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Saturday, May 8, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 16

I found that I’ve been a bit more nostalgic the past few weeks than usual as I get ready to attend my 25th high school reunion this July. That’s because in the weeks leading up to the big event I’ve reconnected with lots of my old friends via social networking venues like Facebook. The reconnections have given me an opportunity to look back and realize some of the ways I’ve changed over the years.

There has been one change in particular that has been more pronounced than any other – and that change has taken place within just the last five years.

That change?

I use to be obsessively driven. Once I got an idea in my head, I would move heaven and earth (no pun intended) to make that idea happen. I would consider obstacles as merely tests of my will – and try to plow through - NO MATTER WHAT - until the project was realized. The older I’ve gotten, however, the more I’ve grown in my ability to let go of an idea that just doesn’t seem to be working.

There are a lot of different ways I could talk about my new way of being. I could say, for instance, that I’ve learned to acknowledge that some ideas simply “weren’t meant to be”. I could also say that “the timing wasn’t right”. I could also add that “the stars just weren’t aligned”. All of these pop culture expressions are ways of giving oneself permission to pull back from a project.

In today’s passage from Acts, we are given another paradigm for pulling back from a project. This paradigm is spiritual in nature. Let me set that paradigm up for you.

We are told in the passage, for instance, that Paul had a specific project in mind: he wanted to go the Asia province. The next clause of the sentence explained what went wrong with the plan: “but the Holy Spirit blocked that route.” Needless to say, the trip to the Asia province didn’t work out. Paul ended up in Macedonia instead.

There are lots of ways of expressing a similar idea (“something just wasn’t meant to be”, “the timing wasn’t right”, “the stars weren’t aligned”, or “the Holy Spirit blocked that route”). The point remains the same: it wasn’t the right time for our idea to come into fruition.

The question then becomes this: how do you deal with that “set back”? Do you throw your hands into the air and give up; or do you have the humility to do what Paul did – open yourself to ideas bigger than your own and have the courage to follow those instead of your own?

Til next time…

Friday, May 7, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 15

One of the things I love so much about the sacred stories of our faith contained in the Bible is that they don’t spend much time “cleaning up” some of the most important people from our tradition: they often present them exactly as they are – warts and all!

Case in point: Paul.

Today’s reading casts Paul in two VERY different lights. In the first half of the chapter, for instance, Paul is a champion of those who have been deemed the outsiders. He made a journey to Jerusalem, in fact, to advocate for those who would be excluded from fellowship because they were uncircumcised. That would make you think Paul had a very open mind, right?


Just a few verses later we are told Paul got a great idea. He wanted to revisit some of their earlier stops he had made and see how things were going in the communities of believers. Barnabas said, “Great idea. Let me just grab John Mark and we’ll hit the road.”

Guess how Paul responded. He said, “Absolutely not!”

Here the interesting contradiction. As someone who had been raised Jewish, Paul was able to overcome his fear and judgment of the uncircumcised to argue for their inclusion, and yet he was totally unable to overcome his earlier judgment of John Mark.

Why is that? Why can someone be an advocate for inclusion in one circumstance, and an opponent for inclusion in another?

Here’s my theory that I have seen played out many times before. In the first scenario, Paul was advocating for a group of individuals. While that group certainly had names and faces attached to it, the argument for inclusion was largely theoretically. In the second instance, however, the matter of whether or not to include John Mark wasn’t theoretical at all; it was concrete.

I have been in so many situations where individuals (including myself!) have advocated in the realm of public policy for a group like – say – the homeless. Fast forward a couple weeks when a homeless person actually showed up in church. The homeless person might smell and act strangely.

Guess what happens?

The advocate for the homeless suddenly starts mistreating the real live homeless person in their midst. I have that happen time after time with “issues” ranging from the homeless, to those with mental illnesses, to the poor. As Paul showed us in today’s reading, it’s so much easier to be inclusive in the abstract than it is in practice.

Today I would encourage you to search out your own heart and daily life and see if there are areas in which you have been inclusive in the abstract and exclusive in your practice.

Til next time…

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 14

At the end of the last summer, I lived through one of the most difficult times of my life. I left a church I had served (and loved very deeply) for nearly eight years and made the transition into serving a new church 1,200 miles away.

Lots of folks have wondered why – if I loved my previous church so much – I made the change.

There are several dimensions to that answer, but one of the primary reasons is embedded in today’s reading from Acts.

In today’s passage, we are told that the group of believers in Lystra was so touched by the ministries of Paul and Barnabus that they cried out: “The gods have come down! These men are gods!”

While most congregations who love their pastors don’t go quite THAT far in their appreciation of a pastor, there is a tendency for some to get caught up in the minister and lose sight of the One to whom the pastor is pointing.

In Paul and Barnabus’ case, they had to quiet down the group by reminding them: “”We are [people] just like you.” In my case, last summer I realized it was time for me to pass the torch to another pastor who could take my previous congregation to the next level by helping them see their vision for ministry and call in a way that was much bigger than my vision and call.

In each and every case, as one of my colleagues said so eloquently, “Our goal as spiritual leaders isn’t to get our congregation to say ‘What a great pastor we have!’ Rather, our goal is to help the people say, ‘What a great God we celebrate and serve!’”

