Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 7: Changed

In every person's story who encounters Jesus, there is a Before and an After.

I have a missionary friend whose story includes a very dramatic Before & After.  She said that before she took Jesus seriously and let him make a huge change in her heart, she was a very different person.  So different that when a friend from her "Before" life heard she was a missionary, the friend said, "No way. We must not be talking about the same person."

She is not the same person she used to be, and she will be the first to tell you that.  In fact, she has turned her life upside down in order to go and tell people that.

I was thinking about that because in Wednesday Bible study, we've been learning the story of Paul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.  Paul, like my missionary friend, has a dramatic Before and After story.  We are all pretty familiar with the After part of Paul's story—what a great messenger of God he became.  We still read his letters to the believers to understand how to live an "After" story.  But until this week, I never really thought about what it was like for Paul right after he encountered Jesus.

What was it like for Paul to wait, blinded, fasting and praying for three days?  What was it like to wait in the dark, the vision of Jesus still burning in his mind, trying to make sense of what he had seen and heard?  What was it like to feel the touch of Ananias' hands on his shoulders, to hear a stranger call him brother? 

What was it like for the believers to have this former enemy, this Pharisee of Pharisees, this man who  moved among governors and chief priests, sit down to dinner with them?  What was it like to see him go under the water, baptizing him into their community?  What was it like for Paul to depend on them, his new family?  What was it like to step out onto the synagogue steps and hear him say, "Jesus is Lord?" How long before they understood and accepted that this was not the same person?

Luke tells us that the believers in Damascus were skeptical of Paul's "conversion."  And the believers in Jerusalem were downright afraid of him when he tried to meet with them.

But a believer named Barnabas took Paul under his wing.  
He introduced him to the disciples.  He told them how Jesus had appeared to Paul and called him to be his special messenger.  He told them how bold Paul had been in Damascus, telling everyone about Jesus.   
- Acts 9:26-27

Today in Wednesday Bible study, we acted this story out.  It was powerful to see the women playing the circles of believers in each town shrink away from the woman playing Paul.  To see their fear, to see Paul's alone-ness.  And so poignant when Betty, who played Barnabas, put her arm around Jaina, playing Paul, and vouched for Paul.  As she shared what had happened to Paul and validated the change in him, the group playing the Jerusalem believers began to soften.  And everyone watching in the room began to visibly relax.

On our church staff, we often refer to a management model called "The Change Curve."  The Change Curve shows us what a congregation goes through as they make major changes in their identity or in the way we do things. It's not always a smooth upward arc—in fact, there is a sharp dip in the Change Curve known as "the valley of despair."  Because, as we know, following Christ involves dramatic change.  It involves risk and fear and vulnerability and an ever-fluctuating combo of cowardice and courage.  Jesus said it would be complicated.

“I assure you,”  Jesus said, “there is no one who has left house, brothers or sisters, mother or father,  children, or fields because of Me and the gospel, who will not receive 100 times  more, now at this time —houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions —and eternal life  in the age to come. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  
- Mark 10:29-31

What's your Before & After story?  How big was the change curve for you?  Who came alongside you and helped you?  What have you lost in the change?  And what have you gained?

Click here to listen to this week's story of Paul's change curve and download the Bible study.

Who will you tell this story to?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 6: Chosen

by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems, Volume One
Sweet Jesus, talking
    his melancholy madness,
      stood up in the boat
        and the sea lay down,
silky and sorry.
    So everybody was saved
      that night.
        But you know how it is
when something
    different crosses
      the threshold — the uncles
        mutter together,
the women walk away,
    the young brother begins
      to sharpen his knife.
        Nobody knows what the soul is.
It comes and goes
    like the wind over the water —
      sometimes, for days,
        you don't think of it.
Maybe, after the sermon,
    after the multitude was fed,
      one or two of them felt
        the soul slip forth
like a tremor of pure sunlight
    before exhaustion,
      that wants to swallow everything,
        gripped their bones and left them
miserable and sleepy,
    as they are now, forgetting
      how the wind tore at the sails
        before he rose and talked to it —
tender and luminous and demanding
    as he always was —
      a thousand times more frightening
        than the killer storm

