"So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering." (Romans 12:1, MSG)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapters 20 and 21

In my last blog, I wrote about how Paul should be admired for being "a nurturer, someone who cared about discipleship as much as, if not more than, winning new converts." We see strong evidence of that in Acts chapter 20:
"On the first day of the week, as we gathered together for a meal, Paul was holding a discussion with them. Since he was leaving the next day, he continued talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we had gathered. A young man named Eutychus was sitting in the window. He was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell from the third floor and died. Paul went down, fell on him and embraced him, then said, "Don’t be alarmed. He’s alive!" Then Paul went back upstairs and ate. He talked for a long time—right up until daybreak—then he left. They took the young man away alive, and they were greatly comforted." (Acts 20:7-12, CEB)
There are some interesting things for us to glean from this passage: 
  • We see in verse 7 a reference to Sunday as the appointed day to gather for Christian worship. Sunday is the first day of the Jewish work week but for Christians it is a day of resurrection. So, this is the day set apart to gather in community for worship and fellowship. 
  • Paul, the discipling nurturer he was, had gathered the believers in Troas together according to what had become the custom for providing them encouragement in their faith - through Word and Table. 
  • We then read at the end of the passage that the believers "were greatly comforted." Paul had done his job and done it well.
So what might this mean for us today? 

Interestingly enough, a former professor of mine wrote a blog just this week titled "Corporate Worship as Discipleship in the Early Church" that got my wheels turning. In it, he writes about how the early worship services didn't focus on the "unchurched" visitors, or their conversion, at all. Rather, the unchurched visitors came as a result of having encountered the believer in the course of everyday, ordinary life and were in attendance so that they could learn about what Christians really believed and why. He concludes with this paragraph:
"What they experienced and learned in the worship service...helped them live lives that proclaimed the truth of the Christian message, and when they gathered together to worship, they were encouraged by one another’s presence and participation in the prayers, readings, preaching, and Communion."
We gather in our places of worship on Sunday to experience the presence of God through Word and Table in order to receive what Will Willimon calls "the ministry of encouragement." Without this time set apart, it would be far too easy for us to "be conformed to the patterns of the world" and for us to forget who we are and Whose we are. It is a time for us to receive, as John Wesley put it, a "strengthening and refreshing of our souls" so that we might go into our everyday, ordinary lives on Monday morning alive and "greatly comforted."

These days, with church attendance in decline, a lot of emphasis is placed on how to attract more visitors on Sunday morning...especially the seemingly elusive "Millennials" (about whom a ludicrous number of articles and blogs have been written). I think the Acts of the Apostles has always had the answer.

Koinonia. 

In other words, community, fellowship, and as Jim Wallis put it "the call simply to be the church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world."

We first encountered this word back in Acts chapter 2:
 "The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers." (Acts 2:42, CEB)
I confess that I read just about every one of the aforementioned articles and blogs about Millennials that I come across. This week was no exception when I read this. I am also a glutton for punishment so that means I often read the comments section as well. I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged, however, to read this comment:
"In case my experience (as a 23-year-old) helps anybody: I began attending my current church, in a new city, 50% because of a word of mouth recommendation, and 50% because their website was clear and up to date and talked about the ministries they do and ways to be involved. (creation care, opportunities to get involved in the worship service). But I STAYED because after the first service people introduced themselves to me, welcomed me, and then when I went back 2 weeks later, remembered my name. I stay not because of amazing music (although ours is decent), or flashy worship (we're Anglican and tradition), or a large youth ministry group (there's me and two others, which is up 50% from a few months ago), but because I am WELCOME. People have offered help, invited me to dinner, asked me to join committees and ministries, given me rides to church when I was without a car. I was seeking community and authenticity and I found it. I am not everybody, nor do I represent all Millennials by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe my experience is similar to many. We want a nonjudgmental community that welcomes us...just like any other churchgoer."
I was seeking community and authenticity and I found it.

It seems to me that is exactly what the early church was about...and so should we.

Monday, October 27, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapters 18 and 19

Acts chapters 18 and 19 continue to follow Paul as he travels further to spread the gospel - from Athens (where we left him in chapter 17) to Corinth, Ephesus, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Antioch, Galatia, back to Ephesus, and back to Jerusalem. Paul never stayed in one place too long, only until the Spirit moved him along.

