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Saturday, May 29, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 27-28

When I was a teacher in the juvenile corrections system, there was something that set me apart from the other three teachers in our tiny school system. I passionately believed that I could reach each and every student that came through my classroom. The other teachers had long ago accepted the fact that no one human being has the ability to reach every person they encounter.

When I would confront the other teachers about what to me seemed to be their apathy regarding some students, they would say, “You’re just twenty-two now and idealistic. Give it a few more years, and you’ll see.”

As the years passed by and I changed jobs – moving from classroom teacher to health department outreach worker to politician to pastor – that same conviction stayed with me well into my thirties: the belief that I could reach each and every person I encountered. On some level I thought that conviction was what made me extraordinary in the fields in which I worked. Little did I know that conviction was largely an expression of my codependence – for I felt as if I had to reach every person in order for me to feel good about myself. Even one failure caused me to question my self-esteem/self-worth.

It took encountering passages such as today’s passage from Acts before I could begin to get it through my head that no one can reach every human being. In describing Paul’s efforts in Rome, for example, the author(s) of Acts wrote, “Paul talked to them all day, from morning to evening, explaining everything involved in the kingdom of God, and trying to persuade them all about Jesus by pointing out what Moses and the prophets had written about him. Some of them were persuaded by what he said, but others refused to believe a word of it.”

Did Paul let those failures – those individuals who refused to believe a word of it - destroy his sense of confidence and call?

Nope. Instead, Paul shrugged his shoulders and said that the insiders had had their chance and now it was time to make the message available to outsiders. In other words, Paul had a sense of clarity that helped him realize it wasn’t about him. Once he had done everything in his power to be faithful to his call, he could release himself from the outcome and let others be responsible for their actions. This realization allowed him to put some distance between himself and the outcomes of his work and get on with his life.

Perhaps there is at least one area in your life where you have been thinking along the lines of how I thought: areas where you are tempted to let perceived “failures” derail you and call your self-worth/self-esteem into question. If so, draw strength from Paul’s sense of perspective and find a way to let go – drawing strength from the fact that you did as much as you could.

Til next time…

Friday, May 28, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 23:11-26:32

In the small local church in which I was raised, we had a couple that made life very difficult for others in the community. For the sake of confidentiality, I’ll call the couple Phil and Patricia.

Phil and Patricia had been members of my home church for many, many years. Shortly after their arrival, they got themselves elected to key decision-making positions within the church. They stayed in those positions for years and ruled the community using things like threats, rumor, and innuendo.

As I grew up I remember thinking, “All our problems in the church would be solved if only Phil and Patricia would go away.” Then, the unthinkable happened. Phil and Patricia withdrew their membership and left our local church.

All our problems were immediately solved, right?

Wrong. Within 6 months, another couple moved into the void Phil and Patricia left behind and used the same sort of tools that Phil and Patricia had used.

“What happened?!” I remembered thinking.

It took me years to realize that the problem didn’t lie just within individuals who acted badly. The problem lie within the network of relationships throughout the church that allowed people like Phil and Patricia (and the couple that succeeded them) to act badly.

I wasn’t the first one to realize that problems often go far beyond the scope of the individual(s) involved into larger systems. In today’s reading, in fact, Paul realized this – for during his time of imprisonment Paul found himself dealing with Roman officials ranging from Governor Felix to Governor Festus to King Agrippa. In each case, Paul’s hope was that the official before whom he stood at any given moment would summon the courage to do the right thing and release him. In each case he was disappointed. That was because the problem wasn’t the individual ruler; the problem was a political system that depended upon placating the religious powers-that-be: even if it meant suppressing the truth.

Today I would invite you to survey your life and see if perhaps there is a problem area in your life that you’ve convinced yourself has an easy solution: an area where you’ve allowed yourself to think, “The problem would go away if only so-and-so would get their act together.”

While that line of thinking might contain a degree of truth, chances are the problems go much deeper. Today might be a great opportunity to let go of your simplistic thinking and summon the courage to go deeper as you begin taking on the problem at its very core.

Til next time…

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 22:30-23:10

There are lots of folks who aren’t use to hearing a pastor “argue” with Scripture. By “argue” I mean take issue with some of the content that is often traditionally accepted at face value. Those who know me well, know that this pastor frequently “argues with/questions” some of the sentiments contained in the sacred stories of our tradition. I do that not as a sign of disrespect for the Bible. Rather, I do that as a means of drawing me into a deeper relationship with the God toward whom the Bible points.

Case in point: today’s passage from Acts. In today’s passage we are told the story of Paul being drug before the High Council to defend himself. At this point in the story, Paul could have chosen to present his faith on its own terms and trust that God would see him through.

Paul chose not to do that.

Instead, Paul chose the old “bait and switch” category during his appearance before the High Council. In appearing before a council made up of both Pharisees and Sadducees; Paul “decided to exploit their antagonism” toward one another. Instead of making the primary issue his understand and experience of God as revealed through Jesus, Paul chose to make it about the rivalry between the Pharisees and Sadducees. He exploited their prejudice for personal benefit. That bothers me deeply.

Of course I can’t get on my moral high horse too much in addressing Paul’s strategy because I have been known to use the old “bait and switch” tactic occasionally in my day. On more than one occasion I’ve chosen to personally benefit from avoiding the real issue and making “it” (whatever the particular “it” is at any given moment) the decoy.

