Monday, December 28, 2015

Happy New Year, you amazing, wretched, infinitely loved child of God

January makes me think of beginnings. Beginnings make me think of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 makes me think of the phrase, “God saw that it was good.” It’s repeated over and over until at the very end, after the creation of mankind, God saw that it was “very good.” This is an important point.

Every week in worship we remind ourselves that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. We confess our sins and remind ourselves of the powerful mercy of God shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is as it should be.

But do you remember the reason behind the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? The driving force is God’s love for human beings, after whose creation he kicked his rhetoric up a notch, calling the whole thing, “very good," rather than simply calling it, "good," as he did during all the earlier cycles of creation.  You are amazing. Of course we must agree with Isaiah, that all our works are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), but our whole identity is not “filthy rag.” Genesis does not teach us that on the sixth day God created filthy rags.

You, my friend, are the pinnacle of God’s creation and the apple of his eye. You are the object of God’s profound love. The nearest feeling we can probably experience on Earth is the love that adults feel when they hold a baby or as they play with a young child who is delighted because she took her first step. Do you realize that God gushes over you? Most parents, aunts, uncles, etc. have snuck in to watch youngsters sleeping. Do you, old though you may be, realize that God feels that way about you? Can you imagine God sneaking in while you are sleeping just to look at you and smile warmly?

It is the very depth of that love that also grieves God’s heart when we turn away from the good, like a parent’s heart breaks when her son turns away to follow a path the parent knows will end in pain and hardship.

This is how God’s redemptive love comes to its profound and disturbing zenith on the cross. We are his amazing and beloved creation. We have turned away from him. But his heart goes out to us so forcefully that death is not too much to undergo to draw us back to himself. This is how God, in his love, brings down the proud and lifts up the lowly. All are created beautiful. None live worthily. All are offered grace.

So each of us can say, “Wow, look at me!” in wonder, “Wow, look at me, I’m not what I could be,” in grief and, “Wow, look how much God loves me!”

So, you amazing, wretched, infinitely loved child of God, a blessed 2016 to you.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Gamechangers: Tesla, Jobs, King, Jesus

(This blog post is a condensed transcript of the sermon I preached on Christmas Eve, 2015. If you prefer to listen to or download an audio recording the whole message, you can find it here.)

We hear the word "game-changer" thrown around with some regularity. If a sports team drafts a talented player, that might be a game-changer. If someone enters or exits a political race, that might be a game-changer. While those circumstances might be media selling consumption with hyperbole, some people really can be historically identified as game-changers. Not only has their work altered the course of civilization, they could see where their work could lead.

Nikola Tesla was a brilliant scientist/engineer. In 1926 he said, "When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket." Does that sound familiar?

Steve Jobs could see a whole different future for computers. He not only changed the way we use computers but he also changed the way we listen to music. When recruiting John Sculley, then CEO of Pepsi, to come and work at Apple, Jobs told him, "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

All I have to do is mention Martin Luther King, Jr., and everyone will know exactly what I am about to quote: "I have a dream..."

Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate every Christmas, is the ultimate game-changer. He changed the course of history and the course of eternity.

Nobody, however, changes the world on their own — not even Jesus. Nobody can convince you to be a follower of Jesus. The Holy Spirit must convince you. The only thing followers of Jesus can do is talk about Jesus, perhaps share evidence for the reliability of the Bible, love others in Jesus name, and involve prayer.

There is a funny video going around the internet. There is a dog that won't come through a glass door even though there is actually no glass in the frame of the door. The dog has been trained over the years to think that there must be something in that door that will stop him. The people even step through the door without the glass in it but the dog won't follow them. Finally, they open the door and the dog happily walks through.

Life does that to us humans. Because we are trained by authorities and experience, we know "how things are." But, like the dog with the glass door with no glass in the frame, we run the risk of assuming things are different than they really are.

Let me give you some evidence for the fact that God, through the Holy Spirit, is still at work in the world, still changing the game.

In Europe and North America, it is pretty easy to feel like the Christian church is dying. But that is only our limited perspective. In 1945 there were 950,000 Christians in China. Today there are 77 million. 250 churches per week are started in Latin America (with an average of 150 people per church). 50,000 people per week are being baptized in Africa.

And it's not just the faith that is growing in waves around the world, it is the love for others that is the natural outgrowth of faith in Jesus Christ. 25 years ago, 45,000 children per day died of starvation or malnutrition. Today that number is 17,000. Still too many, but a lot less. 25 years ago 80% of the world was illiterate. Today that number is 20%. 25 years ago 1/6 of the world did not have access to clean drinking water. Today that number has been cut in half to 1/12. Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1976, just finished its one millionth home.

There are kind people from all over doing this good work, but statistics will tell you that the vast majority of this work is done by followers of Jesus of Nazareth, that baby whose birthday we celebrate every Christmas.

Jesus is a game-changer. He is the ultimate game-changer because of who he is. The Apostle Paul asserted that the fullness of God is seen in Jesus (Colossians 2:9). The Apostle John asserted that Jesus was the very essence of God come in human flesh (John 1:14). Jesus himself told his disciple, Philip, that looking at Jesus was, in fact, looking at God (John 14:9).

God was enfleshed in Jesus Christ. God continues to live in those who believe in him. Jesus changes how you see yourself, others and the entire world.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus shows the profound, crazy, tender love that God has for us. In Jesus, God sees us as his precious children. God thinks of us like a parent who quietly walks into a child's room to watch them sleeping just for the sheer joy of it. That's how God thinks of you! Can you believe it?

When you believe that God loves you with that kind of love, it changes the way you see other people. It changes the way you see the entire world. Everything becomes driven by love.

Christmas is an invitation to you to be born again into God's love, to let Jesus change the game of your life.

Christians use the word "repent." This word does not mean just feel bad about something you've done wrong. It means "turn your mind around," "think differently."

We celebrate Jesus not because we have no problems after trusting in him. We celebrate Jesus' birth (along with his life, death and resurrection) because he changes the presupposition of our lives from "Who knows what life is all about?" to "There is a God who loves me and even though I don't understand everything that happens to me, I can always trust God."

Trust Jesus. He will come to you. You will grow to see yourself as God's beloved child.

Trust Jesus. Seriously. It's a game-changer.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

You're Not Listening! No, I REALLY CANNOT Hear You!

I was scanning through old blog posts recently and ran across this post from March, 2013. As I read through it, little bells began to go off in my head. I thought about how good it was for me to read this post again.

It's about how stressful situations physiologically reduce your ability to think and listen. The upshot is that if things get heated (say in a "discussion" between a husband and wife), a break might very well be needed because our body's stress response reduces our ability to listen and process. It's just a physiological fact. Further, it needs to be longer than a 5 minute break. Research suggests you need at least 20 minutes of doing something totally unrelated in order for your body's stress response to really relax to a point where you can re-engage appropriately.

I'm not going to rewrite the whole post here. But I suggest you go read it. It was good for me and perhaps it will be good for you, too.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Book Recommendation: "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast" by Laura Vanderkam

This is not a long book (192 pages in print) and it is an easy read... or listen. I listen to audio books while I walk 2-4 miles every morning. Some people like the solitude of an early morning walk. Unless I'm in a particular mood, the quietness drives me crazy. So audio books work for me.

(As an aside, I get most of my audio books from my local public library. They are electronically downloadable and automatically delete from my smart phone when they are due so I never have late fees. Our library also has electronic books for checkout and download (Kindle, etc.) You should check to see if your library has electronic loans.)

Through anecdotal and scientific evidence, Laura Vanderkam shows us what habits seem to be common among successful people. She is not just talking about career or financial success. She presents the first-in-the-morning habits that help people take control of their lives and realize their goals/dreams... success on their terms.

The answer in a nutshell is "self care." The most successful people pretty much all make exercise an nearly inviolable part of their day. Then they feed their mind/spirit through prayer, reading, journaling, meditation, whatever. Some also include relationship maintenance, like having breakfast with the family.

I recommend you read the book. I am not one of  "the most successful people," but I aspire to be and I found this book practical and motivational. I credit this book and "The Power of Habit" with helping me develop a sustainable exercise routine.

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Mornings--and Life (A Penguin Special from Portfolio) by Laura Vanderkam

[The link above is to the Amazon Smile page for the book in this recommendation. If you shop at Amazon Smile, a small portion of the proceeds from your purchase will can support the nonprofit organization of your choice. I suggest you choose Journey of Life Lutheran Church. :) ]

For another great book,
CLICK HERE to see my recommendation for "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Forget the New Year's Resolutions

Imagine this situation: The doorknob on your front door is dirty. Someone with grimy, greasy hands used the doorknob on Thanksgiving weekend after working in the yard and now every time you walk in your front door you have to wash your hands. So you think to yourself, in the new year, I really will clean this doorknob.

Far fetched?

