A Walk Through Acts 28

In our travels my family and I have received a number of gift baskets. An early fond memory of a gift basket came from a dear family friend, Nancy Norris. Our four children were already fastened in their seats for the annual pilgrimage to visit family when she the goodie bags for the kids. She knew they would enjoy the trip if they had a few extra snacks, coloring books, and other trinkets to keep the occupied. Of course Nancy’s gift blessed Sherri and me even more than it did the kids! We will never forget the thoughtfulness expressed in that moment. The bags represent a lifetime of love for our children.

On a couple of occasions I told churches hosting Sherri and me that they had given us a MOAB – Mother of All Bags. Those bags could sustain small villages through a seven-year drought! Sometimes church administrators send an info request sheet to see what we like to drink and our favorite snacks. Frequently the bag contains fun things (at least fun for a professor-emeritus person like me) such as paper, pens, and back-up battery for a cell phone. One January a church included leather dress gloves to get me through a few bitter days in northern Ohio; those gloves still have a place in my winter coat pocket. Gift baskets, regardless of the size, contents, or value, make the receiver feel welcome.

Those gift baskets serve a far different purpose than the ones Oscar acting and directing nominees receive before the awards show each year. In 2016, the last year the sponsoring company published the price tag, the bag weighed in at $232,000 worth of swag. The list ranged from $6 chapstick to a couple of trips worth about $55,000 each. Donors hoped the entertainment elite would leverage some endorsement their way for the free stuff.

A walk through Acts 28 highlights missionary living in receiving and giving hospitality. The ancient world placed a higher value on hospitality as a functional part of life than what I am likely to ever experience. Many places in scripture we read of the call to care for strangers as well as examples of doing so. The dangerous nature of travel, limited resources, absence of a ‘hospitality’ industry such as hotels and eating places, migration patterns, and many other factors contributed to the development of hospitality.

Hospitality had its risks then as it does now, but the risk could last a lifetime. Jesus told a prayer illustration of pending shame if the host could not get food for the late night guest. The host would rather have an angry neighbor than the shame of being unhospitable. Ancient hospitality lasted for a lifetime. Hospitality went beyond welcoming a guest into the home, washing weary feet, providing a meal and bed, and sharing life stories to exchanging identifying tokens to offer proof of the relationship to others. 

Perhaps the modern military challenge token comes close to this exchange. The token commemorates a significant event or relationship, serves as a reminder of the relationship, and provides a sign to others who may see it. Some ancient families handed the tokens to the next generation to continue the link for many years to come. This kind of hospitality goes far beyond offering a drink of water and “Ya’ll come back now”.

Paul received hospitality from pagans on Malta after the shipwreck. Luke comments on their “unusual kindness” for the weary, water-logged refugees crawling their way up the rocky beach. As Paul returned the hospitality by assisting in the building the fire a deadly viper latched onto him. Local theology concluded Paul must have been a very wicked man – the god of Justice worked to finish the little man’s destruction. Theologies quickly changed to ascribe Paul divinity status when the snake had no impact on his stick gathering activities. Missionary Paul served as a good house guest by healing sick people for three months. 

Luke does not recount one baptism or Holy Spirit outpouring. I have heard people say Paul failed on Mars Hill because only a few believed; they suggest he should have preached from the Old Testament like he did in synagogues even though the audience had no awareness of the Bible. In this case the healing demonstrated God’s power and desire to restore all things, yet no one accepted the truth. Paul modeled being a witnessing guest even when people continued in their pagan ways.

The journey to Rome included hospitality at several points. They stayed with saints along the way. Another group of disciples made the 40-mile trip from Rome to accompany him the rest of the way to his divinely appointed destination. Luke carefully informed his readers that Paul took courage from these encounters. God’s work frequently happens in these moments of hospitality.

Thanksgiving and courage result. God is glorified. The kingdom comes.

Luke ends the book with hospitality. He started the book with disciples welcoming the Holy Spirit after a 10 day wait; decades later the church lives out this hospitality lifestyle. Paul welcomes his enemies as well as friends to his place of house arrest. Hospitality provided he chance to “proclaim the kingdom of God and teach about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hinderance.” Chains and guards could not stop hospitable witness. Paul probably had to continue to work his tent making craft or spend an inheritance to support himself, his team and his visitors during this time. He did it with joy. The God who welcomed him structured the apostle’s life around welcoming others.

Paul’s commitment to hospitable witness calls me to pray.

Dear Lord,

You always work to restore relationships through hospitality. Your life modeled welcoming those who usually experienced rejection. By letting a woman at a well serve You water, she became an early evangelist in Samaria. You call disciples to practice giving and receiving hospitality as a mark of being like You.

