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Saturday, May 1, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 10

I grew up in a household with a mother who was very devout. As a result of her faith, she was very exacting in terms of what she expected of both herself and her family. For instance, she didn’t want any of us to do things like dance, gamble, or cuss. She was so concerned about language that we weren’t even allowed to use what she considered derivatives of four-letters words – words like “gosh”, “darn”, “gee” or “golly”. Let's face it.

If there was one area she was most clear on, it was drinking. She was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and prided herself on the fact that she had never – and I repeat NEVER – had a drink of alcohol.

During one of our weekly phone conversations, my mother started to tear up. I asked what was wrong, and she said she had done something she had never done before in her 74 years.

“And what was that?” I asked curiously.

“Drink alcohol,” she answered.

She went on to explain that she and my father had attended the baptism of my sister’s step-grandchild. The baptism happened in a Lutheran church. In addition to the baptism, the church was having Communion that Sunday. Unlike the Methodist churches we had grown up in, most Lutheran churches use wine for Communion rather than grape juice. My mother didn’t know that.

When my mother went up to receive Communion, she took the cup as it was offered and drank. It was only then that she realized that there wasn’t grape juice in the cup – it was wine! It bothered her for a long time that she had broken her vow to God and self not to drink alcohol.

I replied, “I think God will understand.”

I was reminded of that experience when I read today’s passage from Acts – for in that passage we were introduced to another individual who was incredibly devout: Peter. Like my mother, Peter prided himself on his incredible sense of discipline – especially when it came to his diet. In fact, in response to a dream he had that suggested he eat meat, Peter responded by crying out: “”Oh, no, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.”

The voice that manifested itself in response to Peter noted: “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.”

It’s so easy for many of us like my mother, Peter, and certainly myself at times – to get so caught up in our own expectations about how God is supposed to work that we become obsessed with those expectations. We think to ourselves, “A good person isn’t supposed to (and you can fill in the blank here for yourself).”

Sometimes those expectations become so dominant in our thinking that we end up focusing on the behavior itself and losing sight of what’s most important: our vital relationship with our loving Creator.

Today, I would invite you to see if there are any areas of your life where that’s been the case: places where you’ve developed a sense of identity or ego around what you do (or don’t do). If you find such a place, remind yourself of what’s truly most important in life: living with a degree of flexibility so that you can follow the Spirit’s leading. Even if it takes you to places that are “outside of YOUR box”!

Til next time…

Friday, April 30, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 9:19-43

Over the past nine years, I’ve spent a good deal of time talking with couples and families in some degree of crisis and/or transition. From these experiences, I’ve learned something surprising about change as it relates to human beings.

And what is that learning?

Well, I use to believe that the most challenging aspect of change is the way it affects the individual going through the change him or herself. I no longer believe that. What I now believe is that the most challenging aspect of change is the way it impacts those around the person who is going through the change.

Take an individual – like say the husband/father in a family - who has a drinking problem. Over the years, all of the members of the family learn to adopt certain roles that allow the family to function despite the husband/father’s drinking. When the individual stops drinking, the roles of each family member suddenly change. Family members who weren’t drinking have to spend time re-thinking their sense of identity or purpose now that the alcoholic has stopped drinking. This means that instead of joyfully welcoming the change in the alcoholic’s behavior, sometimes that change is met with resistance since it raises many issues for others.

That is much like what happened in today’s passage from Acts. In that passage we had a couple of communities (the Jewish & Christian communities) that got use to knowing how to act in regards to an individual like Saul. Members of the Jewish community sensed they had an ally, and members of the Christian community sensed they had a foe.

When Saul had his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, all bets were off! Saul opened himself to the transformative change. Members of each community, however, were less eager to do so. For many individuals, this sense of resistance from others might have caused them to give up on the change and revert to old behaviors. Thankfully, Saul/Paul had the wherewithal to hang in there and hold to his convictions until those around him caught up.

Today, I would encourage you to look around in your life and see if there might be a loved one who is trying desperately to live into some significant change. If you find such a person in your life, ask yourself, “In what ways am I supporting and/or resisting the change?” The role you play in the process can have a huge say in whether or not the change takes root.

Til next time…

Thursday, April 29, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 9:1-19

I’ve been interested in leading since I was just a boy. My first “elected” position was when I became treasurer of my 5th grade class – and I’ve found myself in leadership positions of one sort ever since.

While holding positions of leadership have been a constant for me over the years, there is one thing that has changed 180 degrees for me. That something is my philosophy of leadership.

I use to believe than an effective leader was someone who always had a detailed plan in place that would take a group into the future. I believed that because that was what most of the leadership models suggested at the time. In the last ten years, a “new” vision of leadership has begun to emerge that takes a radically different approach.

Instead of emphasizing the importance of having a detailed plan for the future, the emerging vision of leadership suggests that effective leaders are extremely flexible in their approach and leave plenty of room for developments that occur along the way so they can adapt very quickly. I can’t tell you how life giving this shift in thinking has been for me!

I can’t help but laugh when I refer to this emerging vision of leadership as “new” – for that model has been around for centuries.

And how do I know that?

Well, I find that model of leadership peppered throughout Scripture. One place in particular where I find it is in today’s passage from Acts. In that passage we were introduced to one of the greatest leaders in our faith tradition: Saul (soon to become Paul).

When Saul had the experience of being blinded on the road to Damascus, he had a choice about how to handle the situation. He could have resorted to a more traditional leadership style and drawn up a detailed plan of his own (i.e. have my assistants help him to his feet, have them make an appointment with an eye doctor, see the course of treatment through, and return to work).

He didn’t choose that route, however.

