Is This How We Want to be Known?

Many of us folks in churches of Christ are peculiar people.

RefuteYouThe problem is that, somewhere along our journey as a nondenominational nondenomination, too many of us have embraced the misapprehension that we are not only called to be a peculiar people — called out from among those “other” folks in the world — but that we are the One True Church That Has Everything Right and therefore The Only Ones Going to Heaven which means that Everyone Else is Going to Hell.

I guess that makes it incumbent upon so many of us to straighten out everyone who doesn’t see everything — and I mean everything — the way we do.

Considering the vigor with which we pursue that mission, you would think it was Christ’s Great Commission itself. Not so much to save the unsaved souls in this world, but to correct the souls in other churches who think they are already saved but are in fact mistaken on at least a point or two and therefore apostate and blasphemous and even more certainly bound for hell.

So the mission of many of us (whose church signs quote Romans 16:16 as if God had intended it to be the proprietary copyright-protected brand name of our group of believers) is not to salute, but to refute. We must refute everything that does not conform to the doctrines of our tradition.

All of which makes us about as attractive as Sheldon Cooper of television’s Big Bang Theory but without any of the personal charm.

May I just say this to the folks who have been so impressed with our peculiarly-misplaced mission: We’re an autonomous collective, like the peons of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We don’t have an overarching nationwide or multinational church structure. We don’t have imposed discipline for poor behavior. Each congregation does as it pleases, or hopefully, does as the good Lord pleases.

Therefore, I can’t apologize for the folks from churches of Christ who may have ambushed you in this way.

However, I can encourage you to forgive us and pray for us and hope that we will eventually perceive and wish to imitate the winsomeness of our Savior.

We’re not all that way. Some of us are not afraid to question the doctrines jackhammered into our heads and hearts from an early age and welded there by the terror of hellfire if we doubted. Some of us are willing to use logic that adheres to generally-accepted norms, and to imagine God and love and grace as more than Judge and correction and condemnation. Some of us are eager to see salvation as a gracious way of living Christ in this world as well as living with Him in the next. Some of us desire to be self-disciplined; to seek; to learn; to grasp; to embrace; to truly converse rather than just correct. Some of us believe that perfect love really does cast out fear.

Not all of us. The old ways die hard. And they feed our egoes. Some of us still want to get that better-than-thou rush. Some of us are convinced that the word “distinctive” is the most important word in scripture, even though it doesn’t appear there at all. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of browbeating and disciplining of others to maintain that level of certainty and arrogance, but it has persisted for many generations now in some pockets of our sometimes-fellowship, sometimes-similar-brand-name-only. Yet it can’t last forever.

Nothing that comes solely from the heart of man can.

I don’t think anyone can refute that.

I have lived in both camps. There are times — even now, while writing this — that the temptation is strong to leave the camp of the loving correctible and pitch a tent among the angry correctors. But I don’t dare.

There’s really no future in it.

And I still stand in need of correcting myself — frequently, privately, lovingly, and graciously. That’s how I’d prefer it.

But if it must also be firm and well-reasoned and communal and public, then so be it.

I know there will be those who will find this post ultimately offensive, hideously arrogant, and unforgivably divisive. Some of them will have written correctives more personally, more pointedly, naming those whom they judge and condemn without even once having made an effort to go to those folks singly or in twos or threes or even before the church before taking the matter before the whole world — first in printed publications and now digital ones. I refuse to do that. I believe Jesus shared the instructions of Matthew 18:15ff for good reasons. I do not believe that Paul failed to follow them, even if the details of that compliance are not recorded but assumed by scripture. So I do not believe those instructions are optional. Ever.

Let me make it clear: this post isn’t written to the people who will find it offensive, but to those whom they may have offended or condemned or turned completely away from Christ by an inaccurate and incomplete imitation of His just nature uncomplicated by His merciful nature.

I do hope they know this: that I love them anyway; that I want their efforts for God to be of a nature that He can bless them and make them fruitful; that I dearly desire for them to know Christ and the power of His resurrection: a sacrificial new life free of self and the shackles of man-made law and characterized instead by the freedom found in His Spirit to serve creatively and jofully. I wish that for everyone, including me.

Because I need to read and re-read; consider and re-consider my faith, and the way I practice it, and the Lord I seek to serve … more than anyone else.

I don’t think anyone can refute that, either.

Following – 4

It’s been a while since I could write a post for this blog. You think the emptiness will diminish, but it doesn’t. You think the confidence will return, but it won’t. You think the words will be there, but they aren’t.