Forgive me of thinking people will know You through words of reconciliation without the accompanying deeds of reconciliation. Please forgive me for thinking welcoming others is a failure if they do not choose to be baptized or receive the Holy Spirit after the conversation, cup of coffee, or act of service. 

I want to be like You and Uncle Paul. I want to give and receive hospitality in a way that witnesses to Your kingdom coming and Your will being done. 

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen

A Walk Through Acts 27

An ever-changing world requires a shifting skill set. Children now take keyboarding classes in early elementary school, but many never learn to read or write cursive. In many ways I lament the loss of handwriting. This morning I used a vintage Conway Stewart 58 to jot a few notes. People wonder why I paid $100 for the pen ten years ago. I often hear comments about how many plastic Bics they can buy for that amount. My pen is cheaper, lasts far longer, and brings me more writing pleasure than the three or four phones I have had during that period.

I am not against phones; they do come in handy for checking email, fidgeting while waiting for Sherri to come out of Wal-Mart, and finding directions. I no longer have an atlas in the car or a glove box full of maps from various states. Those big, accordion folded sheets of paper that mapped all the arteries of American transportation languish in antique stores with the fountain pens. Now men who would never admit they are lost or pause to ask for directions take orders from a lady every time they go off of the beaten path. While GPS may take me through parts of town I may not have gone on my own, I do not get lost anymore. I only miss the old maps when Sherri and I want a “wandering vacation” where we keep to three rules: stay off of four lane highways, avoid bad weather, and turn around when half the money runs out.

As I walk through Acts 27 I am struck by the way Paul was literally and figuratively swept away by the currents of life. Other people decided when they would leave one port for another, the type of ship they would ride, and when they would pause for wintering. Paul gave suggestions, but no one paid attention to the prisoner.

The trip began on small coast hugging boats, but they soon switched to a ship transporting grain from Egypt to the masses in Rome. The ship owner and captain had to balance the threat of a late season voyage against profits to be earned. The decision to leave Fair Haven made sense – they left a city without a safe harbor for Phoenix where the ship would find protection from storms from any direction. They could certainly take the risk to sail for one more day to reach a safe place to winter. 

The day began with a gentle breeze. Then the northeastern winds blew off of the 7,000-foot mountain tops and the sea became angry. Sailors threw some of the cargo and equipment overboard rather than the preacher as had happened so many years ago. This preacher experienced sustaining grace rather than delivering grace. Luke did not record rebuking of the storm or crying out for deliverance. Paul had not chosen the destination or set the course. His deep-set confidence in the One who called him to witness before kings sustained him through the sunless days.

Paul feared loss of cargo and of “our own lives”. He felt anxious over the decisions others made. Luke drove the point home by stating “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” Paul had defended his hope when threatened by human adversaries in chapter 26, now his hope suffers with this new threat. As the storm screamed of pending death and the arms of the sea reached up to receive the bodies of those about to die, Paul experienced fear with the other 275 people on the ship. The clouds blocked any hope of mapping the journey by plotting a course with the stars. 

But the heavens where not silent.

At that moment Paul got a messenger from God. The angel commanded him to reject the rational fear of the moment in favor of the deep confidence in God’s call so many years ago. The wind could change nothing. While sailors bound the ship with ropes to try to keep the boards secure, Paul held himself together by the angel’s reminder that he would stand before the king. He did not pray against the storm; he already had a word that the storm would pass.

Paul got a bonus message – he got to keep all of the people on the ship from harm too. 

The storm provided a convincing background for Paul to witness yet again. He spoke of the One he worshipped, the One who sent the messenger. Paul may have lost hope of surviving the storm prior to the angelic visit, but he kept his faith. That kind of faith must be shared with a world that can only trust in fragile, eggshell-like lifeboats in those dark stormy nights. After the witnessing came the food for those who had fasted for 14 days.

That kind of faith calls me to pray.

Dear Jesus,

My world needs real faith – a faith that can speak in those dark, hopeless nights. I am ashamed of moments when I have lost hope that the storms will pass. I know You have called Sherri and me to serve You with our lives, but a few of the storms seem to have lasted so long that our efforts and voices seem to be lost in the chaos.

Thank you for the Bible’s honesty. Paul defended his hope in one chapter when faced with a king and 5,000 soldiers, but in the storm his hope waivered. You did not abandon him in those moments. Instead You chose to send him a message.

Thank you for all of the messages You have sent my way through the years. Some messages have come through dreams and a vision. Other messages came through a dear saint sharing a word with me that had originated in Your throne room.