I may be the New Year's version of Scrooge, but that's what I think we do with New Year's resolutions. We have some bad habit that we admit we need to change — whether it's something we need to start or something we need to stop — and we decide to change it in a few weeks or a few months. We'll change that next year.

Does this make sense?

Let's make up an example that I'm sure applies to almost no one (cough, cough). Let's say I recognize that the way I eat is really not good for me. I eat too much of something or too little of something else. So I decide I need a New Year's resolution.

It strikes me that this might mean you aren't really convinced that your eating needs to change. If you acknowledge that the way you are eating is bad for you in November, then by setting a New Year's resolution you are intentionally saying, "I'm going to eat in ways that will damage my body for two more months and then stop." Those are not the words of someone taking responsibility for their life. Those are the words of the half-convinced.

Seriously. If you think something needs to change, why wait? If it can wait until January 1, 2016, why change it at all?

I'm not diminishing how hard it is to change habits. It can be horribly hard. That might also be what's behind the New Year's resolution. We are looking for tricks to help us do something that we know we need to do but that we also know, if we are willing to admit it to ourselves, is going to be really difficult.

But waiting until January 1 isn't going to make it easier. Find the motivation you need now. Maybe it's pictures of nasty blood vessels and operations. Maybe it's pictures of loved ones. Maybe it's a goal you want to reach. Likely you will need ongoing support and motivation, which is available in abundance on the internet.

One very helpful book that I recommended in a recent blog post is called, "The Power of Habit." (read the blog post here) It can help you understand how habits form and how to change them.

One more thing: some studies have indicated that if you are trying to change a habit in a positive way (as in a New Year's resolution), you are more likely to succeed if you don't tell other people your intentions. The reason appears to be that if you tell people that you are going to, say, start exercising more frequently, you get their approving remarks without actually doing the exercise. So you are putting part of the reward before the behavior, which lowers the likelihood of actually making the change. The exception to this rule is if you are intentionally engaging supportive people for the sake of accountability, as happens in groups such as Weight Watchers. Accountability groups increase your chances of success.

Bah humbug with New Year's resolutions. Just work toward becoming the person you want to be without waiting for an arbitrary starting date. That's what I say. :)

(But I'm not here to judge you. If New Year's resolutions work for you, more power to ya!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Recommendation: "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg

Our lives are made of our habits. The health of our bodies is largely driven by our habits, as is the health of our relationships and our own inner/spiritual life.

"The Power of Habit" isn't a Christian book. It's a book about the science of forming and changing habits. There are some surprising insights into how and why we form and maintain habits. For instance, people with no short term memory can form new habits.

This isn't a "book review." There are good reviews out there about this book. It's a recommendation. This book is an easy and informative read. Some of the ideas presented in "The Power of Habit" may really help you do whatever it is you wish you were doing but aren't.

I've found this book helpful to me personally (primarily) and also for my work as a pastor. I feel like I've developed some pretty good habits for exercising and eating based on this book (and one other, which I will post about soon). BTW - This book doesn't talk about exercising and eating. I've found the principles and actionable suggestions helpful for these two habits I wanted to develop. If your life is largely your habits, what habits do you want to develop?

It's worth checking out. You might find it helpful like I did.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business  (ISBN-10: 081298160X)

[The link above is to the Amazon Smile page for the book in this recommendation. If you shop at Amazon Smile, a small portion of the proceeds from your purchase will can support the nonprofit organization of your choice. I suggest you choose Journey of Life Lutheran Church. :) ]

Monday, December 14, 2015

Bible Study and Commentary on Zechariah 9:9-10

1. What do you think of when you hear the word, “king”?

2. There are 28 men named Zechariah (or variants) in the Bible. But who is this Zechariah? To start with, he is called the, “son of Iddo” (see Ezra 6:14). Iddo was properly his grandfather in our way of geneologizing, but in the Hebrew style, “son of” can refer to any ancestor in the blood line. He prophesied in Judah after the Babylonian exile, probably beginning around 520BC. He is one of the last prophets before the silent period of several centuries between Malachi and the New Testament. The book of Zechariah appears to be divided into two parts with the latter half, beginning at chapter 9, being written late in Zechariah’s time, possibly even at the same time as Malachi. So this is some of the very last writing in the Old Testament. As you think about this passage, bear in mind that Judah has not had a time of significant peace since 930BC when the kingdom split in two (northern kingdom = Israel, southern kingdom = Judah) after Solomon’s reign.

3. Read Zechariah 9:9-10

4. The terms “daughter of Zion” and “daughter of Jerusalem” all refer to the “children of Israel,” or “children of Abraham.” Who does Paul equate with the children of Abraham in Galatians 3:7?

5. Jeremiah (not the bullfrog) prophesied in Judah during the time leading up to the Babylonian captivity and so was a generation or two before Zechariah. Look up Jeremiah 23:5-6 and compare the “king” described there with the king in Zechariah

6. Ephraim is the second son of Joseph (Manasseh is the first). Near the end of his life, Jacob (Joseph’s father) recognized Joseph’s two sons with a blessing, even though Joseph’s wife, Asenath, was Egyptian. Manasseh was the older, but Jacob blessed Ephraim with his right hand, indicating that Ephraim would be greater. “Ephraim” also became, in later times (like the time of this writing) another name referring to the northern kingdom, Israel. Likely in this passage, “Ephraim” does refer to the northern tribes who had been decimated by the Assyrians in the 700’s BC. (cf. Hosea 4:17) Jerusalem refers to the southern kingdom of Judah.

7. Chariots, war horses and bows are powerful implements of war. These will be cut off either as in “the enemies will be cut off with their weapons” or “my people will no longer need their weapons” or both. “Riding on a donkey” also symbolizes times of peace. Nobody fights a war on a donkey!

8. How far and wide does the peace this king brings spread?

9. Matthew, seeing Jewish people as his primary audience, takes care to point out prophecies fulfilled in Jesus’ life. Look up Matthew 21:4-5 to see an example of this emphasis that relates specifically to this passage.

10. How does this king’s reign sound to you? Would you like to be ruled by a king if it was this kind of king?

11. In what ways did Jesus act like a king? In what ways didn’t he act like a king? Where did Jesus tell Pilate his kingdom was?

12. How does it impact your life to look at the life of Jesus and know that he will one day show himself king over all?

13. What else struck you?

14. Close with prayer.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Criticism, a Golden Opportunity

Somebody recently told me that one of my sermons was long winded that day. What do you think I did? I thanked them.

Why? Because I want to be a better and better preacher and a better and better pastor. The only way I'm going to do that is to get feedback from people. The only way I'm going to get feedback from it's if I welcome it when they give it.

This person took a chance on telling me something that no pastor really wants to hear. Not directly anyways. I would rather hear, "Pastor, your sermon touched my soul."! But, a person who wants to grow will want to know where they fell short.

And so this person told me I was a little long winded that day. So this is what I texted that person the next day:

Thanks for telling me I was a little long winded yesterday! No, seriously. I was a little long winded and it's nice to have people around me who offer honest and loving and good-natured feedback. Don't stop.

Then my philosophy of thanking people for constructive criticism was really tested, because the person offered me additional feedback! But this, too, is good because it indicates that my thanks was received as genuine and so the trust in our relationship grew.

So criticism, accepted well, provides a double opportunity. Personal growth and relationship growth.

This isn't always the case, of course. Some people may hit you with criticism out of fear or anger or something else. But even in that case you have a chance to respond with kindness and build the relationship. Often a person's angry criticism comes out of pain they are dealing with them their own life.

Also, this attitude doesn't develop overnight. In the beginning, you may have to be very contemplative and intentional about cultivating your positive responses to criticism. But in the long run, it is very worth the effort.

So next time someone offers you criticism, be thankful! It's your chance to learn, your chance to grow, and your chance you build the relationship. What an opportunity!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor Day - a Day of Memory and a Day of Hope

December 7 is a day that will live in infamy... but it is also, for me, a hopeful day. As I remember the attack on Pearl Harbor, I am reminded that Japan and the USA are no longer enemies. Horrible violence and ethnic prejudice can be overcome. This is a hopeful observance during a time in which many are looking for hope.

We are in the midst of difficult times with outbreaks of horrifying violence... violence that some celebrate. But we can overcome the violence and move beyond the hatred and prejudice. It will not be without cost and it will not be on a path of certainty. But we must never lose hope for peace. We can never give up.

I don't know how terrorism will be defeated because the violence is idea-based and seems to simply infect certain people like a disease. Probably it can only be minimized and suppressed because the human condition seems to include a certain proclivity for violence.

