Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Lessons from the Storm"

The worst storm I was ever in was the hurricane that hit Amelia, Virginia, back in 2003. We were driving our car when the sky turned green and balls of hail began to pelt our car. We found shelter beneath a gas station pavilion (hindsight, bad idea in a tornado), and made it through okay. Our kids, who were on the school bus at the time, were rerouted back to the school where they were ushered into the gym to wait out the storm. While they were inside, the passing storm ripped bricks off the side of the school. When it was over, the Amelia town square looked like a war zone. Roofs and siding were in the road; steeples were in church yards; stained glass windows were destroyed. We lost a tree in our front yard that smashed our carport. We made it through all right. Some people lost their lives. That storm rocked everybody’s world who lived in the area.

In Acts 27, Paul went through a storm at sea that rocked his world, along with the other two hundred seventy-five people on board. Sometimes the storms in your life rock your world. They threaten to overturn your faith or to sink your already floundering spirit. In their storm, Paul and the crew learned some valuable lessons that can help each of us through our times of turmoil.

First, as much as they could, they sailed on the lee side of islands. When wind blows against a large object, that object blocks the wind and provides a calm side in which to take shelter. If wind blows hard against the east side of an island then the west side is the lee, offering protection from the harsh storm. During your times of personal storm, I hope that you’ll find the lee. Your personal place of protection could be the home of a friend or family member. It might be the house of God, or a safe house, or a quiet spot by a river where you can rest and find peace. When the storms of life blow for you, find a safe place to rest.

Next, verse 17 says they ran supporting cables under the bottom of the ship and pulled them tight to bind together a keel and hull that were threatening to break apart. When things are threatening to break apart in your life, find those things that bind you together. That might be your church family or friends or close relations. Maybe your traditions hold you fast and keep you from fracturing. Whatever those things are that support you, tie them tight around yourself and they will keep you safe.

Then, verse 17 also says that they dropped the sea anchor and allowed themselves to be driven along. In times of personal storm we need to realize that we are not ultimately in control. Sometimes the best thing you can do is quit fighting and drift, and allow the One who is in charge to take charge of your situation. That takes a lot of trust, but allowing yourself to give up control means freedom to do those things you can do about your situation, and not worry about those things that you can’t do.

The passengers and crew also learned that they had to lighten their load. In verses 18-19, they jettisoned cargo and tackle to make the ship lighter. Often it is difficult to let go of things in life that you think are important, but it just might be that some of the things you cling to are the very ones that are pulling you under. Maybe to save something you need to lose something. Consider jettisoning some cargo when you find your ship going down.

Verses 23-26 show that Paul listened to God, and had the courage to tell the others on the ship what the Lord had to say. They also were willing to listen to the vision he had, and accept the encouragement he offered. During times of crisis, remember to listen to what God is saying to you from His Word and through the voices of others.

Along with unnecessary cargo, the desperate travelers had to let go of false security. Some of the sailors decided to abandon the passengers and soldiers on board, taking the ship’s boat for themselves and rowing for it. “But Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, ‘Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved. Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it fall away (vv. 31-32 NASB).” In times of trouble, we often reach out in the wrong direction for security. I pray that the Holy Spirit will help you discern between true and false hope, and cut loose your false sources of security.

Finally, in the middle of the storm, Paul and the passengers strengthened themselves with food and lifted thanks to God. Even before they were saved from the storm, they expressed gratitude toward the One who would see them through. In the middle of your personal storm, take time to be thankful, and lift your voice of praise to the Lord. Once I took a group of seniors to Tangier Island, Virginia, which is accessible by an hour-and-fifteen-minute ferry ride across the Chesapeake bay from Onancock. I enjoyed the ride, standing on the deck of the boat, rocking with the waves, letting the spray hit my face. Inside the cabin, however, several of my group were seasick. One or two literally kissed the ground when they got off the boat and thanked God that they were safely ashore. (Poor ladies had a horrible ride back home as well.)

When the storms come, trust God. When the waves are choppy, trust God. When the future is uncertain and scary, believe that the Lord will see you through. And even in the middle of it, before you’ve seen the source of your salvation, thank Him in advance for seeing you safely to shore.