This installment is especially hard to write. Because, to be credible at what you’re writing, you have to be perceived as being knowledgeable about it and good about doing it. I am neither.

This post is about resisting temptation. While Jesus prepared for His ministry with fasting and prayer, He was tempted.

As the last Adam, He resisted temptation in three important ways that the first Adam (and Eve) did not.

When hungry, He turned down food. He was expressing His dependence on God through His fasting, not food, not materiality, not self. Adam and Eve saw the fruit as pleasing to the eye, and consumed it.

When presented with the easy way, Jesus chose the hard way. He could have ruled the earth with Satan and a life of ease. He chose to serve the universe with a death of torture. The first man and woman chose the easy way to learn about good and evil; the quick way; the way that didn’t require walking and talking with God or learning by listening in a garden of grace.

When challenged to verify His identity for His own assurance — to choose fact over faith — Jesus chose faith. He could have thrown Himself down, confident of God’s rescue as His Father. Instead, He chose to believe when fact would have provided certainty. He chose not to tempt God’s interference to prevent a self-destructive act to satisfy a selfish curiosity. The first couple chose to test God’s resolve to introduce them to death that very day; betting that He loved them too much to make good on His word.

There are more temptations in life than these three; but they are foundational.

Will we choose our belly — our self — as our god? Or our God as our God?

Will we choose the easy way to get what we want rather than depend on God’s wisdom and providence for what we need?

Will we gamble that He loves us too much and is too merciful to actually be righteous and just — and therefore to let us see death and destruction as the consequence of what we have done?

I am no expert at resisting temptation. I’ve amassed a lifelong career of failure at the attempt.

But I have a perfect example. So do you.

We just need to understand and keep trying to live out this simple fact:

Following Him means resisting temptation.

Following – 3

Jesus fasted.

Among the gospel writers, only Matthew (4) and Luke (4) mention it.

After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

It’s one of the few places in scripture that fasting is mentioned apart from prayer.

I think that’s for the same reason that prayer — and God Himself, for that matter — are never mentioned in the book of Esther, though fasting is. If we can’t see them there, we’re not reaching the right conclusions. If Esther and her people fasted without praying, then all they did was go on a diet. If  justice for her people happened without God, then coincidence is king of the universe, because Hamaan was evil and deserved the consequences of his murderous bigotry.

Likewise, if Jesus went out into the wilderness to prepare for His ministry and fasted without praying, then He was simply on a radical weight-loss program, perhaps designed to make Him look like an ascetic shaman. If He withstood even just the temptation to create food for Himself without the strength that comes from communing with God, then prayer has no power and He was not God’s Son — only a starving mystic with extraordinary self-control.

I’ve blogged a little about fasting before. I’m no expert on it. There are right ways to do it. There are wrong ways to do it. Books have been written about it. Some are doubtless more valuable than others.

With or without reading them, I think we can draw the conclusion from scripture that God’s people fasted, and almost without exception, accompanied their fasts with prayer. Sometimes they expressed petitions and desires. Often they simply praised Him. Other times they mourned and/or repented. They expressed the depth of their need for and dependence on God by going without physical nourishment. In this way, they told Him that He was more important to them than food; that their god was not their stomachs; that they hungered and thirsted for His righteousness; that they had tasted and seen that the Lord is good; that their communication with Him was sacred and private and not for the benefit of being seen by others and regarded as somehow holy for what they had done without.

But if we think we can follow Jesus, minister as He did, resist temptation, and do the things He did while regarding this practice as optional — I believe we’re fooling ourselves.

Fasting is not simply a quaint and ancient custom or a passé commandment from a set of laws that have all served their purpose.

Fasting is a recognition of God’s providence.

It is the physical, expressing the spiritual.

It is hunger, declaring desire.

It is emptiness, seeking fulfillment.

It is the way Jesus chose to prepare for His life of ministry, and to build the strength of His character, His self-discipline before facing forty days of temptation from Satan’s seemingly undivided attention.

You see, that’s what the other synoptic gospel writer, Mark (1), does not fail to communicate:

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Nor was that likely the last time Satan tried:

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. ~ Luke 4:13

If fasting was a source of spiritual strength that could empower Him to journey all the way from the TransJordan to Galilee (see the next verse) … to withstand temptations to satisfy self, seize easy power, trade faith for fact … then why do we ignore, neglect or even reject it?

