Monday, July 28, 2014

An Epitaph Worth Raising the Dead- Acts 9:36-39

Original Picture by Flickr user Cheryl
I'm guessing you're wondering why I used a picture of crochet hooks and a ball of yarn. If you knew my Mema, then you wouldn't wonder. Mema's favorite activity in the world toward the end of her life was sitting in a chair or lying in her bed and working her crochet. She made untold numbers of dish rags and coasters. Most of those were either given away to people she loved or given to someone else to sell for some charity or some other purpose. She never made a dime off of thousands of hours of labor and probably millions of feet of yarn as far as I know. She just enjoyed making them and giving them away. Every time we saw her toward the end of her life, she would tell us to pick another out and would ask if we knew of anyone else who needed one. After her stroke when it became obvious that she would die soon, she began talking in her hospital bed about all of her unfinished crochet projects that she was working on. All the while, her fingers were working as if she were still holding the hooks. I thought, based on the way she was acting and talking, that the projects she was describing were simply products of her imagination that she was cycling through in her last moments. It wasn't until later that I found out the colors she kept talking about and who they were for were actually at the house tucked in her closet.

Crocheting was not all she did to help people. At her funeral, we got to see a lady that we haven't seen for years. She was Mema's constant companion for I have no idea how long. I don't think it was because Mema particularly enjoyed her company, though. It was because the lady needed a friend and a safe place to stay during the day. So most days she was with Mema for most of the day. We got to visit with the preacher of the tiny congregation where she lived. He knew her better than we did because from the first Sunday he started driving to preach at the Big Sandy Church of Christ, he started staying at her house and taking naps in her guest room between services. She had a library of who knows how many books that she set up in her house so others could check books out before the town got a real library. We never stayed at her house during the summer that she didn't get at least 2-3 visitors during the day. Most of them were lonely people who were looking for someone to listen to them. So they stayed at her house all day every day. I couldn't believe it when I found out that Mema had started writing letters to people on our church sick list that she had seen in our bulletin. (Mema had never even been to the town I live in much less met any of the people in the bulletin. But she always insisted on reading the bulletins of any congregation where her family attended.) I wonder how many others she wrote letters to when there was no other way for her to serve them.

Now don't get the wrong impression. Mema had her rough edges! We all found at shortly after she moved in with my parents how stubborn she could be and how blunt she could be! She could drive you insane with some of her antics and semi-manipulative tricks! But in the end, there is nothing in the world that she wouldn't do for anyone. If she had the power to help, she would. Guess which things we remember about her now.

What will people remember about you when you are gone? Tabitha...and Mema, whatever their faults, served in such a way that when they died, people wept. And those they had served had tangible evidence that they could hold up and show to others to prove the service that had been performed. I wonder what would be held up by people if I died today?

Will we be known as people who are "always doing good and helping the poor?" I can't think of a better epitaph. Tabitha's friends said that about her and it moved Peter to raise her from the dead. But the truth is that Tabitha died again later. How glorious to think that both she and Mema will one day again be raised from the dead because they were both in Christ! And when that second resurrection happens, how glorious to hear the voice of God echoing the voice of those friends!

That's what I want at the end of my life. What about you? Of course the key is living now so the epitaph at death is already written. What will your epitaph be?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Trying to Join the Disciples- Acts 9:26-27a

I have an extremely vivid memory of my 7th grade year. I don't remember much about school...but I remember the basketball team. As hard as it may be for you to believe for those of you who know me, I was not very popular at all. (Ok, so maybe that's actually pretty easy for you to accept!) For whatever reason, the 8th graders on the team decided pretty unanimously that they hated me and wanted nothing to do with me. I've actually got several memories from that period, but the one that I'm thinking about was actually in a game when the coach put subbed me in for one of the 8th graders. As I jogged onto the court in all of my 7th grade confidence as an outcast, the 4 other 8th graders got together in a huddle just within earshot and I heard one of them saying, "just don't pass him the ball."

Now that may seem rather trivial to you, but to me, it was a rather defining moment and one that I can still picture in detail almost twenty years later. Needless to say I didn't perform very well when I played that night or any other as long as I was playing with guys who wanted nothing to do with me. I was constantly too nervous and scared of making a mistake that would justify their dislike of me to settle down and play. In fact, it wasn't until I switched schools after my 9th grade year and moved somewhere that no one knew me that I was finally able to enjoy going to practice and playing in games...and I loved basketball!

I have no idea what was going through Paul's mind after his conversion when he tried to join the disciples. I very seriously doubt that he felt the same insecurities and emotions that I did. And I fully recognize the difference in the importance of the two different stories. But what I do know is that I am so thankful for Barnabas who wrapped his arm around Paul's shoulders and vouched for him with the rest of the church. 