But today, on Pearl Harbor Day, I look at former and current relationship between Japan and the USA, between Americans and Japanese, between Christians, Shintos and Buddhists, and I choose to live in hope.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Observations & Commentary on Acts 27:1-44

For your pleasure, some observations and commentary on Acts 27. You will want to read the actual Bible text along with this. The New Living Translation and The Message are great for reading. But for studying, I recommend the English Standard Version (though there are many good translations out there).
  • Acts 27:1
    • Note that Paul is traveling with a group (cf. “ And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Acts 16:10 (ESV))Some appear to accompany Paul long term while others accompany Paul for a while and then return to their home.
    • THE AUGUSTAN COHORT. This does not appear to signify anything special. A Roman cohort officially consisted of 600 soldiers (though it could vary from 500-1,000) divided into hundreds, each hundred being overseen by a centurion. Cohorts were often given honorific titles, such as this one named after Augustus. There is external evidence verifying the existence of this cohort. A Roman legion consisted of 10 cohorts.
  • Acts 27:2
    • The company taking Paul to Rome would assume that somewhere along the coast of Asia they could connect with a ship headed to Rome.
    • ARISTARCHUS. Aristarchus had been Paul’s traveling companion since Thessalonica. He was one of the people dragged into the theater at Ephesus by an angry mob led by Demetrius the silver smith. So we know that at least Aristarchus and the writer of Acts (presumably, Luke) are accompanying Paul.
  • Acts 27:3
    • JULIUS TREATED PAUL KINDLY. Paul had obviously won the trust of the centurion who was transporting him to Rome. One commentator suggested that, based on this respectful treatment, Julius had been present at Paul’s trial. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Julius did not send a soldier with Paul as an escort.
  • Acts 27:4-8
    • SAILED UNDER THE LEE. This is a nautical term referring to sailing in the shelter of an island because the winds are not favorable for the direction you are heading.
    • SHIP OF ALEXANDRIA. Alexandria was a major city on the Northern coast of Africa on the west side of the Nile River delta. Egypt was a great producer of grain. This was a big ship, a freighter, with room also for passengers — 276 people, we find out later. 
  • Acts 27:9
    • DANGEROUS. “Dangerous” is specific, for it refers to the period between the middle of September and the first part of November; after November 11 all navigation ceased until March 10. (Lenski, R. C. H. (1961). The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (p. 1069). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.)
    • THE FAST. The Fast is the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, the most solemn holy day on the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur falls on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishri (the 7th month). Because the Jewish calendar is set by astronomical events, the dates move around with respect to our dates. On our calendar, Yom Kippur moves around last September and early October.
  • Acts 27:10
    • Was this simply Paul offering wisdom or is this a revelation to Paul? (in verses 23-24, Paul reports an angel appearing to him to tell him everyone will survive.
  • Acts 27:11-12
    • Can you blame the centurion for listening more to the pilot and the ship’s owner than the Jewish Christian Pharisee prisoner?
    • PHOENIX. A harbor further along Crete. They supposed they could safely hug the land for this short voyage.
  • Acts 27:13
    • The pilot and captain didn’t sail foolhardily into bad whether. They had decided tentatively to move on and, since the weather looked good, they decided to go for it.
  • Acts 27:14-15
    • TEMPESTUOUS WIND. The Greek word used here is the word from which we get “typhoon.” The mountains of Crete are 7,000 feet tall and created a swirling gail as it blew them uncontrollably away from land into the open sea.
  • Acts 27:16-17
    • SECURE THE SHIP’S BOAT. This was not a lifeboat as modern ships have. This was a boat used for ship-to-shore transportation when the vessel set anchor in a harbor. Typically this boat would be towed. When the sailors had the opportunity under the shelter of the island, Cauda, they hoisted it up on deck and fastened it firmly in place. It was probably a fairly sizable boat, since it had to service a ship that could hold over 275 people (see verse 27)
    • UNDERGIRD THE SHIP. These were wooden ships made from timber laid stem to stern. Violent weather put great stress on the ship which could cause the timbers to separate leading to taking on water and sinking. Even today some ships sink in storms because the plates of the hull separate under the violent twisting forces. To “undergird the ship” is to pass several coils of rope around the entire ship to strengthen it and, hopefully, hold it together.
    • LOWERED THE GEAR. There is some disagreement as to what this means. Come believe they lowered drag anchors to slow their progress toward Syrtis. The other explanation is that they lowered the mainsail, etc. and used a small sail to keep the boat pointed in the right direction during the rest of the storm (which they could not escape). This would preserve the mainsail for when the storm abated which would allow them to sail on and find land rather than continue to drift in the sea. Unfortunately for those of us trying to understand the details, the Greek word for “gear” in verse 17 is “skeuos,” which simply means object, thing, jar, possessions.
  • Acts 27:18
    • JETTISON THE CARGO. This is very generic. The Greek simply says “jettison.” So they started throwing stuff overboard.
  • Acts 27:19
    • Again, they were throwing stuff overboard. This time “the ship’s tackle with their own hands.” This can’t be the necessary tackle such as the mainsails and the anchors because those are used later. This is that generic word “skeuos” again! It appears that they started throwing their own stuff overboard: furniture, chests, whatever weighed anything substantial.
  • Acts 27:20
    • Most people reading this will never have experienced “all hope” being lost in the way these people adrift in a storm in the open sea for many days.
  • Acts 27:21-26
    • Paul starts by pointing out that he was right and they were wrong. Probably not to shove it in their faces, but to give credence to what he is about to say. Then he makes very specific predictions: no human loss, but the ship will not survive. Paul, as ever, is not afraid to talk about supernatural things. He encourages the people with the message of the angel.
    • SOME ISLAND. But Paul doesn’t know exactly where or when this will happen.
  • Acts 27:27-28
    • ADRIATIC. This is the “Adria” as defined in Paul’s day, not the Adriatic Sea as we define it today.
    • FATHOM. A fathom is six feet. Fathoms are measured by lowering a weighted rope down to the sea floor and then counting the number of lengths of rope between two outstretched hands there are until the end of the rope is reached.
  • Acts 27:29
    • ANCHORS. Note that they had not jettisoned essential tackle.
  • Acts 27:30-32
    • Some sailors try to escape under false pretenses using the ship’s boat. By this time, the centurion has enough trust in Paul to set the ship’s boat adrift!
  • Acts 27:33-38
    • This illustrates the difference between positional leadership that comes from rank, (such as the centurion, the pilot and the boat’s owner possessed) and persuasive leadership, which comes from trust placed in the leader. The positional leaders may have been officially “in charge,” but we clearly see that Paul has become the leader by this point.
  • Acts 27:39-44
    • And so it happened.
A little shout out to my friend, Mathew, who provided a metaphorical lesson from this text. The sailors did two things to weather the storm: they bound up the ship and they jettisoned unnecessarily things weighing them down. In your life, what are you going to do when the storms come? What is binding your life together? And what are you carrying around that could be jettisoned? Good thoughts worthy of personal contemplation.

Pastor John

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Feeling Stuck in Some Way? Maybe You Need to Become Comfortable with Discomfort.

Sometimes parts of our lives seem stuck. A valued relationship isn't growing. Your career isn't moving forward. You just don't feel like you are personally growing. One cause might be that you are turning away from the very door you need to walk through, metaphorically speaking. One problem we face is that discomfort is uncomfortable, so we avoid the things that cause us discomfort/emotional pain/anxiety. But sometimes it is the very thing making us uncomfortable that we need to face into in order to keep growing.

It's natural to avoid pain and discomfort. There are many times when this is the right thing to do. If you feel pain in your hand, you take it quickly off the stove. Pain avoidance serves a purpose, but it can also keep us from growing.

When athletes are training, they actually look for a little pain. They want to "feel the burn." It is the pain the tells them that they are getting somewhere. That's not natural response to pain. Athletes have to train themselves to push through it. But they do and they grow stronger.

Discomfort with ourselves and our relationships can function much the same way. If you have a relationship that is stuck, it may be stuck because you are avoiding the uncomfortable. If you feel stuck in your personal growth, it may be that you are having trouble facing some uncomfortable or painful truths about yourself.

Can you imagine retraining yourself so that if you are in the middle of a conversation and you find yourself becoming uncomfortable or anxious, you think to yourself, "Now we're getting somewhere," instead of thinking about how to steer the conversation in a different direction? Can you imagine having a mindset where you could look at yourself honestly and, without judging yourself, say to yourself with regard to something that happened, "That really made me uncomfortable. I wonder why?" instead of trying to make sure that thing doesn't happen again.

Not every moment of discomfort is an opportunity for growth, but many are.

For the Christian, trust in God's unconditional love frees us to face into these moments of discomfort/pain/anxiety with others or with ourselves because we don't have anything to earn or prove to God. God displays his love for us on the cross of Jesus Christ and shows his power for our lives in the empty tomb that could not hold Jesus. All this he does without condition or restraint. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.

That kind of unconditional love creates a free space in our hearts wherein we can face discomfort/anxiety/emotional pain and ask what it is about instead of running from it.