One of the things that we should admire about Paul is that not only was he an exceptional evangelist, as God's chosen agent for carrying the gospel to "Gentiles, kings, and Israelites" (9:15), but he was also a nurturer, someone who cared about discipleship as much as, if not more than, winning new converts. We read time and again about how Paul returned to churches for the sole purpose of strengthening them in their faith. This, in my opinion, is probably the most meaningful contribution Paul made in setting the example for future generations of Christian leaders to follow. Willimon stated it well: "Paul's epistles are testimonial to his determination to be attentive to even the smallest details of daily life within the church." (Interpretation, p. 151)

I must confess that I often struggle with the "smallest details of daily life within the church." They rarely seem to measure up to the pastoral work of preaching, or providing spiritually-supportive listening and prayer for someone who is hurting, or officiating a wedding, or the countless other cool things that pastors get to do. Maybe this week I'll extend myself a little more grace than usual for the time I will spend talking about the 2015 budget or the fall stewardship campaign or the seven meetings on my calendar (and those are only the scheduled ones).

There was something else about Paul in chapter 18 we should pay attention to.
"After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus. He had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul visited with them. Because they practiced the same trade, he stayed and worked with them. They all worked with leather. Every Sabbath he interacted with people in the synagogue, trying to convince both Jews and Greeks. Once Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself fully to the word, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ." (Acts 18:1-5, CEB)
Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla practiced the same trade. The CEB says "they all worked with leather," while other translations refer to their trade as "tent-making." In any case, there are two important points about this:
  1. It is likely that the ministry that Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla shared grew out of their shared trade. In other words, the "kingdom work" they did together came about because of the work they first did together in their "everyday, ordinary" lives.
  2. Paul, for a time anyway, was bi-vocational. He proclaimed the gospel in the synagogue every Sabbath but worked as a tent-maker the other six days. It was only after Silas and Timothy arrived that Paul was able to devote "himself fully to the word."
This points to the motivation behind my blog that I've felt from its very beginning. God calls each and every one of us, regardless of vocation, to be ministers of the gospel. Ministry was never intended to be performed solely by professional, or institutional, ministers. This passage points to that very truth. Paul practiced his trade until such time he had sufficient support around him that would allow him to fully devote himself to "set apart" ministry. That didn't change a thing for Aquila, Priscilla, Silas, or Timothy, however. They didn't stop their ministry because Paul was now fully devoted to his. 

One more intriguing passage, this time from Acts chapter 19:
"There were some Jews who traveled around throwing out evil spirits. They tried to use the power of the name of the Lord Jesus against some people with evil spirits. They said, "In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you!" The seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. The evil spirit replied, "I know Jesus and I’m familiar with Paul, but who are you?" (Acts 19:13-15)
There was no power in what these Jews were trying to do because they did not know Jesus for themselves. So, it did no good for them to name drop Paul. Here's the thing...once we come face-to-face with Jesus and "change our hearts and lives" in response to his amazing and unmerited grace (like Paul did), we should spend our "everyday, ordinary" lives proclaiming Jesus in both word and deed (again, like Paul). No matter what our vocation, God calls every one of us to do all that we can, right where we are, with what he's given us, for his glory alone. Paul himself put it this way:
"So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering." (Romans 12:1, MSG)
Sound familiar? Grace and peace be with you, my friends, as you minister throughout the course of your "everyday, ordinary" lives.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapters 16 and 17

Catching up on the reading plan with Acts chapters 16 and 17 after being gone on retreat and away for some much needed rest and relaxation last week...

In chapter 16, we read about how Paul heals a slave woman of a "spirit of divination," that had made her owners a lot of money through fortune telling. These verses tell us about the owners' reaction to what Paul and Silas had done:
19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. (Acts 16:19-22, NRSV)
In chapter 17, we read about Paul teaching in the synagogue, where he told his audience, “This is the Messiah, Jesus I am proclaiming to you! Jesus is Lord.” In other words, he was basically saying, “Hey, you know that Yahweh who is mentioned in the Scriptures (what we know as the Old Testament)? You know, the divine name of God that is translated as ‘Lord’ and mentioned 6,000 times? Well, that’s Jesus. And, Jesus is Lord.” 

Some were persuaded. Others? Not so much. In fact, this is their reaction:
5But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. 6When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, 7and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” 8The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this... (Acts 17:5-8, NRSV)
Two stories, each about Paul and Silas spreading the gospel message of Jesus Christ, each ending with the same reaction from the crowds gathered in the local marketplace:

“THEY ARE TURNING THE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN!” 

