Are you counting your blessings the right way? (or the wrong way?) – Acts 12, Part 2

How Children Learn to Count - The Mathematical Brain

Have you ever been around a child learning to count? My kids, at that very early stage, would often skip numbers in the teens, “11, 12, 13…15, 16, 17…” It was humorous, but we would stop them and say, “You missed 14…let’s try it again.” After practice, they learned.

In the previous post, I suggested that the question, “How should we count our blessings?” is crucial to our study in this series of posts. Today, two men in Acts 12 help us that perhaps we need to relearn how to count our blessings.

The author of the New Testament book of Acts, a history of beginning of the Christian church, in chapter 12, verse 19-23, tells the story of an event that had nothing to do with the church. Because this episode does not further the narrative of the church, we could ask why the author included it. To attempt to answer that, we first need to know what the details of the story. I encourage you to read it for yourself. The summary is that King Herod (learn more about him in the previous post here) receives accolades from some people comparing him to a god, an angel of God strikes him with sickness, and Herod dies.

It seems the reason Luke included this story at this spot in his narrative is to contrast the two men in the story.  In the previous post, we heard how Herod murdered James the disciples, imprisoned Peter and was power-hungry.  Now in verses 19-23, we just read that he was arrogant.

What about the other man in our story, Peter?  How does he act?  Let’s go back and read verses 6-18, noticing how he handles his situation. Again, I encourage you to read them for yourself, because it is a delightful, even humorous story. While the church is praying for Peter, an angel visits in prison, frees him, and Peter thanks God. Under cover of night, he hurries through the city to the home where the church is praying, and they are shocked, and overjoyed.

Now do you see why Luke included that last bit about Herod in verses 19-23?  If not, let me point out a contrast that I think might give us insight into Luke’s reason for mentioning Herod’s death.  Think about the contrast between these two men:

Peter, the leader of the church, is imprisoned. The church prays, an angel of the Lord shows up and Peter is rescued.

Herod, the king of the land, gives a speech. The people praise Herod, liken him to God, an angel of the Lord shows up and Herod is killed.

Why such a different result?  Both men held leadership roles; Peter in the church, Herod as king.  In both cases an angel of the Lord shows up, but the result is totally opposite.  Why?  Think about to whom these men give the credit?  Remember our question from the previous post, How should we count our blessings?  See how these men answer that question:

Look at Peter’s words in vs. 11, “I know without a doubt the Lord sent his angel and rescued me.”

Compare that with Herod in vs. 22-23, “Herod did not give praise to God.”

I want to be clear.  Stories are descriptive, not prescriptive.  They describe what happened at a particular time.  They do not prescribe what will happen every time.  In telling this story, Luke isn’t trying to say that if we simply praise God, like Peter, our lives will be great, and we’ll get out of any mess we’re in.  Peter would go on to be crucified upside-down. Luke also isn’t trying to say that if we don’t give God credit where credit is due him that he’ll strike us dead. Some evil people prosper.

It does, however, seem that Luke wanted us to see this contrast: both men had the opportunity to give credit to God.  Peter did.  Herod didn’t.  Peter was freed and his ministry flourished, while Herod was killed.  It reminds us of a principle:

How you count your blessings can make a huge difference in your life.

Maybe we’ve seen blessings in our lives, and we’ve forgotten that God is the source of all we are and all we have!

So let’s remember that all we have is a blessing from God: our jobs, and our bodies and minds that enable us to work, our abilities, talents, personalities and our gifts are all to his credit.  He made us.  He gave us life.  He is good and he gives good gifts.

James, the brother of Jesus, the leader of the church who is mentioned in verse 17, reminds that we need to learn to count our blessings the right way!  He says, in James 4:7,

“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”

When we remember to be grateful, when we remember who gives good gifts, we give credit to God, who is the proper one who should receive credit.  How many of our parents worked hard to teach us to say, “Thank you,” and to write thank you notes for gifts that were given to us?  How many of you work with your children or grandchildren on that?  It is a really important way to recognize that when we receive a gift, it is not something that was owed us, not something we earned.  It is a gracious gift.  Thus we show honor and gratefulness to the one who gave us something. 

How should we count our blessings? – Acts 12, Part 1

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What have you been grateful for lately?  Or has it been hard for you to be grateful? We all go through seasons of abundance and seasons that seem dry like a desert.  What season are you in right now?  I’m writing this in the spring of 2020 when the entire world has been on quarantine for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Quarantine can easily feel like one of the desert times, making it very hard to be grateful.

During the quarantine, Michelle and I have many reasons to be grateful to God.  Our family is healthy.  I finished my doctoral classes.  Though Michelle has been off work for two months, we’re making it financially.    

What are the ways you’ve seen abundance lately in your life?

Even during quarantine.  Extra time for sleep?  Time with Family?  Health?  Recovery from bad health?  Do you have the provision of employment and finances?  We could go to the basics, if need be.  Do you have food, clothing, homes, air to breath, a heart that is pumping.