Following Jesus means fasting and prayer.

Following – 2

First, you do what’s right.

Then, you speak of the One who makes things right.

Jesus began his life of public ministry by listening to his prophetic cousin John encourage people to repent and submitting Himself to the waters of baptism.

See Matthew 3, Luke 3, and Mark 1.

Why?

It’s not like He needed to repent, because He did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).

I think John the Baptizer gives us one reason: to reveal Jesus to others (John 1:31) — and Jesus gives us another that is equally inarguable: it was the right thing to do (Matthew 3:15).

So among all the other extraordinary qualities communicated in baptism, here are these two reasons as foundational examples. We need to begin our lives of public ministry by revealing Jesus to others, and to do the right things because they’re the right things to do.

I’m not going to get in to a discussion of faith and works. I’m convinced that Paul and James have no argument with each other. We do what we do because we believe. We communicate Whom we believe in by what we do and say.

And you can’t separate doing and saying as powerful tools in communicating the gospel. If what you do doesn’t match what you say — or vice-versa — you have no credibility as a follower of Christ trying to live and speak His life to others.

Don’t forget that not only did John identify Jesus as his Lord; the voice of God Himself and the presence of the dove testify to Who the Christ is, and Whose Son He is, and Whom He pleases by doing the right thing, and Whose Spirit rests upon Him.

If there is a better way to begin a life of ministry to God and to others — bringing them together or even just closer together — then Jesus doesn’t communicate it to us by His words or His example.

Following Him means going with Him into the water, into death to self, into a resurrection to a new life.

Following Him means being immersed in His life.

Following – 1

I’ve come to a conclusion today. I think I’ve been building toward it for years.

We’ve done ourselves and others and our Lord a disservice by trying to categorize the Christian life.

We’ve split it into categories like good behavior, faith, spiritual discipline, discipleship, evangelism, benevolence, worship, fellowship, and on and on and on.

Convinced that we must master one area, perhaps, before we move on to the next.

Listening in Bible class a couple of weeks ago to what the apostle had to say in 2 Peter 1, I realized that wasn’t what he or his Lord had in mind at all:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. ~ 2 Peter 1:5-7

You don’t master one before you move on to the next. You keep adding them to each other in an ongoing, lifelong process. How do I know that?

None of us is going to master any of them. I mean, we’ve all read Romans 1, haven’t we?

But we can all grow in each of them:

For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. ~ 2 Peter 1:8

So we don’t grow into them for ourselves alone, nor even to glorify God alone — but to become effective and productive.

The Christian life is a life that follows Christ, in every way. Being a disciple means following Him in every way He lived His life. He is our perfect example of a life that IS ministry; He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and became obedient even to death on a cross, serving as our example of self-sacrifice even to that extreme..

His life was one life; not a series of mastering categories and moving on, but of meeting people who sin — where they are in their sin — and helping them master it. He pointed, not to Himself, but to the Father.

So I’ve tagged this first post in a series of indefinite length with several tags that are new to this blog: “evangelism,” “ministry,” and “following Christ.” They’re new because I’ve never really written much about them before. I’ve never really written much about them before because I don’t really know very much about them.

I’m 58 years old. I may not have that many more years and opportunities to learn. Now is the best time there is.

I’m planning to learn as much as I can from studying Jesus’ life and example from the gospels, prophecy, epistles and any other sources where I can find His journey.

You’re welcome to join me on this journey. I would love to have the company, and the chance to benefit from the wisdom of others who have traveled it before (or have never been on this road) and have come (or are coming) to the same conclusion (or even a different one).

Even if it didn’t take you 58 years to get where you are.

One Month

Wednesday I posted on Facebook:

If I were to blame/be angry at God over the death of my beloved wife, then I must also blame/be angry with Him over the death of His Son.

If I were to credit God with the resurrection of His beloved Son, then I must also credit Him with the resurrection of my dear wife.

Did God bring sin and death into this world or love and life? Which was His desire for us, His children?

Would the two pairings have meaning at all if not opposed to each other? Or if the other did not exist?

Eden was never intended to remain paradise, then; nor was it a mere crucible or test tube. Eden was meant to be the first battlefield.

And so what was within God’s will — sin and death — was not itself God’s will — love and life — but necessary for His will to have meaning to us; to enable us to choose love and life over sin and death.

To choose His will for us and not what gratifies self and kills the soul.

I can’t put this in simpler words. This is the only rational response I can pose to the great gaping WHY that challenges us all.

