Wednesday, August 31, 2005

James 3:1-12

Today's reading centers on taming the tongue. There is a quote from Benjamin Franklin that is very appropriate to today's reading. "A slip of the foot you may soon recover, but a slip of the tongue you may never get over."

What we say and what we do not say are both extremely important. According to James proper speech is not only saying the right words at the right moment, but also controlling our desire to say what we should not say. Our words have a lot of power - both positive power and negative power. Among the positive power is the power to encourage, motivate, praise, offer thanksgiving, and share the Word. The negative power includes gossiping, bragging, lying, and putting others down. It is our choice how our words empower or deflate others.

James compares damage the tongue can do with a wild fire. I like this comparison as like a fire we can neither control nor reverse the damage destructive words can do. Negative words can spread destruction quickly and no one can stop the consequences once they are spoken. Even if we regret the words spoken and apologize later the scars remain.

Today's reading points out that as Christians we are called to use our tongue for good purposes and not destructive ones. If you or I saw a person who professed to be a Christian but was always bad mouthing someone, or always complaining about something, would that person seem to be a Christian to the outside world? According to James would they seem like a Christian to God?

Before any of us speak we should ask ourselves the following, is what I am about to say true, is it necessary, and is it kind? We can give open and honest feedback to someone but it should be in a loving manner. It should be the way we would want to receive it.

I do not know about you, but after reading today's verses I will be reexamining the way I use my words. I hope you do the same.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

James 2:14-26

Faith vs. works. This passage is often cited as an example of contradictions found in the Bible. In other passages, we hear that we are justified by faith alone but in this passage we’re told that faith without works is dead. The problem, of course, lies in the extremes. We cannot place so much emphasis our actions that we come to believe we deserve to go to heaven because of them. On the other hand, simply stating a belief in God is no better than the demons that also believe in God. Rather, justification comes through our faith, which is displayed through our actions. [As an aside, justification is essentially being declared not guilty. In other words, justified is "just as if I’d" never sinned.]

In this sense, faith is very much like a muscle. Muscles and faith alike grow through use and/or testing. If we want to grow strong muscles, we submit to a disciplined regime of exercises that continually work and test the muscles. Likewise, if we wish to grow our faith, we must be disciplined in our approach to those actions that continually work and test it.

James bears this out as he describes Abraham’s faith in verse 22: You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. Just as Abraham’s faith grew to completion based on his actions, so will our faith grow as we act upon it. In much the same way that weights are increased as muscles grow, as our faith grows, we will be capable of acting in greater ways of obeying God’s commands and callings. Of course, this in turn strengthens our faith even more.

The good news is that our faith can be displayed and used for God’s glory no matter how strong or young it is. We don’t need to be "muscle-men" but we don’t need to be 90 pound weaklings, either.

May God strengthen our faith even as He provides the grace to step out in it…

Mark Vereb

Monday, August 29, 2005

James 2:1-13

Jesus summed up the way his followers should live in a twofold love commandment: Love God with the entirety of your being; love your neighbor as yourself. The first love begets the second love. The second love reflects and expresses the authenticity of the first love.

James assumes and applies this twofold love commandment in writing to the community of Jesus-followers in those first years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. “You believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord,” he says, “then love your neighbor as yourself.”

That sounds grand, but how do we love our neighbor as our self? James gives us one concrete, highly practical way to love our neighbor: Do not show favoritism to those who are rich in worldly terms. Success and wealth as measured in terms of our worldly culture – money, clothes, jewelry, property, popularity, physical appearance, and so on – are not God’s marks of favor. God favors those who are poor in worldly terms. He lavishes them with richness of faith – with trust, hope, and love. These are their assets. These are true riches. (Compare Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20.)

Clearly even in James’s time, so close to Jesus’ sojourn on earth, the love commandment was a challenge. When believers gathered for worship, they tended to show favor to the wealthy and disdain for the poor. James warned that this pattern of thinking and behaving contradicted the twofold love commandment of love for neighbor and love for God.

Do we show this kind of favoritism today? In what ways? Why might we do this? I suspect that we do it because – in too many ways shaped as much as by our culture as by the kingdom of God – we desire to possess the cultural marks of favor for our self. We envy worldly riches in others because we want them for our self. Consciously or unconsciously, we betray this cultural pattern of thinking and behaving when we show favoritism to those who possess worldly riches.

Yet God wants to humble us in order to exalt us with true richness – richness of trust, hope, and love in him. When we possess true riches, the riches of the kingdom, we will lavish not envy and favoritism but love on our neighbor, no matter their circumstances in worldly terms.