Pause for a moment and reflect. Recall a recent time you felt uncomfortable, nervous or anxious? Why is that? What is going on inside of you that let you to discomfort at that point?

So go ahead, get uncomfortable. It might be just the thing you need!

Peace to you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

LifeGroup Study on Acts 22:30-24:47

1. What is something you remember getting in trouble for as a kid that you look back on now and laugh?

2. Read Acts 22:30-Acts 23:11

3. Did the Roman tribune seem to know what was going on?
a. TRIBUNE: Commander of an ancient Roman cohort, a military unit ideally comprising 1,000 men. Some English versions use this term for the Greek word chiliarchos (as does our text in this study - PJ), which is also rendered “commander.” The Greek word for “cohort” is speires, which is sometimes rendered “regiment” (cp. Acts 21:31–33; 22:24–29; 23:10–22; 24:22; 25:23). According to Josephus, the Romans stationed a cohort in Jerusalem at the Antonia Fortress to suppress disturbances in the city (Clendenen, E. R. (2003). Tribune. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (pp. 1624–1625). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.)
b. ANTONIA TOWER: Also note that the Roman soldiers were stationed in the corner of the temple, in the Antonia Tower (or Fortress). This piece of the temple was built by Herod the Great in the first century B.C. and named for his friend, Marc Antony. Yes, that Marc Antony of Cleopatra fame. Paul was most likely held in the Antonia Tower. The High priest’s vestments were held in the Antonia Tower between festivals.
c. On Acts 23:2, with regard to Paul not knowing who the High Priest was, remember that Paul had been gone for many years. There appears to have been seven different High Priests since Paul began persecuting the followers of Christ under Joseph Caiaphas, one of whom, Jonathan, served from AD36-37, was deposed, and then reinstated in AD44, if that tells you anything about the political nature of this “religious” position.
4. How did Paul use knowledge and wisdom to divide this group that was united against him?

5. Read Acts 23:12-22

6. Was the plan to kill Paul fair, just or lawful for the Jewish leaders?

7. How did Paul display wisdom in the way he handled the news he heard from his nephew?

8. Read Acts 23:23-35
a. Note: 40+ men sworn to kill Paul is a big number. The tribune takes it seriously and ensures that such overwhelming force (470!) surrounds Paul that only a fool would attack with 40 men.
9. Was it important that Paul was a Roman Citizen? Did Paul use that to his advantage?

10. Read Acts 24:1-21

11. How would you characterize the tone of Paul’s speech? (boisterous, timid, in-your-face, polite, factual, etc?)

12. Read Acts 24:22-27

13. How long was Paul in prison up to this point?
a. Paul’s behavior during this time calls to mind Jesus’ direction to his disciples: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16. How did Paul fulfill each part of this instruction from Jesus?
14. What kinds of situations in life tempt people to not be innocent as doves?

15. Is there ever a conflict between what is apparently the wisest response vs. what is a response of faith to a given situation?

16. What else strikes you?

17. Close in prayer.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Tale of Two Fish

Once upon a time, two fish were talking about water. One said, "I believe in water." The other said, "I've never seen water. I don't think it exists." The first fish said, "I still believe in water." The second fish said, "I will prove to you that there is no water." The second fish then went on a long journey, searching far and wide for water. After many miles and countless hours of searching, the second fish returned to the first fish and reported, "There is no water. I have looked everywhere there is to look and I have yet to find evidence for water. How can you go on believing in water?"

Once upon a time, two people were talking about God...

Monday, September 28, 2015

Monday, September 14, 2015

Observations & Commentary on Acts 15:26-16:40

Acts 15:37-38 - We are not told why John Mark left Paul and Barnabas on their previous missionary journey, just that he did. (see Acts 13:13)

Acts 15:39-41 - The word for the “sharp disagreement” reported in 5:39 is the word from which we get “paroxi\ysm: a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity.” While there is no suggestion of violent expression, this word does suggest the strength of feeling behind Paul’s and Barnabas’s thoughts about whether John Mark should be brought on the trip. In Acts 14:40, Paul is noted as being commended by the brothers to the grace of God. Perhaps this is because the following history mostly involves Paul. Perhaps this is because there was never any doubt about Barnabas going with the blessing of the church. Either way, Paul and Barnabas decided to take different routes and visit different churches among all the cities they had visited on their previous missionary journey together. Paul took a land route up to Derbe and Lystra, which would take him through his home town of Tarsus, while Barnabas set sail for the island of Cyprus, which was where he grew up (see Acts 4:36).

Acts 16:1-5 - The dominant incident is this section is where Paul has Timothy circumcised. This is right after the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) wherein it was clearly and unequivocally decided that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised and follow the Jewish laws in order to become Christians. The answer is (in short form) that nobody can compel a Christian to do anything to be saved because we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet because we are saved by God’s grace toward us, we see ourselves as servants of all and are willing to go to great though unnecessary lengths to connect people to Jesus. You might also look up the following passages to get a broader scriptural perspective on this principle (including their context): 1 Corinthians 8:13, Galatians 2:11, Romans 14, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 and 1 Corinthians 9:19.

Acts 16:6-10 - Here we see the Holy Spirit guiding the travel of Paul and Co. through various means. We don’t have to make up anything in particular about the look or dress of the Macedonian in the vision. Dreams and visions are such that we can simply know things. Acts 6:10 indicates that a) Paul had thought about and probably discussed the vision with others since we are told that he concluded that God was calling him to Macedonia and b) once the conclusion had been reached they wasted no time in following what they concluded was God’s direction to them.

Acts 16:11 - Did you notice a change in pronoun in Acts 16:11? Now Luke is writing in the first person plural (”we”) as opposed the third person plural that he had been using. Evidently, this is where Luke joined the entourage. Interesting, eh?

Acts 16:12 - We are told that Philippi was a “Roman colony.” Philippi was a Roman city on par with cities in Italy. Its official language was Latin. It was a major city and, evidently, did not have a regular synagogue. In Acts 16:13, likely the first Sabbath after their arrival in Philippi, Paul and company head out the riverside looking for a place where Jews in the region might gather. There were so few Jews in Philippi that they went to the riverside where they “supposed there was a place of prayer.” Ten men are required to form a Jewish synagogue so, evidently, there were less than ten practicing Jewish men in Philippi. (”I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”) Note that they spoke to the women who had gathered there… no men?

About Lydia.
She was from Thyatira, which is over nearer Iconium, etc. across the water from Philippi. She dealt in purpls goods, which were very expensive because of the dye involved. This would make Philippi a good market. Lydia evidently had a house there of some size because she prevailed upon Paul and his entourage to stay with her. Did she also have a house in Thyatira? Possibly. She is a Jewish proselyte who was probably first exposed to the Jewish religion in her home city of Thyatira. Paul told her about Jesus and she, along with her household, was immediately baptized. Typically, women could not conduct business at this time unless doing so under a husband. However, Roman law allowed a woman with at least three children to run a business. We don’t know whether Lydia was a widow or not, but her husband is not mentioned.

Acts 16:16-18 - Some things to note: The spirit is never called an ‘evil’ spirit. Perhaps that’s why Paul didn’t cast it out right away. There is much debate on why the girl with the spirit follows them around testifying about Paul and company. But, in the end, we see that Paul is human and gets annoyed, and so casts out the spirit.

Acts 16:19-24 - The girl’s owners were upset not for the girl, who was their property, but for their loss of income. They forcibly took Paul and Silas to the magistrates and charged them with disturbing the city and advocating non-Roman customs, something which hadn’t concerned them until their significant income was interrupted. This will not be the only time we will see that economics are a major force behind persecution. They beat them and put them in prison never inquiring about their citizenship. Paul, for some reason, neglect to mention his Roman citizenship.

Roman Citizenship - Being a Roman citizen was no small matter. Citizenship could be attained through several means. It could be purchased, awarded for special service to the state, being born to a mother who was a Roman citizen, or several other ways. Paul told an office that he was a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:28) but we do not know how his family gained citizenship. A citizen had to pay taxes, was promised a fair trial and exemption from certain harsher forms of punishment. A trial was required before a citizen could be executed and crucifixion required an order from the emperor. A citizen could appeal a verdict to the Roman emperor, a right which Paul eventually claimed. A false claim of citizenship was punished very severely, even to the point of execution.

Acts 16:25-34 - Prisons of this time were dark and nasty places. It is interesting to note that not only were Paul and Silas praying and singing, but the other prisoners were listening to them. This must have been some influence because then the doors were opened and the bonds fell off all the prisoners, they all stayed. The jailer was going to kill himself because that would have been his punishment for having let all the prisoners escape. If he killed himself, he would have some control over the manner of his death. His question to Paul and Silas shows that he, too, knows about Paul and Silas, what they have been preaching, and why they are in prison. Such is his trust in Paul and Silas that he takes them to his home and feeds them.