Instead, he took a risk and followed the voice that said, “I am Jesus, the One you’re hunting down. I want you to get up and enter the city. In the city you’ll be told what to do next.” Saul went through the plans – even though he had no idea what lay beyond the next step. And that, my friends, is what I think faith – as well as effective spiritual leadership - is all about. Taking a risk without knowing exactly what the outcome will be.

Perhaps there is an area in your life where you have felt some need. You might have spent a great deal of time pursuing YOUR plans – and none of those plans have worked out. If that’s the case, remember Saul’s example and try doing the unthinkable: take a leap of faith. You might find that through that process your eyes will be opened to possibilities/futures that exceed your planned outcome.

Til next time…

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 8:26-40

One of the hardest lessons I ever learned about ministry came back in June of 1997. Let me take a moment and set up that time for you.

I had belonged to the local United Methodist church in my small town for all of my 30 years. During that time, my local church had had more than its fair share of ups and downs. Things had gotten so bad that in the fall of 1993 I actually stopped attending church for a while – something I thought I would never do.

In the spring of 1994, we got a wonderful new pastor. Her name was Denise. She was so good that not only did I start attending church again but I took on numerous duties. I served as choir director and pianist, I helped out on the missions committee, and I did all sorts of odd jobs around the church. That time between 1994 and 1997 was some of the richest moments I had spent in church during my life.

Then – in June of 1997 I got a call at work. It was Denise. She was calling to let me know that the bishop of our conference was moving her across state to a new church. I was completely heartbroken. I was so connected to Denise and her ministry that it took me quite a while to get over.

So what was the lesson I took away from that painful separation?

I learned that one has to be careful that one’s spiritual growth is never tied too much to a person. While a person can be a wonderful vessel or agent of God’s love and grace – he or she must never be confused with the Source of that love and grace.

I was reminded of that lesson as I read today’s passage from Acts – for in that passage we hear the story of Philip’s encounter with the eunuch where Philip first teaches the eunuch about Jesus and then baptizes the man. The author(s) of Acts tells us that “when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God suddenly took Philip off, and that was the last the eunuch saw of him.”

And how did the eunuch react?

“… He didn’t mind. He had what he’d come for and went on down the road as happy as he could be.”

The eunuch models for me the importance of always staying connected to the One who is the Source of life. And while there are many wonderful individuals for whom I give thanks that come into my life and provide me with tangible expressions of God’s love and grace, I have to be careful so that I don’t become so attached to them that I take my eyes off the wonders of the God whom they reveal.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience in your life where you were tempted to focus more on a person and less on God. If so, find some time today to first give thanks for the person who has helped facilitate your spiritual growth and then use that time of thanksgiving as a way of reconnecting with the One who has motivated and inspired that person.

Til next time…

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 8:1-25

Lots of folks are quick to label things in the world as being either “good” or “bad”. They get fired from a job, for instance, and say that’s a “bad” thing; or they might have a relationship end and tell others in the days that follow that it was a bad “thing”.

If you step back in time, however, what initially might have seemed “bad” can turn out okay. For instance, when a person was fired from a job he or she happened to hate – it might have freed them up so that he or she finds a job that he or she now loves. That would be a “good” thing.

And while the person whose relationship ended might be initially overwhelmed with how “bad” their luck was – eventually the person might find him or herself in a healthier relationship than he or she ever dreamed possible. That would certainly be a “good” thing.

That’s the primary reason why I’m so slow to label things as being either “good” or “bad” – because I usually don’t have enough sense of perspective to do the labeling.

A good example of how things are always what they initially appear to be can be found in today’s passage from Acts. At the start of the passage, we are told that a “terrific” persecution of the church was set off by Stephen’s martyrdom. That sounds like a “bad” thing, right?

Not so fast.

The author(s) of Acts go on to immediately add – “Forced to leave their home base, the followers of Jesus all became missionaries.” In other words, that persecution led to an explosive expansion of the faith. Sounds pretty “good” to me.

Keeping this fickleness in our use of the labels “good” and “bad” in mind, today I would ask you: “Is there something in your life that has happened that you’ve labeled ‘bad’ that has gotten you stuck in a place of anger, bitterness, or resentment?” If so, take a moment and remember that with the passage of time (and the acquisition of perspective) you just might eventually come to see the matter differently.

Til next time…

Monday, April 26, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 7

As I watched the controversy around the immigration bill recently passed by the state of Arizona, I wondered if most folks realized how delicate this issue is in terms of their own identities.

As I read today’s passage from Acts, for instance, I was reminded in Stephen’s speech that all of us who come from a Jewish or Christian background have spiritual ancestors who were immigrants. “So [Abraham] left the country of the Chaldees and moved to Haran,” Stephen noted, “After the death of his father he immigrated to this country where you now live.”

In addition to having spiritual ancestors who were immigrants, many of us in the United States are also descendents of immigrants as well. My father’s family came from Norway, for instance, and my mother’s family came from Germany. Therefore, if I’m being honest about my social location I suppose I would say I’m an immigrant of sorts. For this reason, I feel some degree of personal investment in this conversation.

As I’ve listened to folks debate the issue of immigration, I realize I have a profoundly different way of approaching the issue than most folks in the media. For most folks, the central question in the debate is, “Is a person a legal immigrant or is a person an illegal immigrant?” The answer to that question often tells a person everything they think they need to know. I have a different question that tells me how to act. My question is, “Whose land is this?” The answer to that question – at least for me - is “God’s”.

Thinking about the issue has got me thinking about how incredibly possessive we human beings are about most things. We throw possessive pronouns around as if they were nothing – this is “my country”, “my church”, “my house”, “my car”… The list is endless.

Today I would ask you to consider how your life might be different if you changed the word “my” in each of these phrases to “God’s”.

Til next time…