I have confidence that Sherri and I will make it through every storm to come just has You have taken us through so many in the past. Give me the courage to know when to quit praying against the storm and start sharing faith with people who are so terrified and hungry in the storm. Help me to trust Your guiding hand when life seems to give me very few options. Your purpose and intent for us cannot be thwarted by poor decisions of others or by abrupt changes in life. We will treasure Your sustaining grace even when we would prefer Your delivering grace. You always know what we needed to complete the missionary journey You have laid out for us.

Today my faith and hope both rise by the power of Your Word and Spirit. Nothing can stop Your kingdom coming and Your will being done on earth as it is heaven.

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen

A Walk Through Acts 26

I have been a defendant at court only one time in my life. To say I did not enjoy the process would be an understatement. I could have settled the situation out of court, but in my mid 20s justice captured my emotions and decision-making processes more than pragmatic concerns. I felt like I was the victim rather than the perpetrator, so I wanted my day in court. Even 35 years later I am still a bit bugged by the incident.

The drama started late one night on the way home from the Busti Fire Department where a brother or two served on the volunteer roster. My first and only motorcycle, a 1974 Honda 450 if memory serves me correctly, was beneath me, and my friend Kyle held on for life behind me. The country lane from Busti to my parents’ home in Jamestown, New York, could probably accommodate two automobiles passing one another, but it did not have the room for my bike, its passengers and an Alaska Malamute dog. Something had to give.

While I truly feel sorry for the dog, I give thanks for the guardian angel that fought to keep the bike upright and both of its passengers astride. As a relatively inexperienced biker, I could not hardly believe my good fortune. I had trouble breathing as well. We made it to our destination without further incident even though the bike needed a little work before I could shift gears again. 

The dog did not move. Cops were called. One of my beloved brothers outed me. I got a summons to appear in court to face my charges of leaving the scene of an injured dog. Who knew that was even on the books! Evidently Busti’s justice of the peace feared I was a flight risk, so I had to post $60 bail. I could have just paid the $20 fine, but I wanted justice. The dog attacked me where I minded my own business on the public thoroughfare. 

Two weeks later I lost my case. I listened to the JP’s tirade that he could not level a heaver fine. He also threated to start all investigations involving biker violence at my parents’ house where the cop saw four of the dangerous rigs. After I got my $40 refund, the judge left his bench to shake hands with the grieving dog owners; he must have been up for reelection. 

In hindsight, I should have asked for a jury trial – the judge rigged my case!

Walking through Acts 26 I see a completely different attitude in the defendant’s heart. Paul’s ability to keep himself out of the center of the story astounds me. After the show of force we saw in chapter 25, the apostle acted like … well, he acted like an apostle. For someone on Christ’s mission, every event looks like an opportunity to share God’s goodness. Paul knew the potential outcomes of the trial – after all he explained that he had served as the prosecutor on a few cases just like this. 

I find Paul’s statement of charges quite fascinating. He explained to the gathered dignitaries that he his primary crime was hope. I thought I got a bum rap for leaving the scene of an injured dog; Paul faced the charge of having hope. 

I wondered if I could get convicted of that one. Would my accusers find enough evidence of hope to keep the circuit court’s interest long enough to hear the case?

With the charge clarified, Paul astutely argues his case. If he occupied the center of the case, then the defense would be around his actions. Since his hope came from above, Paul served as a witness for the One who brought him hope. The Old Testament promised hope; Jesus delivered it. Would the circuit court find Paul guilty of receive this eternal hope that the dead would rise?

Paul’s first exhibit for the defense was his old life of fury. He pursued, persecuted, and affirmed the death penalty for other people who followed Jesus. His greatest hope at that time was to see someone blaspheme their savior. Instead he had to hear people like Stephen intercede on his behalf. Hope replaced fury.

Paul used his conversion story as his second exhibit. Each time Paul tells his story it looks a little different. He focuses the details on the audience. They HAD to feel his condition, perplexity, and finally joy in conversion. After all, that is what a witness does; he tells of his experience.

 The commission as servant and witness made up the third exhibit. This piece of evidence could play a critical role in proving he truly lived in joy. Some could offer counter evidence that ship wrecks, beatings, prison deprivations, and loss of status made joy impossible. Paul insisted he joyfully lived to serve and witness regardless of any given day’s incidentals.

Paul finished his argument with his strongest evidence. His joy came alive when he saw the light and liberty God offered to all people. Not only could they repent of sinful ways, they could actually live like it! Paul explained how witnessing the power to change triggered his arrest. He ought to know … he had arrested others for witnessing to the same power.