What I’ve noticed about myself is that it is very easy to feel I am lacking when I compare my life to those who have more than me.  Maybe you have a tendency to think like that too.  In our world, there will always be people who have more. 

Perhaps we are better off comparing ourselves to those who have less.  Maybe then we will see that we are the ones with abundance.

What I’m getting at is that are ways that all of us can say, “I am blessed.”  It is often just a matter of perspective.

Taking the perspective that we all have at least some reason to count our blessings, I want us to consider a related question.  The main characters in our next chapter in Acts will help us answer that question, “How should I count my blessings?”

Turn with me to Acts 12.  In this chapter we are going to see a stark contrast in the lives of two powerful leaders. Peter is the leader of the upstart followers of Jesus who are called the “Way,” or “Christians.”  The other character is King Herod. In the years previous to this story Herod has consolidated power, little by little, to the point where the emperor in Rome made Herod the ruler of all Israel. Before this story is over, one of these two men will die. Who will it be and why?  I believe it has to do with the question we are looking at in this series of posts: how should we count our blessings?

In Acts 12, the account starts with Herod. Who was he?

That name Herod might sound familiar.  There are many Herods mentioned in the New Testament, starting with Herod the Great.  Herod the Great was the guy on the throne at the birth of Christ.  Herod the Great was also the king who met the wise men, and who ordered the genocide of children in Bethlehem.  Then we come to Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas. Antipas was the king who put John the Baptist to death and to whom Pilate sent Jesus for questioning right before his crucifixion.  Today we meet Herod Antipas’ nephew, Herod Agrippa 1, and what did we just read about him?  He was doing some killing too. These are really wonderful men, these Herods, wouldn’t you say?

The account in Acts 12 starts off with Herod Agrippa on the hunt for Christians.  The early church is being persecuted again.  So far in our series through Acts, I hope you have noticed how frequently persecution was a reality for the early church.  Things were not easy for these people. Here’s a quick review:

  • The persecution really started with Jesus’ crucifixion. 
  • Then a few months later in Acts 4, Peter & John are imprisoned by the Jewish leaders, who command them to stop preaching Jesus.  They don’t obey.
  • Acts 5 – The Apostles are again jailed by the Jews, who also flog the apostles.  Again the Jewish leaders command them to stop preaching Jesus.  Again, the apostles don’t obey. Instead they rejoice that they were persecuted. 
  • Acts 6 & 7 – Stephen is arrested and put on trial by the Jews, who stone him to death for preaching Jesus.
  • Acts 8 – Widespread persecution breaks out against the Christians in Jerusalem, led by Saul.  Many Christians are jailed or flee the city.
  • Acts 9 – Saul is on the way to Damascus to arrest more Christians.  Jesus appears to him, and Saul becomes a disciple of Jesus and begins preaching that Jesus is the truth.  The Jews in Damascus now try to kill Saul.  When Saul eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he preaches there too and again the Jews try to kill him, but he escapes.

Now in Acts 12, King Herod is persecuting the Christians. 

Yes, there have been periods of peace in the church.  But there has been regular opposition.  Imagine what that must have felt like, to know that so many powerful people could at any moment destroy your movement. 

Despite all the ways the church had been attacked, none of the apostles had been killed, even though they remained in Jerusalem, directing the work of the church. In Acts 12 that changed as Herod puts James to death.

Who is James? This is the James who was part of Jesus’ inner circle of three disciples: Peter, James and John.  Look ahead to verse 17 where Peter refers to another James.  That other James in verse 17 is the brother of Jesus who would go on to write the book of the Bible titled James.  Back in verse 2, Herod kills James the disciple, the first disciple to be killed as a martyr.

This is sinister, and likely was a power play on Herod’s part.  As we saw in the list of persecutions the church had already faced, the Jewish religious leaders badly wanted to destroy the church.  Further Herod wanted to please the Jews, because he wanted to be able to send reports of peace and prosperity back to his boss, the emperor, in Rome.  Herod doesn’t want the emperor hearing anything about uprisings and discontent among the Jews.  So he kills off one of the top leaders of the church.

But he doesn’t stop there. Peter is the #1 top leader of the church.  Herod goes for the jugular, throwing Peter in jail.  The text tells us he intends to bring Peter to trial after Passover.  It’s very likely the result of Peter’s trial would be the same as what happened to James: execution.  It is a dark, ominous time for the church. 

Before we find out how the story unfolds, let’s continue with Herod’s story, because something very mysterious happens to him. For the rest of the story, check back in to the next post!

The one thing you must do to get unstuck in life – Acts 11:19-30, Part 5

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Do you feel stuck during the quarantine? Does it feel like the trauma is walling you in? It can be crippling, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. What is the solution to get through a difficult time? Move!

Move? Sell your house or get a new rental and move?

No, not that kind of move.

To explain what I mean by “move,” I want to go back to the article I quoted in the first post.  Here is his conclusion:

It’s no secret that the happiest people on the planet are those who live with little. With little, that leaves more freedom and playtime to discover our true creative genius within — our true nature. We all have it.

