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?

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?