As I look over the trial transcript, I think Paul left out some key evidence. He does not talk about raising people from the dead, casting out demons, or healing the sick. Miracles would not convict him of having joy. He had learned the lesson of the 70 witnesses in Luke 10. Jesus taught them to find joy in having their name in the Book rather than making demons obey their command. Paul and the 70 had power, but power did not bring them joy. Witnessing did.

No wonder Festus said Paul was out of his mind. The prisoner should not have such joy.

My goodness, the joy-filled prisoner’s case calls me to pray.

Dear Lord,

You know I am a check list kind of guy. I put celebrating simple joy on my list for this week. You also know my basic personality resides on the melancholy side. My personality interacts with the gifts You give me to see spiritual things; this can be an explosive combination. I see men in scripture as well as the contemporary world that suffer from more depression than joy in certain seasons of their life. I repent of looking for joy in wrong places. I confess of seasons of emotional unholiness – emotions controlled by circumstances rather than faith and true hope.

I pray for the kind of hope Paul modeled. I confess I want that more than things to go my way around me. I confess my longing to recenter all things in my life around You and Your mission. You have already fulfilled Your promises. You have already determined the end of the age when all things are restored to You. That fills me with hope. That kind of home brings the transformation of my emotions and my purpose.

I reposition signs of Your power to the position of following me as a believer rather than something I pursue. Miracles and other faith outcomes cannot bring lasting change in my emotions. Instead I know You have saved me, transformed me, and commissioned me to be a missionary witness with all of Your people. You took me through strange paths in my life, but these paths simply reveal Your goodness in many different ways. Thank you for this seedbed of hope and joy. I harvest it today. I live today in the wonder of being Your son – the wonder of sharing Your eternal goodness with others.

When I pray, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, I do so through the hope of seeing that kingdom unfold around me. Thank You for eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to feel the outbreaking of Your kingdom. I delight in witnessing about the kingdom unfolding right in front of me.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen

A Walk Through Acts 25

When I travel beyond the borders of the US my favorite activity is to take a walk. For example, an unscheduled Saturday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, let me sample the city first hand. I found the abundance of sidewalk cafes and stationary stores a pleasant surprise. On the other hand, the red tape to mail letters to my grandsons in the US perplexed me to no end. On another occasion a sick airline pilot gave Sherri and me a chance to spend an evening walking around Hong Kong before resuming our journey to Singapore. Seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and feeling a world class city can happen on an impromptu walking tour. I value the speed of mass transportation, but I cannot get the same experience while going 60 mph on a bus or 180 mph on a Japanese bullet train.

Once in a while I walk through my home town as well. The experience does not capture my attention or imagination. Everything is so familiar. Strolling through crowds with different cadences to their speech, speed of walking, and snack preferences all serve to highlight differences. Home, well, just feels like home.

I remember reading Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle tale when I was a child. Rip, a Dutch American in New York’s Catskill mountains, awoke after a 20-year nap to find his musket stock worm eaten, beard grown, and colonies transformed into a new country. For a while Rip felt like he lived in a strange country, but once he got over the changes he resumed his lifestyle of idleness under the care of his daughter.

Walking through Acts 25 gives me a strange feeling of familiarity with a twist. The feeling is not unlike a walking tour of Singapore where they speak English and use dollars. Accents, mannerisms, history, and customs differ, but so much looks similar. Of course, I am not minimizing differences one experiences in the pristine city with its strict laws and driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I am sure Caesarea offered sights and smells far different from my world, but I notice a number of similarities with my world as well. These similarities beckon me to refocus on my city as a place in need of a missionary witness.

Paul’s trials occurred in a world of pragmatic pluralism. The Roman empire provided a market place for spiritualities. The pantheon of Greek and Roman gods had room to include regional gods of conquered people. Jews could maintain their monotheism since they had an ancient religion and offered no threats to other gods or the growing Caesar cult. Rome just wanted peace where the empire could prosper, expand, and ward off threats that came from the frontiers. Those who upset this balance of peace would be severely punished.

My pragmatic world worships at the temple of tolerance as well. Contemporary American society encourages people to create their own spiritual hybrids. Morality then, as now, focuses on accepting all ideas; immorality often gets redefined as questioning another person’s truth. All other human behavior would be adiaphora – that is spiritually and morally neutral. Politics, power, and currying favor with various interest groups becomes the ‘good’ thing to do. 