Gregory Strong

Sunday, August 28, 2005

1 Timothy 4:7-16

All of my life I've been young, or at least younger than I felt I deserved. I had a friend in middle and high school who was 5 years older than me who helped me get my first job at a cable company when I was 11. I was running some management, financial, and technical support duties at the company by 15-16.

Imagine it, some 15 year-old come swaggering into your house to install your cable and get everything working correctly. Sounds weird to me now, but at the time I didn't understand why people didn't think I was really the installer when I was at the door. In reality though I'd been following someone else around for a few years, and I knew the cable set-up in apartment buildings really well. I put together rooms that take signals from satellites and send them through a community and can still explain to you what channel scramblers are and how they work.

Right now, while many of the youth know I'm almost older than dirt, lots of adults see me as really young. Too young to know enough about God to teach someone else about Him. While I'm certainly not as versed in the bible as I wish I were, God has given me the chance to really make a difference in someone's life and lead them to Him.

Years ago I focused my energies on work, and was the best cable technician I could be. I learned everything I could about the business, from management to computer programming. Now my focus has changed, toward that all important One. And now I have the chance to live scripture, to study it and share it with all those around me.

So, while I may be young I'm going to be the best God follower that I can be. My labor will strive for full acceptance and I will put my hope in the living God. When someone looks down on me for my lack of experience or age, it won't bring me down. I was not brought here by those who look down on me. I was brought here by God and given support by these blessed followers around me. It is for them that I, that we, preach.


Saturday, August 27, 2005

Acts 28:17-31

In this last section of Acts, we find Paul in Rome, in chains, defending himself, but still spreading the Good News about Jesus. Speaking to the Jewish leaders, Paul tries to reason with them, using their own knowledge of the law of Moses and the words of the prophets to convince them that Jesus is the Messiah, that he rose from the dead. But, alas, "some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe." (Acts 28:24)

Seemingly frustrated with the Jewish leaders who did not believe him, Paul recounts the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn -- and I would heal them." (Acts 28:26-27)

But neither frustration nor disappointment stopped Paul. He continued, even in chains, to enthusiastically and boldly talk about Jesus to all who would listen.

It is easy to enthusiastically talk about Jesus with members of our church family. It is easy to boldly talk about Jesus with others who bring up His name first. What is not so easy is ministering in a secular setting, praying in a restaurant in front of a co-worker, inviting a neighbor to church, being the first to bring up His name in conversation.

Sometimes, fearing ridicule or rejection, we hesitate to speak of Him, we refrain from speaking the name, "Jesus." If only we were more like Paul, letting God use us and not worrying about whether or not others will receive or reject God's message but, Like Paul, leaving that to God.

Dear God, please grant us the grace, like Paul, to spread the word about Jesus, to boldly talk about Him wherever we are, with anyone who will listen. Amen.

Martha Olson

Friday, August 26, 2005

Acts 28:1-16

Like yesterday’s Acts account of Paul’s voyage, this account of Paul on Malta sounds like a story, a novel. Islanders built a welcoming fire for the shipwreck-ees, Paul got bit by a snake but didn’t die (even though everyone waited around waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead-it says that in the Bible).; it’s all so dramatic. Paul was even mistaken for a god when God protected him from the snake. What does all this drama have to do with our daily life?

On another level, though, Paul’s story continues to be about faithfulness. Paul continued to be faithful to his calling and to God. He does mention all that he has gone through for Christ in II Cor. 11, including the shipwreck, but only to say that all his experiences, and especially his weaknesses, show God’s faithfulness. Here on Malta, Paul continues to serve as when he prayed for and healed an official’s father, then healed the REST of the sick on the island (v. 9). Our lives may not be as dramatic but we can still be faithful to use our spiritual gifts, be kind, serve others and encourage other Christians, as the brothers from Rome encouraged Paul at the end of this passage. Sometimes when our daily life is tiring it’s easy to think that we have been waylaid, shipwrecked. But if we remain open and thankful to God’s provision for us, He will find us someone to bring healing to.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Acts 27:27-44

Have you noticed how at various points, such as today's passage, the Book of Acts reads like a novel? Though I believe the book to be an accurate historical accounting of the early life of the church, the story is told in such a way that the reader can't help but appreciate the drama of how God is acting on behalf of humanity. There are antagonists and forces that are clearly at work against the main characters, who in these verses is Paul, but it is equally clear that these antagonists, adversaries, and opposing forces will not win the day. The power of God to accomplish his purposes prevails.