Become the person you are, and perhaps would have been, before culture contaminated you and brought you into disharmony with yourself. You can choose to live your life in the vital mode of BEING rather than the empty mode of HAVING.

So what does it look like to life in the mode of being rather than having, and how does that relate to the mission of Jesus? This past week in one of my classes, a group presented fascinating material on how we can respond to trauma.  The group referred to a scientist who in 1989 traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Hugo, and here is what he said: ” It was one of the first times I saw very vividly how important it is for people to overcome their sense of helplessness after a trauma by actively doing something. Preventing people from moving when something terrible happens, that’s one of the things that makes trauma a trauma.”

We are now in the trauma of the coronavirus pandemic, and it can feel like we cannot move because of the quarantine.  In response to that, the story of the early church reminds us that the mission is still the mission.  If you are feeling afraid, bored, anxious, upset, confused, or frustrated by the pandemic and quarantine, then I encourage you to respond to the trauma and move, to be on mission. 

Being on mission starts with a state of mind that looks outward.  As I said before, for sure you need to be taking care of yourself and if you are struggling with mental health concerns during the pandemic, there are resources that are available, and I’d be glad to talk with you about that.

And let us all be encouraged and empowered to know that we can still be on mission during the quarantine. You have value, you are needed, you have a purpose.  It might require creativity and ingenuity, but let’s go for it!  You have gifts, you have a purpose.  Rather than feel all is lost, and just pine for the day when we will be back to the way it used to be, let’s remember that the way it used to be was filled with all kinds of stress and frustration as well.  Maybe the way it used to be was actually not so healthy.

So let’s put our current situation into perspective, and look outside ourselves to the mission.  One of the most encouraging things to me is to hear how my church family is still on mission during the pandemic.

One person is sewing face masks for Doctors without Borders.  Over 200 masks! 

One couple got 75 flowers and drove them around to people.

People are writing encouraging greeting cards.

People are delivering meals to one another.

People are spending time each day praying for those in our congregation.

People are doing prayer walks in their community and praying for their neighbors.

People are choosing honest encouragement on social media rather than bickering and complaining.

What ways can you be on mission this week?  Ask God to grow his heart within you more.  Take that time and sit with the Father and journal and talk with him. Ask him to give you eyes to see and ears to hear his heart in all of this and how you can find purpose and value in being a part of good during this time. Then step out in faith, following his lead!

God designed you for mission – Acts 11:19-30, Part 4

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What were you created to do? Do you know? What gifts, abilities and aptitudes do you have? Are you using them for a mission in the world? In this post we learn about how God wants all to be on mission, and how he has equipped us for mission!

In the previous post, we learned two stories of people that were encouraging. One of those was a guy named Barnabas. As we continue studying Acts 11:19-30, in verses 25-26, Barnabas sees that the new Christians in Antioch need more teaching, and what is fascinating is that he, Barnabas, thinks beyond himself.  He thinks about who could help with this mission.  He knows exactly who is the right man for the job.  Who might be a man associated with Barnabas, a man that has a sharp mind and a passion for teaching? 

Saul.  Barnabas knows Saul has the perfect gift mix to help the church in Antioch, so Barnabas travels to Tarsus in search of Saul. 

I wish we had more details about Barnabas’ trip.  It’s not like he could send a text message to Saul, giving him a head’s up: “Hey Saul, I’m on my way with a proposition for you!” Instead Barnabas likely had to make the trip having no idea if all the time and expense was going to be worth it.  Yet he knew enough about Saul, I suspect, to make an educated guess as to what the outcome would be.  Still, was it hard for Barnabas to find Saul?  How long might this trip have taken?  We don’t know.  We know the outcome though!  Saul apparently jumps at the chance to be on mission with Barnabas again, and who wouldn’t after Barnabas had been such an encouragement to him back in Jerusalem, as we read in chapter nine? 

The mission of Jesus was the center of Saul’s life.  Whatever he was doing in Tarsus had to stop so that he could pursue the mission.  Knowing the kind of guy Saul was, he was probably involved in important Kingdom work there too.  He was a tent-maker by trade, so maybe he was employed in that profession, likely preaching Christ and making disciples at the same time.  When Barnabas shows up, though, Saul is on the ready to serve.  And not just for the day or the weekend. 

Saul and Barnabas return to Antioch where they met with the people for a for a whole year, and taught great numbers of people.  When you think of Saul and Barnabas teaching, they were making disciples.  Take a look at the last sentence in verse 26: the Christians are described as disciples, and they were called Christians.  In other words, these are men and women who Saul and Barnabas taught how to be followers of Christ. 

The result?  Another great response.  Not numbers this time, but a gift.  Look at the rest of the chapter, starting at verse 27, where the church in Antioch gives generously to the church in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, this gift is a lot like Barnabas’ generosity in chapter 4.  I can imagine Barnabas telling the story of how people in the church of Jerusalem sold off property to support those in need.  Now the Christians in Antioch do likewise.  They give generously to those in poverty in the mother church in Jerusalem.  That generosity is embodied in the ministry funds we give to our denomination every month. 