I recently discovered this poem by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver.  Most people, including me, like Mary Oliver for her beautiful way of capturing the natural world in words.  But I also like Mary Oliver because of the way she thinks about Jesus.  The last stanza of this poem is chilling and probably very accurate: tender, luminous, demanding, a thousand times more frightening than the killer storm.  
Yes.  We imagine that to see Jesus in person would be all sweetness and harps.  But that is hardly what it is like in the Bible stories we are learning!  This week's story is about Paul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.

As they neared Damascus, 
they were suddenly struck by a blinding flash of light, 
and Paul fell to the ground.  
And a voice said, “Paul, Paul, why are you out to get me?”

“Who are you?” Paul asked.
“I am Jesus, the one you are opposing.  
Get up and go into the city.  
And you’ll find out what you need to do.”
-Acts 9:3-6

Paul is not the only one in this story who has a personal encounter with Jesus.

There was a believer in Damascus named Ananias.  
And Jesus came to him in a vision.


“Yes, Lord?”
“Get up and go to a certain house nearby.  
Ask for a man named Paul.  He’s there praying.  
And I’ve given him a vision 
that you will come lay hands on him, and he will be healed.”
-Acts 9:10-12

Every week in Wednesday Bible study, after I tell the story, we ask these questions:
  • What did you like about this story?
  • What bothered or troubled you in this story?
  • What does this story tell you about God (or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit)?
  • What does this story tell you about people?
  • What does this story tell you about how life with God works?
  • If this story is true, how should you respond?
  • Who will you tell this story to?
One thing I like about this story:  Jesus appears personally to both men.  

One thing that bothers me in this story:  When Jesus appears, he shakes up your assumptions—how you think the world works, what you think about God and about people.  Paul says, in talking about this encounter later, that he was on his way to Damascus hunting down Jesus' followers because he thought that was the way to serve God.  He honestly thought he was doing God's business.

Ananias is rocked by the idea that Jesus would ask him to go pray for that man.  

Both men are chosen.  And both discover that God works in ways they could never imagine. 

Whenever we assume we know that if God is doing something, it will look exactly like "this," we are probably about to get our assumptions rocked.  Here is what I am learning about life with God:  Never assume.  If you are comfortable with how things are, you might not be keeping up with God.  I can't say for sure.  I can say that, as Mary Oliver hints, Jesus is probably more frightening than you or I are comfortable with.  

Click here to listen to this week's story and download the homework.

Who will you tell this story to?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 5: Directed

Last week Dennis & I were at Baylor University for four days.  Dennis was the Hearn Innovator guest lecturer for the Center for Christian Music Studies  at Baylor  It was powerful to watch him teach and coach these students who are preparing to be worship pastors and worship leaders in the local church.  That is his wheelhouse!  Did you know that before he changed his major to music, Dennis was planning to be a coach?  He still is a coach, coming alongside our musicians every week, those who serve and those who lead, bringing out their strengths, encouraging them, challenging them to be better and think bigger and serve with humility.  He is great at helping people understand why we worship and how we worship well, why we worship the way we do.  I watched him in lectures and over dinner conversations, and his days were filled with one-on-one mentoring sessions, where he thrives.  He is a coach at heart.  And though he poured himself out from sun up to way past sun down, he came away fired up, because he is passionate about worship and worship leaders.