Don’t you just love that? It sounds so scandalous! This bold declaration that “Jesus is Lord” had literally turned the world upside down

And that, my friends, is exactly what the gospel message is supposed to do...turn our “worldly” understandings upside down. 

To begin with, saying “Jesus is Lord” affirms a life of personal transformationIt is saying that my heart and my life are forever changed…I am no longer conformed to this world, but transformed. It should also go further than that…saying “Jesus is Lord” should be culturally subversive. 

Saint Augustine is quoted for saying, “Christ is not valued at all unless he is valued above all.” I take that to mean that Christ alone has divine superiority, authority, and power over anything this world has to offer. So, saying “Jesus is Lord” becomes scandalous and subversive when we think about all the people and things we, and the culture around us, tend to put on pedestals...things we might value above Christ.  

When I began to discern my calling to pastoral ministry, my world was turned upside down. I thank God every day for changing my heart and my life and for calling me. 

How about you? 

Like Paul and Silas, may we too unabashedly proclaim, "Jesus is Lord!" Together, let's turn the world upside down.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Foto Friday - Bok Tower Gardens

This week I had the privilege of going on retreat with my fellow clergy in the first year RIM group to Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, FL. These are some of the better shots I was able to capture in the limited time we were given to explore our surroundings.


 








Tuesday, September 30, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapters 14 and 15

At the beginning of this journey through Luke's gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, I wrote that my prayer would be for us to be able to discern some answers to the following questions: 
  • Am I becoming more fully the person God made me to be?
  • Are we, the church in the world today, becoming more fully the people of God, the unified community of believers, who God is calling us to be?
I found myself revisiting these questions as I read Acts chapters 14 and 15.

The former question came to mind as I read chapter 14 and the story of Paul and Barnabas in Iconium, where they had traveled after being thrown out of Antioch because of hostility toward them for proclaiming a gospel message that included (gasp!) Gentiles. In spite of the heavy resistance by some to their message, Paul and Barnabas remained faithful to their calling. The result? The hostility intended to silence Paul and Barnabas actually had an opposite effect...the gospel message of Jesus Christ spread even further.

Hostility in Antioch? Paul and Barnabas left and went to Iconium.

Hostility in Iconium? They went instead to Lystra.

Stoned and left for dead in Lystra? They made their way to Derbe. 

I can only imagine the questions Paul and Barnabas must have asked themselves as they traveled along, continually suffering abuse from their own people simply for being faithful to the work that God had called them to and delivering the message God had called them to proclaim. 
"Barnabas, remind me again why we do this?"
Because everywhere Paul and Barnabas went hearts and  lives were changed...that's why. The reality of what the Holy Spirit was doing in and through them must have been what kept them going. So much so, in fact, that they went back to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch to strengthen the disciples they had made in those places and urge them to remain firm in the faith. 

Apparently, Paul and Barnabas were pretty confident in who God was calling them to be.

And, they must have understood well what the great and powerful Jedi-theologian Yoda meant when he famously said, "No! Try not! Do or do not, there is no try."

This brings us now to chapter 15, when Paul and Barnabas were rewarded for the success of their Gentile mission with an appointment to participate in a church disagreement.

Some reward.

What does this fact have to do with the latter question revisited above, you ask? To begin with, the strong reminder from reading this chapter that for over 2,000 years the Christian church has struggled with becoming a "unified community of believers." 

Back to the argument... Some Pharisees claimed that Gentiles could indeed become believers, but they had to play by the rules of the community - be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James didn't quite see it that way and after much debate it was decided that instead of subjecting the Gentiles to the distinctly Jewish way of living out their Christian faith that they would send a message of encouragement with instructions for strengthening the budding faith of their Gentile brothers and sisters. I am sure that Paul and Barnabas weren't the least bit surprised that their approach was well received.

I admit, however, that I was surprised that chapter 15 ended with yet another argument, this time between Paul and Barnabas of all people. In fact, we are told in verse 39 that "their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways."

It saddens me that intense arguments happen in the church even today, sometimes over big and important things and other times over the smallest and pettiest of things. Through them all, however, we must never lose sight of the fact that each individual person who is a party to the disagreement is uniquely gifted and called and that together we make up the people of God. In spite of our many disagreements, we all want to become more fully the people God made us to be while participating in a church that is itself becoming, for a closely watching world, what God needs for it to be.