In Acts 11:19-30, we have seen three sets of people, and three situations where the church grew.  One group of people started the ministry, Barnabas encouraged it, and Saul deepened it.  See what is happening?  One group of people who live life on mission help other people to live life on mission. Each one had value.  Each one had purpose.  Just like us.  We all have value and purpose in the Kingdom of God. 

The result, when people use their gifts and talents and purposes for Jesus, people became his disciples and focused their lives on his mission.  And you know what?  This story in Acts holds true for us!  God designed each one of us for a missional purpose.  Do you hear that?  God designed you for his mission. Furthermore, it is such a joy to center our lives on the Kingdom of God.  He does not promise ease, doesn’t promise it won’t be frustrating or hard, but it will be fulfilling and it will bring Joy.

What gifts do you have?  How can you use them to reach out in the mission of God? I know this, it will never happen if we do not make the mission the center of our lives. If the it is not already the center of your life, how does the mission of God become the center of your world?  Your calendar?  Your heart? 

I’m not saying that we don’t need to take care of ourselves during this time. But let’s look to Jesus as the best example for how to do just that!  He took regular time away, quiet time by himself to refuel and refresh.  What was he doing during that time?  He was sitting with His Father, He was in nature and talking to God.  The mission was even at the center of his refueling of his care for himself.   So let me try to give you a vision of why commitment to the mission of God is so important. 

Commitment to the mission is so important because God uses us to change lives for his Kingdom!  Commitment to the mission is so important because he loves us!  He knows that when we live on mission, that is also the best life for us. God is good. And he knows we feel good when we know we have value.  We are at our best when we know we have a purpose and we are doing something with our gifts and talents. Some of you are feeling the pain of that now because you can’t be at jobs where you felt like you were able to use your gifts and talents. We are designed to be on mission, on his mission! Don’t let the pandemic and quarantine get you down.

We learned in Acts 11 how people became disciples of Jesus because three groups or people reached out for the Kingdom.  Do you know that God wants to do the same still today in your community?  In fact, he looks at you and he smiles and says, “Yup, you’re just right for the mission!”

You might look at yourself and think, “How is that possible?”  When the Lord is with you, and when you are full of the Holy Spirit, the Lord will do great things through you!  Imagine the joy you will feel as lives are changed as God is at work in you and through you!  Imagine the fulfillment you’ll have knowing that you gave your life to things that matter.  Imagine the peace and satisfaction you’ll know hearing God say, “Well done good and faithful servant!!!

Two inspiring stories to encourage us during the loneliness of quarantine – Acts 11:19-30, Part 3

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For most of us, quarantine is turning two months old, and I wonder if it is getting to you. The daily news reports about the number of infections and deaths can weigh heavy on us. Are you feeling it? You might not be jumping for joy like the guy in the picture.

As we continue learning how the Christians in Acts 11 were reaching out, we have a couple inspiring stories that just might be the encouragement we all need at this time! If you haven’t read the first two parts of this five-part series, you can start here.

In verse 19 we read the sad news that the Christians were still persisting in telling the story of Jesus only to Jews!  This is an important detail, because of what we heard last week in chapters 10 and 11.  God wanted the story of Jesus to be told to the whole world!  Not just Jews. Peter’s dream was the confirmation of this. 

So in verse 20, men from Cyprus and Cyrene go to Antioch and, finally, begin to tell the message of good news of Jesus to non-Jews!  Antioch is a city in modern-day Turkey, just north of the border with Syria.  So these guys traveled a long time to get there.  And we read in verse 21 that the Lord was with them. 

Can we learn from these unnamed missionaries?  Absolutely. Think about what they did and how their choices could relate to us. 

First, they ordered their lives around the mission of the Gospel.  It was their priority.  They were available. 

Second, they crossed cultural and ethnic lines that, previous to this, were not supposed to be crossed.  But the mission was their focus, and that wanted to obey Jesus’ instructions to make disciples of all people. 

Likewise, we can order our lives around the mission, sharing the good news of Jesus to all, inviting all people to become disciples of Jesus.  For that to happen, though, the mission of God must be the central focus of every day of our week, not a tack-on at the end.  Not a “maybe we’ll get to it if there’s nothing else going on.”  How can it become a regular part of our thought life, a part of what our heart is all about?

What will it look like for the mission of God to spill out onto everything else you do?  At work?  Still on the mission.  At school?  Still on the mission.  Watching TV?  Still on the mission.  We can cultivate an attitude of “always on the mission” in our thinking.  How can our hearts, our attitudes, and our thoughts more quickly transition from a focus on ourselves to a focus on Jesus and the things that He is all about?

Is that something that has been more difficult or less difficult during this time of quarantine? One aspect of quarantine that has made being on mission more difficult is the feeling of loneliness many of us have experienced during quarantine. Let’s remember we’re not alone, and we see that in the passage.