I met Dennis Worley in the halls of those buildings where he taught this week.  It was powerful to be back on the campus.  While he taught, I had the days to myself.  I walked the whole campus, went inside every building, stood in concert halls and practice rooms and theaters and classrooms and dormitories, at intersections, by benches, under trees that transported me back to the 1970's, to my twenty-something self who dreamed of doing some of the things I've gotten to do and didn't even know to dream of doing some of the things I've gotten to do.  I was passionate about Jesus and music and boys —not always in that order!  I was just beginning to discover who I was and what God had in mind for me.  Walking those hallways and watching Dennis talk with those students, I was reminded of the many people who spoke into my life and dreams during those years.  I found myself making a list of the people God has brought alongside me since then, all along the way in life—people who have been able to help me see what God was doing and how I fit in it, people who called out my gifts and strengths and people who called me on my weaknesses.  I am grateful for them, so grateful that God lined them up next to me at moments in life.  If I made a list you would know some and you wouldn't have a clue about others.  My story would not be the same without them.

I was thinking about them this past week, not only because I was at Baylor, but because I was preparing to teach this week's Wednesday Bible study.  This week's story is one of my all-time favorites.

God told Philip, "Go down the road south of Jerusalem," and Philip obeyed.  He came upon a man riding in a chariot, an Ethiopian eunuch, a high official in the Queen's court.  He had been to Jerusalem to worship God, and he was reading from the scroll of Isaiah!
Acts 8:26-38

God's Spirit told Philip, "Go alongside that chariot and stay near it."

As Philip approached the chariot, he heard the man reading aloud.

"Do you understand what you're reading?" Philip asked.  

"How can I," the man replied, "unless someone explains it to me?  Can you explain it to me?"
Acts 8:30-31

So Philip climbed into the chariot, and starting with the passage in Isaiah, with story after story, he told the man about Jesus—how it was possible for everyone to have life with God because of Jesus.

I love this story because it is such a beautiful example of how God's Spirit lines us up next to someone right at the moment they need to understand something about God or how life with God works.  Both Philip and the Ethiopian learn something about God they didn't know, didn't understand fully until their paths lined up on this stretch of road.  They both learned that life with God, a relationship with God, is open to everyone because of Jesus.  I've been in Philip's shoes a time or two, so I know that sometimes you don't even understand a truth about God is true until you teach it to someone, and just as you're explaining it to them — ZING!—a lightbulb goes off in your heart, and you go, "Wow!  That's true!"

This is exactly what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would be, a coach.  Paraclete is the word used in the Bible, meaning someone who comes alongside and helps you.

I'm so grateful for the paracletes that came alongside me at moments in my life and said, "Do you understand what God is doing?"  But I also know that God is constantly telling me, "Go here" or "Go there," and mistakenly I often think it is all about my path, when actually he is lining me up next to someone else on the path, and it is my moment to say, "Do you understand?"  And when they ask, "Can you explain it to me?" then, like Philip, I need to be ready to tell them the story and how they fit in it.  Are you ready?

Click here to listen to this week's story and download the Bible study.

Who will you tell this story to?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 4: Unstoppable

There's an old story about a country church that got itself a new preacher.  Everybody liked him until, after a few months, he started doing a strange thing.  Every morning, he would go down to the train station, sit on a bench on the platform and read the newspaper until the morning train approached the station.  As soon as he heard the train, the preacher threw down his paper and cheered.  When the train pulled out from the station, he cheered again until it was out of sight.  Then he folded his paper and went back to his office.

After a few weeks of this strange behavior, the parishioners sent some deacons to talk to him.

"Uh, preacher," they hemmed a bit.  "Folks've been asking about something."

"Oh, the train thing?" said the preacher.

"Yeah," they answered.

"I love that train," replied the preacher. "It's the only thing in this town I don't have to get behind and shove."

If you've ever been in ministry, you know just how he feels.  You know that program, that initiative, that fundraising drive, that new Bible study that takes everything you've got, and you know that if you ever stop shoving it along, it's just going to dry up and blow away.

That's exhausting.  And not at all the way God intended the gospel to go forward.

This week's Bible story comes with a truth that is a relief.  The apostles have been boldly preaching about Jesus and healing people, and the religious leaders have tried all kinds of ways to stop them.  They are seriously considering killing them, when Gamaliel, a respected teacher, speaks up.