Acts 16:35-40 - Paul turns the tables on these magistrates! They think this is just a normal uprising and beating but it turns out that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens. While Paul and Silas have not displayed any fear in Philippi, first the owners of the slave girl are angry and afraid at their loss of income and now the magistrates are afraid because they have violated Roman law in beating Paul and Silas without a trial! Paul and Silas are forceful but gracious. They expect and receive an apology from the magistrates and when they are asked to leave the city they do so.

Monday, August 31, 2015

80 Year Old Man Tears It Up on a Skateboard and What This Might Teach Us

I just watched an 80 year old man with a crutch borrow a skateboard from a young man, shred around a concrete wave and do a flip out of a half-pipe, sticking a perfect landing. The video of this feat has been going around Facebook. Maybe you’ve seen it. If you have, then you know the secret of the video: it’s not really an 80 year old man. It’s a professional-level skateboarder in some very serious makeup. It was fun gag and the looks on the faces of the observers as the “old man” did progressively harder and harder moves was very entertaining. I don’t know for sure, but I bet the longer one watched the skateboarding the more suspicious one became that this skateboarder wasn’t really 80 years old and didn’t really need a crutch. His true identity was revealed in his actions.

You might already suspect where I’m going with this. It’s not very subtle. Jesus didn’t say that people would know his followers by the way they dressed or the way walked or the color of their skin or the style of worship they preferred or how well they knew the Bible or if they were good at arguing theology or even whether they worshipped in a purpose-built church building or a rented grade-school cafeteria.

Jesus was very specific and clear about how people will recognize his followers: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, ESV)

So if you are looking at someone and wondering if they are a follower of Christ in disguise, perhaps you could look for love, just like you could watch an apparently old man skate board and realize it is a young man in disguise.

But what is this thing called “love”? People have done absolutely horrendous things because of their “love.” Parents beat children out of love. People blow up buildings out of love. Clearly we need guidance.

You can thank the apostle Paul for some further clarity on love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Ah, that’s a little more concrete.

So, follower of Christ… would someone identify you as a follower of Christ in disguise if they followed you around for a while? If that question bothers you, the answer is not just to try harder. You can’t do this on your own strength. The answer lies in the cross and the empty tomb.

On the cross we see God demonstrating love for humanity in the most profound and moving way: one dying for another. Sometimes we act unloving because we feel unloved. Look at the cross and see the depth of God’s love for you. Sometimes we act unloving because we do not acknowledge the value of the other person and the essential equality we share with all humanity. Look at the cross and see that the person you are having trouble being kind to is a) a person who shares the same set of difficulties that all humans face and b) a person for whom Christ went to the cross.

In the tomb we see the power of God at work over the most apparently final of all things we experience: death itself. The power that resurrected Christ from the grave is the same power available to you to raise up your spirit and change your heart, enabling you to grow in love.

Try praying something like this every morning:
Father, in Jesus’ death on the cross, you showed me just how much you love me. And in Jesus’ death on the cross you showed me just how much you love every person I will ever meet. Thank you that I don’t have to be perfect in love to be a follower of Jesus, but let the power you displayed in the resurrection work renewal in me so that today I may grow in love toward every person I meet in real and concrete ways. In Jesus’ name, amen.

God bless!
Pastor John

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Our faith is in Jesus not in the Bible... and why this is important.

I preached a sermon yesterday that left me wondering if I was clear. I am writing this to attempt to clarify what may not have been clear yesterday. Unfortunately, it may not be clear today either. You be the judge.

The message was based in an encounter between Peter and and a Gentile named Cornelius recorded in Acts 10. Peter had a vision in which God told him not to call unclean that God calls clean. Then, when preaching to Cornelius (along with his friends and family), the Holy Spirit came on all those Gentiles. To me, the most surprising thing is what happened next: Peter and the Jewish Christians are, apparently, surprised that the Holy Spirit has been given to the Gentiles. Based on what God had just done in Peter's vision and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Jewish Christians decided it was ok to baptize the Gentile believers.

Though it may not have been apparent, this was a very personal sermon. It was born out of my own painful journey.

It has always been important to me to believe the right things. I gravitated toward systematic theology -- the branch of theology in which our doctrines are defined -- because I desire clarity. Unfortunately, peace was not coming. I was haunted by the worry that I might be believing the wrong thing. After all, there have been many people of great intellect, energy and passion who, having devoted themselves to the study of the Bible, arrived at different conclusions. They are all smarter and more learned than me, so who is right? Whose assertions about truth do I trust? What if I "get it wrong"? How wrong can you be and still go to heaven?

This way of living and growing in my faith was leaving me with fear. Yet the scriptures tell us that "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18 (ESV))

This is where the Acts 10 comes in to bring me peace. Peter didn't understand Jesus' full mission and intent. PETER, for cryin' out loud! He walked with and listened to Jesus personally for three years. He saw Jesus transfigured and resurrected. Jesus is, to that very day, doing miracles through Peter. And yet Peter was surprised by what God did by pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles.

This is where the peace comes. Peter didn't understand everything and that was ok because Peter's faith wasn't in a book, it was in a person: Jesus of Nazareth. I don't have to understand everything because my faith isn't in a book, either. My trust is in God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.

The book -- the Bible -- is still of extraordinary importance and worthy of our deepest study. But if we are trusting the Bible to save us, then we'd better get it just right or we're goners. If we are studying the Bible from this pinched perspective of fear, we will either ignore difficult verses or try to artificially squish them into what we think has to be right. But if we are trusting Jesus the real live person to save us, then the exploration of scripture becomes an exciting journey rather than fearful ride. We are free to come across difficult passages and say, "I wonder what in the world that means!" or "Holy cats! How does that fit into my faith? How does that affect my view of the way God works in the world?" (For instance, did you know that people were getting healed by touching handkerchiefs that had touched Paul's skin. Don't believe me? Check it out in Acts 19:28) We are free, based on new experiences, new knowledge, or even just rereading, to understand the scriptures a little differently than we used to... or a great deal differently. We are free to do this because our salvation is in the hands of Jesus Christ, not in our understanding of the Bible.

Let me try to sum it up. If the Bible were the "salvation formula," then we would never have peace because we can never be sure we've got it right. But the Bible doesn't save us, Jesus does. Trust Jesus — the living, breathing, hugging, compassionate, resurrected, image-of-the-invisible-Father Jesus — to save you as a lifeguard drags a drowning man from the water and then learn about and grow close to him through the Bible.

Looking back on what I just wrote, it occurs to me that this may simply be my struggle and no one else's. Sometimes the biggest deal for one person isn't even a blip on the radar for another person. And I'm still not sure I adequately expressed what I am trying to communicate. But, there it is. Good night and God bless.

— PJ

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Highs and Lows of Spiritual Life... Have You Done It to Yourself?

What do you do when you are lacking inspiration or motivation? I sat down to write this newsletter article and nothing came to me. I started three different articles and each fizzled out after the first paragraph. I feel as though my mind has caught the summer doldrums. I even googled “Free Newsletter Articles” to see what I would find!

Just like my writing inspiration, our Christian life is a series of mountains and valleys. Sometimes our spiritual lives feel like a hike through a lush forest and other times it feels like trudging through a sandy desert hoping… praying… to find water soon.

Sometimes we bear some responsibility for these highs and lows. Many of us know the thrill of stepping out in faith in some way and seeing the hand of God move in our lives. These moments don’t happen without us making a decision to exercise our faith. Sometimes we make our own desert by not watering our faith. Our habits of prayer or Bible study or devotion or worship attendance or Christian conversation slip and we are the poorer for it.

But sometimes the mountain or valley is not due to something we have done or not done. God is purposely taking us through either a season of thrilling wonder and faith or a season of desert wandering according to His good will for our lives.

If God has takes us into the desert, some fine things happen during these dry times. Spiritual hardiness is not built only in the sublime and powerful spiritual experiences many of us have had. Hardiness is built when things get hard! Muscles get strong by lifting heavy things. Paul tells us to rejoice in our sufferings because produces perseverance perseverance, character; and character, hope. This hope does not disappoint us because it is in God himself who loves us. (Romans 5). When God leads you to it, God will lead you through it. Rest assured that God is doing something good.

“But what if I have done it to myself?” you ask. What if my habits or decisions have led me to this place? God loves you no less! You might look at your desertification a little differently. God may be letting you feel spiritually parched as a form of discipline. The book of Hebrews has words for those undergoing discipline: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11). In this case, you need to let yourself be trained by the way you are feeling as a result of not praying or not going to church or not reading the Bible or in some other way letting the spiritual habits and focus of your life slip. God lets us feel the dryness, the emptiness that comes from moving away from him, because he loves us. He wants us to notice the distance and turn around.