We read that the Lord was with these guys.  He is with us, too, as we make his mission the center of our lives!  He has given us his Spirit! We are not alone.  He is with us even when we feel loneliness, He is with us when we feel desperate.  He is with us when we feel frustrated.  He is with us when we feel purposeless.  How can we remember that?  In the Identity series, we talked about how we have the living God, the Holy Spirit in us and with us!  These circumstances have not changed that.  How can that be more in the forefront of our hearts?

In the next section, the author of Acts brings up a second person connected to the phrase “great numbers,” and it is a person we’ve met before. Look at verses 22-24.

Leaders in Jerusalem send the right man to encourage the new disciples in Antioch, a guy named Barnabas.  Remember him and his nickname?  “Son of encouragement.” In chapter four he encouraged the Christians in Jerusalem by giving generously to those in need.  In chapter 9 the Christians in Jerusalem were rightly suspicious about Saul’s supposed 180 degree change from being a Christian killer to now being a committed disciple of Jesus. Barnabas stepped in, vouching for Saul, and the Christians accepted Saul because Barnabas stuck his neck for him.

Now Barnabas is back at it again.  When the Apostles in Jerusalem hear that God is at work in Antioch, they know exactly who to send. Barnabas.  True to form, Barnabas loved the new church, encouraging the people.  We read that he was full of the Holy Spirit. Once again, a great number of people are brought to the Lord.

Barnabas was a wealthy man.  He could have easily enjoyed the fruit of his labor, but he kept his focus was on the Kingdom of God. He used his wealth to help him stay on mission and traveled to Antioch. How about you? How is your focus on the mission? How are you using your life, your resources, your time, your energy to pursue Jesus?

Furthermore, Barnabas reaches out to the third person connected to the phrase, “great numbers.” And we’ll find out who that is in the next post.

Moving from frustration to purpose when you’re stuck at home – Acts 11:19-30, Part 2

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How are you dealing with being stuck at home these past two months? Feeling frustrated?

This week we’re studying Acts 11:19-30, and what we read there could help us move from frustration to purpose. So grab a Bible and and read that passage.

Did you notice there are three sections in the passage?  There is a phrase repeated in each of the three sections.  Do you see it?  Look at verse 21.  Then 24.  Then 26.  “Great numbers”.

I’ll admit there is part of me that wishes the text did not repeat that phrase.  Frankly, our American passion for focusing on numbers can be very detrimental, as if bigger is always better.  It is a constant battle in my heart and mind, and in countless conversations with pastoral colleagues, to have the proper perspective on numbers.  Since the virus shutdown, here’s what I’ve heard numerous times: “How is your church responding to the quarantine?  Are people tuning in?  How have people responded to giving during quarantine?”  It can get frustrating. 

So while there is part of me that wishes that the author of Acts, Luke, didn’t mentioned “great numbers,” he did…three times!  What do we do with this focus on numbers?  I suggest we take it at face value.  He mentions numbers because there was a great response to what was happening in the church.  So what was going on in the church in Acts 11? 

We just read a story of church planting, of outreach.  Christians from one town (Jerusalem) travel to other towns (Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch) to tell the message of Jesus. 

In essence, it’s similar to how so many churches are started. My congregation, Faith Church, for example began in 1968, when people, Grace EC Church, from one town (Lancaster City) traveled to another town (Smoketown/Bird-in-hand/East Lampeter) and started a new church. 

So let’s take a deeper look at this church planting outreach story, and how it could inspire us now to live on mission, even during quarantine. Verses 19-21 tell the story of unnamed Christians who travel about sharing the message of Jesus.

This episode connects back to chapters 7 and 8, where we studied Stephen’s death that resulted in a great persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem. They fled the city fearing Saul who at the time was rounding them up and throwing them in prison.  They Christians made a fascinating choice at this juncture.  Rather than allow fear and trauma to have them running scared into hiding and rather than give up the faith, the persecution did not deter their focus on outreach.

Prior to the persecution, the church was experiencing great peace and growth in Jerusalem.  They were living the dream.  Of course they didn’t want the persecution.  Who would?  But when hardship came, they handled it with grace and trust in God.  Yes, they had to go through the awful experience of fleeing for their lives.  Yes, some of them were thrown in prison. Stephen was killed.  But in the middle of the unsettled, confusing, frustrating time, they made sure that the mission of Jesus was still their priority.  He was their focus. In the midst of a mess, he was their heart.

How about us?  We haven’t asked for the virus.  We don’t want quarantine. In the middle of our frustrating time, what will it look like for us to remember to focus our hearts on God’s grace, and trust and mission? For sure, in a traumatic situation like a global pandemic, it is natural for us to have fear and disappointment. Clearly no one likes or chooses to live in fear and disappointment. So it could be helpful to examine which one of these is the primary outflow of your heart?  Fear and disappointment? Or grace and trust and mission?  How can you transition from the normal fears and disappointments of the pandemic to remembering and focusing on God’s grace and his goodness, then moving toward pursuing his mission?  