Festus represents the desire to find favor with others through political manipulation of events. Paul’s accusers wanted a favor from the governor, and he wanted to do them a favor. Festus also wanted to stay in favor with King Agrippa, his sister Bernice, and the emperor in Rome. To stay in favor, Festus had to navigate the existing legal structures of the day. Festus crafted his story in a way that made his administration look good.

In Acts 25 Luke set the stage for Paul’s defense/testimony in the next chapter. The setting juxtaposes Paul and King Agrippa’s character. Paul stood with his few supporters. The apostle already knew God had ordered his steps to go to Rome. He refused to live his days avoiding death. If legally convicted of true accusations, then he would accept the resultant death sentence. He would reject charges of desecrating the temple. He would accept charges of following his resurrected Lord. As we will see in chapter 26, Paul would turn the trial into one more missionary activity rather than seeking to satisfy pragmatic pluralism policies.

On the other hand, we see the pomp and circumstance around King Agrippa and his sister. Just a decade or so before their father’s life ended in the same city when he declared his own greatness (see Acts 12). Paul’s hearing provided another opportunity for the king to parade his tribunes and their soldiers through the city streets. The clanging of swords, shuffle of combat sandals, and thunder of the officers’ mounts carried the king’s authority into the courtroom. As many as 5,000 armed soldiers and the prominent men of the city created quite a spectacle. 

The young king needed all of this to bolster his newly expanded authority. The apostle only saw an open door to follow the Spirit’s prompting.

This stark differences between these two sources of power call me to prayer.

Lord, 

I marvel again at the incarnation! You came into this world to transform it through serving and suffering. You did not declare judgement from Your magisterial throne. You still send Your people as incarnational missionaries into this world.

I confess social changes over the last couple of decades often confuse me. I lament my country’s steps away from a form of Christianity. I acknowledge my fears and uncertainties over those changes. I realize it was largely a form of godliness without any power. The loss highlights the need for missionary living once more. I repent of triumphal forms of the church where we think civil power, political prominence, and visible evidence of defeating all other thought forms serve as evidence that ‘we’ are winning. 

Help me follow You and Paul, I pray. Help me to go into a confused, pluralistic world that has so little hope of finding real peace and healing. You still send Your people without extra purses and as sheep among the wolves. Expand my vision again to value the Spirit’s power in sending us rather than leaning on political, financial, or military power. Walking in the Spirit is never weak.

Finally, I want to find more comfort in sharing Your name again to a pluralistic society than in avoiding pain or even death that political forces may impose. My place is in service. I never want to feel at home here again. Thank you for awakening me from my slumber.

As we pray Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, You will give us the strength to awaken from slumber, to see stark differences between Your kingdom and this world, and retain our missionary identity rather than seeking comfort and co-existence in the pluralistic marketplace of ideas.

We can only do this through Your Spirit as we live out this mission as one people.

In Jesus’ name I pray,

Amen

A Walk Through Acts 24

When I listen to the words of traditional lullabies, I marvel that children can sleep at all. “Rock-a-bye Baby in the Tree Tops” calls for nightmares of falling to the ground. Such unsafe cradle standards certainly would drive all little ones to snuggle in the safety of their parents’ bed.

But then again parents’ beds might not be safe either. “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” certifies the longstanding potential of infidelity. Or both parents could lose their heads like French monarchs as commemorated by Jack and Jill’s misadventure in falling down the hill with broken crowns.

Nursery rhymes add the reality of taxes to death’s certainty. “Baa, Baa, Black sheep” reminds kids of IRS predecessors that took one bag of wool for the king, one bag for the church, and only left one bag for the farmer. 

One explanation for “Ring around the Rosie” places the rhyme and its circle dance in one of the plagues that brought devastation to Europe. Proponents of that origin suggest the ring was the beginning signs of the plague and the ashes represented the end when bodies were cremated to stop the diseases’ spread. “Pockets full of posies” could have been an early form of essential oils to ward off the illness or at least the smells of death.

Walking through Acts 24 demonstrates responses to the gospel’s good news are not always positive. The chief priests’ hired mouthpiece sought a restraining order against Paul’s plague. Freedom from legalism of Pharisees and political and economic exploitation of the Sadducees threatened to bring death to Jewish life as they knew it. Current circumstances under Roman control brought more comfort than the unknown outcome of following the ‘sect of the Nazarenes’. Flattering the despotic Roman governor, a ruler that used both legal crucifixion and hired assassins to destroy hundreds of opponents, brought more hope to Paul’s accusers than the Way Paul preached.