Surely there is an adventure waiting for anyone who lives deeply enough into the life of faith. Oh, I don't mean that it will always have a naive romantic glamour to it; as we've seen in weeks past, sometimes this adventure will be exceedingly difficult. But it will be an adventure none the less, a life one will look back on and know they took the plunge and that God was faithful in it. Are you living that life? Am I?

Too many of us are living tired, insipid, piddling Christian lives when God would do so much more...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Acts 27:9-26

Today's reading contains a great message. Sometimes I have a difficult time to grasp and understand the message in the reading. In today's reading the message seems crystal clear to me. In fact I see two messages.

Message one is about life on this earth. Life, your life, my life, is like the ocean in today's reading. The weather of our ocean may seem fine, almost perfect, thus we shove off and proceed with life. We never know what storms we may encounter or face, however, one thing we all know is that storms are out there. Faith in God is essential to weathering some storms. Through God we get courage and hope. Hopefully, the vast majority of storms we face are not life threatening like the one in today's reading, but even if they are God can bring us through. I am inspired by the actions of Paul when, after this storm has been raging for days, he tells the sailors that God, whom he serves, will stand by him. Please remember that God can turn disaster into deliverance and hopelessness to hope. It is in these storms that our faith is sometimes tested but always grows.

The second message pertains to the way we live our lives and the importance we place in trusting God. During the voyage in today's reading, after the storm hit, the people in the ship did not know exactly where they were as they had not seen the stars or sun for several days. In that time in history, navigation was not done with a compass but by the stars and sun. Thus, when the sailors had not seen either, they were lost. This feeling of being lost is the condition we all feel when we lessen our faith in God. It is also a feeling people who do not have a strong faith, or any faith, experience. When this happens to us or to others it is as if we are walking in darkness without any light. This is a terrible feeling. Paul sets a great example for us by not losing hope and faith in God. In the face of the storms you face, trust in the promises of God.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Monday, August 22, 2005

Acts 26:1-23

As we know from reading in Acts before and after these first twenty three verses of chapter twenty six, Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem for following and proclaiming Jesus. As a Roman citizen, he had been transferred to Caesarea for a formal hearing – first before Felix, the Roman-appointed governor of Judea, and then before Festus, successor to Felix. (Paul was in custody here for some time, totally at the whim of the governor for pursuance of his case.)

Festus decided to transfer Paul to Caesar for a hearing of his case, as Paul the Roman citizen had requested. Before he sent Paul on to Rome, Festus decided to have Paul speak before Agrippa, Jewish king in Judea, who was visiting Festus. Not one to refuse an opportunity to tell another person about Jesus – not even high political authorities – Paul passionately explained to Agrippa, Festus, and others in attendance why he devotedly served and proclaimed Jesus as savior and lord.

What Paul testified to was a life totally turned around by Jesus. From determined enemy to Jesus and Jesus-followers to ardent disciple of Jesus and brother to fellow believers, Paul “died” to one life and “was raised” to a new life. This he knew in the very core of his being – in all that gave him identity, purpose, and direction in life. This he proclaimed to Felix, Festus, Agrippa, and all he could reach. Jesus was life to Paul. Paul wanted to live this Jesus-life fully. He wanted to pass this life on to any and all, so stupendously worthy did he find Jesus and this new Jesus-life to be.

I am heartened by reading Paul’s testimony to his turned-around life. I am heartened because I tend to underestimate – or is it under-trust, and perhaps even under-desire? – what Jesus can do and longs to do to transform my life. If Jesus could do what he did with Paul, surely he can and will change me. How good this would be! May he knock me down, then, and pick me up anew, as he did to Paul. I need only say “Amen!” to Jesus, to turned-around life in him.

Gregory Strong

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Galatians 3:23-4:7

There are some consistent questions which I hear from the youth in youth group. These are generally the questions which either we have no definitive answer or, more often, the answer is difficult to hear and accept.

This passage touches on one of those most common questions. "If I have a friend who is not a Christian, will they go to heaven"? This has a very difficult answer and I'm sure some people would disagree with me.

To be accepted into heaven and enjoy eternal life with our Father, we must accept Jesus Christ as our lord and savior. So, for those following a religion which doesn’t teach Christ's message, they are at a strong disadvantage to making it into heaven.

