Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Good News for Hard Times Week 3: Jesus Feeds 5,000

The other day I was keeping my granddaughter Olivia.  Livie is 1 1/2 and she is chattering away these days.  Last week her favorite word was "bus" but on this day, she keep jabbering to me, "slibdobydbowzidazzd...cups."  I was doing the dishes and she was playing in her stand-up station thingy and she would say, "dkshvocidncbyd..cups!"

At lunch, Livie was sitting in her Bumbo eating cheese and she kept pointing towards the pantry and asking, "cbobodywoeibyzzz cups?"  And I would say, "Yes, we have cups."  And I would bring her a cup from the pantry.

When her mother picked her up, I said, "What's the deal with cups?" and Arley said, "Oh, she was saying 'grapes'!"

Great.  All day Livie was asking, "Do you have any grapes?" and I was answering "Yes, we have cups!"

Later I thought about when Jesus said:

If your child asks you for bread, do you give him a stone?  
If he asks for fish, do you give him a snake?  
If you know how to give good things to your children, 
don't you think your heavenly Father can do even better?

I think many times I am busy blabbering to God about grapes and I'm a little astounded when he gives me cups.

Like one time, when we were first married, and we lived far from home, we were running really tight on money.  And I was worried about having groceries.  And I kept going around our little duplex blabbering to God that we needed more money.

There was a knock at the door, and it was our neighbors, standing there with grocery sacks.

"Hey, we're going out of town," they said.  "And we had to clean out our fridge.  Could you use these?"

I had spent all day blabbering, "!" when God knew that what I needed was food.

This week's Bible story is about God providing food.  In an astounding display of power to provide, Jesus feeds over 5,000 men, plus their women and children, with only five loaves and two fish to work with.

This is one of the only stories told in all four gospels.  Apparently all four of them thought it told us something that we must know about Jesus.

If I was telling you this story in our Wednesday Bible study, I would ask you:  What does this story tell you about Jesus?

There is a conversation in this story that I never knew existed until I began learning to tell it this week:

Now it was evening, and they were a long way off from any village.
Jesus asked Philip, "Where shall we get food to feed these people?"
He said this to stretch Philip's faith.  He already knew what he was going to do.

He already knew what he was going to do.  He wasn't worried about how much money they had or fish or bread or where the nearest store was.  He already knew what he was going to do.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurable more
than we could dare to ask or imagine
according to his power at work -
to him be glory!
-Ephesians 2:20-21

Later in the story, Jesus has a conversation with the people about this miracle, in which he says, "You come to me because you want your stomachs filled: bread.  But I can give you life forever: Bread."

"Your heavenly Father knows what you need," Jesus had told the people.

It is so much more than we know to ask for.

Click here to listen to the story and learn it.  

Who will you tell this story to?

Some notes for further study:

1.  What do my listeners not know about Jesus?
All four gospel writers tell this story, but not in the same way.  Each gospel writer had a different audience, or "people group", to whom they were telling the good news of Jesus.  When we tell a story, we must look at the people we are telling the story to.  What do they believe about the world?  About how life works?  About God?  What are their needs and challenges?  What are their greatest values?  And then we ask ourselves, What do they not know about God that this story tells them?  That's how we decide what details are important to include.  All the gospel writers got the main thing about Jesus consistent in this story.

2.  What are barriers in this story?
In John's account of this story, John says that Jesus asked Philip, "How will we get food for all these people?"  John says he asked Philip this to stretch Philip's faith, because Jesus already knew what he was going to do.  Your translation might say, "He said this to test Philip."  My Wednesday group didn't like this;  they didn't like the word "test."  For our demographic, a test is something you must get right.  you either pass or you fail.  Why would Jesus do that to Philip?  That's not consistent with Jesus' character.  So we look at what the word means and we read a lot of translations.  The Message translation, I feel, captures best the intent of the moment:  Jesus asked this to stretch Philip's faith - to see if he would use his faith in Jesus to think outside the box of what Philip could do and instead think of what he knew by now that Jesus could do.

When you tell a story, you have to consider words that might be barriers, that give people problems that really aren't in the story.  We never change the meaning of what is said.  But we try to avoid words that are cultural triggers for our listeners.

3.  What are bridges in this story?
The main thing, which every gospel writer told us, is that Jesus has compassion.  And he cares that we have physical needs met.  And he is able to provide—abundantly—for our physical needs!  The bridge to the gospel in this story is that everyone has needs.  They worry about not having enough.  They live out of a scarcity mentality and they worry because they think it's up to them to provide well.  Yes, even wealthy people in Williamson County worry about this.

Think about these things as you're learning and telling the story this week.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Good News for Hard Times Week 2: You are worried about many things

Last week in Wednesday Bible study, we learned a story about being caught in a storm that comes from without. It was a story about being afraid.  This week, we learned a story about a storm that comes from within - the storm called "worry."