"Be careful what you do.  Remember, there've been others who made claims like this, but nothing came of it.  If this work is merely human, it will fall apart,
but if this is God at work, nothing can stop it."
-Acts 5:33-39

"Flesh gives birth to flesh.  Spirit gives birth to Spirit," Jesus told Nicodemus. And later he told his followers, "Apart from me, you can do nothing."

Really, nothing?  I have a hard time accepting that sometimes.  I live in a very creative, very connected, very make-it-happen community of believers.  And when we get busy for God, wow, it is really something.  Or it seems like it. 

That's why it's really important that we pay attention:  Is this merely humans at work?  Or this is God?  I don't believe God ever needs us to get behind the gospel and shove.  I believe he calls us to stand in the path of the Spirit and ride the wind of God.

Is that a relief to you?

Click here to listen to this week's story and download the homework.

Who will you tell this story to?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 3: Bold!

Last winter, when we first began learning to tell Bible stories at Wednesday Bible study, we discovered that we had to unpeel some thinking we had about what needs to happen when you talk about faith in God with someone.  We were learning the creation story, and I remember asking the question, "What bothers you about this story?" And someone said, "Well, it doesn't bother me, but I know who I'm going to tell this to, and I know what they're going to ask:  'Seriously, you think God did all that in 6 24-hour days?'"

I didn't say anything in the story about a number of days.  And I didn't on purpose.  I wanted to tell the story of a God who is pleased with his creation, who gave man and woman a relationship with him and a role to play in creation.

But quickly we began to see that one of the reasons we don't tell stories of our faith is that we feel that going into a conversation about faith, we have to fight.  And we have to win.

We talked about the story of evolution, and someone said, "That's just stupid!"  and I said, "Really?  That's what most of our culture believes, and they think your story is stupid."

Things, as you know, can get ugly.

What if we learn to say, "This is the story that tells me who I am and what I am here for. What's your story?  And what does it tell you?"

How can we talk about faith with courage and conviction, but not end up in a sword fight?

I was thinking about that this week, because this week's story is about Peter and John being called before the Jewish religious leaders because they had healed a crippled man in the temple and then started telling the crowd that it had happened by the power of Jesus.

God's Spirit filled Peter, and he replied, "Are we being called on the carpet for doing good to a crippled man?  Then know that this happened by the power of Jesus.  You rejected him, but the prophets spoke of him.  It was always God's plan to restore us and give us life with Him through Jesus.  And I'm telling you there is nothing else God has given us that can make us whole and right except Jesus."
-Acts 4:8-12

Luke's account tells us that the religious leaders were astonished that ordinary men could be so bold.  Boldness is what stands out in this story.  Peter and John's boldness before the religious leaders.  And then, the believers' response when they heard Peter and John's story.

"Now, Lord, consider their threats and give us more boldness to tell everyone everywhere about Jesus.  And do even more miracles by the power of Jesus."
-Acts 4:29-30

In response to their prayer, they were all filled with God's Spirit, the place where they were praying was shaken, and they went out and changed the world.

What's the difference in being bold and being belligerent?

How can we learn to talk about Jesus with conviction and charm?

The gospel is going to offend people.  Jesus is a Revealer;  he reveals what is in men's hearts.  You can see that the early believers expected Jesus to offend people.  But Luke says an interesting thing about them, bold as they were:  It was obvious that God was with them, and their life with Him was attractive to people.  They had, we would say, charisma.  From the Greek word charis, which means  graciousness of manner or action, the divine influence upon the heart.  Charisma - graciousness that attracts people - is what you have when God's Spirit fills you.

Left to his own devices, Peter used to cut off people's ears.  But Jesus didn't choose Peter to lead his church and leave him to his own devices.  And he doesn't leave us on our own either.  Remember, he promised, "And I will be with you to the very end."

I believe we can be bold in a better way.