I was in Montana for the youth mission trip. One day a bunch of us decided to drive ATVs around the farm. One person was driving the ATV at around 20mph for a while... in 1st gear. Anyone who's driven a standard knows that's pretty fast for first gear, and can really hurt a transmission. The driver was told about switching gears, but having never driven before or known what a gear is really for they didn't think it was all that important. I mean, the ATV kept moving right?

It's very hard to accept something which we have been taught nothing about. Even if someone has heard the name Jesus and know generally what 'other people' say about him, without being taught the wonder of His message this person would never know why it's important to accept Him. They would really have a hard time following Him and realizing Him as their personal savior (or even what having a personal savior means).

This passage is letting us know that there is an amazing eternity out there just waiting for us. But we need to be baptized in His name and accept Jesus as our savior. For those people on the fence or not being taught anything about Jesus, we need to patiently do all we can to bring them to Him.


Saturday, August 20, 2005

Acts 25:13-27

The Case Against Paul

...they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.
Acts 25:19

This to me is the central issue here. To the Romans who were trying to adjudicate the matter the summary above certainly does not make this a capital case. The ‘certain points’ most likely include matters of the Law as it pertained to Gentiles, and that was certainly a volatile enough matter, but it is the matter of whether the man named Jesus was alive which truly seems to be in contention.

For Paul, from his conversion onward, it was always the Resurrection that was critical, the Resurrection that made all the difference between living and dying in the eternal sense. Paul’s assertion that Jesus was and is ALIVE was bound to offend those who understood, as it seems the Romans did not, the implications of that assertion.

And that assertion remains as central now as then.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Acts 24:24-25:12

In this reading we find Paul waiting in prison. He is in Caesarea and is on trial. In our busy lives we often find it hard to wait, even in a checkout line as we are buying things in the material abundance we enjoy. Paul here had to wait for over two years for his trial before governor Festus. Perhaps he was under house arrest, but he was not free to travel to spread the Gospel. What he was free to do, however, was do one thing he loved; to talk about Jesus. This he did for 2 years; talk to governor Felix about Jesus.

No matter what situation we find ourselves in, in life, no matter what we are waiting for, we can pray for chances to talk about Jesus. I like the references where Paul speaks about nothing in his life mattering except Jesus (Phil. 3:7ff). Paul must have been so happy to talk about Jesus as he went before the officials. God kept protecting Paul, as He did again in this instance from ambush by the Jewish leaders.

Also Paul had the support of his friends during this time (24:23). Paul is always careful in his letters to thank his friends in the faith. I wonder who I can support today with kind words and prayers. I am so thankful for you, my Christian friends. Thank you for helping and supporting me.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Acts 24:1-23

In today’s reading, Paul faces adversity. He has been arrested and imprisoned. And it certainly doesn’t seem like this is due to lack of faith on his part; if anything, it is the exact opposite.

If we believe that at least at times the world is at odds with the plan and purposes God has for it, then to act in faith according to God’s plan is to set ourselves—at least at times—at odds with the world around us. In other words, it is to invite adversity. This only makes sense if one thinks about.

Though this squares quite nicely with the life and teachings of Jesus, it doesn’t square very well at all with Christianity as is often preached today. Following Jesus is not the way to get ahead or find the life we’ve always dreamed of as those things are defined in popular culture.

What following Jesus does do is alluded to in vs 15-16. It allows one to live with a clean conscience now and prepares us for the resurrection of the wicked and the righteous in the future.

Following Jesus does not promise us riches or abundant things or even that everyone will think well of us. It does promise adversity. Even so, if in the midst of that adversity we find our conscience is clean; and if at the end of that adversity we find ourselves resurrected the new life of righteousness with our Lord Jesus Christ…well, that still seems like the best bargain going to me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Acts 23:23-35

I do not know about you but I had a tough time trying to understand the message in today's reading. I read it a couple of times before I felt in a position to write a devotion.

As background to today's reading, Paul must get out of town as a mob was forming and threatening to kill him. There were many ways God could have chosen to protect Paul, but He chose moving Paul to Caesarea. Now this is fine and this would remove Paul from the harm the mob was threatening, but what amazes me is the method God used to get Paul out of harm's way.

God chose to use the Roman army to deliver Paul from his enemies. Who would have thought that the Roman army, over 400 soldiers, would escort Paul to safety? This again demonstrates that God's ways are not limited by human constraints. The lesson here, I think, is that we should not put limits on God by asking Him for our preconceived idea of what help looks like. We should ask God for help and let Him determine the best course of action. When God intervenes, anything can happen. Many times, I find, that God's intervention is so much better than I could ever have anticipated. If I limit God to my human concept of what is possible I would remove from Him the ability to provide the help I so much desire.