In this week's story, Jesus is at the home of Mary and Martha.  Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, but Martha is having a hard time with that because she is "distracted by the many preparations."  Finally she bursts out, "Lord! Don't you care? My sister has left me to do all the work! Tell her to help me!"

Martha's cry is so much like the cry of the disciples in the boat from last week's story:  "Lord!  Don't you care?"

But there's a big difference.  The disciples plead, "Save us!" Martha tells Jesus what to do.

In his letter to the believers at Philippi, Paul writes about the storm of worries:

Do not be anxious about anything, 
but in everything, by prayer & petition with thanksgiving,
present your requests to the Lord.
-Philippians 4:6

Paul doesn't say, "Present your instructions to the Lord."  He says, "Present your requests."

How does Jesus respond to taking instructions?

He says, "Martha, Martha, you are distracted and upset about many things.  But only one thing is essential, and Mary has chosen it."

Your version of the Bible might say, "You are worried about many things."  That word translated "worry" in English means divided or distracted.

Where is the "hard time" in this story?  It's the storm within Martha.  It's the tumult of being pulled in a thousand different directions, of not being able to quiet your heart or your mind, not being able to focus.  Sometimes it is the big storm of circumstances that swamps you, like in last week's story.  But more often, it is the storm of lots of little worries that consumes you and causes just as much anxiety.

I speak as an expert on this.  I am a black belt worrier.  The inside of my head is a big string ball of anxieties.  

You may ask, how can a person who studies the Bible and teaches it and writes about faith and seems for all the world to be a Mary be such a Martha?

The answer is that you have to remember the Big Story that this little story and every story fits into:  God vs. Satan.  If God created you and me for a relationship with him, the last thing his enemy wants us to do is enjoy that relationship.  And one of his chief tactics is to distract us.  With worries.  So he can tempt us with that same old question: "Don't you care?"

If he can get us off on our hamster wheel, churning over our worries, instead of talking to God - or better yet listening to God - then he has succeeded.  For now.

This isn't a story about whether hospitality is less important than discipleship.  It isn't even a story about hostessing.  Or women.  It's a good story for business people, for college students, for anybody with a To Do List that has taken over their life.

Paul goes on in Philippians to say this about the divided mind:

It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.
Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together, 
will come and settle you down.
- Philippians 4:7 The Message

Everybody worries.  Just today at lunch, after Bible study, our waitress was in tears because she was worried about something personal.  And we told her the story we had just learned about Martha.  She is a believer, but just like us, she'd gotten focused on the worries and not on Jesus.  Right before our eyes, we saw him settle her down. And it was wonderful.  I'm so thankful I was there to see it.  

I'm so thankful Luke preserved this little story for all of us worriers!  Today as we practiced telling it, some of us pretended to be Mary and some of us pretended to be Martha.  But the truth is, all of us are Marthas when it comes to being distracted by many things.

Click here to listen to this week's story and learn it.  You can read it in Luke 10:38-42.  

Who will you tell this story to?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Good News for Hard Times: Jesus Calms the Storm

I'm so happy that Wednesday Bible study is back this week.  This spring we are learning to tell six Bible stories about people going through hard times.

Sometimes when I find myself in a conversation with someone going through a really hard thing, I don't know what to say.  (I do NOT have the spiritual gift of mercy.)  I really want to fix their hard thing for them, but of course I can't.  So I just find myself saying, "I'm sorry."  "Gosh, I'm really sorry."  "I'm soooo sorry."

When I'm going through a hard thing, I really hate it when people tell me platitudes like, "You'll be stronger for it" or "God never gives us any more than we can handle."  That one's particularly not true.  Everything is more than we can handle.  I think that's kind of the point of the Bible, and why we need Jesus.

When I'm going through a hard thing, though, it does help to know that others have been through something hard.  It helps to know that they, too, were chickens or complainers or wondered if God cared at all about them, or if he was just busy with Africa right now.

This is one reason I love Bible storytelling.  I don't have to tell you how to feel or think.  I can just say, "Wow, that's like the time when this happened and God did that."  The most important thing I can tell you during a hard time is that you're not alone, and that this is what God is like and can do.

When we process a story together in our group, we think about these questions together:

  • What did you like about this story?
  • What bothered you or left you with questions?
  • What does this story tell you about God?
  • 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, what do you need to do in response?
These are good questions to think about together, even if you and I are just having a conversation about your hard time or my hard time.

This week's story is about a hard time that comes up suddenly.  You know, those things that take you by complete surprise, you didn't see them coming?  There's something about being afraid suddenly that causes you to lose your bearings and forget everything you thought you knew and counted on. A huge wave of emotions.  A harsh wind of change.  A storm of circumstances.