Is American life killing you? – Acts 11:19-30, Part 1

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Are you ready for the quarantine to be done?  Are you ready to get back to work?  Are you ready for things to get back to normal, or least whatever the new normal will be?  If so, you’re not alone.  At the grocery store last week, my wife, Michelle, rolled into a checkout line with a cart-full. Another walked up behind her with just two items, so Michelle said to the lady, “You can go ahead of me.”  You know how the lady responded?  “Thanks, but I can wait.  What will I do?  Get home faster so I can clean my floor for the fourth time?” 

For some of you now on quarantine for two months, it feels like life is so boring and there is nothing to do and you are missing out!  My kids missed out on their spring sports seasons, and we missed being able to cheer for them. For many of us quarantine life has brought new pressures and a new schedule, and we can be unsure what to do and how to think. The result is that we want quarantine to be done, and get back to what life used to be like.

But I’m wondering if nearly two months of quarantine has caused us to forget what life used to be like.  Is it possible we are remembering differently how things were just a few months ago?

A month and a half before the quarantine, I read an article [1] that haunted me.  I want to read parts of it now to help us remember what life was like. The writer said that the average American, before the quarantine, was:

Enduring some type of chronic illness, over-stressed and rushed, in an unrewarding job, with little or no savings, greatly in debt, burdened by a fat mortgage, has two vehicles in the driveway with a 5 or 7-year loan on each, lots of gadgets and toys to keep you occupied, a huge TV, little free time for yourself due to your career, weekends filled with church and/or senseless entertainment, and a bathroom cabinet heavily stacked with pharmaceutical tic tacs to help cope with the emptiness of it all.

If this at all speaks to you, it’s OK. This is considered normal in America. You are a success. You’ve achieved the American Dream. Your obedience and education and hard work have paid off. Congratulations.

But the problem is that you’re miserable and shallow and quite possibly unhealthy and a little dispirited and you’ll likely die of either heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or suicide in the not so distant future — statistically speaking.

Or you’ll make it to old age with this all too common deathbed regret — wishing you had the courage to live a life true to yourself, not the life of what others expected of you.

Despite living in the richest country on the planet with a gargantuan military (and budget) to keep you so-called “safe,” you’re frightened and unhappy more than ever before. Seems your material abundance and chronic hustle and “good citizen” ideals have done nothing for your happiness or well-being.

In fact, this status chasing, security-obsessed, hurried American lifestyle is draining you of your life energy. It’s killing you. It has been for some time. And you feel it.

Anyone remember that feeling?  Or at least some parts of that feeling?  Or maybe you think that we Christians avoid that.  The author goes on to suggest that this has affected Christians too:

Even the devout Christians among us, as far as I can see, are more influenced by our diseased culture than the “give it all away” teachings of Jesus. Christians tend to be up there with the most materialistic people among us, which is ironic because they supposedly follow the teachings of the least materialistic human known to man. The culture of materialism and consumerism is our God. Yes, even among the devout. The cultural programming runs deep and it’s clear to see that our hearts and minds have been severed from the sacred.

Clearly the author is talking about people other people, right? Not us?  Or might he be talking about us?  Maybe a little bit?

He was writing before the quarantine.  I wonder what he would say now that we’ve been forced to live a different existence.  But even now does something remain in our hearts that still needs be shifted?  I wonder if that inner cultural programming is still brewing just beneath the surface. Is it possible that at least some of our cultural desire to reopen the economy is because we’re addicted to the high we got off the American Dream or off of the busyness of life, and we’re jonesing for it again?  Now stuck at home are we so unsettled because we’re with ourselves and our thoughts for the first time in years and we don’t like what we’ve found there?

My wife’ friend who is at home now, off work because of the quarantine, helping her four children with online school.  This woman posted on social media, “Talking to people who absolutely hate the quarantine makes me realize that maybe their old life wasn’t stressing them out as much as mine was!  I am so relieved to not have some of those pressures anymore and am looking forward to implementing some changes when the quarantine is lifted.”

It is really easy to only see the virus as a problem that needs to be solved.  Surely, it is that.  I am praying daily for a vaccine, for better testing, for healing, for protection for front-line workers.  I want the virus to be eradicated. 

May I also suggest that the virus is a solution to the problem.  The virus is revealing things that we maybe have long hidden or buried or had no idea are realities in our lives.  Problems.  Errors.  Inadequacies.  Sins. Bad habits. Busyness. Materialism.  Focus on self rather than on mission.  If so, there is a sense in which the virus is the solution to the problem.

This week we are going to read about some folks who were passionate about the mission of God.  I want us to be inspired by their lives. I know that I am and am hoping maybe you can be too.  Maybe something in the article above describes your life.  Maybe you want to be more committed to God’s mission.  But you feel exasperated.  You wonder, “How do I do it?  What does it look like?”  Ask God to speak to you this week as we study the story in Acts 11:19-30. Then check back here each day this week for the next four posts.


[1] https://medium.com/@erikrittenberry/the-american-life-is-killing-you-9e7e68135f4a

Breaking down walls that keep us from accomplishing the mission of Jesus – Acts 9:32-11:18, Part 5

Photo by Francisco Andreotti on Unsplash

Are there any “walls” you’ve allowed to keep you from fulfilling the mission of Jesus?