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Know Your Rights"

The Bible tells us to stand firm for our faith. For different people, this means different things. For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego it meant refusing to bow down to an idol of gold, and being willing to give their lives for it.[i] For Peter and John it meant refusing to bow to the mandate of the court that insisted they cease teaching in the name of Jesus—whatever the consequences.[ii] For the apostle Paul, it meant continuing to preach the Gospel even when it got him into trouble, and going to Jerusalem even when the Holy Spirit warned him against it numerous times. Yes, standing firm for Jesus can sometimes be done with the best of intentions, but in the wrong ways. But even the worst of situations can turn out for good. Arrested and tried, Paul used his trial to point to Jesus rather than to himself.

If you’re going to stand for Jesus, it’s important to know your rights. In Jerusalem, Paul was sentenced to be scourged, but he knew his rights as a Roman citizen, which prevented scourging.[iii] Knowing his rights literally saved his skin. In a later trial before Festus, the Roman governor wanted to transfer him from Casearea to stand trial in Jerusalem. But Paul knew he would not get a fair trial there.

But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also very well know. If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then when Festus had conferred with his council, he answered, “You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go (Acts 25:10-12).”

Paul knew his rights, and insisted on them. Hopefully, you won’t have to stand on your rights just to remain faithful to Jesus. But if you do, you should know what they are. At school, you should know your rights. For example, when she was young, my wife was sent to the principal’s office just for carrying a Bible. That was actually religious harassment that violated her rights, and she knew it, so she stood firm. At work, you should know whether your company’s policies give you the right to put up a cross in your cubicle—but if they prevent it you need to seriously ask yourself if this is a right worth fighting for. Is it unfaithful to Jesus to not display a cross? Is this a hill to die on? These are things that only you can decide.

Many Christians believe that they need to stand on their rights, no matter what. They insist on the free exercise of their faith, even if that means violating other people’s rights. The street preacher screams “discrimination” when the police officer asks him to move out of a public place where he’s causing a near-violent disturbance. The baseball coach requires all players to pray before the game, and says that he’s being “persecuted” when he’s told he can’t do that. I question the motivations of people like this, whether their goal is really to exercise their faith, or whether it’s to force their religion on other people.

In recent news, the clerk of the court in Rowan County, Kentucky, refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, because it violated her faith. Whether you agree with her stance on homosexuality or not, you’ve got to admit that there were two possible ways that she could exercise her rights. First, she had the right to resign rather than violate her conscience. If not, she had the right to remain silent, and the right to an attorney. She made her choice, and was jailed because she insisted on her rights. Some call her a villain and others a hero. In reality, the free exercise of our faith needs to end when we begin to deny people the free exercise of theirs.

Historically, my own Baptist family has been in support of the separation of church and state. In the early eighteenth century, Virginia Baptists were persecuted severely by their Anglican neighbors. So it came naturally that they supported the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was adopted in June, 1776 and became the basis for the first amendment for the US Constitution.[iv] Baptists also supported the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777, which became state law in 1786. That statute said, “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,” and: 

“That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” 

For the whole of Baptist history, we have defended religious freedom, and the freedom from religion—so much that we included a section on religious freedom in our faith statement, The Baptist Faith and Message.

In Luke 12:11-12 (NASB), Jesus says, “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” There are times in life when Christians are called to give an account for their faith, and for their actions that come as a result of their faith. Jesus says that when this happens, we shouldn’t cry “persecution” and “discrimination”. Don’t give a defense based on your own agenda. Listen to the Holy Spirit instead of your own opinions. Let God tell you what to say and what not to say. Remember, the right to remain silent isn’t just a Miranda law. It’s also the example of Christ on trial.

In the early seventeen hundreds, a family of Anabaptists (ancestors of Baptists) fled persecution in Switzerland by escaping down the Rhine. Hans Lehman and his wife died in Germany before reaching their goal, but three of their sons came to America in search of religious freedom in 1727. One of these sons, Johannes (John ) Lehman, got off the ship in Philadelphia and settled in Frederick County, Maryland That same year, he and his wife had a son named George, who grew up to fight against the British in the Revolutionary War. He then moved to Augusta Co., Virginia, so the Lemon clad has been in Virginia since about 1787. My seventh-great-grandfather, Hans Lehman, and his wife, died fleeing religious persecution. My sixth-great-grandfather fought to defend it. So today I hold that gift of religious freedom in high regard. As Christians we need to know our rights. We need to protect our rights, and the rights of others. This is not just the American way, but the Way of the Creator, who gave us inalienable rights to worship, or not worship, according to conscience.

[i] Daniel 3
[ii] Acts 4:20
[iii] Acts 22:22-29

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

“When God Speaks”

The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I'm sure she had it coming."[i]

            Just as Roosevelt was continually whispering to people who refused to listen, I fear that God’s people are still refusing to hear His voice when He whispers Truth to our hearts.  Or, if we do hear His voice, we often are so stubbornly focused on what we are trying to achieve, that don’t we pay any heed.  The apostle Paul frequently got himself into trouble—sometimes legitimately because of his testimony about Christ, but sometimes because he was just plain stubborn and didn’t listen very well.
            Acts 19:21[ii] says, “Now after these things were finished, Paul purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’”  The question we must ask ourselves is whether he purposed in the Holy Spirit, or in his own spirit.  In Acts 20:22-24, He makes a clear case to the elders of the church in Ephesus that he believes this guidance is from God, yet imbedded in his words we can see his characteristic ego and martyr complex:
And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.

          The reason I throw doubt on whether or not Paul was truly led by the Holy Spirit is by his own admission, the Spirit warned him in every city of the trouble that awaited him.  God rarely leads in the direction that you are already going.  Then, In chapter 21, God warned Paul against going to Jerusalem two or three more times.  Luke writes that they met with the elders in the city of Tyre.  “After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit (emphasis mine) not to set foot in Jerusalem (v. 4).” 

            In Caesarea, Paul received another warning:
 As we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem.(vv. 10-12)

          Just before Paul met Agabus, he may have received a similar warning from the four prophesying daughters of Philip the Evangelist (vv. 8-9).  Yet his stubborn heart refused to listen to either the godly counsel or Spirit-led prophecy of church leaders.  He replied: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus (v. 13).”  Notice that Agabus never prophesied anything about dying in Jerusalem—Paul just adds this in for dramatic flair, much like Peter, who declared that he was willing to die for Jesus (Luke 22:33).  In response, the church leaders threw up their hands in resignation.  Luke writes in verse 14, And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, ‘The will of the Lord be done!’”  This isn’t a recognition that Paul is doing God’s will, but an appeal to the Lord’s will, to set Paul straight.  The result of Paul’s decision, of course, was that he did end up suffering needlessly in Jerusalem, and he would not have had to if he had simply heeded their warnings.
            Sometimes, God speaks to our hearts in a way that we become fully convinced of His leadership.  Yet other times, we can become so ego-driven that we craft our own plans and convince ourselves that God has commissioned us to some great purpose.  This was the case with Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem.  I wonder—do you have a “Jerusalem” in your life, that is the destination for your ego?  Is God repeatedly warning you through the advice of friends and family and church family, to abandon your prideful determination?  Will you press on, convinced of your righteous calling, or will you hear what the Spirit is saying to you through the voices of these people?
            Sometimes God speaks through other people.  Other times God speaks through our observations of nature, or through the Bible, or through His quiet voice impressed upon our hearts.  Sometimes God speaks through “coincidence” and through the things that we observe in our world around us—even through events that are taking shape on the world scene.  God spoke to me through a photograph on the news: the image of the drowned Syrian toddler, washed up on a beach near the island of Kos.  That island sounded familiar to me, then I realized it was through this area that Paul passed in Acts 21:1.  God spoke to me through an image, and through the “coincidence” of this island, which happens to be in today’s scripture.  This child died because the international community is doing an abysmal job providing safety and sanctuary for refugees fleeing the war in Syria.  Through this child’s death, God speaks to me about my own lack of effort to provide social justice to the endangered and hurting people around me.  I wonder—in what ways am I like Paul, stubbornly convinced of my own righteous mission and yet oblivious to what God is actually saying?  Proverbs 19:20 (ESV) says, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.”  I pray that our ears and hearts will be open to receive it.
            Most Christian denominations have a logo.  I love the logo of the United Church of Christ, which is a simple red comma.  Generally associated with the comma is a quote from Gracie Allen, who said, “God is still speaking,”  Note that her statement ends with a comma, and not a period.  The period indicates finality, but the comma is a pause that keeps you listening for more.  Yes, as we stubbornly pursue our own agenda, doing what we righteously believe is the will of God for our lives, God is still speaking.  The question is—when God speaks, will we listen?

[i]  September 4, 2015.  Original Source Unknown.
[ii] Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are taken from the NASB.

"Vicious Rumors"

Recently, I heard about a man who walked into Joe’s Barber Shop to get his regular haircut:
As he snips away, Joe asks "What's up?"
The man proceeds to explain he's taking a vacation to Rome.
"ROME?!" Joe says, "Why would you want to go there? It's a
crowded dirty city full of mafiosos! You'd be crazy to go to
Rome!... So how ya getting there?"
"We're taking TWA" the man replies.
"TWA?!" yells Joe. "They're a terrible airline. Their planes
are old, their flight attendants are ugly and they're always
late!... So where you staying in Rome?"
The man says "We'll be at the downtown International Marriot."
"That DUMP?!" says Joe. "That's the worst hotel in the city!
The rooms are small, the service is surly and slow and they're
overpriced!... So whatcha doing when you get there?"
The man says "We're going to go see the Vatican and hope to
see the Pope."
"HA! That's rich!" laughs Joe. "You and a million other people
trying to see him. He'll look the size of an ant. Boy, good luck
on THIS trip. You're going to need it!"
A month later, the man comes in for his regular haircut.
Joe says, "Well, how did that trip to Rome turn out? Betcha
TWA gave you the worst flight of your life!"
"No, quite the opposite" explained the man. "Not only were we
on time in one of their brand new planes, but it was full and
they bumped us up to first class. The food and wine were wonderful,
and I had a beautiful 28 year old flight attendant who waited on me
hand and foot!"
"Hmmm," Joe says, "Well, I bet the hotel was just like I described."
"No, quite the opposite! They'd just finished a $25 million
remodeling. It’s the finest hotel in Rome, now. They were overbooked,
so they apologized and gave us the Presidential suite for no extra
"Well," Joe mumbles, "I KNOW you didn't get to see the Pope!"
 "Actually, we were quite lucky. As we toured the Vatican, a Swiss guard tapped me on the shoulder and explained the Pope likes topersonally meet some of the visitors, and if I'd be so kind as tostep into this private room and wait, the Pope would personallygreet me. Sure enough, after 5 minutes the Pope walked through thedoor and shook my hand. I knelt down as he spoke a few words to me."
Impressed, Joe asks, "Tell me, please! What'd he say?"
"Oh, not much really. Just 'Where'd you get that awful haircut?'"[i]

Today’s scripture shares two things in common with that story: the importance of reputation, and an awful haircut. Reputation is important to us. For a barber, it can make the difference between a schedule full of haircuts and no haircuts at all. As we all know, good news travels fast but bad news travels faster. All it takes is one bad review (like the Pope’s) to ruin a lifetime of loyal customers. So we guard our reputations fiercely. Whether you’re a barber or anything else, it probably does matter to you what other people think. This is why it upsets us so much when vicious rumors begin to circulate.

In Acts 21, Paul visits the saints in Jerusalem, excited to tell Jesus’ half-brother, Pastor James, all about the conversion of the Gentiles on his many missionary journeys. While the church is excited to hear about the Gentile mission, some are worried that Paul has abandoned his Jewish roots. They are concerned that he is now teaching a rejection of Moses’ law. In chapter 15, we read how at the Jerusalem Council, the Jewish church decided to welcome Gentiles into the fold, only imposing on them the most basic of instructions. But now that the Gentiles are free from Moses’ law, the Jewish believers fear that Paul is teaching that the legal requirements don’t even apply to Jews anymore. This, of course, is a vicious rumor circulated by people who want to undermine Paul’s teaching. It doesn’t matter if it’s untrue—what matters is whether it’s believable.

As we all know, it doesn’t matter if a rumor is false; if enough people believe it, it can cause major destruction. This is why Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:22 (KJV) to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” It’s not just the appearance of evil that matters—but it’s also important how things look to other people, because misunderstanding can damage your witness.

In the following verses, Paul takes great pains to restore his reputation. He joins himself to a band of Nazarites, who have taken a vow similar to that of Samson in the Old Testament. The time of their vow has come to an end, and, along with these men, Paul allows his head to be ceremonially shaved. He has done this before (Acts 18:18), so it is no strange thing to him. But by recognizing one of the older traditions in Judaism, he confirms his statement that the Law of Moses is still valid for Jewish believers.

How far would you go to set your reputation straight? Paul didn’t need to get his head shaved, but he was willing to lose his locks in order to avoid offending people because of a misunderstanding. Paul writes in Romans 12:18 (NIV), “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This means being willing to go above and beyond to settle any quarrels based on confusion.

When you find vicious rumors flying about you, what do you do? Do you fight fire with fire and return insult for injury? Or do you bless instead of cursing your enemies? Do you go out of your way to make peace? Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12 ESV).” When you’ve been doing your best to honor God but rumors fly anyway, count yourself in good company, take off your hat, and get ready for a good shearing. Be ready to let your pride fall like so many hair clippings on the floor, all for the sake of peace.

[i]  September 12, 2015.