In this week's story, Jesus calms the storm.  I've heard this story told since I was a little girl in Sunday School.  I heard this story told just a few weeks ago on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, where it happened.  I learned that the ancient people believed that gods and demons were behind the natural elements.  So it's no coincidence that the gospel writers put this story smack in the middle of a lot of other stories about demons.  Jesus speaks to the storm the same way he spoke to demons.  The same way he rebuked Peter when he said, "Get behind me, Satan!"

What does that tell you about Jesus?

Then he turns to the disciples and asks, "Why do you keep on being afraid?"

What does that tell you about people?

What does this story tell you about life with God?  

Click here to listen to the story and learn it.  

You can read it in Mark 4:35-42, Matthew 8:23-27 and Luke 8:22-25.

Here's the most important question we ask every week:
  • Who will you tell this story to?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 11: Extravagance

God has not given us a spirit of fear,
but of power and love and self-control.
-2 Timothy 1:7

I've been thinking a lot about fear lately.

You might know that back in May, Dennis and I sold our house, the house we've lived in for 25 years, the house where most of our family's life happened.  And it happened much faster than we expected.  This set in motion the whole circus of dismantling that home, finding a new one, moving in and making it over.  We spent our entire summer doing this.  Every. Bit. We got up early and went to bed late and spent every ounce of emotional and physical energy holding on for dear life as we rounded a huge change curve.  I expected to be tired.  I expected to be overwhelmed at times, giddy at times, completely over my head at times.  Grateful.  Surprised.  Challenged.

Here's what I did not expect: fear.

Change, even good change, brings risk.  And that is scary.  Especially if our goal, our destination in life, is to be settled.  To have arrived.  To be comfortable.

I was thinking a lot about this as I prepared the story for this week's Wednesday Bible study. Last week, when we met, we talked about how much fear is involved in telling someone about Jesus and asking them to believe and follow him.  We are asking them to "repent".  That's an old word we've heard preachers say too many times.  When Jesus says it, when his apostles say it, they mean, "Change the way you think everything works.  Go in a whole new direction."

This is asking a lot of somebody, and so it is often met with hostility and fear.  That's certainly what happens in this week's story.  It's the story of Paul & Silas singing in a jail cell, of the Philippian jailer who asks, "What should I do to be saved?"  If you grew up in church, you've heard that part of the story, but you might not have heard the part about how Paul & Silas got thrown in jail in the first place.

Paul & Silas are going about the city telling people about Jesus, and they encounter a slave girl who is possessed by an evil spirit.  Her owners make a lot of money off this girl as a fortune-teller.  When  Paul exorcises the evil spirit, these guys realize they've lost their money-maker.  So they haul Paul & Silas before the city officials and incite a mob.

"These men are disturbing our city!  They're trying to overthrow our way of life!"

The good news of Jesus does overthrow our way of life.  Jesus demands that we rethink everything.  If you want someone to be comfortable, you will not share the gospel with them.  Because you know they cannot stay where they are and go with God.  You know this from experience.

It is scary to share the gospel.

It is scary to hear and believe the gospel.

It is scary to go where God takes you next in life.


God's Spirit beckons.  There are things to do and places to go.  
This resurrection life you received from God is a not a timid, grave-tending life.  
It's adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike, "What's next, Papa?" 
- Romans 8:14-15 The Message

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

Who will you tell this story to?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 10: Discerning

Pick at random any of the saints.... I venture to suggest that the one vital quality which they had in common was spiritual receptivity . Something in them was open to heaven, something which urged them Godward. Without attempting anything like a profound analysis I shall say simply that they had spiritual awareness and that they went on to cultivate it until it became the biggest thing in their lives. They differed from the average person in that when they felt the inward longing they did something about it . They acquired the lifelong habit of spiritual response.

- A. W, Tozer, The Pursuit of God

Bless our Christian hearts.  We who really want sincerely to make a difference for God and do what he wants with our days, we can really bumble along and make a mess of it.  Many of us who have known God for most of our lives are still foggy about the question: "What is God's will?"  

Well, actually it's pretty impossible to spend much time in the Bible and not know God's will is.  The tricky part to figure out is how God wants me to do it.  What is God's way to get done what he wants?  

Here's the formula most of us follow:  I decide to do something for God, and I ask him to respond.

No wonder we have trouble following God's will, because that is not a formula for following.  

This is:  God shows me what he is doing, and I respond.

Ohhhh.  I respond.  Hmmm.

This requires that we develop and practice discernment.  

perceivemake outpick outdetectrecognizenotice,observeseespotidentifydeterminedistinguish;

Spiritual discernment is the ability to notice what God is doing around you, recognize it as the activity of God and determine what response he is calling for from you.  What's your part in what he's doing?
Paul urged the early church to grow in this ability.  He considered it essential for them.
I ask God to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do. - Ephesians 1:17-18
In this week's Wednesday Bible story, we see Paul and his companions learning how to do this.  