Auditing the court proceedings nearly 2000 years later, I am fascinated with Paul’s defense. He wonders how his week in Jerusalem could have caused such havoc for them. As a pilgrim seeking to give an offering in the temple, Paul had only been in the holy city for a few days; the rest of the 12 days he spent in protective custody. He had a clean conscious; they apprehended him in a simple purification ritual rather than in defiling the temple. Without evidence, all they only offered rumor and innuendoes from Asian Jews who did not come to the trial.

Paul did not limit his court time to defending his position. He had the floor, so he used it to witness. He believed every hearing was an opportunity to spread the “plague” of The Way. His worship fulfilled the true directives of the law and prophets. Once Paul heard the Damascus Road voice, his perspective of worship underwent a radical transformation. He went from policing worship conformity to witnessing worship. He carefully told the Corinthian church to even be careful about how much speaking in tongues they did in public worship because of the visitors who were present. He encouraged the church to live missionally rather than harness the freedom of new life in The Way to live for themselves. Only by living on the mission could the Jesus plague spread.

 Paul’s conversations with the unjust judge demonstrated his willingness to show people the way of living when they asked. Felix brought his young, beautiful Jewish wife to the first private conference with the apostle. Paul may have known that Felix had seduced her away from her first husband. The scene sounds similar to John Baptist calling Herod to model righteous living. Paul reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgement. Paul must have had a bad case of the plague to confront a governor known for keeping executioners busy. 

Luke does not give much information on how Paul spent those two years. Protective custody must have chafed a man of action. Yet he held conferences with the governor when requested and rejected the option of buying his way out of confinement. He must have truly believed the Lord could use these limiting circumstances to achieve kingdom purposes. 

No human designed strategic plan would suggest prison was a good place for a church planter. No human would use holiness in public service and personal self-control as a witnessing tool. I wonder if I have a full blown case of the Jesus plague or a nice little inoculation? 

The question calls me to prayer.

Dear Jesus,

You lived to fulfill the Father’s will in everything You did. I can only imagine how much fun You had at times – seeing the blind healed and the dead raised must have been a blast. Passing out Wonder Bread must have made Your eyes sparkle. But You did it out of faithfulness rather than pursuit of fun. Wrestling with Satan in Your depleted 40-day fast state must have required total focus. That focus took You to the people at the margins where they felt discarded by people of value. In the Olive Press Garden, You prayed for the strength to drink the bitter cup.

I repent of the ways I allow even small things to sidetrack my attention. You and Paul went to court, prison, and death for the Kingdom. Sometimes I whine because I need a new fence for my yard or my convertible top is broken. I believe You are calling me to a full blown case of the Plague, of walking in the Way where small irritants as well as potential satisfaction with ‘normal’ American living fade away with the quest to be faithful.

Bless me with focus, I pray. Let that focus guide my actions, emotions, and relationships. That kind of kingdom focus would provide the guide for daily faithfulness rather than frustration preoccupation. That focus would help me resist buying my way out of challenging circumstances; instead I could worship You at all times. That focus would give me confidence to keep walking when I do not see any progress toward Your Kingdom goals.

I feel contentment flooding my spirit right now as I pray Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done. I know the Spirit will guide me in the refocusing ways you call me to live over the next few months. 

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen

A Walk Through Acts 23

I had the opportunity to stay at my parents’ house in southeastern Missouri on a recent trip to St. Louis. Every visit ignites thanksgiving in my spirit for one more time of fellowship with the best parents anyone could ever have. When I examine my life, I see sparkling treasures that result from growing up in their home, watching their ministry through the years, and now observing tenacious faith in this season of their life. 

My brothers and I grew up in a literature rich environment. Books where everywhere! As a young child in Galatia, Illinois, I remember getting the monthly cardboard box from a book of the month club. When money got a little tight, Mom wrote a note to cancel the order. She let me take it to the post office a few blocks away. I had to struggle a little to get it into the mailbox; for some reason they had it turned it to face the wall behind the post office. Since Dad always told us that “Can’t never could” I found a way to get it into the hard to reach opening and shove the letter down the rusted blue mailbox’s throat.

I got another book the next month … and the next. That is when Mom found out I had deposited the cancelation notice in a discarded mailbox. I like to think I was innocent of any intent to thwart Mom’s purse string tightening. Thinking of the story as I look at one of my bookcases this morning, I do have to smile about the 50 year old memory.

Books let me travel to distant places. How many frequent flier miles I must have racked up as I read through the World Book Encyclopedia set during one of my forced times of rest when I had to stay home from school for a couple of months. Those green and white leatherette bound volumes were gifts from Uncle Mel to his home missionary nephews. 