Keep the faith and remember that God can do anything - not just what we consider possible. Ask God to help you, but let God determine how to provide that help.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Acts 23:12-24

40 men have sworn an oath, they will not eat or drink
til Paul is dead. Their hearts so filled with hate
they throw away their laws, and hatch a plan
To mount an ambush. Somehow word gets through
to one young man, his name is lost to us,
Paul’s sister’s son. He gains an audience,
A sympathetic tribune who commands
A host of soldiers, spearmen, cavalry
Make ready for an escort to the coast
And see the governor there...

The Perils of Paul continue with this dramatic turn of events. Where is the escape this time...A person we meet neither before nor after learns of the plot, and through the hated local Roman authorities, an astonishing force will ensure safe passage to Caesarea.

This is the stuff of movies indeed, but what lies beyond this narrative episode? We strive to discern the hand of God in the contentions, back and forth, between religious and governmental authorities. In this case, it is the fact of Paul’s Roman citizenship which gives him the right to protected justice. Irony indeed that the laws of the oppressing authority serve a higher purpose.

Paul’s mission is...TO BE CONTINUED

Monday, August 15, 2005

Acts 22:30 - 23:11

After years of missionary labors around the eastern Mediterranean, Paul longed to visit Jerusalem again. When he arrived, he and his fellow believers in Jerusalem enjoyed a heartfelt reunion. They rejoiced at Paul’s witness to Jesus among Gentiles and Jews in other cities and regions. They also rejoiced at the many Jews in and around Jerusalem who had come to faith in Jesus.

Yet this was not Paul’s vacation. Well known for preaching and teaching about Jesus among Gentiles and Jews alike, he could not go in public in Jerusalem without being recognized. Moreover, Paul did not know how to take a vacation from Jesus, from telling anyone anywhere about the good news.

So Paul was recognized at the temple by some who opposed him. They agitated against him. An intense disturbance, involving a large crowd, developed. The Roman military authority arrested him to quell the riot and determine what to do with him. The Roman commander also ordered the Jewish religious court – the Sanhedrin – to convene to question and intimidate Paul.

Assaulted, arrested, investigated, and nearly flogged, Paul knew only how to tell the truth, whatever might befall him. As he had told people in public for years, so in the confines of formal proceedings against him, he told the political and religious authorities of his hope in Jesus.

Hope in Jesus, publicly lived and expressed, may result in assault, arrest, investigation, torture, and even death in some parts of the world. They are not likely results in our part of the world. Generally, embarrassment and the appearance of seeming foolish, backward, narrow, or ignorant may result if we publicly live and express our hope in Jesus. This can still be daunting to us, given our culture’s devotion to image-consciousness, and to a sacrosanct divide between the public and the private. And, if we were to publicly live and express our hope in Jesus faithfully and radically enough, worse than embarrassment and foolishness may come our way, even here. This truly would be daunting! Yet in all, the Lord says, “Take courage.” For he loves, embraces, and sustains us – all the while pushing us out into the world to live in hope and tell others about it.

Gregory Strong

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Galatians 3:6-14

I failed the first time I went for my driving test in Washington DC. I was kind of shocked to say the least. I mean, I'd read everything, passed the written exam, paid attention during drivers Ed class and knew all of the driving facts there were to know.

How many feet do you park from the curb of a cross road? 100 ft.

How far from a fire hydrant do you park? 10 ft on either side.

When you see a red octagon what do you do? Stop.

How far behind a fire truck can you drive? Hmm, either 50 or 300 ft... Ok, so I forgot one (got it right on the test).

My point here is that it just wasn't enough to know and follow every one of the laws written down. I failed the driving test because I took one turn too wide (went a little in the far lane during a turn) and another turn too short (went too close to the cars during a right turn). I looked, there's no place that says how far you should be when turning.

Nevertheless I did get my license on the second try. To keep that license I still have to follow each and every law out there (and boy can that be tough sometimes).

This passage is telling us that faith is very similar. To live in this life we need to follow all of the laws governed. But to be truly faithful and a follower of God you need to go past the written laws. Faithfulness transcends the written law and is a way of living beyond the words.

It's great that I follow the rules written down, and even the message of the bible. But to really express my faith I go beyond those things. I try and spend as much of my time as I can furthering God's word to youth and adults around me. I strive to listen to the plan God has for my life and change myself to make it happen.