This week as we have been studying Acts 9:32-11:18, we’ve seen how God appears to Peter in a dream, telling him to go to a non-Jew named Cornelius. In Acts 10:17-23, God’s dream to Peter comes true, as men from Cornelius show up at Peter’s house, and the Spirit directs Peter to go with them.  Then in Acts 10:24-33, Peter travels to Cornelius, who welcomes Peter. Next in Acts 10:34-48, after Peter tells Cornelius the story of the good news about Jesus, the Spirit comes on the people there, and Peter baptizes them.  In their conversation, Peter makes an important observation in verses 27-29 and 34-35, showing that he has interpreted the dream of the unclean animals as God intended, that God does not show favoritism, but instead loves all and wants to be in relationship with all. God wanted the Christians to break down the wall between Jews and non-Jews. Peter’s visit to Cornelius was one of the first steps in demolishing that wall.

I especially love verse 45 when we read that the circumcised believers there, who were Jewish Christians, were astonished at what was happening. They had no category in their worldview that God might love anyone else as much as he loved his chosen people the Jews.  When the Spirit comes on Cornelius and the others who were not Jews, it was a huge moment for them. Just as the disciples had spoken in other languages in Acts 2, now the non-Jews, filled by the Spirit are doing the same.  A very real wall existed in their minds, and it was starting to crumble. God had, from as far back as his covenant with Abraham said that through Abraham, all people in the world would be blessed.  That blessing was starting to happen before their very eyes.

The story concludes in Acts 11:1-18, as Peter returns to Jerusalem to explain what happened.  Look at verse 2.  Peter takes some heat for entering the house of a non-Jew!  It didn’t matter that Peter was the leader of the church. The kosher perspective, the Jewish chosen nation perspective, the idea that non-Jews were unclean, was so deeply entrenched in those Jewish Christians’ minds, that they felt they had to confront Peter about his actions.  They think Peter has sinned, that he has gone off the rails. To them, maintaining a strong wall was vital.

So Peter has say, “Hold on.  This was God’s idea.”  And he explains the sequence of events for them, how God gave him the dream, and how the Spirit came upon the non-Jews. The conclusion in verse 18 shows that the rest of the Christians in Jerusalem responded by praising God. Now they too support the idea of the destruction of the wall!

As the wall crumbles, the mission to the Gentiles was fully opened.  The Kingdom of God is for all.  It was never just for Jews.  Paul would write that in Christ there is neither Jew, nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ.  This was the symbolic message God had giving to Peter in the dream.  The old dividing wall of clean and unclean is gone. 

We, too, need to ask: Is there anything holding us back?  Is there any tradition that we adhere to that is a barrier to the advancement of the Kingdom of God?  Have we put up any walls that need to come down?

Also, like Peter had forgotten or ignored Jesus’ teaching about this in Mark 7, are there truths that God has told us that we need to be reminded of?  Truths about who we are in him?  When you are stuck in your house, and maybe having some extra fears and anxieties, maybe feeling extra restless, or purposeless, do you remember who he said you are?

You are his beloved.  You have a purpose.  Because of the coronavirus pandemic, you might not be able to go about life as you are used to right now. Some of you are not able to go to work, and you miss the fulfillment and purpose you found in that.  Some of you are not able to be the grandparents you normally are, and you miss your grandkids so deeply.  Those things are not wrong to find purpose in. Through work, through grand-parenting, through volunteering, we can use our gifts for the mission of God’s Kingdom.

But as those things have shifted or paused during the quarantine, be reminded of the truth that you are a child of God.  You are beloved.  Spend time with your father.  Write truths around your home.  Memorize them in these moments of feeling frustrated.  Peter needed to remember and refocus on some truths Jesus had shown him previously.  What do we need to refocus on?

How ballroom dance helped my church see the mission of Jesus more clearly – Acts 9:32-11:18, Part 4

Photo by Nika Sidor on Unsplash

Are you able to tell the difference between a man-made Christian tradition and the biblical mission? Can you think of a tradition that might actually be getting in the way of you and your church accomplishing the mission?

This week we’ve been studying Acts 9:32-11:18, and in that story God gives Peter a dream trying to help Peter see that a Jewish tradition was getting in the way of the mission Jesus had given his disciples.

What Peter heard in the dream was not a new concept for him.  How do we know this?  Because Jesus years before had taught them so.  Jesus mentions these cleanliness laws in Mark 7:1-23.  In Deuteronomy 14 God said that certain animals made the people unclean when those people ate them.  Jesus flips that and says, “No, it’s what is already inside you that is unclean, and it is revealed when you let it out of your heart.”  In Mark 7, verses 21-22, Jesus makes a new list of what is unclean: evil thoughts, sexually immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.  When you notice those actions coming out of you, that should concern you, Jesus says, not pig’s meat. 

Mark even makes a brief parenthetical comment in verse 9, saying that Jesus had now declared all foods clean!  But the disciples hadn’t followed that part of Jesus’ teaching.  Why?  Perhaps they were allowing their Jewish culture and tradition to take precedence over Jesus’ teaching.

