the way it was … limited to the Jewish believers. The Spirit helped Peter serve as a transitional leader to hear God’s voice by reflecting on the past events, truly hearing the concerns of his brothers, and telling the story of God’s grace. The Spirit freed the troubled leaders to be silent as they listened and then glorify God in wonder of the kingdom’s expansion to the Gentiles.

What result came from the church listening to the Spirit and each other? “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (v. 21). The Spirit did not stop with resolving the conflict and adding new believers. Jesus’ declaration that all power was His and He would use that power to make disciples can be seen in Acts 11. New converts required discipleship. The church sent a good, spirit filled, man of faith named Barnabas to bring spiritual infants through a season of maturation.

For a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught them. They knew the wonder of new birth. They could celebrate the wonder of a transformed life, but they needed instruction in purposefully living out the ways of Jesus. People who never saw Jesus in the flesh became known as Christ followers because of Barnabas and Saul’s discipleship ministry. The same power that made the crowd say Peter had been with Jesus now made a new generation of saints from a completely different culture “faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.”

These new parts of the church did not carry a stigma of ‘our generation’ or ‘our culture’. They became part of the culture of Christ even though their journey to faith looked different from the established church. Their worship looked a bit different with strange languages and other cultural differences. Yet they knew they belonged to the same faith family. When famine came to the established church, the new believers did the work of a disciple … they provided care for brothers and sisters in need.

Acts 11 was not the first or last occasion of sharp disagreement in the early church. Strong leaders with equally strong opinions on how the church should navigate change had to repeatedly take the risk of sharing their differences, hearing the perspectives of others, and listening for the Spirit to guide them through treacherous paths in the journey. Caring enough for the gospel, each other, and the mission instilled this Apostolic method of conflict resolution.

I think I need to pray.

Dear Lord,

I repent of moments when I shied away from conflict in an effort to just get along. I know I tend to keep the peace rather than see the creative work of the Spirit in times when brothers and sisters lovingly share their understanding of the mission. Have mercy on us, Oh, Lord! Make us a people of Your goodness, Spirit, and faith like Barnabas. Help us to understand Your safe zones always explore differences no matter how painful the process may be. Your safe zones come equipped with grace and spiritual giftings to help us speak and listen defenselessly. Help us to leave those rooms as worshipping missionaries ready to transition new converts into disciples that have been with You.

Thy kingdom come thy will be done.

In Jesus Name,

Amen