God is not to blame.

It is simply the way things MUST be, for anything to have meaning or purpose or significance.

It is not bigger than God.

It is the way He chose to make it fair for us to choose.

And we must choose.

Now it’s Saturday, and the day is done.

I — we, my family, all those who love her — lost Angi one month ago today.

What will we choose?

What will I choose?

Will I choose to continue believing, go on trusting?

A friend who has experienced the loss of his wife as well as a dear child (in a way that I feel certain would have broken me) commented on this blog recently that after such an experience, it was possible for him to keep his faith for a while. He said that for him, it was about two months.

I keep putting on the brave face. I keep writing to encourage myself, and sometimes it seems to encourage others. I keep busy, putting off having to deal with the loss fully. There are so many other things that require my attention. I have plenty of excuses to procrastinate.

But the cracks in the courage still show up. I can weep. I can patch them up. I can cover them over with a smile and brave words.

Still I know the measure of joy I knew is gone. It  will always be gone, as long as I live and breathe.

And I find there are things that I still can’t do.

I can’t seem to find time, make time, put myself to the time to continue posting submissions at New Wineskins. I have commitments to people. I have proposed to myself extending the current edition about “Lament” to a second month, into which we have gone an entire week and a day now. I just can’t seem to do what needs to be done.

Yes, I believe the e-zine still blesses people. The blessings I receive by e-mail and Facebook message from folks who’ve been blessed by it still outnumber the railings and the condemnings by quite a good margin.

Yes, I believe Angi would want me to continue working at it, keeping it up to date and fresh.

Yes, I still want to do it.

I just can’t seem to now. Not yet. It hurts to try. It hurts to think about it.

One month.

And I wonder — though my friend’s comment was in no way a challenge, dare, or warning; simply a personal observation — how long will my faith persist before the cracks start to show?

Two months? Three? A year?

I don’t know.

It would be so much more than a shame, a pity or even a tragedy to be fighting and running for the prize in an arena of witnesses, then let the accuser cut in … give up the fight and quit the race; not finish the course.

Not keep the faith.

Running in vain.

How long can I keep faith flying on wings like eagles before my pace slows to a run that grows weary and then a walk that ends in a faint?

If I were truly alone, it would not take long at all.

But I’m not.

There may be people who can go it alone, and walk and run and fly solo on a wing and a prayer and a book of scriptural verses.

I’m not one of them.

Like the author of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, I need Christ before me in the pages of the Word, yes.

I need Christ behind me in the witness of His saints, yes.

I need Christ above me, bearing my prayers to His Father, absolutely.

But also …

I need Christ within me through His Holy Spirit.

I need Christ about me in the surround of His church.

Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

If you don’t need that, I suppose that’s fine for you. But I know what I need. What I’ve always needed. What I need now more than ever before. What I always will need, in increasing measure and greater grace and wider fellowship and deeper love and endless trust.

Until the day I breathe my last.

And it’s only been a month.

God Through Us

God works through us.

It’s not that He can’t work in other ways; obviously He can and does. But because He believes in us — that astounding fact of scripture which simply cannot be denied or dismissed — He wants to work through us.

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. ~ Philippians 1:3-6

Can you conclude anything from this that there is a partnership in the gospel? That “he who began a good work in you” can be anyone other than God? So is this partnership just between Paul and the folks at Philippi?

(for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), ~ Galatians 2:8

No! It’s God working through Peter to the circumcised and through Paul to the Gentiles! How does He do that?

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10

Is it just to Peter and Paul? Does He just makes work for us? No! It’s for all, and for every:

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. ~ 2 Corinthians 9:8

Does He just give us the grace to prepare ourselves for the work? Not by a long shot! There are gifts attached to that grace:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. ~ Romans 12:3-8

So He gives us specific gifts to prepare us for the work He has prepared for us to do. But prepared us in what way?

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

He empowers us. The Spirit, the Lord, God. How much power are we talking about?

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. ~ Ephesians 3:20-22

That’s a lot of power! Does He do it long-distance?

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. ~ Colossians 1:24-29

No; from within! Christ in us. It’s His energy working powerfully within us. That makes us partners in the gospel with God, through Christ!

Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. ~ 2 Corinthians 6:1

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. ~ 2 Corinthians 5:20

How does Christ dwell in us? Through His Holy Spirit:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. ~ Romans 8:9-11

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. ~ 1 Corinthians 3:16-17

The Spirit of God! The Spirit of Christ! Without His Spirit within us, we have no hope of resurrection! We have no chance of escaping destruction! Without His Spirit, we have no way to partner with God in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

We can know scripture forward and backward and think we know everything it means, and if we do not have the Spirit dwelling within us, we are pointless and powerless in our attempts to minister. By the Spirit, God speaks through us:

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:3

And the One who knows how best to prepare and empower each of us does so at His own discretion, not ours:

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

Therefore we work for the common good, Paul says, in partnership with God to build His building, sow and water and tend His field:

For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. ~ 1 Corinthians 3:9

So how do we respond to this offer of powerful, dwell-within partnership?

Do we say, “Well thanks, God, but I’ve got my Bible and I understand it completely and perfectly; that’s all I need and I don’t really want your help”?

Or, “I’m just not sure about all that miraculous stuff or being a part of that; it’s not that I believe You can’t do it, but it scares me a little bit and I’d rather just believe that You don’t work that way anymore because it’s too likely to be perceived as fake and I don’t want to have my credibility damaged”?

Perhaps just: “Oh, You don’t need me, Lord. Use my brother; he talks better than I do”?

Maybe: “I’m catching the next outbound boat for the other direction.”

Do any of those sound familiar?

Too familiar?

Acts 9

I preached for the first time this morning at my new home church, Sylva Church of Christ. In fact, it was the first time I’ve preached in five years! A friend asked if I’d post my notes, but I didn’t write any beforehand. In fact, I asked my church family this morning that if I couldn’t do this from memory, how could I expect them to remember it? But this is what I remember saying and reading (or at least preparing to say):

Good morning and thanks for coming this morning, especially if you heard in advance that I was going to speak. And a very happy Veteran’s Day. If you served, thank you for your service to our country. I don’t know whether you were conscripted or volunteered, but this morning we’re going to talk about how the Lord recruited one of the great soldiers of the cross, Saul of Tarsus.

If you’re visiting with us, our church family’s study of the book of Acts of the Apostles has brought us to chapter nine. But first, to set the stage, we have to roll back to chapter eight. Luke is writing his two gospels in what I believe to be chronological order, so to us he seems to skip from one subject to another. Two weeks ago, Jonathan Wade shared with us a lesson from the stoning of Stephen, which ends with these words:

And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.

Then Luke tells us what happened with Philip, and that provided last week’s lesson from chapter eight. But we pick up with the church in trouble, in chapter nine, verse 1:

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Some things worth noting: Damascus was something of a travel hub to the rest of the Roman empire from Jerusalem. Saul was a strategic thinker. He probably thought that the place to stop the spread of this new threat to his religion was the place where the believers would likely go after the persecution that began on the day he watched the coats for Stephen’s execution. Instead, the Lord put a stop to Saul.

(If you missed our Halloween trunk-or-treat, Russ Seagle answered the call to dress like a person or thing from Acts by becoming Saul, and taking our coats in exchange for a coat-check slip.)

A light from heaven strikes Saul blind, but the men with him could see no one; they hear a sound, yet (as Saul-renamed-Paul tells us in chapter 22, verse 9) couldn’t understand it as a voice. So there was really only one witness to what happened here.

(By the way, I hope you like this story, because if we continue to study Acts, we’ll hear it two more times as Paul retells it to a hostile crowd in Jerusalem in chapter 22 and to King Agrippa and Governor Festus in chapter 26.)

Saul sees a light, and hears Jesus. He falls to the ground. A few years ago, I did a little study of scripture and discovered that most of the time, when people encountered God face-to-face, they fell to their knees and sometimes on their faces. I made a commitment at that time to kneel when I pray — you may have noticed me doing it, and I hope it doesn’t disturb you — but it’s my reminder that Whom I’m talking to is the almighty God who created all things, yet is as close as our hearts are willing to draw near to Him.

Saul is struck blind, and the Lord lets him stew about it for three days. Just about the amount of time it takes to get from a cross to the garden outside an open tomb, coincidentally. That had to be frustrating for him. We’re told he didn’t eat or drink those three days of his entombment in darkness. I’ll bet he was fasting. He was a Jew of Jews, and it was the custom to fast while praying. You hardly ever read about fasting in scripture unless prayer is in the same verse, or as in this case, just a couple of verses away. Saul had a lot to fast and pray about.