Click here to listen to the story and download the Bible study.

Who will you tell this story to?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 2 The Power

Last Friday my mother had major surgery.  My 82-year-old mother was in surgery for 6 1/2 hours.  She is a champion.  But now she is weak and exhausted and in pain, and she needs me.  Since last Thursday night, she has needed me to be present and caring and strong and encouraging and patient.

Meanwhile, my newly-engaged son and his fiancé need me to be engaged in making important decisions.  They need my input, my wisdom.  To care about dresses and dates and venues.  The night before my mother's surgery, Ben's car overheated and he needed rescuing from the Kroger parking lot.

Sunday morning Dennis wanted me to be at his side to lead worship.  He needed me to sing "Fairest Lord Jesus" and to lead the prayer time in the service.

A friend on the other side of the world needs me to pray, needs counsel, needs someone to listen. An editor who'd given me a writing assignment needed me to deliver my 1,000 words.  Wednesday morning is coming, and I need to be ready to teach this week's Bible story.  My inbox is full of people who need a reply, an action, an investment of my time and energies.  Even driving to the hospital every day, I can't even stop at a red light without seeing that homeless guy selling the Contributor, who knocks on my window and asks for $2.

My reaction to all of the above is, "There is not enough of me to go around.  I've got nothing to give you."  And that's true.  There is not enough of ME to go around.  But "me" is not what any of these people really need.

I was thinking about this when I was learning this week's story for Wednesday Bible study.  Peter and John are walking to the temple to pray.  This is part of their daily routine, just like driving to the hospital is part of mine right now.  A crippled man is begging by the gate to the Temple.  He asks them for money.

"Look at me," Peter answered.  "I don't have any money.  But what I do have, I give you."
-Acts 3:4-6

What happens next is astounding.  Peter reaches down and takes the man's hand and says, "In the name of Jesus, get up and walk," and the man does!  He follows Peter and John into the temple, where he begins leaping and around and praising God for what just happened.  Of course, a crowd gathers around, and Peter takes advantage of it to say, "Why are you staring at us, like we did this ourselves? "

"It is by faith in the power of Jesus that this man stands before you today whole and healthy."
- Acts 3:16

It's interesting that Peter doesn't say, "This man's faith in Jesus is what healed him."  This man didn't even know to ask to be healed.  He didn't even know to put his faith in Jesus.  Peter did.  Peter had seen Jesus do exactly this same thing, and Jesus had said, "When you get my Spirit, you will have power to do even greater things."  And then the Spirit had come and wow! what power.  It was Peter's faith in Jesus that made this man whole.  It was because Peter looked at the man and knew that what he needed was not money;  it was health and restoration to community, and only Jesus could give him that.  And Jesus now lived in Peter. The Source was in him.

When our kids are tugging on our sleeves, when our husbands are hungry and tired, when our parents are feeble, when our friends are scared, when the homeless guy knocks on the window, when we step to the platform and hold the mic, what people need is Jesus.  The power of Jesus.  They need wisdom,  hope, encouragement, strength, peace, meaning, significance, forgiveness, instruction, companionship - and the source of this is Jesus.  Who lives in us.  We have what they need, and what I know from this week is that no matter how tired or overwhelmed or unrested or underprepared we may feel, what Jesus said is true:

"The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life."
- John 4:14

In Jesus' day, there were wells and then there were wells.  There were man-man cisterns, deep holes dug in the desert to collect and hold water.  These would dry up when the rains stopped.  An artesian well was a spring-fed well, fed by an underground fresh water source that sprung up between the rocks.  Know what caused an artesian spring?  Pressure.  When the ground shifted, the pressure and weight of the rocks would cause the underground source of water to spring forth.  Artesian wells were prized in the desert.  The people called them "living water."

There is not enough of you to go around, but there is an endless supply of that.  Is it in you?

Click here to listen to this week's story and download the Bible study.

Who will you tell this story to?