If you are in a spiritual high place, fantastic! It’s a wonderful place to be. If you are in a spiritual low place, turn toward God instead of away from him. Examine your life for ways you might have walked away. And continue the road of faith. You, like a runner in training, are growing stronger through this difficult time.

Peace be with you,
Pastor John

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Few Thoughts for Christians Regarding Homosexual Marriage

Our country is changing rapidly. Change is disconcerting and causes anxiety, whether for the better or worse. I would not presume to tell you what to think about the decision of the Supreme Court legalizing marriage between two people of the same gender. But I will venture to offer you a few observations from the standpoint of the Christian faith and scripture. I offer these in the spirit of open dialogue, not as the final word. In fact, I’m going to purposely make this annoyingly brief so that you have to do the chewing instead of me indulging in pastoral spoon feeding. 

1. The first desire of the Christian is that people come to know Jesus and look to him as Savior and Lord. No law can ever do more than attempt to compel or restrict outward behavior. Laws may more or less embody Judeo-Christian morals, but they do not make a single Christian because they do not change hearts.

2. People make claims about “the entire history of marriage” being one man and one woman. This is clearly not the case, even in our own Bible. Even a couple of the biggies – Abraham & Jacob – didn’t conform to the one man, one woman standard.

3. Arguing for or against laws based on the Bible leads into a dangerous territory, politically speaking. Imagine a USA in the future where people of another religion have become the majority. If you don’t want their religion legally governing your life at that time, then you ought to think twice about wanting your religion to govern their life now. If one wants to argue against marriage for homosexuals in a way that is safe for the future of our republic, the argument had better not be some variation of “God says so” because ISIS is using the same type of argument except that it’s from a different book.

4. Personal liberty is a biblical principle. If there was anyone who ever had good grounds and reasons for forcing his will on others, it is God with respect to mankind. But God offers us freedom of choice. We can turn away from God’s call. We can resist the Holy Spirit.

5. All this being said, Jesus did indicate that God’s design is that marriage be monogamous and heterosexual (see Mark 10).

So, what is a Christian to do? And how is a church to respond? My answer is to continue in love and compassion, not judging other people (Who am I to judge someone else’s servant? Romans 14:4), speaking in love what I believe to be the truth. That’s how we will all grow instead of grouping into enemy camps. According to the Bible, homosexuality is really a symptom of the brokenness of humanity. I have within myself plenty of symptoms of the brokenness of humanity!

Each of us must think through this as a Christian and a citizen of our republic. With regard to my Christian faith as a citizen in a country that values freedom (thank God!), here is the question I feel compelled to ask: I don’t believe homosexuality is of God’s design but why should what I believe be the law of the land any more than what someone else believes?

In addition, I must think through this as a pastor who officiates marriage ceremonies. Here is what I think today. Being a sinner is not near as big a problem as calling sin, “righteous.” Homosexual behavior certainly isn’t the “unforgivable sin” but neither is it, according to the scriptures, something God has blessed. Therefore, I cannot perform a blessing ceremony on a homosexual marriage any more than I could perform a blessing ceremony on a divorce. Both happen. Neither is according to God’s design. But neither makes those involved terrible people. And neither cause me to reject or move away from the people involved because every person is deeply loved by the one I serve and follow, Jesus Christ. My not blessing homosexual marriage is just me following Christ to the best of my ability.

Is there more to say? Of course, tons! It was a split decision by the Supreme Court, 5-4. The dissenting judges offered some compelling arguments against the ruling. As a pastor, I restricted this article to Christian thinking, but there are many other ways to explore this issue as citizens and what this decision might mean in the long-run for our society. Let’s have a beer sometime and talk about it.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Observations & Commentary on Acts Acts 5:12–42

These are some pretty quick notes from my study of this portion of the book of Acts.

v. 12 - Signs and wonders accompany the advance of the Gospel.
Solomon’s portico was a columned covered area around the perimeter of Herod’s Temple.
v. 13 - Perhaps the Jesus followers were incredibly generous but a little too intense for most people?
v. 14 - The growth continues
v. 15 - What do we do with the statement about Peter’s shadow falling on them? Perhaps it is a colloquialism that simply means, “so close Peter could not walk by them.” However, we have other instances of people being healed “indirectly” (for lack of a better word).
In the first instance, there was the woman who touched Jesus’ robe and was healed, as recorded in Luke 8:43-48. Jesus clarified that it wasn’t actually this blessed garment that had cured the lady. Luke 8:48 (ESV)”And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.””

Then there is the curious incident of Paul’s clothes even bringing with them the power to heal:

Acts 19:11–12 (ESV)
11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

What do we make of this? It seems like magic. I think the best we can do is that God sometimes honors our limping, halting, misdirected reaching out in faith because it is still faith looking ultimately to God through his servants and, in some cases, through the shadow of his servants or the handkerchiefs. As with so much we will read in Acts, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. God is gracious. Isaiah 32:3 - “A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

v. 16 - Word of the Apostles’ power to heal is spreading.

vv. 17-18 - The same cast of characters, including the aristocratic Sadducee party utilized their power to attempt to put a stop to this Jesus movement.

Jesus predicted this. “But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.” (Luke 21:12 (ESV))

What is this “public prison” and why does Luke specify this?

The previous imprisonment was recorded this way:
Acts 4:3 (ESV) And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.

The word for “custody” or “prison” is the same word in both 4:3 and the text in question, but Luke adds the adjective, “public” or “common.”

Perhaps they were kept under guard in a room in the Temple during their first imprisonment owing to the fact that they weren’t really criminals but just men teaching something they might be threatened out of teaching. But, since they clearly did not listen to the orders of the High Priest the first time, they were thrown in the much nastier public prison, with all the types of prisoners you would expect to find.

vv. 19-21a

vv. 21b-23

vv. 24 - What would you do?

vv. 25

vv. 26 - They brought them back in, but not y force. Again, fear of the people. A riot meant trouble for the religious leaders. They wanted to keep their nice position, their life, their power, so now there is a balancing act.

vv. 27-29 - The set up is the same as the previous time they are questioned. By the statement of the High Priest questioning Peter and John, it seems that Peter’s preaching was not pulling punches but laying Jesus’ orchestrated crucifixion at the feet of the religious leaders.

vv. 29-32 - In their reply to the religious leaders, they still are not pulling punches: “…whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.”

God made him leader and Savior, say the Apostles to the leaders! :)

Further, the Apostles claim that the Holy Spirit, the Wind of God from before the beginning of the world, has been a witness to this and, indeed, this Spirit has been given to those who follow Jesus. Understand that the Apostles were not only accusing these leaders of having Jesus crucified, they are also denying their legitimacy before God, their years of training, piety and devotion (such as it was… let’s not be too hard on those below the highest levels and outside the family of the High Priest.)

v. 33 - Righteous indignation! Ananias and his cronies had different reasons that the lower priests for their outrage, but they could all agree on one thing: these men must be stopped!

vv. 34-39 - A Pharisees stands up to offer some wisdom. Remember that while the Pharisees were against Jesus, they seem to be more truth-seeking. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night representing a group of Pharisees who were trying to figure Jesus out. (see John 3) The Sadducees rejected life after death and the whole spiritual realm while the Pharisees believed in angels, demons, life after death and judgment by God.

This Pharisee is a teacher who held enough respect to command the attention of the council when he stood up and ordered that the prisoners be taken from the room before he offer his counsel. This wise man, Gamaliel, recounted the history of several so-called messiahs and how their movement dissipated after their death. Based on this history, Gamaliel’s advice is to leave this movement alone. Either it will die of its own accord. Or this is of God, in which case a) you can’t win and b) you will be fighting against God.
The council took his advice, at least for a little while. One of his students did not see eye-to-eye with him. Saul of Tarsus would expend considerable effort trying to stamp out the Jesus movement before Jesus himself appeared to Saul who would later become Paul.

v. 40 Evidently the others didn’t completely buy into Gamaliel’s view.

v. 41 This just makes me think. What does it make you think?

v. 42 Evidently, for a while, the council took Gamaliel’s advice and left them alone.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Model for Prayer from Acts 4:23-31

The believer’s prayer for Peter and John in Acts 4:23-31 gives us a good model for prayer.

While analyzing the structure of a prayer may seem like a mundane exercise for linguaphiles, it is anything but. Just as Linus reminded Charley Brown that good theology has a way of comforting, the structure of prayer we see in this passage can help to bring God’s Word powerfully into your life through prayer. Let’s take a look.

To understand why this prayer can form a good general outline for prayer, we must first remind ourselves of the context. Peter and John have just been interrogated, threatened and released by the same people that had Jesus crucified. This is a prayer for boldness in the face of legitimate threat. So this model can be a good model when something specific is on your mind.

Step 1: Say something about who God is in relation to what you are praying about.