Don’t you imagine he was praying: “Lord, I didn’t know! I thought I was doing the right thing for You! Please – what can I do to undo the suffering I’ve caused?” But there wasn’t anything he could do to make that wrong right. Jesus alone could, and did, all that could be done. Saul wasn’t ready to hear that yet.

Did you notice that Ananias was told that the Lord would show Saul “how much he must suffer for my name” rather than “how much he will accomplish in my name”? Saul was still steeped in the law, an expert in the fact that sin has consequences. Learning that he would suffer might have even given him some comfort at this point. He wasn’t yet ready for grace. We learn much of what we know about God’s grace from the pen of Saul, later named Paul. But not yet.

And what about Ananias? He had every reason to be frightened about what the Lord told him to do. But he did it. He went right to the house on Straight Street, put his hands on Saul’s shoulders, and called him “Brother Saul.” He had already accepted Saul as a brother. Ananias lived up to his name, which means: “Grace from God.”

So that brings me to the first of three simple points I’d draw from this chapter:

Sometimes God calls people.

Noah comes to mind. Abram and Sarai. Moses. Samuel. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Mary, the mother of Jesus. Each has a moment to bow in awe before God and an opportunity to do what God asks, whether it’s large and lifelong like Saul … or small and short, like Ananias. Except for Paul retelling this in chapter 22, we don’t hear about Ananias again. But what he was called to do was important.

Let’s get back to the text in the last part of verse 19:

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

23 After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

There’s no indication in scripture that anyone ever preached a gospel sermon to Saul. I’m guessing he already knew what the believers believed; what they did when they believed (because he was baptized). He was a sharp fellow; studied under Gamaliel. Probably was ready to prosecute the cases he was prepared to bring back to Jerusalem. And wouldn’t you guess that almost every time Saul dragged a believer off to jail, he got a sermon from them?

“Saul, how can you not believe? Don’t you see that Jesus’ life fulfills Isaiah 53? His death fulfills Psalm 22?”

The wonder is that Paul begins preaching right away. It’s almost like he can’t help himself; he has to preach! He can’t wait to start doing what he can to un-do the damage he’s done. His audience is confused; isn’t this the one who opposed the Way? — And isn’t that a wonderful name for the believers to be known by back in verse two? Jesus described Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life … now with His Spirit in them, they are that “Way.”

He’s so good at this preaching, that no one can argue with him. So they do what has become the new normal; instead of responding in penitence, they try to kill him. Saul has to be sneaked out of the city away from the assassins in a basket let down from the city wall.

(That, by the way, was Jonathan’s costume from Acts: a brick-colored sweater and a necklace made of a little basket with a toy army man in it, standing in for Saul. He was the Wall of Damascus.)

Does that remind you of something from the Old Testament? It took me back to the story of Princess Michal, who let her husband David down through a window when her father the king was trying to kill him. And her father’s name was … yes, Saul. One of those little ironies of scripture that I find fascinating.

Verse 23 says that it was “after many days,” and it could have been a significant part of the three years that Paul mentions later in Galatians 1:18. “After many days,” Saul came to Jerusalem, where you’d think he’d be wanted by the high priest and charged with dereliction of duty at the very least, and he tried to join the disciples. Like Ananias, they were understandably scared of him. I’d have been afraid he was a kind of double agent, trying to infiltrate the ranks of believers in order to learn who they were so he could arrest them. I’m scared of speaking up; I worry: “Will it cost me my job? Harm my family? Ruin my reputation and influence?”

But not Barnabas.

Barnabas was willing to stick up for Saul. That brings me to the second point I’d draw from this chapter:

Sometimes God lets people perceive the need and step up to the plate.

You’ll find a lot of people like that in scripture, too: Miriam follows baby Moses in the basket down the river and reunites him with his mother … Deborah, Israel’s judge, becomes a military leader … Nehemiah longs to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall … Esther places herself in danger to speak up for her people, threatened with racial extinction. You can probably think of dozens more. They all saw the need, stepped up to the plate, and did what had to be done.

That’s what Barnabas did. He lived up to his name, which means “Son of Encouragement.” He put himself on the line. Can you imagine how much more difficult it would have been for Saul to do the work that the Lord had in mind for him if the apostles had not been on board with it? Barnabas introduced Saul to them, and told them what Saul had been doing in Damascus. To their credit, they took him in. And Saul went right back to doing what he couldn’t keep himself from doing: talking to anyone he could about Jesus. This ran him afoul of the Grecian or Hellenized Jews, who found they couldn’t win an argument with him and they, too, wanted to kill him. Once again, he has to be sneaked out and shipped off, this time to Tarsus, his hometown and a place where people knew him — as well as a place remote enough that it would be difficult to track him there to kill him.

But that last verse in this section serves as a counterpoint to chapter eight, verse three. The church rests from persecution for a while, and grows in strength and numbers. It says they lived in the fear of the Lord, and I don’t have a problem with the word “fear;” I think it means more than respect. God is a loving and merciful God, but He is also a just and righteous God who hates sin and will ultimately destroy it. You don’t want to be standing too close to sin when that happens.

Now Luke switches gears and locations and tells us another story in the order it happened, and it’s about Peter; let’s pick up in verse 32:

32 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. 34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”

39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.

Tabitha is yet another example of someone who saw a need and stepped up to the plate, and met the need. She brings me to the third and last point that I draw from this chapter:

No act of kindness or service is too small to glorify God.

Tabitha didn’t have a huge ministry that required a board of directors or tax advantages or donation robo-callers. It probably took a lot of her time, her hands, and her heart. She made clothes for widows and helped the poor. She took Jesus at His word when He asked us to look after the poor. And it meant the world to them. If she hadn’t been who she was, she wouldn’t have been loved and missed so much when she died — and what was done through Peter in bringing her back to life wouldn’t have had near the impact. The verses here say that “many believed.”

Tabitha may have been the closest thing to Jesus living in Joppa, and there she was, live as ever after being sick and dead, a living testament to Jesus’ power to bring life to those without one. Tabitha’s Jewish name and her Greek name, Dorcas, meant “gazelle,” an animal known for its beauty, grace and speed. Her name probably brought to mind to her Jewish friends the words of Isaiah 52:7:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”

Tabitha lived up to her name.

That’s the challenge before us this morning: to live up to our names as Christians.

  • Truth is, God calls us all — maybe not in a spectacular way, with a light that blinds us — but it is the light by which we are to walk. He calls us through His Son, His Word, to live lives that glorify Him.
  • He waits for us to perceive the needs of those around us, and to step up to the plate to meet those needs.
  • And He encourages us with the fact that no act of kindness is too small to glorify His name.

If you don’t know that name, or the story behind it, you’re invited to ask any of us here at Sylva church and we’d be delighted to tell you more about Jesus and why we believe Him.

Who Are Your Twelve?

Our preparation to move to North Carolina is progressing well — we sold our house here in Little Rock Tuesday to a buyer who requested a closing date that is the same day that we had requested on our new house.

We went to see it on a little vacation trip, and enjoyed a day-and-a-half in Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains.

I applied and interviewed for a part-time position at the university.

We got acquainted with our new hometowns (Dillsboro, Sylva and Cullowhee) a little bit.

We met people new to us, and made friends over dinner and in prayer afterward last Sunday evening with  another family whom I feel sure will continue to grow closer and more treasured in our hearts.

Now the hard parts: Packing. Leaving. Realizing that it was probably our last family-of-four vacation for at least a long, long time. Helping our son move out of the house and into his apartment today. Saying goodbye to eight treasured friends in our LIFE Group at dinner last night.

As we dined together, I remembered a movie called Joshua where a farewell dinner was given by his friends for a person who has been called to an audience with the pope in Rome … a person who might be a lot more than just a visitor to their small town. Extraordinary things have happened among this group of friends and in their community as a result of the powerful love of this stranger. One of his friends, after the dinner, realizes aloud: “There were twelve of us.”

Last night I was made aware again of how our lives connect with so many others, changing them and being changed by them — but also of how profound those changes can be within a circle of close friends, no matter how different from each other we might be.

It made me wonder again what might happen if — like Christ — believers prayed fervently all night and then formed familial relationships with as few as twelve people … dedicated themselves to exploring His nature and personality together … lived it among themselves and others … prayed for one another from the heart … gave of self, sacrificially … loved deeply.

The movie I remembered starts thoughtfully and well, but I think it ends on a weak note. If I’d written its script, I would have had the character Joshua tell the pope:

“With all due respect, I didn’t come to see you or to satisfy your curiosity. I came to make a difference in the failing faith of twelve people I came to love … to help them experience what it means to believe even when confronted by things you can’t understand.”

My family will have that opportunity to help and be helped in that way when we move in three weeks.

We don’t know whom our twelve might be.

There might be more, or less, than twelve. Some might draw us closer with them to God through His Son than we could have imagined. Some might disappoint or wound us. They might choose us, initially. We might choose them.