Click here to listen to the story and download the Bible study.
Who will you tell this story to?
In this

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 9: Marked

Every morning, I lay the pieces of my life
on your altar
and watch for fire to descend.
-Psalm 5:3 The Message

Psalm 5:3 is what you might call my "life verse," except it is really more than that.  It is my operating system.

My commentary tells me this was the Hebrew Morning Prayer.  When I first stumbled across it in Eugene's Peterson beautiful translation The Message, I stopped dead in my tracks.  Something in my heart said, "Let's sit right here for awhile."  "Awhile" turned out to be ever since, and that was years ago. This verse has taught me so much.

In the beginning, it captured my imagination, as I pictured the story it tells.  It uses the language of the offering or sacrifice.  Perhaps you have brought a dove or a little goat, which you have led through the camp to the opening of the Tabernacle, where the great bronze altar radiated with the smoke and smells of others' sacrifices.  You handed your offering to the priest, who carefully slaughtered it according to Levitical law and laid the pieces up on the altar.  The flames leapt and the fire hissed as the fat burned away.  The smoke filled your lungs, mingling with the smells of blood and roasting flesh and the incense of the altar, particular to the Tabernacle. When you walked away, you were marked by that smell. It is the smell of death, the aroma of life with God.

This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote, "Offer yourselves as living sacrifices." (Romans 12:1) Or as Eugene Peterson translates it, "Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life—and place it before God as an offering."

When you do this, when this is your operating system, this is what you do:  You carefully lay out the pieces of your life.  All the questions, the tasks, the people, the problems, the hopes and dreams, the details of the day, the way you think life works. And you stand back and watch.  What will God do?  Some things he will burn away, because it doesn't belong in your life, or because it doesn't belong there anymore.  Some things will die.

What are you letting die?

Some things God will light up with His Spirit.  This conversation, that appointment, this project, that passion.  This is where God is working and asking you to join him.  There is where he is going.

Where is God going in your life?  What is he lighting up?  And are you going with him?

I was thinking about this as I learned this week's story for Wednesday Bible study.  Peter and Cornelius and all the believers find themselves caught up in something God is doing, something he has never done before.  And they must lay the pieces of it on the altar and stand back.  Some old things are doing to burn away.  Some new things are going to light up with God's action.

How do they know where God is going and if it is okay to let go and follow?

"And then I remembered Jesus said, "John will baptize you with water, 
but I will baptize you with God's own Spirit."
- Peter, in Acts 11:16

They watch for the fire.  They watch for the Spirit.

It's that simple, and it's that challenging.  It is that adventurous.  It is that intentional.

That's why Jesus said that the way to life with God is narrow and requires our full attention.

Are you watching for fire?  That is the believer's operation system. It is what marks us as people who have life with God.

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

Who will you tell this story to?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Whoosh! Storying through Acts Week 8: Included

Were it not for grace,
I can tell you where I'd be:
wandering down some pointless road to no where 
with my salvation up to me.
And I know how that would go,
the battles I would face—
forever running, but losing the race
were it not for grace.

- "Were It Not For Grace"
David Hamilton & Phil McHugh

In this week's Wednesday Bible story, we meet a man named Cornelius.  Luke tells us that Cornelius was a captain of the Roman guard.  He was not a Jew, but he was a good man who tried to please God, who kept regular hours of prayer and gave generously to the poor—two things that he had noticed that observant Jews did in order to worship their God.  In Luke's day, Cornelius was called a "God-fearer."  Not included by birth in God's chosen people, but someone who did everything they could to please this God and be accepted by him.

In this week's story, as Cornelius is devotedly at his prayers, an angel appears to him.

"Your prayers and your giving have brought you to God's attention.  
Send to Joppa for a man named Peter.  He can tell you how to have life with God." 
 - Acts 10:4-5, 11:14

Though this story is primarily about Peter's vision—how God gave him permission to go to the house of Cornelius and share the good news of Jesus—there is a chilling truth embedded in it.

You and I are surrounded by God-fearers.  People who know a little about God—maybe correct information, maybe misinformation.  People who want to be considered "good."  People who try very hard by good behavior, good deeds, good values, to be good enough for the God they understand.  People who line up in our pews every Sunday and sing all the songs.  Who sign up to volunteer and lead and serve. Who establish charities and work for social justice.  Who read devotional books every morning.  People who chalk up good deeds, but have no personal relationship with the God they fear.  They are missing a crucial piece of truth: that a relationship with God comes by grace, offered at the hand of his Son. Not by works—but by the loving act of God. That there is so much more than doing for God;  there is being with God and being loved by God.

Would God point to you and say, "She can tell you how to have life with me?"

Let us who know the gospel of grace set the God-fearers free from the gospel of "try harder."

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

Who will you tell this story to?