On the trip home I got to sift through the downsizing stacks that Mom and a couple of brothers had made the previous week. I found an old copy ofUncle Tom’s Cabinthat still sheltered a postcard from the one cent stamp days. I did not hesitate to add three cloth bound volumes of The Happy Hollister’s– I had traveled with them on many adventures as a child. I am sure I re-read each book many times. The spines carry the wounds of my carelessness, many moves and years of abandonment in basement boxes.

All of those books told a story. They had a point. Mysteries and history books alike wove the silken sentence threads into a picture to keep a little boy’s interest. As an old guy now, I have moments of reflection when I wonder if many of life’s stories have a point. Sometimes life seems like a poorly constructed narrative with too many conjunctions and no coherent purpose.

When I first read through Acts 23 I thought I was in one of those pointless stories. I know Luke only had a limited amount of space in the scroll allocated to the ongoing work of the Messiah in the life of His church, so why would he tell a story with no new church or fiery revival. Where is that celebratory refrain, “and the Lord added to the church”? Isolated as it is in 35 verses, nothing significant seems to happen. I am tempted to combine my stroll through this chapter with the next chapter or two, so I can get to the point of Luke’s narrative.

In the same way, I often want to fast forward through days or even seasons, of my own life when very little plot advancement seems to take place. No one would want to read about this week, month, or quarter of the year. Nothing movie script worthy has happened. Frankly, days slip by where I do not know if anything is even Instagram worthy. Maybe that is why I do not have an account on that social media outlet!

Paul’s life had plenty of excitement in chapter 23, but the activity tended to be the survival type. He fanned the flames of disagreement between Pharisees and Sadducees to escape pending doom; Luke had to explain the finer points of the argument because most of his readers would not understand why the court room got so heated. A late night horseback ride with a couple hundred armed guards would get the blood pumping to be sure, but the ride served to relocate the apostle from one stockade to another. He escaped one plot only to be placed in the hand of another unjust judge. I suppose protective custody provided a little more comfort than the welcome planned by the 40 vigilantes that had placed a curse on themselves.

In the middle of religious and secular politics, Paul had a God moment. ‘The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”’ Humm, chapter 23 does have purpose.

Like Joshua about to take God’s people across Jordan, Paul needed the call to be courageous. The God encounter transforms meaningless chaos into a life filled with purpose. Paul would get to witness in Rome though the journey would have more twists and turns than direct movement. Paul would get to witness in Rome regardless of the natural, human, and spiritual obstacles he would encounter. He had a reason for cold nights in prison and the saddle sores from the midnight ride. He had a point to his story.

It is time for a God encounter that happens in prayer.

Dear Lord,

Sometimes my life story has definition and purpose. In those moments I have no question that the discipleship journey makes sense and all of my labors are not in vain. At other times I lose the plot behind my life. More misdirection and threats to my service fill those weeks and months than evidence of good stewardship.

Thank You for the record of Your people. If Joshua and Paul needed words of courage in uncertain times, then perhaps I am in good company. I know that I heard from You again on September 25 this year. In the dream You reminded me that You have a work for Sherri and me. You reminded me that all parts of Your body play a significant role in Your work to reconcile all things to Yourself. You gave me enough detail to know my story fits in your kingdom plot.

Forgive me of the despair I feel when I lose the plot and when I try to help You fix the story. You have spoken. I have heard. Your stewardship of Paul’s life and my life is without question. Your stewardship of all my brothers’ and sisters’ lives is without question. We are in Your story. You are the Author and Finisher of our faith. I pray for our courage to face chaotic as well as clearly productive times in the same way … by trusting You.

Today I sense the courage it takes to pray Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done. You have spoken courage into our lives. Your call to be courageous reminds us that our old nature will question our place in the story from time to time. As courageous disciples we will trust You.


In Jesus’ Name,

Amen

A Walk Through Acts 22

I must confess, I do not understand many things that go on in the world around me. I do not understand the fascination with torn jeans worn by people who could afford a pair with years of wear in them. Another thing that puzzles me is the way passion finds its way into so many discussions. People cook with passion, sing with passion, and design widgets with passion. Perhaps living in a time of relative affluence sets the stage for may people in my country to look for passion to decide what they will do with their life. Just saying the word makes them set apart, special. Public discourse seems to say being passionate about something should guarantee success and acclaim from those that matter. If a person can’t be passionate about something, then become passionate about someone who is passionate.

Passion for passion provides the fuel for a world gone mad for celebrity. We wear clothes with other people’s names on them – a clear mark of being owned by someone with passion. The youngest self-made billionaire comes from a family that is famous for being famous. Their lives become a reality show. The reality show created a need to be like those people, so the young lady had a ready-made market for her clothing line. While I do not understand reality shows, I have to admit the young lady is quite brilliant in harnessing a world’s need for the next best thing to passion … dressing like someone who has “it”.