I read a prayer in my devotion time today that I find, for whatever reason, to be a fitting conclusion to this post:
“Lord, keep us from making crosses out of the splinters of discomfort in our lives. Help us recognize the true crosses you call us to bear, those whose weight lends to the freedom and provision of others. Amen.” (Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove & Enuma Okoro. “Common Prayer.” Zondervan, 2010, p. 654)

Monday, September 15, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapter 13

Last week, I wrote about the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the disciples, as told in chapters 11 and 12. This week, there is an obvious continuation of that theme in chapter 13, with even more evidence that the disciples weren't working alone:
  • ...the Holy Spirit said, "Appoint Barnabas and Saul to the work I have called them to undertake." (v. 2)
  • After the Holy Spirit sent them on their way... (v. 4)
  • Empowered by the Holy Spirit... (v. 9)
And my favorite:
  • Because of the abundant presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, the disciples were overflowing with happiness. (v. 52) 
As I reflected on this chapter, one thing that became all the more clear to me was that the disciples were accountable to the Holy Spirit, as well as to their community, for carrying out the work set before them.

Maybe it is because the regular season of the National Football League is now well underway, but this thought brought to mind a mantra that I often made reference to during my days in financial services. If I remember correctly, it was something I heard that Tiki Barber once said to his fellow offensive players on the New York Giants before a game.
"None of us are entitled...we are all accountable."
To me, one of things I find most striking, and beautiful, about these stories of the first disciples is their singleness of Spirit. They were wholly committed to, and accountable for, their task of spreading the Gospel...and there was no sense of entitlement among them. And why would there have been? After all, the message they repeated time and again essentially said to their hearers: "Through Jesus we proclaim forgiveness of sins to you. From all those sins from which you couldn't be put in right relationship with God through Moses' Law, through Jesus everyone who believes is put in right relationship with God." (v. 38-39)

Indeed, the saving grace of Jesus Christ is available to "everyone who believes" but that doesn't mean we are entitled to it. We are all accountable for changing our hearts and lives.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapters 11 and 12

As we continue reading these incredible stories of conversion and the growth of the early church, one thing couldn't be more clear - these are stories of God's actions. Yes, the disciples are acting with faithful obedience to their call to spread the gospel, but the result clearly could never have been accomplished without Divine Providence.
"The Lord’s power was with them, and a large number came to believe and turned to the Lord." (Acts 11:21, CEB)
Acts chapters 11 and 12 are filled with references to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the disciples and new believers. As I read these stories, I was struck by the faithfulness of the disciples and the church to prayer (Peter praying in Joppa in v. 11:5, the church fervently praying for Peter in 12:5). I was also reminded about something a seminary professor once said about the Holy Spirit in a lecture...that the Holy Spirit is the shy member of the Trinity who will sit in the back of the church and wait to be invited in.

The current state of affairs in the Church and in the world calls for our fervent prayer and invitation to the Holy Spirit. And so, I invite you to join me in using this prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal:

An Invitation to the Holy Spirit (UMH #335):

O God, the Holy Spirit,
    come to us, and among us;
    come as the wind, and cleanse us;
    come as the fire, and burn;
    come as the dew, and refresh;
convict, convert, and consecrate
    many hearts and lives
        to our great good
        and to thy greater glory;
and this we ask for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Foto Friday (on Wednesday) - Remembering Mom

I came across this photograph a few weeks ago when I was working on cataloging our family photos and I thought to myself, "I remember this moment like it was yesterday." 

 
The thing is, the baby Mom is cuddling started middle school last week.

Oh, how quickly time seems to be passing me by. That is why I treasure good photographs like this one. It preserves a moment that I will never forget, no matter how much time passes.

I am struck by three things in particular:
  1. How much my Mom's wig looks exactly like her hair before the cancer treatments. Her stylist trimmed the wig precisely that way and Mom was so pleased with the result. It made Mom, and all of us for that matter, feel a little bit better about what was happening to her.
  2. How I will never tire of the sight of my children sleeping.
  3. Finally, and this is by far the most important of all - how this is one of the most beautiful and tender moments I was privileged to observe between Mom and Gabrielle. While I am so grateful that Mom was able to bond this way with my favorite firstborn, it is heartbreaking (and more than a little unfair) that she was unable to share moments like this with her grandchildren who have been born since.
So today, on my Mom's 64th birthday, I am honoring her memory with this special edition of Foto Friday. 
 