Today, I would ask you to consider if there is something in your life – some gift or manifestation from God – that has caught your eye and perhaps unintentionally moved your focus from God onto the manifestation of God. If so – no matter how wonderful that manifestation might seem to be – take time to remember not just the object or person itself, but the one toward whom the manifestation points.

Til next time…

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 13

One of the most challenging tendencies I face in life is the tendency to respond to someone’s unkindness with unkindness of my own. It’s easy for me to go down that path as I find myself thinking, “Well, the other person started it through their hurtful behavior – and if I look the other way, I’ll be perceived as a doormat. That’s why it’s okay for me to respond similarly.” It is so common for us human beings to go there!

It’s interesting to note that you and I aren’t the only ones faced with such temptation. In today’s reading we encounter an unusual story about Paul – another person who “went there”. Let me tell you what’s so unusual about today’s story.

You see in each of the miracle stories that precede today’s passage in the New Testament as we know it, the miracle that is performed by Jesus (or one of his followers) was a miracle of healing. Sight was restored to the blind. Health was restored to lepers. Life was restored to the dead.

In today’s passage from Acts, however, the miracle that occurs is in the opposite direction. Paul renders the charlatan – Bar-Jesus – blind because of his treachery! In other words, it feels as if Paul stooped to his opponent’s level. That’s why I find that story so unusual and so troubling.

Today I would invite you to examine your own life and see if there is a relationship (or if there are relationships) where you are currently tempted to stoop to another’s level and meet their unkindness with unkindness of your own. If so, take some time and invite God’s healing presence into the situation so you won’t be tempted to follow Paul’s example and feel compelled to lash out and hurt someone.

Til next time…

Tuedsday, May 4, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 12

There was a line in today’s passage that made me chuckle. It was a line that followed the explanation of Peter’s circumstances in jail (i.e. Peter was chained to two guards and had other guards posted at the door). After an angel appeared and led Peter out of the cell and away from the guards, Peter is quoted as saying: “I can’t believe it – this really happened!”

So what about that line made me chuckle?

Well, if you think about it, Peter’s life had been full of miraculous moments since he first answered Jesus’ call to follow him. He had seen sight restored to blind persons, health to the lepers, and life to the dead. In fact, just a few chapters earlier we are told that Peter himself raised the dead! In spite of this cascade of miraculous events, Peter still said, “I can’t believe it – this really happened!”

I suppose a big piece of why Peter said that was because he – like all of us – was human. Each of us have moments in our lives where we feel remarkable manifestations of God’s grace within the context of our lives. Many of us have had several such moments. Those manifestations might take the forms of things such as the appearance of just the right person in your life at just the right moment, or perhaps an unexpected vocational opportunity that changes the course of your life. There are literally thousands of ways those manifestations can occur. And yet in spite of these manifestations of grace, over time we come to take them for granted and forget about the special ways God makes God’s presence felt in the context of our lives.

Today I would invite you to do two things. First, take a moment and think back over the course of your life and claim those moments in your life where you felt God’s presence in your life in remarkable – if not miraculous – ways. Then take some time during your moments of prayer and/or meditation and ask that your heart be open to recognizing those moments in your life as they occur so you can recognize them for what they are.

Til next time…

Monday, May 3, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 11

From the earliest days of our country’s founding, lots of folks have believed that we enjoyed special status (or at least special standing) in the eyes of God. There are those who would point out many of those who first arrived in the United States were fleeing religious persecution in Europe so that makes us special. Many of these same folks overlook the religious persecution those Protestant settlers heaped upon the Catholic folks who settled - but I digress.

In the days of the Louisiana Purchase, many others quickly became proponents of a philosophy/theology known as Manifest Destiny that suggested the expansion of the United States was a part of God’s larger plan.

Even today, some will talk about the United States as if it were a Christian nation that enjoyed special blessings because of its relationship with God.

All of these things tell me that many of us seem hard-wired to want to believe that of all the groups on the planet – God likes our group the best. I can certainly understand the temptation to think like that. I just don’t happen to believe that’s true (regardless of what group you try to build your case.)

And why don’t I?

Largely because of both my personal experience of God and my understanding of my faith tradition. You see early Christians duked it out over who had the correct idea regarding how to grow the faith. The pillars of the faith tradition (Peter, James & John) at first believed the only legitimate way to grow the faith was by maintaining practices from their original faith tradition – practices such as observing rules of table fellowship and circumcision. Others emphasized the growth among Gentiles.

Eventually the matter got settled through the early experiences of individuals like Peter – and the Christian community (or at least segments of it) began to wake up to the notion that God doesn’t play favorites. In today’s reading, for example, the author(s) wrote: “Hearing it all laid out like that, [the crowd] quieted down. And then, as it sank in, they started professing God. ‘It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!”

You may not have thought God played favorites when it comes to things like nations or perhaps even religious traditions, but today I would invite you to dig down to other levels and ask yourself, “Is there a part of me that believe that God’s love and grace is held back behind walls or boundaries of some sort?” A part that says, “While God’s love and embrace is great, it surely couldn’t include such and such!”

If so, take time to repeat to yourself those wonderfully expansive words from today’s passage: “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other [and here – you can fill in the blank for yourself], opened them up to Life!” – and give thanks!

Til next time…