In this instance, the prayer begins by addressing God as “Sovereign Lord, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.” Immediately when these words are said, the people praying are reminded that the religious rulers are not, in the grand scale, in charge of anything. There is a God who created everything and that is the God to whom we pray.

So in your own prayer, think of something about God that interfaces with the situation that is on your mind. If your prayer is for healing, you might start out with a phrase like, “Father, you are the great physician. You created us and know our bodies better than we know ourselves.” If your prayer is for something having to do with sustenance in your life, you might start by saying, “Father, you created this world and everything in it. It is all yours to do with as you please.” You get the idea. 

Step 2: Bring the Word of God into the prayer.

The next thing the praying believers did was bring God’s Word into their prayer. In this instance, they quoted Psalm 2. This is a messianic psalm which talks about how people think they can fight God and he just laughs. His purposes and his anointed one cannot be overthrown (You should read it. It’s a good one!)

In this step, you think about the Word of God and how various scriptures might interact with the situation about which you are praying. In the case of healing, you might say, “Your Son displayed your healing power on earth as he healed people throughout his ministry.” If you are struggling, you might say something like this, “You have said that a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Isaiah 42:3)

The Word of God is powerful and active. It brings comfort, guidance, power and peace to those who hear it and speak it with faith. 

Step 3: Present the current situations.

Notice that we are far into the prayer before we even get to what is on our mind specifically. By beginning with God’s nature and God’s Word, we draw ourselves toward the right frame of mind for a prayer grounded in faith. But now the prayer gets very specific. The people who threatened and killed Jesus (albeit by God’s plan of salvation) are now threatening Peter and John.

In this step you tell God what’s going on. Be specific and clear. Do you feel threatened and if so, by what? Do you feel overwhelmed and if so, by what? What, specifically, is the current situation and what, specifically, are your concerns? 

Step 4: Ask.

Finally the believers pray. By calling to mind God’s nature and his Word along with presenting a specific situation, the believers pray for what a follower of Jesus would want to do in this situation: speak boldly while continuing to heal in Jesus’ name.

By the time your thoughts go through God’s nature, God’s Word and the specific situation, you will likely be ready to pray a prayer that connects you to God’s will. The disciples did not pray for deliverance, they prayed for courage. If a relationship is broken, by the time a believer gets through God’s nature, God’s Word and a clear description of the situation, the believer’s heart is ready to pray for reconciliation instead of vengeance, for healing instead of pain. If a serious illness is at hand, by the by the time a believer gets through God’s nature, God’s Word and a clear description of the situation, the believer’s heart is ready to pray for peace and the opportunity to glorify God along with, of course, healing. 

I am not asserting that this model is prescriptive — it doesn’t direct us to pray this way. Jesus did that with the Lord’s Prayer. In this prayer, though, we have a good model for how to pray in response to specific situations. Try it for yourself. (And don't worry about not knowing the references for the scriptures that you find meaningful. New Testament authors often did not cite references.)
  1. Who God is.
  2. What God’s Word says. 
  3. What the situations is. 
  4. What you are praying for.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Observations & Commentary on Acts 4:1-14

Acts 4...

Vv. 1-2 The group of people who show up to see what’s going on are all leaders in the temple, people with authority. Understanding who they were and what they were about will help you see how diverse a group of people were united in their opposition to Jesus.

PRIESTS — Priests are from the tribe of Levi. They live all over the nationa of Israel and serve rotational duty in the Temple, receiving offerings, performing sacrifices, and all the other activities that were part of life in the Temple. There is no indication that the priests who approached Peter were anything more than ordinary priests. There is good reason to assume that, while the priestly leadership might be universally corrupt, the rank and file priests were of the variety of integrity and piety that we might expect to find in any vocation.

CAPTAIN OF THE TEMPLE — The Captain of the Temple was the second in authority in the Temple, only behind the High Priest. Luke is the only New Testament writer to use this term. It appears that this person was the person in charge of maintaining order in the Temple. Bear in mind that unlike churches today, the Temple staff included the Temple Guard. The New Bible Dictionary tells us, “The Temple had its own police department known as the Temple Guard, who were mostly Levites and whose task, among other things, was to keep out the forbidden Gentiles.” (©1996, Intervarsity Press)

SADDUCEES — There are some things we know about the Sadducees. They denied the resurrection of the dead, the continuation of the soul beyond death and judgment after death. Unlike the Pharisees, who relied greatly on oral tradtion to guide their interpretation of the Old Testament, the Sadducees rejected strongly rejected this oral tradition and rooted themselves firmly and solely in the Torah, the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. The current scholarly consensus is that the Sadducees were an aristocratic party among the priesthood, wealthy, well-connected, and willing to work with whatever political leadership was in power. Acts 5:17 tells us that the party of the Sadducees were aligned with the High Priest, who was most certainly wealthy, corrupt and self-serving, since the high priest put in place by the Romans, likely at great cost in money and loyalty. The sadducees appear to be well-educated and cynical, denying any non-material world, from human spirits surviving death to angels and demons.

The beliefs of the Sadducees explain why verse 2 tells us that they were greatly annoyed because Peter was “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” To clarify this annoyance, it is painfully disturbed as opposed to how one might be annoyed by something minor like a squeeky hinge. They are driven to put a stop to Peter’s public speach.

v. 3 In this verse we get a little hint of how different things were back then. The priests didn’t like what Peter and John were saying, so they arrested them.

v. 4 Too late. The people have heard and believed. The church that was 120 a short time ago and had swelled to about 3,000 people on the day of Pentecost has now reached about 5,000 people.

V. 5-6 Some new characters appear in our narrative, gathered to interrogate Peter and John.

RULERS — This is a general word for those with authority or power in the situation. Satan is called the “ruler of demons” (Matt. 12:24) and the ruler of this world (John 12:31).

ELDERS — As the name implies, these are not young men. But it was more than simply the old guys. This is a title that designates those who are looked upon as leaders because they have attaind and displayed the wisdom that can be acquired with age. It may also be a title or office into which these people are placed.

SCRIBES — Scribes were specially trained in reading and writing. The word would be used of town clerks, lawyers and other who work specifically with words. In the Temple context, the scribes are experts in the law of Moses (as opposed to the priests who performed the Temple rituals).

ANNAS THE HIGH PRIEST — Annas is not, at the time of these proceedings, officially the High Priest. He was deposed by the Romans in 15AD. Five of his sons and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, also served as High Priest. In the trial of Jesus, Annas conducted a pretrial questioning prior to the official trial before Caiaphas. That Annas continued to have great influence long after being removed from office is shown by his being called “High Priest” and by how many of his relatives served as High Priest after him. The authority of Annas was so clear that in John 3:2, the apostle tells us that John the Baptist’s ministry began during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas even thought Annas had been officially out of office for 12 years.

It should also be noted that the High Priest, in Jewish thought, is a lifetime office. It was only under Roman rule that the High Priest was put in place and deposed (by the Romans).

CAIAPHAS — Caiaphas, at this time, holds the officially designated office of High Priest, serving from 18AD - 36AD. Caiaphas interrogated Jesus and handed him over to Pilate.

JOHN — John appears to have served as High Priest from 36AD - 37AD. He was deposed and the office was given to his brother, Theophilus. He was briefly restored to office in 44AD.

ALEXANDER — We don’t know anythingn about Alexander except that he was part of the high priestly family. There is no indication that Alexander ever ascended to the office of High Priest.

THE HIGH PRIESTLY FAMILY — Can you say, “nepotism”?

v. 7 The gathered leadership would sit in a semicircle on a raised platform.

The first big thing to notice is that the miracle is not denied. This miracle cannot be denied because a well-known crippled beggar can now walk.

There were many itinerant rabbis, healers and exorcists. In Acts 19:13 we hear of some of these trying to co-opt the name of Jesus for their work: “Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” (It doesn’t go so well for those folks because the name “Jesus” is not a magical power word. You’ll have to look it up if you want to find out what happened.)

The question of the Temple leaders insinuates that the power that healed was not the power of God because God’s name does not get spoken. Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons (see Luke 11:14-26).

v. 8 The Holy Spirit resides in all believers. We are told that no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 12:3). The filling of the Holy Spirit is a repeatable experience whereby the Holy Spirit gives boldness and wisdom. Remember that this is Peter who only recently swore with curses on himself that he didn’t know Jesus. We will also hear in a few verses (v. 13) that the educated leaders of the Temple were amazed because Peter and John were “uneducated, common men.”

Notice that Peter begins to speak politely and with respect. He will not pull punches, but neither will be be needlessly disrespectful or inflammatory.

vv. 9-10 Instead of resenting the insuation of their question, Peter uses it to bring in the name of Jesus, connecting his resurrection (which one might deny) to the healed cripple, whom they cannot deny.