Today I would invite you to look at recent events in your life and see if there are places where you have used the “bait and switch” approach for personal benefit. If you find such an area, I would invite you to join me in asking for the strength to focus on the real issue(s) at hand so we can stop pitting one against another and start dealing with the real work that needs to be addressed.

Til next time…

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Acts 21:40-22:29

Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend who was African-American. While there are many things we share in common (including a faith), there are some things that we don’t share in common.

In the midst of one of our conversations about our different life experience, I was talking with my friend about the challenges I face as a gay man. I assumed my friend would be sympathetic since he had known his own set of challenges due to his race. My friend wasn’t.

The reason?

He saw our challenges as completely different and unrelated. He didn’t explicitly say this, but he implied that his challenges based upon his race were valid while my challenges based upon my sexual orientation weren’t.

At first I was both hurt and frustrated by my friend’s indifference. No matter how hard I tried to sensitize my friend to the pain of exclusion I had known, he would not listen. In the midst of one sentence, I suddenly remembered a basic truth I learned long ago. The truth is this: every human being has at least one aspect of themselves that puts them in a place of power and privilege, and one aspect that puts them in a place of vulnerability.

Take me, for instance. On the surface, my identity as a white man gives me access to a great deal of power and privilege in our society. Much of that power and privilege, however, is immediately lost once I disclose my sexual orientation. My friend, on the other hand, has faced much discrimination due to his skin color. At the same time, however, as a heterosexual he enjoys a great deal of power and privilege that people such as myself do not.

In today’s story we met a person who lived this truth: Paul. At the beginning of the story Paul was feeling especially vulnerable because of his identity as a Christian – a religious minority in his community. Just as he was about to be physically abused because of his minority status, Paul pulled rank and identified himself as a Roman Citizen – a powerful and privileged segment of society. In his case, Paul was lucky because his place of power and privilege won out over his place of vulnerability.

All of this presents us with a two-fold challenge for the day. First, I would invite you to find those places in your life when you enjoy power and privilege. Second, I would encourage you to find ways of using your power and privilege to advocate for those who are vulnerable.

Til next time…

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 21:1-39

I can certainly empathize with Paul in today’s passage from Acts – for in that passage Paul faces the challenge of balancing his personal beliefs with the beliefs of those in a community. That balance can be tricky.

One of my experiences with that came early in my ministry back in Aurora, CO. The city council had a tradition of asking ministers from local churches to say an opening prayer at each city council meeting. I personally am uncomfortable with the practice of public prayer at civic events since such a practice can be used to diminish/discount people of other faith traditions.

When I first got the request, I felt as if I was in a bind. Do I hold to my personal belief and turn down the request; or do I accept it and offer an interfaith prayer that was both respectful and inclusive of other faith traditions? After much thought and prayerful discernment, I decided to accept the request and offer a sensitive and inclusive prayer.

In today’s passage, Paul was faced with a similar dilemma. He personally didn’t believe that the observance of specific behaviors was necessary to be in right relationship with the God revealed through Jesus – and yet some local believers wanted Paul to support the efforts of some men to be circumcised in order to show folks in Jerusalem that Paul was indeed supportive of such a practice.

Paul could have drawn a line in the sand and refused on principle. Instead, he realized that living into one’s faith often requires living into a delicate balance between living out one’s personal beliefs and creating room for others.

We modern folks in the United States live in a culture that suggests, “It’s all about us.” Our first instinct in situations where our individual preferences are at odds with the communal preferences is frequently to go with the individual desire. At such times, I remember Paul’s example and try to bring the two into balance.

So how successful are you in terms of living into this balance? Do you view your personal faith as permission to demand things on your own time and terms; or does your faith sensitize you to other people and their beliefs in such a way that you can respectfully live together?

Til next time…

Monday, May 24, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Acts 20:17-38

What an amazing passage to read on my first day back to my blog after ten days’ vacation. I say that because the text includes Paul’s parting words to a faith community. Those words capture many of the sentiments I felt as I was leaving the area in which I was born and raised.

There are many directions I could take today’s entry based on the experiences that I had during my vacation. I’ll be disciplined, however, and choose just one. That direction comes out of Acts 20:35. Here’s the story that made the verse jump out at me.

During my vacation, I had the chance to catch up with a friend who was having problem with her youngest child. The child – in his early twenties – had developed a drug and alcohol problem and had spent the last few years bouncing around between jail, the streets, and treatment centers. My friend was struggling to deal with the reality because her family was a relatively well-to-do family who had provided themselves on giving their kids everything they wanted growing up. “What did we do wrong?” she wondered at one point in the conversation.

That something was pretty obvious to me – they had raised their children to be entirely self-centered human beings. In the time that I knew them, for instance, not once did I know the children to do anything to give back to the community. They simply focused on meeting their own wants and needs. Needless to say, it didn’t shock me that at least one of her children had serious challenges in life.

“You’re far happier,” Paul quotes Jesus as saying in today’s passage, “giving than getting.”

That simple but profound truth goes against virtually everything our culture teaches – and yet I believe it’s a truth that can provide a solid compass to direct one’s life.

As you go about your day today, I would encourage you to find time and reflect on the balance in your life between the “giving” and the “getting”. If you find the balance is out of whack, remember it’s never too late to work on bringing the two back in balance.

Til next time…