I can't tell you how many times I beg students in my youth group to look for outcasts and include them in their circles of friends. In fact, I was just asked to encourage some students to be intentional about including someone by another one of our members. But you know, the truth is that people are rejected by the other disciples across all spectrums of the church! Just look around your auditorium the next time you are there.  I guarantee you will see someone who feels horribly out of place because of how they are dressed. You will see someone who feels completely isolated because of their past sin that they feel is plastered on their clothing like a scarlet letter. You will see someone who is just so socially awkward that they can't figure out how to introduce themselves to anyone so the arrive late or just on time, they sit alone in the back of the auditorium, and they leave as soon as the final amen is said.

Look. And you will see them. That is, you will see them if they haven't already left the church quietly for the last time. They may not be performing very well, but that is likely because they have never experienced someone who believes in them. So they show up and they do their best, scared to death that they will make a mistake that will justify the others' rejection of them. In fact, they may never perform well until they finally "switch teams." And that might be in spite of the fact that they actually do truly and deeply love God and His church.

Whether the situation is due to someone's past or someone's personality, I wonder how many people slip silently in and out of our groups of disciples never making an impact as Paul did because no disciple ever vouches for them as Barnabas did.

Who will you put your arm around today? You may not be able to catch them before they dart out, so you will have to be intentional. You might need to call them to invite them to lunch or dinner with a group of friends. But will you be a Barnabas- a Son of Encouragement- for someone? Just imagine how the kingdom of God would grow if even half of a congregation was filled with people who were bound and determined to never let someone be rejected by the disciples they were trying to join!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Where He Leads Me...Will I Follow? Acts 8:10-1

Wouldn't it be nice if you audibly heard God give you directions? Sometimes I think if I could only have that then it would be much easier for me to obey. After all, it would be an obvious choice. I can't help but think that I would much prefer that to having to go through the messy process of trying to discern what God's will is in the details of how things should be done and how I should spend my time and who I should talk to and a host of other things.

If my memory is correct, I originally picked this verse because of Ananias' choice to obey despite the risk. I am so glad we were given the dialogue between Ananias and God. It's really kind of humorous when you think about it. Ananias actually tries to inform God of the kinds of things Saul has been doing. I guess it says a lot about God that He didn't just give Ananias a "Really? Did you think I missed that!?" But then again, I'm assuming God isn't sarcastic like I am! (Which by the way, I need to work on changing my sarcasm if God is not like that!) No God doesn't argue with him about Saul's past and even his present circumstances. After all, Ananias was right! Saul was guilty of everything Ananias mentioned! But God simply tells Ananias about Saul's future and tells him to go.

I originally picked this verse because I wanted us to think about the people we deem incapable of responding to the gospel. If anyone were in that category, it surely would have been Saul! But oh, how thankful has the church been for two thousand years that God did not give up on an angry, misguided, murderous Saul of Tarsus! Stop for a minute and think...when I ask you who in your life is so lost that they are beyond the point of coming back...whose face comes to your mind? I won't pretend for a minute that I know they will come to see Christ for who he is. But I would like for us to be honest with ourselves that the way we treat people sometimes belies the fact that we do often at least subconsciously pretend to know that they will not come to see Christ for who he is. How thankful are you that Ananias obeyed God in spite of his reservations? In spite of Saul's past and even his present? Saul was not the only person confronted by the Lord in Acts 9. Ananias was too. And they both had a choice to obey or not.

Which, by the way, brings up another interesting point. Why did God wait to tell Saul through Ananias what he needed to do to be saved? Why not just go ahead and finish the conversation instead of telling him to go into town and wait for a man named Ananias to tell him what to do? Well...I don't know. But I do know that it only makes sense based on how that played out to pay that much more attention to who God wants us to teach about how to be saved. Whatever the reason- and I have no doubt that He has his reasons- God has left that part of the plan to us. To the followers of Christ. If we disobey, who will teach the Paul of this generation how to be saved so that he/she can influence the church for the next 2,000 years?

That's what I originally wanted to talk about. But when I read the passage tonight and began collecting my thoughts, I just kept thinking that I would obey like Ananias did if I could only hear from God directly. And I found myself again longing for that kind of direct communication from God. To be honest, I'm not sure where I am on all of that. I seem to keep circling back to those types of thoughts. But one thing I am convinced of is that if I am ever to have more of an understanding about the details of God's will so I can obey them, then I am going to need to be obedient to the things that have already been revealed to me. I heard a teacher talking about Philippians 3:16 where Paul says, "Only let us live up to what we have already attained." And the context is all about pressing on to gain more of Christ. He pointed out that in the middle of the desire to gain wisdom and gain depth in relationship to Christ and gain understanding of God's specific will, Paul stops and tells us to just be obedient to what we have already attained. In other words, why should God reveal more of Himself to me if I am not responding to that part of Him that He has already revealed to me?

So what about it? Do you long for more? Are you responding to what you have right now? In the context of Ananias and Saul...are you viewing people the way God does? Do you see people as what they might be inside Christ as opposed to what they are outside of him? May we be a people that constantly trusts that God has made Pauls out of Sauls in the past and He can do it again...if only we will have the courage to obey the command to "as you are going, make disciples of all nations..."  Will you be obedient today in small things so that God will ask bigger things of you tomorrow? I can't help but think that God knew Ananias would obey this command because Ananias had already obeyed so many times before. I want God to know that of me...because I want to know Him.