As I walk through Acts 22 I see a story filled with passion. Reading the story reminds me of pictures of a girl touching a static electricity ball in a children’s science museum. The electricity makes her hair literally stand on end. The air carried a similar charge as Paul began to defend himself. Passion ran wild on all sides.

Paul begins his defense as many speakers do today. He presented his credentials as a favored son. He had passionately studied at the feet of the greatest teacher of the day and used his education to zealously hunt down the people of the Way who threatened the foundation of Jewish identity. Like modern day Mossad members who hunted down Nazi war criminals or the 1972 terrorists that assassinated 11 Israeli summer Olympic athletes in Munich, Paul tracked down followers of the Christ in ever widening concentric circles. All of the elders could witness to this man’s zeal for God and the warrants he carried to Damascus. 

True zeal or passion acts on behalf of some cause. Since passion motivates to action, once Saul found out who blinded him on his mission to Damascus, he asked what Jesus wanted him to do. He had to surrender his purpose to arrest people of the Way in order to hear what he should do. Later in the story Paul tells of times when he received his direction straight from the Lord, his first steps came through a disciple who knew the law as he did. Ananias greeted his new brother with the new commission – Paul now lived to witness of all the things he had seen and heard.

Perhaps the new job seemed a step down from the old commission. Hunting down faith offenders sure seems more manly than just living to tell the things you have seen and heard. Then again, I suppose that depends on what the witness has seen.

Paul became a part of the great cloud of witnesses. Sometimes they would not accept his testimony, at other times masses converted from their previous passion to their new passion to become witnesses in their own right.

Most men like shinny things, fast things, and loud things. Hand guns and sports cars fascinate us for some reason. Dodge Hellcats and Bass Pro Shops provide evidence that a substantial number of us don’t outgrow our boyhood ways. What we cannot have we admire in the possession of others and dream of a 10 car garage, or a 10 point buck.

Paul’s passion grew beyond a juvenile faith. He did not talk of the miracles of dead raised, lame that walked, or servant girls freed from demons. Instead he took the risk of underscoring the most powerful witness at his disposal. His testimony reached its climax when he recounted the vision when the Lord sent him to witness to the Gentiles. 

Reading the story in my recliner makes me seriously question Paul’s skill as a litigator. He took that which gave him credentials at the beginning of the witness, zeal for exclusively Jewish faith, and reversed its polarity in a way that gave his audience emotional whiplash. What was he thinking! If he just edited the story in a way that highlighted faithfulness to the law, then he would have been home in time for dinner. Instead he fulfilled his passion. He witnessed to the wonder of a gospel that invited ALL to experience redemption. In one of his letters he explained the way Christ pulled down old categories that created privilege (male/female, Jew/Greek, and free/slave). A gospel that removes all personal privilege is stronger than a gospel that only heals blind eyes, straightens limbs, and survives storms.

Oops, I think Paul is witnessing to me today rather than the mob. He abandons his credentials as a missionary, preacher, writer, and miracle worker for the simple, yet profound, office as witness. Could discipleship really be that basic? Am I willing to turn away from pursuing the shiny evidences of the kingdom for the power to witness? Are Acts 22 and Acts 1:8 really true?

Such questions call me to pray.

Dear Lord,

I must confess I quest for the shiny parts of the Gospel. I know You do many miracles today, and I so want to see more of them. But today the Word calls me to see the greater power in opening the reconciling door to all people as Your deeper, more eternal work than mere cornea replacements.

I repent of my tendency to put the emphasis in the wrong places. You promised these signs should follow those that believe. You did not call us to seek them or follow them. Instead You strip my power to the one place where I can actually have a voice. You call me and my people to celebrate the wonder of witness. Seeing, believing, living, and telling the story of Your eternal life offered to all. 

Some witnesses will end like Stephen. Other witnesses fade quickly from the plot line like Ananias. Other witnesses become the focal point of the mission like Paul. But all have that divine power to witness. 

Could you help me see that power to witness is enough? It seems like You send me as a little boy facing deadly force with a toy rock slinger. But as I think of it, that is exactly what You frequently do. You send us a sheep among wolves. You send us with no extra resources. You just send us with the words of Emmanuel.

I believe the witness is enough. Now I want to live like it.

Maybe then I can more honestly pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…” When I pray that way I am more satisfied to witness of Your goodness to someone than having the “credit” for healing blind eyes. I pray it again, “Thykingdom come, Thywill be done.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen