Sunday, October 18, 2015

"When in Rome"

There’s an old saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”[i] When my in-laws went to Rome on vacation, they wandered its streets, enjoyed its food, and in many ways did just as the Romans did. But when the apostle Paul went to Rome, he didn’t have the freedom to do as the Romans did. Though he was a citizen of that fair city, he had never been there before. But instead of visiting it like a tourist or embracing it like an old friend, Paul arrived in chains and for trial. He would wait two years for that trial to come, each day fearing that the sentence of death he would have received in his homeland would be carried out in Rome. Yet even at the threat of execution, he was faithful.

What if you were faced with the near certainty of your own death if you stood for the principles of your faith, but the possibility of survival if you moved to another country, where you could find safety? This was the predicament of two German theologians during Hitler’s reign of terror. Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonheoffer had to decide whether they would lead the German people through this time of darkness, or seek asylum in America. Their mutual friend, a first-generation German-American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr, offered Tillich a position teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Tillich decided to take the position, moved his family to safety, and became one of the leading theologians of the twentieth century. Bonheoffer, on the other hand, moved to America’s safety but then regretted his decision. Moving back to Germany, he became involved in the underground resistance, was arrested due to his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and was hanged for treason.[ii] Burdened by his friends’ decisions, Niebuhr penned a prayer that is famous today. There are a couple of different versions, but here is Niebuhr’s original:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Though Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer would not be penned for another nineteen hundred years, Paul’s actions in Acts 28:11-31 show that the spirit of this prayer lived in his heart. Accepting with serenity the things that could not be changed, this observant Jewish Christian sailed aboard a ship marked with the double figurehead of the two gods Castor and Pollux. He accepted the fact that he was a prisoner, and placed himself at Caesar’s mercy.

Paul also had courage to change the things that he could change. Though he was in chains, he shared his testimony about Jesus with the Jewish community in Rome. Some believed, and some did not. That’s when it took wisdom for Paul to know the difference between those whom he could lead to Christ and those whom he could not. Rather than worrying about those he could not convert, he simply decided to focus on those he could, and turned his mission to the Gentiles instead.

In my life, I pray this same prayer. I wear a ring with the Niebuhr’s prayer etched into it, reminding me that in ministry there are things I need serenity for: things I cannot change. I also need courage to change those things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Perhaps this first part of the Serenity Prayer rings true in your life, and you find it a guide for godly living, as Paul found its principles as well.

When he was in chains, Paul also knew that he had to live one day at a time, one moment at a time. Watched over night and day by a team of Roman guards, he might have allowed his jailers’ presence to become stifling. Instead, he certainly used this hardship as a pathway to peace. Philippians 1:13 indicates that Paul developed a close connection with the Praetorian Guard, one that he would not have had but for his confinement. When we find ourselves going through hardship and ask ourselves, “How can I turn this into an opportunity for peace?” then we transform the situation for God’s glory.

Paul understood that the world will be as it is, and not as he would have it to be. He knew that not everyone would receive his message, and he trusted God to make all things right. In the same way, rather than trying to force our testimony on others, we need to let the Holy Spirit do its work and trust God for the results.

Paul knew that, though he was a citizen of Rome, his ultimate citizenship was in heaven.[iv] So it didn’t really matter that he didn’t get to do as the Romans do. He knew that his reasonable happiness on earth was only mildly important—because he looked forward to a better kingdom, where he would be supremely happy forever. Those who trust in Christ have the same heavenly citizenship, which means we can trust God no matter the circumstance.

Knowing that their citizenship was in heaven, Niebuhr and Tillich served God in safety, teaching and preaching God’s Word. Knowing that their citizenship was in heaven, Bonheoffer and Paul gave everything that they had even in danger, regardless of the cost. Knowing that your citizenship is in heaven and not here on earth, what will you do—what will you give, for the sake of Christ? In 2 Timothy 4:2 (ESV), Paul exhorts young Timothy, and every believer as well: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” Seek God. Seek serenity. Share Jesus, and then let go. Let God do the rest.

[i] “The meaning and origin of the expression: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  The Phrase Finder.
[ii] Cheever, Susan.  “The Secret History of the Serenity Prayer.”  The Fix.  2012.  October 10, 2015.
[iv] Philippians 3:20

"One Thing"

When I was a teenager, I was in a church play entitled, “A Little Dinner Magic,” loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s story of Martin the Cobbler. In the play, a modern American family finds out that Jesus will be coming to dinner. In their haste to make all the preparations, they end up bickering with one another. Their perfectionist determination keeps them from giving attention to the visitors who show up at their door: people in need who the family doesn’t have time or inclination to help. Finally, Jesus speaks to them and reveals that He was there all along, that he showed up at the door in the form of strangers. Hanging their heads, the family understands that in all their distraction, they missed the One Thing that matters most.

What would you do, if you found out that Jesus was coming to dinner? What would I do? When I have guests at my house, I’m usually the last one to sit down to dinner. I’m busy running around, making sure that everybody has what they need, because I think a lot about the value of hospitality. But in all the taking care of my guests, I can sometimes forget about my guests.

Jesus’ friend Martha was the same way. In Luke 10:38-42, the Lord and all twelve of his disciples stop by the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Martha complains to Jesus that, with all the preparations that need to be made, Mary isn’t helping. She’s simply sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him teach. Jesus surprises his hostess with his response: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her (vv. 41-42 ESV).”

Let’s not be too harsh with Martha. After all, Jesus isn’t. His answer is tender and compassionate. With great love he calls her by her name twice. He is concerned about the things that concern her. He is aware of the great burden of hospitality that thirteen men place on the household. When Jesus says that Mary has chosen the good portion, he isn’t saying Martha has chosen the bad part—only that Mary has chosen the better. He says that she is worried and upset over many things, but only one thing is necessary. What do you think that “One Thing” is?

The first thing that he might mean is that she is so busy preparing many different dishes, and only one thing is necessary (like a casserole). Certainly, hospitality has its priority—but there is a degree of extravagance that prevents a person from truly enjoying time with their guests. Perhaps Martha is busy preparing many things, but Jesus would rather she kept it simple so she too could sit and visit like her sister.

There may be something else that Jesus means by “One Thing.” Martha is likely so desperate for Jesus’ approval because she feels herself unworthy to sit at His feet. Only one thing is needed: a sense of her own value that doesn't need someone else's validation. She’s rushing around trying to make Jesus happy by her good works, and doesn’t even realize that Jesus is already happy with her. We can be the same way, trying to please Jesus so much that we forget that he is already pleased with his children, and just wants us to spend time with him.

There is another factor at play here, contributing to Jesus’ “One Thing.” Martha is trying to manipulate her sister by using Jesus, rather than going straight to Mary herself. Jesus was a big believer that if you have a problem with someone, you should take it up with them and not gossip to other people about it. Only one thing is needed: Honesty about her feelings. Jesus wants us to be honest about our feelings as well. It’s tough to say the hard things that need to be said to our loved ones, to take ownership of our own hurt feelings and disappointments. But if anything is going to change, we need to be honest about the way we feel.

Finally, Martha is so preoccupied with material things that she can't focus on spiritual life. Only one thing is necessary: spiritual priority. It’s easy for us to become so focused on this physical life—the earthly demands that take up so much of our attention. But Jesus wants us to sometimes be more like Mary, who has chosen the better part. Mary knows that it’s okay to focus on the spirit instead of the flesh, and Jesus wants us to know that as well.

In the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal plays a man named Mitch who is having a midlife crisis. He and his friends take a trip to a dude ranch to find themselves. Jack Palance plays a grizzled guide named Curly. In a teachable moment, Curly asks Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger and says, “This.” Mitch asks, “Your finger?” Curly replies, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [squat].” Mitch asks, “But, what is the ‘one thing?’” Curly smiles and says, “That's what you have to find out.” I think that Jesus is pretty much saying the same thing to Martha, and he says the same to us as well.

We want to make God very complicated with our systematic theologies and high-pressure sales, our works-based salvation that imagines we have to somehow pleased God either by how much we do for him or how well we behave. But God is simple, uncomplicated, straightforward. God only asks that you be present in the moment and take the opportunity that is provided to love Him and follow Him. In Psalm 46:10a, the Lord says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” This is the simplicity, the “One Thing” to which Jesus calls us. I pray that, like Mary did, and like Martha learned, you will be able to be still, and know.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"Signs and Wonders"

          As we draw near to the close of the book of Acts (with only one message remaining in this series), we reflect back on how the mission of the church began.  The entire book narrates the expansion of the church from a tiny corner of the world, to the center of the Roman Empire and beyond.  But it started with the resurrected Jesus empowering and commissioning His disciples:

And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed (Mark 16:15-20[i])

The book of Acts chronicles the growth of the Kingdom of God, moving from Jerusalem and Judea, to Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth. When Paul ends his journey in Rome, symbolically representing the arrival of the Gospel to the capital of the known world, this is the pinnacle of his ministry. Along the way through the book of Acts, we see signs and wonders worked by the apostles. Time and again God’s apostles act as miraculous agents, and as recipients of supernatural grace for their own rescue, healing, and direction.

After Paul and hundreds of others are shipwrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 28), the final miracles in the book occur. Paul is gathering firewood and a deadly viper attaches itself to his hand. Instead of dying from the bite, he merely shakes the snake off and continues on. Astonished at this, the leader of the island calls for Paul to pray for his sick father, who is healed immediately. Hearing of these wonders, the rest of the afflicted people of the island come for healing. The miracles of God serve as signposts that point people to the apostle, who in turn points them to Christ.

The church has debated the reality of miracles for a long time. Some contend that miracles indeed never happened, but are simply mythological additions to the narrative of the church, construed to impart a sense of wonder, mystery, and power to the apostles. Cessationists, on the other hand, believe that God worked miraculously during that first, apostolic, age of the church. They believe, though, that after the death of the last apostle, the Holy Spirit ceased to work in signs and wonders. Continualists, however, affirm the biblical miracles and believe that because God doesn’t change, God still works miracles through servants of love today. Personally, I fall into this third camp of believers. I have witnessed miracles first-hand, and know from personal experience that just as God demonstrated power in biblical times, the Lord of Life continues to pour out life today.          

A supernatural miracle is described as anytime that God reaches into the world and breaks natural law in order to demonstrate divine power.  When we use the word “hypernatural,” we recognize that sometimes the wonders of God do not break natural law, but utilize the forces God created in a way that we do not understand.  In the Bible, there are many types of miracles.  Divine wrath falls as fire from heaven, lightning from the Ark of the Covenant, or plagues.  God’s providence comes in the form of supernatural provision of food, water, protection, and even money.  Demons are cast out, sicknesses healed, and the dead raised to life.  Elemental change is even affected in the multiplying of resources, walking on water, or calming of storms.  God opens the spiritual eyes of those without insight, and hardens the hearts of unbelievers as well.  In the Bible, “signs” are demonstrations of power for the purpose of instilling faith in the faithless, encouraging the faltering faithful, and simply reminding people of God’s power.  “Miracles” are a bit more simple—not designed to point to anything, but simple expressions love and compassion, for the sake of goodness alone.

Just as God did in biblical times, God continues to demonstrate love and power today.  Not every time we pray for something, will we see a miracle occur—because God does things in His own time and way.  But when we see those unexpected blessings unfold, they bolster our faith and remind us of our Father’s love.  Do you need a miracle in your life today?  Would a sign or wonder be just right, just about now?  Don’t be afraid to ask God for the miracle you need.  Or, maybe God wants to miraculously use you in the life of someone who needs to be reminded of His love.  Are you as open as the apostles were, to be vessels of God’s blessing?  Remember that the Father is with you all the time, watching over you and waiting for an opportunity to show you His grace.  “Our Daily Bread” says:

The early American Indians had a unique practice of training young braves. On the night of a boy's thirteenth birthday, after learning hunting, scouting, and fishing skills, he was put to one final test. He was placed in a dense forest to spend the entire night alone. Until then, he had never been away from the security of the family and the tribe. But on this night, he was blindfolded and taken several miles away. When he took off the blindfold, he was in the middle of a thick woods and he was terrified! Every time a twig snapped, he visualized a wild animal ready to pounce. After what seemed like an eternity, dawn broke and the first rays of sunlight entered the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of the path. Then, to his utter astonishment, he beheld the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow. It was his father. He had been there all night long.[ii] 

 The Father is with you always, ready to care for you in whatever way He sees that you need.  Today, I pray that you will trust God for the signs and wonders you need in your life.  I pray you’ll open yourself not just to receive miracles, but also to become a channel of miraculous blessing for others.  Remember, Jesus said that miracles will accompany those who believe.  He didn’t say they might.  So trust God, and expect a miracle.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NASB.
[ii] Our Daily Bread.  October 3, 2015