Friday, July 11, 2014

What's preventing me? Acts 8:36

I have 2 four year old little girls. My wife and I are trying hard to teach them the importance of obedience and respect. If you have any advice, I'm all ears. All in all, I think we're pretty blessed. They are great girls...and that has a whole lot more to do with just the way God made them than the way we are raising them. I'm just thankful for God's grace, because we sure make a lot of mistakes!

Anyway, back to the point...

They are pretty good girls and most of the time they are good at obeying and being respectful. Of course, we are still using both rewards and punishments as needed to mold their behavior. Those are by far the biggest reasons for their good behavior most of the time. But every once in a while, one or both of them will come up and just ask what they can do to help or they will clean up their toys without being asked just so they can run and tell me to come look. I can't tell you how happy that makes me when that stuff happens!

On a different page, lately, I've been reminded that a lot of teens seem to have a concept of list keeping and guilt in Christianity. In other words, in some minds, the life of a Christian is really about being sure to do the things that need to be done and leaving undone the things that need to be left undone. And when something is left undone that should be done, or something is done that should not be done, a tremendous amount of guilt follows along with a lot of questions about whether or not the offender is still worthy and capable of receiving God's grace and salvation. If I'm honest with myself, I know that I often fall into the same trap of thinking. In fact, I have to believe that teens are not getting these ideas all by themselves. I suspect we adults have helped shape their thoughts based on our own, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Oh what I would give to simply forget all about any doomed-to-fail ideas of list-keeping in Christianity based on rewards and punishments and to have the heart of the Ethiopian eunuch who simply came to a realization of what needed to be done and wanted immediately to do it!

What a different attitude that is from mine so often as I weight the pros and cons of every decision and have to decide if the end justifies the means. How much guilt and worry about salvation could be left behind if we had hearts that understood God's grace well enough to quit beating ourselves up over things that we have not yet learned, and instead simply responded with joy and obedience as we encounter truth every day!? I'm not sure I'm being clear, so let me give an example.

If a Christian is walking in the light, then he has fellowship with God. That is because of grace...which by the way, is a completely free gift. It cannot be earned. But let's say that Christian has a history of telling half-truths. And let's say that they are so good at it and have done it for so many years, that they do not even realize they are doing it. They feel no guilt and no remorse when they commit these lies because they do not even realize they are sinning. But what if something someone says one day...or something they've read in scripture...or some prompting of the Holy Spirit leads them to finally see the error of their ways? That person now has a few choices. They can: 1. Ignore the truth and continue in their deceitful ways. 2. Feel so much shame and guilt over all of the mistakes they are now convicted of that they become paralyzed and fearful for their very soul. 3. Feel proper Godly sorrow for what they have done, thank God for pointing it out to them, and joyfully set about to make amends knowing that God has just helped them to become more like the Savior they are already and still following.

I'm begging you to see that only option 3 will allow us to continue walking in the light in fellowship with God!!

The first choice is willful disobedience and their would no longer remain a sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 10:26). The second choice is actually worldly sorrow and leads to death (2 Cor. 7:10). But the third option is exactly what John describes and expects from followers of Christ (1 John 1:9).

The same scenario could be applied to spiritual disciplines that have not been practiced before, good deeds that have not been done before, relationships that have not been pointed towards God's love before, and any other number of things that we have somehow blown past without noticing until God finally makes us notice.

The point is this...when the Eunuch was aware of what he needed to do, he obeyed...immediately. And he went on his way rejoicing (Acts 8:39). I want to live like that. I want to teach teens to live like that from the moment they first obey the gospel until the moment their faith is finally finished as it becomes sight.

Of course, the question the Eunuch asked needs to also be applied in a different way for us if we are not living like that. He asked, "what prevents me from being baptized?" And, of course, the answer was nothing so he commanded the chariot to stop and they went down into the water!

But is there something that prevents you from obeying? If you have not been baptized yet, why not? What's keeping you? Is there some lifestyle that is worth more to you than Christ? Is there a misunderstanding of God's love? Is there a controversy about doctrine because of all the different divisions inside Christianity? The simple truth is that baptism is found all throughout scripture. What could possibly prevent you from wanting it if you have seen God's love through Jesus in the gospels!?

If you have been baptized and are not obeying in some other area...what's keeping you!? What prevents you from obeying? Is it fear? Is it pride? Is it selfishness? Is there anything at all that you want more than to know and to please your Father!? If not, then what prevents you from obeying!?

There is almost nothing in this world that fills my heart with joy more than when my daughters look for ways to please me simply because they love me. Not because I will reward them, because sometimes I don't immediately. Not because they will be punished, because eventually I won't be right in front of them to monitor their behavior. But simply because they love me and want to please me. If that motivation were always their motivation, I wouldn't have to make a single rule in the house other than to treat people with love. Everything else would take care of itself.

Hmm. That sounds familiar, doesn't it? What prevents you from obeying?