Also, Peter frames his answer around having to respond to doing a good deed. Who can question a good deed? Crimes should be investigated, not good deeds.

v. 11 In this verse, Peter connects Jesus to Old Testament prophecy by directly quoting Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (ESV)

v. 12 This is the boldly restrictive sentence. Based in Jesus being the stone, salvation is found through him.

v. 13 Jewish boys in Jesus’ day would go to school at the local synagogue for 1/2 day six days per week from age 5 to 11 after which their schooling would be finished unless they shows special special promise. If they were to continue their education, they would go to a rabbinical school. Peter and John, as would be apparent from the way they spoke, were not educated beyond the minimum for Jewish boys. Typically, one would not expect a lower class fisherman to speak boldly and eloquently before the educated and wealthy Temple leadership gathered to examine them. In trying to figure out their boldness, they recognized that these men who were now healing in Jesus’ name had been with Jesus.

v. 14 What can they say? Remember that most of these leaders are of the Sadducees, so they don’t believe in a spiritual reality. But there is the cripple healed and standing right there in front of them.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Commentary and Observations on Acts 3, including the Cycle for Every Day Outreach

Loving acts create the opportunity for witness.

v. 1 - Peter & John were going to the temple at the Jewish hour of prayer, about 3pm our time. This pattern is reflected in Acts 2:46.

v. 2 - This man had never been able to walk, which would mean that he would pretty much be unable to work. Luke, as a doctor, notes in verse 7 that his feet and ankles were made strong. Perhaps he had a severe case of club feet?

v. 3 It appears that just as he was being brought to his usually place for alms, he asked for alms.

v. 4-5 Peter and John looked at him. They gave him their attention instead of dropping coins and walking on. The instruction of Peter that the alms requester look at him shows that Peter thinks of the alms requester as an equal. An inferior averts his gaze and does not look directly into the eyes of his social superior. But this cripple is told, “Look at us.”

v. 6 First Peter acknowledges that he does not have money to give. Peter’s gift is not to have material wealth. But what Peter does have, he freely shares without payment: healing.

vv. 7-8 The healing was immediate and, as you might imagine, the man is literal jumping for joy. We will later learn that this man is over 40 years old when the healing occurs (Acts 4:22).

vv. 9-10 Everyone remembered seeing the this leaping man sitting as a cripple begging for alms, which he had probably done in the same place at the same time for many years. They are amazed, just as you and I would be

v. 11 The man wouldn’t leave Peter and all the astonished people followed to see what was going on.

v. 12 Peter did not heal this man with the intent of drawing attention or using the incident for anything other than what it was: a loving act of healing. But when he sees the crowd, his is open to the opportunity to testify about Jesus Christ.

Peter addressing the crowd as “Men of Israel” reminds us that everyone in this picture is Jewish. At this point, the idea that Jesus is the Messiah is a debate between Jews, with some Jews believing he is, some not, and many trying to figure it out. There is, as yet, no real thought of the proclamation of Jesus being for people beyond the Jews. The caveat to this is that God’s people have always been told to welcome those of non-Jewish descent who wanted to become part of God’s covenant people. (”If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land…” — Exodus 12:48, ESV)

Peter is aware of the crowd wondering what kind of person Peter is and what kind of power he possesses that enables him to heal like this. Peter’s first order of business is to put this to rest, which he does in two ways.

First, this healing is not by Peter and John’s own power. This is the simple one: we are not magicians.

Then Peter tells the crowd that it is not by his and John’s own “piety,” that is personal holiness. Having been through his experience of denying Christ and being restored, Peter is fully aware of his own failings. The crowd might think that God listens to Peter because he is such a good guy. Peter will have no part of that!

v. 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a standard Jewish way of referring to God. The “you” in these verses is plural. Paul speaks to these people as “the Jewish nation.” There is a sense of collective guilt when the leaders (and, as we recall, the crowds) do something despicable.

vv. 14-15 Peter is using very messianic titles for Jesus when calls Jesus “the Holy and Righteous One.” Calling Jesus the “Author of Life” is an even bolder assertion. While the title “Author of Life” is not used in that exact turn of phrase to designate God, the Old Testament is riddled with assertions about, laws based in and praises offered to God as the giver or originator of life. The word for “author” in this passage (archÄ“gos) designates the originator or founder. It can also designate a founding leader who is still leading.

Much of the force of what Peter proclaims is wrapped around these six words: “To this we are witnesses.” There are a host of theological implications to Jesus being the Messiah and being raised from the dead, but Peter’s preaching is witnessing — sharing what he has experienced.

v. 16 Again, Peter is no magician. It is by faith in the name of Jesus that this man is now walking.

v. 17 Here Peter follows the lead of Jesus who asked the Father to forgive his executioners because they did not know what they were doing.

v. 18 The path of suffering on the way to the fulfillment of God’s plan is a common theme throughout scriptures. Abraham had to leave his ancestral home when he was an old man. Joseph, whose brothers had sold him into slavery, ended up Prime Minister of Egypt. Upon meeting his brothers, he told them that what they meant for evil, God meant for good. The Israelites suffered under the Egyptians before God delivered them.

vv. 19-26 Repent — turn around, think differently — which includes, of course, repenting of rejecting Jesus as the Christ.

The rest of these verses is a little harder to understand unless we remember that at this time the disciples still thought that salvation was for the Jews. It is not until later that, through visions and the work of the Holy Spirit, the disciples realize that Jesus is for Jews and Non-Jews alike. Peter’s speech seems to indicate that there is still an expectation of Jesus restoring the physical nation of Israel, only now it is when he returns in power and glory after the foretold suffering is fulfilled. Although in verses 25 and 26, Peter recalls God’s promise to Abraham, that all the families of the world being blessed and that Jesus was sent to the Jews “first.” Who is “first”? The nation of Israel to be followed by the rest of the world, or the people of Jerusalem, to be followed by the rest of the nation of Israel?

A Basic Pattern for Everyday Outreach

A basic pattern of everyday outreach can be observed in this encounter. We can’t all heal, but we can all be open to loving and giving interaction with those around us. And, importantly, we can keep our eyes open for opportunities for spiritual conversation and sharing our faith in Jesus.

Notice the progression by which Peter ends up talking to the crowd about Jesus.
v. 1 - Peter and John are going about their business. (step 1)
vv. 2-3 — There is the possibility of human interaction (step 2)
vv. 4-5 — Peter and John essentially say, “Yes” to the man’s bid for interaction. (Note that looking each other in the eyes, in this culture, is an indicator of equality. It is not the lame man, who is lower on the social scale, who initiates this equality. It is Peter and John who tell the lame man to look them in the eye.) (step 3)
v. 6 Peter offers what what he has to give. Then continues on. (step 4)
v. 12 Peter noticed a further opportunity and took it. (step 5, noticing and step 6, acting) 

This diagram summarizes the process of everyday outreach God’s kingdom. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Devotion on Leadership in Grace

“The Lord will provide. But, oh that He would until he does.” – The Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof

There is a strain of Christian faith that goes something like this, “if you are doing everything right, everything will be going right.” This seems natural.  There is a folksy wisdom to a statement.  And in many instances, it is true.

The scriptures do tell us that we reap what we sow.  It would be both unscriptural and immature to suggest that are words and actions don’t have a real effect on our lives.  The scriptures tell us that plans fail for lack of counsel but with many advisers they succeed.  And so as we, as the Board of Directors, think and plan strategically, try to cast a vision for the future of our congregation, considering the large sense what we should be working on and measuring, there is a certain sense in which it is our job to figure out what the right things are to do so that things will be going right.

But things going well, that is, according to our plan, and things going well according to the measures that would seem to us to indicate success, can never be the thing by which we judge ourselves. Paul writes, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.” (1 Corinthians 4:3) Jesus reminded the religious leaders of his day that it was religious leaders that killed the prophets.  The job of the Christian is to get out of the judgment business altogether, including a judging ourselves.

We begin this meeting together not by reminding ourselves of our responsibility, but by reminding ourselves of God’s love.  While we are, in fact, the ones here and now who will have to make decisions, we do not make decisions in fear and trembling. We don’t make decisions as though we will be in or out of God’s love. The only way we can make a wrong decision is if we make decisions out of fear rather than faith.

This cannot be said too often: There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. God’s love rains down on us. God has reconciled the world to himself in Jesus Christ, not counting our sins against us. In Christ we have peace with God that cannot be taken away. This is the foundation in which we work.

As we have God’s grace secure in our minds, as the utterly unshakable and unassailable love of God courses through our veins, we find the peace that will enable us to hear and follow the inner voice of the Holy Spirit. We have the faith to listen to God’s guidance through his Word and Spirit and boldly follow his direction, sometimes toward results that look like success to the world and sometimes toward results that look like failure to the world. God’s love casts out fear and let’s us lead boldly according to his call.

It all comes down to this:
  1. We are not earning God’s love. We are working out our lives in the umbrella of his grace.
  2. God isn’t speaking just to hear himself talk.