So, that fact that I park 10 feet from a fire hydrant doesn't make me faithful, but keeping within the lane when turning does. Seriously though, following the guidance laid out is wonderful. But to really live fully with God we should go beyond it all, and do the best we can for Him.


Saturday, August 13, 2005

Acts 22:17-29

In this section of Acts, Paul faces an angry Jewish mob, a mob blinded by prejudice against the Gentiles. He narrowly avoids a severe, potentially fatal flogging by revealing to the guards his Roman citizenship.

Prejudice is a terrible force. It can grip you, blind you, and cause you to act in ways incongruous with logic and reason. The Jewish people listening to Paul sincerely believed that the only way to salvation was to be Jewish. They were angry that salvation could also be given directly to the Gentiles.

I remember one of my encounters with outright prejudice. It happened during my freshman year in college: my boyfriend's father banging on our front door, screaming in my father's face that I should stay away from his son, not because he knew me at all, but because of what I represented.

But prejudice doesn't just manifest itself in wild, frenzied scenes. Sometimes a prejudice can be quite subtle and manifest itself in the slightest of glances, the tamest of words, the inertia of inaction. How do you really feel about salvation for ALL? What about people who are not like you or your neighbor? What about people who fall visibly, publicly, and hard? What about gang members, drug users, criminals? What about aliens, legal or illegal, seeking an honest day's work? What about the homeless or those in poverty? What about people around us who are angry, demanding, confused, or annoying?

Sometimes our Christian challenge is to rise above our prejudices, however small, and to act positively, as Christians in otherwise awkward, unusual, or mentally challenging situations. There are so many to tend to; and we are all equal at the foot of the cross, the cross which represents salvation for ALL.

Dear God, please grant us the grace to rise about any prejudice, anger, or hurt we may experience and, like Paul, to be bold and faithful witnesses of Christian love by way of our words, actions, and prayers -- even to those blinded by fear or ignorance. Amen.

Martha Campos Olson

Friday, August 12, 2005

Acts 21:37-22:16

I have recently put some of my old photos in order. I thank God as I look back at the photos of high school friends whose faith I admired. They were an example to me and a support. When we met at church we were able to gain strength for our week ahead and were reminded that we were all in the journey together. Sort of like March of the Christians (I recently saw the movie March of the Penguins). One of our prayers for the members of our youth group, including the ones who just went on the mission trip is that they will encourage each other on the journey.

I feel even more awe as I watch the apostle Paul in these verses. He is so brave and such an example to me. The material life matters little to him. Suffering matters little to him. He just wants to tell story of Jesus. “I have learned how to be content in any situation,” he wrote (Phil 4:11). He did not write this from his comfortable home office but from prison. The more I think about Paul’s life the more credible his words become.

I love the words of Ananias as he spoke to Paul, telling Paul that he had been chosen to know God’s will, see the Righteous One and hear words from God’s mouth. What a thrilling message for Ananias to have received (in a vision) and to be able to deliver to Paul. Here then is the beginning of our spiritual story, as Paul was sent by God to the Gentiles. Retracing my spiritual story makes me thank God. Seeing Paul’s bravery and how God claimed him from his old life makes me thank God.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Acts 21:27-36

Christianity champions unlikely heroes, doesn’t it?

In the book of Acts we have been introduced to Paul, one of the indisputable giants of the faith. And pretty much as soon as Paul meets Jesus, he finds himself in constant trouble. Today’s reading is no different. He is besieged by a hostile mob who is brutally trying to beat him to death.

It’s hard to escape the connection.

Now here’s the problem. Heroes are generally regarded as role models; as exhibiting behavior to which people, at least in some measure, should aspire.

So what is the behavior or character trait the Bible in this story is suggesting we should pursue? Is it to be troublemakers? To be the subject of violence? To be arrested?

Not directly, at least. What makes Paul a “hero” is his faithfulness to Jesus. It is the boldness of his witness. And in this we see something both of the depths of Paul’s love for Jesus and for the people Jesus died to save. He thinks of them before he thinks of himself, which means that his faithfulness, his witness, and ultimately his love, often come at a very high price.

There are so many ways this can be practiced, and on so many levels. The parent who is willing to be the parent God called them to be by disciplining a child even though the child hates them for it or simply calls them “mean”. The friend who speaks the truth in love or refuses to go along with the crowd even though they know their image might suffer in the opinion of others. Or…the devoted Christ follower who speaks out, loud and clear, about who Jesus is and ultimately what he requires.