Happy birthday, Mom! I love and miss you so very much.
 
P.S. - I sincerely hope that you are enjoying watching the grandchild in this picture repay me in full for all that I put you through as a kid.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapter 10

Do I belong here?

Am I "in" or "out"?

If you're like me, you have asked yourself such questions before. And, as we turn now to Acts chapter 10, it is appropriate for us to consider a somewhat similar question that Will Willimon asks in his commentary:
"How did the church arrive at a turning point where insiders were willing to include outsiders?" (Interpretation, p. 95)
As Peter discovered in the drama that is Cornelius's story, this is a challenging question. 

For the Jewish people, there was never any question as to whether or not God would save Israel. It was always a matter of faith. They prayed without ceasing for salvation, never wondering if salvation would come but how and when. Throughout Acts, the task set before Peter and the apostles was their tireless proclamation of the gospel in the streets and the synagogues, so that the Jewish people would know that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah, that through His saving work Israel (God's chosen people...a.k.a - the "insiders") had already been redeemed. 

When we look closely at the first nine chapters of Acts, the spread of this gospel message was nothing short of spectacular: 
  • Thousands at a time being converted in Jerusalem.  
  • Conversions as far as Samaria and Ethiopia. 
  • The conversion of Saul (zealous persecutor of the followers of The Way) to Paul (God's chosen agent).  
In chapter 10, the message spreads further still...to the gentiles. The story of Peter and Cornelius is, in a word, amazing. It was "unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile" (v. 28) but that is precisely what God used for Peter to "truly understand that God shows no partiality" (v. 34). Will Willimon captures well the meaning of their exchange :
"Through the dialogue of Peter and Cornelius Luke creates a scene in which old divisions are broken down and these who once were at odds - Jew and gentile - chat amiably within the home that had been off limits to Peter. Placed here, and treated in this fashion, the scene serves a warm, touching hint of the joyous new possibilities for community toward which God is leading both Jew and gentile. As with Jesus, who was criticized for the company he kept at the table, so Peter could claim that 'there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance' (Luke 15:7)." (Interpretation, p. 97)
The world in which we live is filled with old divisions that need to be broken down, like those we have seen in Ferguson, in Iraq, and in Israel to name only a few.

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on our communities and our world. Amen.

Monday, August 18, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapters 8 and 9

Regrettably, I fell behind on blogging the Luke/Acts reading plan for last week. So, for this week I decided to combine chapters 8 and 9. Well, it isn't really much of a combination since I am only including the first verse of chapter 8:
"Saul was in full agreement with Stephen's murder." (Acts 8:1, CEB)
Saul doesn't appear again until chapter 9, but he appears in what is arguably the most dramatic conversion story in all of Acts. Over the summer, I preached a sermon at Trinity UMC on Acts 9:1-18, which I have decided to use as a video blog this week.


Next week, Peter is back on the scene in chapter 10.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapter 7

I said at the end of last week's blog on chapter 6 that this week would highlight another "turning point" in the still unfolding drama being told in the Acts of the Apostles with the story of Stephen.

The apostles had been proclaiming in earnest that "Jesus is Lord." And, as the numbers being added to the followers of The Way demonstrated, many were in fact changing their hearts and lives by turning from their idols (success, money, possessions, insert your favorite idol here ______ ) to the Lordship of Christ. However, not everyone had ears to hear the truth...especially the religious leaders.

Now, the apostles had routinely met opposition by the priests and religious leaders and had themselves already been arrested (and let go). But with Stephen's arrest things would prove different. Stephen was a newly commissioned minister appointed to help the apostles in ministry "who stood out among the believers for the way God's grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power." 

In other words, Stephen was a threat.

So, false witnesses were brought in and Stephen was arrested to answer to the council for trumped up charges of blasphemy. When asked to respond, Stephen proceeded to give the longest speech yet recorded in Acts (verses 2-53) which he used to outline Israel's long history of idolatry and disobedience against God. Ultimately, Stephen concludes his great testimony with a countercharge that the religious council is itself guilty of the accusations being leveled against him. As you might imagine, this did not sit well with the council...at all. 