Before we get down on Peter for needing to be reminded of what he’d heard before, of the truth Jesus had spoken to him previously, perhaps we can all admit that when we are dealing with a deeply entrenched cultural value, it is hard to see things a new way.   Peter tells God that he had never, ever, in his whole life, eaten something unclean.  I don’t believe Peter is exaggerating. For Peter to have a vision is shocking enough, but for the message of the vision to be an overturning of the practice of holiness, it seems wrong to Peter.

Many of us have similar struggles, right? We have read or heard what Jesus wants us to be about, but we’ve got reasons why we don’t have to follow his teaching.  As we’ll see, a similar lack of follow-through on the part of the disciples had much more significant ramifications that just what foods Christians can eat.  God steps in, giving Peter a dream, because he has big plans for his people, and he doesn’t want their tradition to get in the way of those plans.

God is reminding Peter of what Jesus already taught back there in Mark 7, and he is taking it to a new level.  You see what God is doing?  He is saying, “Peter, all those lists of clean and unclean animals were for a day that has come and gone.  That was kosher thinking.  You are under a new covenant.  I define holiness a different way now, and I want you to think not only about food, but more importantly about people, with this new mindset.” The church was allowing their traditional understanding that the Jews were God’s chosen people to keep the message of Jesus within Jewish circles.

A few years ago at Faith Church, a man in our church family approached me with a unique outreach idea.  He was a ballroom dance instructor in his professional life, and he felt that if the church offered beginning dance classes for free to the community, it would be a big hit, and a great way for the church to connect with the community.  He proposed that he would teach a 4-week series of classes as an experiment.  Inwardly, I doubted his opinion, but I loved his creativity and initiative and said, “Let’s take the idea to the Outreach Team!” 

Some people in the church felt very uncomfortable about the thought of ballroom dance classes in the church fellowship hall, because growing up, there was no dancing allowed in the church.  That was the traditional viewpoint.  But it is absolutely okay to dance in a church fellowship hall, provided that it is tasteful, classy dancing, which is what ballroom dancing is all about.  The Outreach Team stepped out in faith, approved the idea, publicized it to the community, and to my surprise and delight, on the first night, so many couples showed up, we had to turn some away! Over the next few years that we held ballroom dance classes, I believe God opened the eyes of some of us who grew up in a no-dancing tradition.  In Acts 10-11 God opened Peter’s eyes too, and what we’ll see in the next post is that the rest of the story is wonderful.

How raves and body piercings might help you understand a Bible story – Acts 9:32-11:18, Part 3

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

How do you feel about raves and body piercings? If the thought of them makes you feel uncomfortable, then perhaps this post is for you.

In the previous post we studied Peter’s bizarre dream about a blanket of animals dropping down from heaven. The animals were all deemed unclean by a list in the Jewish Law, but in the dream God tells Peter to kill and eat, as God was now declaring all food clean. It is hard for us to put ourselves in Peter’s shoes at that moment.  But let’s try to imagine how unsettling God’s vision might have been for Peter, a man who had never in his life eaten.

Enter a thought project with me. As you read, imagine that you are sleeping and dreaming or you could be having a vision.  Whatever it is, the images are vivid.  Almost real.  You’re in a room, and it’s lighting is somewhat dark.  Music and lights pulsate rapidly.  You feel uncomfortable.  This is not your kind of establishment.  The room is full of people dancing, and it is not your kind of dancing.  Not your kind of people.  You want to leave.  You wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this.  Your morals, your upbringing, everything about your life says, “Get out of here.”  But you can’t move.  You can’t close your eyes.  You can wake up.  It’s like a nightmare.  You have no choice but to be there and take it all in.  The smell of drugs.  The tattoos.  The garish outfits.  The pounding music.  And the piercings.  These are the kind of people with all manner of body piercings.  You feel extremely uncomfortable.

Then you notice right next to you is a table and a chair.  The table has all kinds of jewelry, that kinds commonly used in body piercing.  By the chair is a person with machinery.  Without question, you know what they are there for.  To do the piercing.  Now you want to run out of there more than ever. 

That’s when you hear an unmistakable voice.  It is the voice of God, and the voice says to you, “Sit down, my beloved, and be pierced.”  The person there who does the piercing holds up a piece of jewelry that connects the nose to the ear with a chain that hangs down across the cheek. You cry out, “Surely not, Lord!  I would never do that.  Only unclean or impure people would do that!”  And the voice responds: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

How do you feel now?  Some of you might be thinking, “No big deal…let’s go do it right now!”  But my guess is a bunch of you might be feeling uncomfortable.  I know I am.  If God asked me to pierce my nose and ear and wear a piece of jewelry that connected it, I would seriously question the voice I just heard.  I don’t think those things are evil or wrong, they just aren’t for me personally.  Peter thought eating unclean meat was wrong. 

So God needs to step in and remind Peter of what Jesus already taught back there in Mark 7.  Peter already knew this? It seems so, and we’ll look at that tomorrow.