Take your pick of these and a hundred more situations just like them. But if you do…well, like Paul, we had best be prepared for trouble!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Acts 21:15-26

In today’s reading we see that some Jews believe Paul is telling people, both Gentiles and Jews, that they do not have to follow the laws given to the people by Moses any longer. They only need to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. To counter this perception, Paul participates in an ancient Jewish ritual of purification.

Now, in my opinion, to participate in this ritual would have been distasteful to Paul. For him the relevancy of things like this were long gone. However, to avoid an unneeded and petty conflict with the Jews he went ahead and did it. To me one sign of a truly great person is when that person can subordinate his / her own wishes and desires for the sake of the Church. There is a time when compromise is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

Sometimes a church bickers over disagreements about minor issues or traditions. Like Paul, we should all remain firm on Christian fundamentals but flexible on non-essentials. Of course no one should violate his or her true convictions, but sometimes we need to exercise the gift of mutual submission for the sake of unity and for the sake of the Gospel.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Acts 21:1-14

In today’s lesson, we see Paul and his companions’ continuing journey back to their homeland. Normally, it is a great joy to return home after long and challenging times in far-flung places. Yet here we see Paul headed back to Jerusalem with the strong conviction—confirmed by the words of a local prophet—that his welcome there would include arrest and confinement.

There is something of a parallel here between Paul and Jesus. Both were determined to go to Jerusalem, come what may, because God was at work and had given them a task there. Both knew that the opposition was organized firmly against them. Both, also, felt tender love for brothers and sisters there and those God might touch and reach, and they valued God’s ways above personal safety.

Paul’s friends (like Jesus’ disciples many years before) were deeply concerned for his safety and tenderly urged him not to put himself in jeopardy. Their love and concern was so genuine that it was “breaking his heart.” But since Paul was convinced that being obedient to God’s call was the paramount consideration, he needed and wanted them to be strong with him in following the Lord’s lead—no matter the cost. He could guess what might lay in store for him. After all, he could remember his own days as a persecutor of Jesus-followers in Jerusalem. But he also knew how Jesus had met him and turned his whole life in a new direction. So Paul was both ready and willing. In the face of his faith and conviction, his friends were left to quietly agree, “The Lord’s will be done.”

Sometimes, like Paul’s friends, our earthly concerns get in the way of what God is doing in and through someone we love. We are unprepared to see them sacrifice safety or comfort. As Jennifer McKenzie reminded us this past Sunday in her sermon, it is certainly appropriate to be discerning, Risk-taking “for Christ” is predicated on knowing that God has directed it. Yet, once God’s direction is discerned, we can be united in strength toward God’s purpose—knowing that God’s will is ultimately for good. Jesus’ death was terrible; but it was the prerequisite to immeasurable and eternal blessing. Paul’s road led to martyrdom. But his faithfulness planted the gospel in churches far and wide and his rich and practical teaching in the New Testament has anchored the Church throughout the centuries. Jesus and Paul and countless others paid a high price. But look what God has done!

So let us pray for vision to discover our own places in the mighty work of God, and for strength to encourage each other to follow where he leads.

Karen Strong

Monday, August 08, 2005

Acts 20:17-38

Ephesus was in Asia Minor (now Turkey). It was a prominent city in the Roman empire – provincial capital, commercial center, and religious hotspot. Ephesus was a city of significance, a major crossroads.

Paul did not found the church in Ephesus. Rather, he went to Ephesus shortly after another person first traveled there to tell others about Jesus. However, Paul spent nearly three years in Ephesus talking to people about Jesus and building up the church. Ephesus mattered greatly to Paul.

In this passage from Acts we find a kind of last testament by Paul – what he thought would be his farewell words to his fellow Christians in Ephesus. Paul had been traveling extensively in Macedonia, Greece, and elsewhere to proclaim Jesus and strengthen the faith of those who believed. During that time he determined to go to Jerusalem. Desiring to get there as soon as possible, he decided to bypass Ephesus rather than stop to visit the church there, though his journey would take him in the vicinity.

Still, Ephesus mattered to Paul, so he asked Ephesian church leaders to meet him in Miletus, about thirty five miles south of Ephesus. Paul thought this would be his last personal meeting with them in this world. Hence, Paul spoke passionately about his conduct among them and his desire for their spiritual welfare.

In what he said, we see into Paul’s heart. We understand that upon which Paul staked his life and his ministry. Paul spoke intimately and fervently of his devotion and dedication to Jesus, of his heartfelt commitment to the spiritual well-being of others, no matter the cost to him. He urged those church leaders to live as he had lived, to do as he had done, that they and those under their care would follow Jesus faithfully and diligently to the very end.