Herein lies the turning point. The opposition escalates to violence not yet seen by the followers of The Way and here's how it happened:
"Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. He exclaimed, 'Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!' At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, accept my life!' Falling to his knees, he shouted, 'Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!' Then he died." (Acts 7:54-60, CEB)
Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He willingly died for his faith in Jesus Christ, his own last words echoing some of those from Jesus on the cross:
"Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing." (Luke 23:34, CEB)
"Father, into your hands I entrust my life." (Luke 23:46, CEB)
As I read this story, I could not help but think of the Christian persecution happening in Iraq and how people are being forced to choose between denying Christ and converting to Islam, facing a hefty fine that is impossible for them to pay, or to die a martyr's death. 

Pray with me:
God, you know
The plight of people far away
Oppressed by governments and vigilantes
In places
Where Christianity is an unpopular choice.

God, you knew
That the day would come here
When truth-telling would be despised
And siding with the oppressed
Part of the road less traveled.

Have mercy, O God,
Upon persecuted Christians there and here
Who are willing to suffer consequences
For speaking your Name
In word or in deed
In defiance or in advocacy.
Grant courage and strength
To all who would dare
To live their convictions out loud. Amen. 

(Source: http://www.gbod.org/resources/a-prayer-for-persecuted-christians)
Like Stephen, and those being persecuted still today, may we all have the courage to live our convictions out loud.

Monday, July 28, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapter 6

I think it is fair to say that Acts chapter 6 describes a turning point for the apostles and their burgeoning community. Like in the preceding chapters, we read that the numbers of disciples continued to increase. However, out of their growth rose a matter that demanded attention.

The community had grown to the point where caring for the poor among them had become challenging. As a result, a complaint was leveled at the apostles that some in their midst were being overlooked. The Twelve called a meeting and rightly determined that they needed to stay focused on their calling to proclaim God's word.  So, they asked the community to carefully choose seven men, well-respected and endowed by the Spirit, to lead and meet this need. We know that the manner in which this concern was handled found favor with God because we read in verse 7:
"God's word continued to grow. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly. Even a large group of priests embraced the faith."
There is at least a two-fold lesson to be learned from this.

First, the apostles could have addressed the complaint by taking on the added work themselves but didn't. Instead, they recognized that the Spirit had gifted and empowered them to spread God's word and that was precisely the work to which they remained wholly committed. 

This leads to the second lesson. All are gifted, all are called. The apostles wisely turned to the community, made them aware of the need, and asked them to bring forward a group of their choosing to meet the need. And so, the community responded. 

The result of these lessons? The apostles stayed true to their calling and their work flourished. The community affirmed the calling of seven new leaders in their midst and their work flourished. God was glorified and the community grew larger still.

May this story be a powerful reminder for those of us who are privileged with ministry as a vocation, both clergy and laypeople alike. All are gifted, all are called. When needs arise, may we follow the apostles' example by praying to discern whether it is a need that demands our specific attention or if there might be someone in our midst waiting to be asked to use their gifts for ministry for the glory of God. I believe if we cultivate and nurture a "culture of ask" in our congregations, people would respond...maybe in droves. Join me this week in praying that we, in the United Methodist Church in particular, recover our identity as a movement - by the people, for the people.

Next week...another turning point and the story of Stephen.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Foto Friday

I went on a Sabbath prayer walk on Trinity's campus again this morning, looking to try some photography techniques I've learned recently. The morning light was just okay...I think I was probably an hour too late. Even though I didn't get any really good shots, the walk itself was good for my soul.

The west driveway. First shot of the day.

The Trinity Tree. Favorite shot of the day.

Creek bridge on one of our walking trails.

The Trinity cupola...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapter 5

Before we get into Acts chapter 5, I think it is appropriate for us to revisit my favorite part of chapter 4 because of how it, in some ways, provides us with context for what we are about to read.
"The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, 'This is mine!' about any of their possessions, but held everything in common." (Acts 4:32)
From this verse through the end of chapter 4 we read about how those with property or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds to the apostles to share with those in need. As a result, "there were no needy persons among them."  It was community, koinonia, at its very best. This is the picture painted for us as we enter chapter 5, a picture which stands in stark contrast with the chilling story of Ananias and Sapphira.

Like Barnabas at the end of chapter 4, Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property. Unlike Barnabas, they withheld some of the proceeds from the sale for themselves. Making matters worse, this withholding was veiled with deceit. Their actions, quite literally, broke the "circle of trust" with their fellow believers. Ananias and Sapphira's deception placed them outside the heart of the community...they could no longer be "one in heart and mind." For their disobedience to God, they paid the ultimate price. 