But we will choose each other, and we will choose.

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. ~ Luke 6:12-16

Who are your twelve?

The Year I Didn’t Go To Church

Well, that’s a little misleading. The year after my divorce was final, I visited several churches.

And had a little difficulty finding a home.

Churches of Christ (and probably other faith fellowships) weren’t sure what to do with divorced people in 1984, and while I would be greeted enthusiastically as a guest, the warmth of the smiles would visibly cool when I said I was divorced.

I did find a home at Pleasant Valley, where no one seemed to mind very much what my marital status was. There was an singles group, and for the most part, folks did not regard the divorced as people with a scarlet “D” embroidered to their blouses or seared into their chests. But in the meantime I’d found another home among people who readily accepted others and took them in and shared commonalities of interest:

Trekkies. Well, Trekkers, actually: the United Trekkers of Arkansas, so named because there was some kind of nomenclature debate going, in which “Trekkies” was perceived as an insult. Hey, it was just a word then and it’s just a word now. (There’s a chance that “Christian” may have originally been intended as an insult. It certainly is used that way now in some circles.)

You could be a Trek-fan and go to meetings and (in those days before widespread Internet) share rumors of movies being made and news of new books and comic books and collectibles; debate motivations of characters and planetary cultures and 23rd-century technology. And nobody cared if you were married, divorced or single (there were members of all those categories); or whether you were painfully thin or dangerously obese; whether you were old or young or somewhere in-between; or whether you wore Trek t-shirts or uniforms or street clothes or dressed like a Klingon from time to time.

The findings of many a research project in religion point to what people seek most in a church: community. That’s what the Trekkers excelled in. They were a community in which deep friendships formed and grew, based on a shared peculiar interest. They worked together. They had garage sales that raised money for local charities like Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They even put together three or four local science fiction conventions — again benefiting local charities — that attracted some of the writers and actors from the television series and movies to participate.

Not unlike followers of Christ.

Now, the club was no paradise to be sure, and it had a rival. Sort of. There were for a while a few members of the UTA who were also members of a larger local chapter of a national organization known as Starfleet. The national organization — and particularly the local chapter — took their charter very seriously. Members had a rank in Starfleet and could advance, and they wore Starfleet uniforms (whatever era one chose), and they participated in community service projects while wearing them. (The local chapter adopted a mile of highway for cleanup.) One member famously wore her uniform as a candidate for the jury in the impeachment trial of President Clinton.

But the Starfleet folks developed kind of a disdain for the undisciplined ways and unlimited acceptance of the UTA folks, and a rift developed, and most of the UTA folks who had also joined Starfleet let their Starfleet memberships lapse. And Starfleet soon went the way of all interstellar hierarchies.

As far as I know, neither organization persists all these years down the road. I let my membership in UTA lapse in 1987, the year I moved to Shreveport.

And that, really, was the year I didn’t go to church.

There was no Pleasant Valley there. There was a church across the river with a single again group of six morbidly depressed people. There was a church on the north side that was all folding chairs in a circle and worship renewal and total unawareness of visitors. There were others, and I was quick to pick up on the dress code and bylaws and expectations and requirements of them. But there was no home.

Every other month or so, I’d roll three-and-a-half hours back up the road to Little Rock to go to church and reconnect with my Pleasant Valley brothers and sisters. Fortunately, my sojourn in Shreveport was just for that one year, parts of 1987-1988.

Now, the point to all this is (if there is one): Jesus was in Shreveport as surely as He was in Little Rock. It may have been shallow — and may be shallow — for someone to look for a church home based on a craving for community rather than Christ. It may be self-seeking, selfish, self-interested.

Yet it can grow into something more.

When people visit our churches, we have a very narrow window of opportunity to offer them the comforts of home — especially those who are hurting and hungry and desperately in need of comfort. I was one of them, and I am not proud of the judgment I showed or the speed with which I exercised it in some cases.

If we greet people with our charter and our uniform requirements and our expectations for performing service and cleaning up highways and leave a general impression of disdain for folks who aren’t going to advance in the ranks, well ….

On the other hand, if we show acceptance as Christ accepts us … if we do not judge others as He eschewed judgment while in this world; what they wear or what their background is or what their potential level of commitment might be … if we work together to help others and honor children and obviously have a great time doing so … then I think we’ve got a better chance at reaching the folks who are starved for community and may have only the vaguest idea about the One who puts the lonely in families.