As Eugene Peterson paraphrased in verse 11, "everyone who heard of these things had a healthy respect for God. They knew God was not to be trifled with." 

Indeed.

Throughout chapter 5, from the story of Ananias and Sapphira to more healing in the name of Jesus (God-signs and wonders leading to the growth of their community) and yet another run-in with the High Council, there is a theme - obedience to God.

When Peter is challenged by the High Council for disregarding their "strict orders not to teach in Jesus' name," he famously responded, "It's necessary to obey God rather than men." This, of course, infuriated the council. However, there was one council member who wisely advised caution:
"'Here's my recommendation in this case: Distance yourselves from these men. Let them go! If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it originates with God, you won't be able to stop them. Instead, you would actually find yourselves fighting God!' The council was convinced by his reasoning." (Acts 5:38-39)
Of course, the life and work of the apostles totally originated with God and as Eugene Peterson paraphrased the final words of the chapter, "every day they were in the Temple and homes, teaching and preaching Christ Jesus, not letting up for a minute." They were unstoppable and God's work of changing hearts and lives, in and through the apostles, reached the far ends of the world. 

Thanks be to God for the apostles' faithful obedience...and may it be so for the church today. 


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapter 4

Acts chapter 4 is told in three movements - Peter and John questioned, The believers pray, and Sharing among the believers.

First, after having healed a crippled man in chapter 3, Peter and John have to answer for the council, "By what power or in what name did you do this?" Their answer, of course, is the risen Lord Jesus. What stands out most about this movement is the council's reaction in verses 13 and 14:
"The council was caught by surprise by the confidence with which Peter and John spoke. After all, they understood that these apostles were uneducated and inexperienced. They also recognized that they had been followers of Jesus. However, since the healed man was standing before their own eyes, they had no rebuttal."
The fact that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead was unfathomable to the leaders, elders, and legal experts. They were still waiting for God to redeem Israel, not realizing that God had already done so through the saving work of Jesus Christ. It was also unfathomable that these followers of Jesus, who were far below their standards for education and religious leadership, were doing the very work the council themselves should have been doing - loving and healing people.

The council's response? 

They threatened the disciples and "demanded that they stop all speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus."

This leads to the next movement - Peter and John return to their community and tell them all that had happened. 

The disciples response? 

They "lifted their voices in unison to God" in prayer. They prayed for God to stretch out  his "hand to bring healing and enable signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus."

God's response?

God filled the disciples with the Holy Spirit so that they would speak God's word with confidence.

This filling of the Holy Spirit brings us to the final movement of chapter 4, and my favorite part, in verses 32 and 33:
"The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, 'This is mine' about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all." (emphasis mine)
I see a pattern for ministry, a model if you will, emerging in this chapter. 
  1. God can use anyone He chooses for His good work in the world. 
  2. The apostles, God's chosen instruments, were healing the brokenhearted and teaching in the name of Jesus, to the point that people demanded an explanation for what they were doing. (Shouldn't that be our objective? Shouldn't the face of Christ be so visibly portrayed in our actions, that people ask, "Why do you do these things?" We should then want to explain, "The love of Christ compels us.")
  3. The apostles' ministry is rejected. However, does that deter them? Are they discouraged to the point that they stop bearing witness to the risen Lord Jesus? No. In fact...
  4. In the face of rejection, they turn to the "power source" of their ministry - God. 
  5. God is faithful to answer their prayer and fills them with the Holy Spirit.
  6. The apostles' powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus continues.
Put more simply, the model is: 
  1. Love God, love neighbor. 
  2. In the face of discouragement, pray for God to renew you, to fill you once again with the Holy Spirit. 
  3. Repeat. 
  4. All of the above are to be performed with perhaps the most important element: Always in community, never alone.
Tonight I was working on some music at the same time I was working on this blog. It is likely no coincidence that I was playing Holy Spirit, written by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. Great song, with lyrics that will be my prayer this week:

Show Your power once again on earth
Cause your church to hunger for Your ways
Let the fragrance of our prayers arise
Lead us on the road of sacrifice
That in unity the face of Christ
May be clear for all the world to see. 

Amen. 

Enjoy this video of the Gettys performing this song.