What will be our last words to those we love? Will we be able to tell them of our heartfelt devotion and commitment to Jesus? Will we be able to encourage them to live as we have lived, to do as we have done? I, for one, have need of much, much spiritual growth even to approach that point. May God in his grace transform and form me – and all of us – more and more toward such an end.

Gregory Strong

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Romans 15:1-13

Reading this passage I'm reminded of a conversation I had with one of the youth group members today. The conversation went something like this.

"These two friends of ours just started dating. We all know it's not going to work out though."

This simple statement sparked a lot of different thoughts. But the main spark came from looking at me. How often have I said something similar about friends or co-workers? Said something like

"I really like them, but they just have no common sense sometimes" or "That project is going to fail, I just know it"

When I heard the words this time I was reminded of a different attitude I had in high school. One I have lost a little but have been regaining recently. I began to wonder, why am I worrying about how bad something will be? Why don't I help support it with my own gifts?

So I posed the question right back at the youth. Why are you and your friends already thinking about when and how the relationship will end? Wouldn't it be better to support them in their relationship to the best of your abilities? Then if it ends you can continue to support them as individuals?

Just posing this challenge made me feel pretty good and has sparked a change within myself. Reading this passage this afternoon only deepens that change. Whether our friends have failings or not we should always support them and go a step further by building them up. We should also extend the same courtesy to strangers. Making someone else feel good will bring a smile to their face and will always build you up inside.

Next time I begin to think negatively, I'll remember this passage. Remember that I can please God and make myself shine inside by sharing a kind word and praising someone else.


Saturday, August 06, 2005

Acts 20:1-16

What are we to make of the strange story of Eutychus, the young man who fell asleep during Paul's sermon, fell from a third-story window, (at least appeared to have) died, but was alive after Paul touched him? The incident occurs in the port city of Troas, near if not precisely at the location of the much older, by then passed away city of Troy. Eutychus was very likely a hard-working laborer in the port, and he must have been working quite hard and long on this Sunday. No time off that day it seems. He and many others gathered in that upper room for a farewell message from Paul, who was departing in the morning. Luke includes the important detail of many lamps being lit in that room--no secret gathering, but it might have gotten uncomfortably warm there, which may explain why Eutychus was trying to get a bit of air, sitting in the window. Now, Paul may not have had the most impressive physical or rhetorical presence, but if I were transported back to that night I can hardly imagine that I would have missed a single word that he spoke. Eutychus, however, though he may well have been a faithful follower of Christ, shows his kinship with the brothers who slept in the Garden of Gethsemane when they should have been watching and praying. He was probably asleep when he hit the ground below--it was probably that sound that caught the attention of the others and drove them outside. They certainly took him for dead. Luke, physician that he was, seems to have reached the same conclusion: "He was picked up dead." Commentators have argued and will argue the point of whether he actually died. Regardless, the point is this: any of us can fall (and all of us have figuratively or perhaps sometimes literally fallen) especially when we are less than alert to our circumstances. It is only through undeserved grace that we are given life again-both literal breath and beating heart, but also the life that is never snuffed. It can be a long fall from grace, but grace is sufficient to catch us back up again. Without question, a reprieve from tragedy of this potential magnitude is not something we can expect. I hope and trust that Eutychus was truly grateful after receiving his renewed chance at life. It also seems that he thereafter had a new name, the name that Luke brings to us--for Eutychus in Greek means "Fortunate."

Fortunate son, indeed!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Acts 19:21-41

The events in this passage occur during Paul’s third missionary journey through modern day Turkey. Religion was already established in the region. The inhabitants were proud of their worship. Paul came to the region to minister. He enters a town that is content with their lives.

The result is confusion. People protecting their income. People protecting their faith. Standing for the lives that they know.

I think it is human nature to live within our comfort zone. We strive during our lives, especially as adults, to construct a secure livelihood whether we are women or men with or without kids, married or single. We desire to build up a wall of protection so in the long run we will be secure whether the wind blows, etc, etc.

It is a consistent challenge to balance, our human nature to our faith. We are taught to be wise and protect our resources—whether they are family or they are skills that we have developed throughout the years.

With the freedom of choice that the Lord gives us, it is up to us where, when or how we choose to accept the offer of grace, forgiveness, and blessing that the Lord provides us. It is so hard to fathom the offer, much less the perseverance with which the Lord pursues us. I am consistently humbled by the rewards of seeking His face as I can however, inconsistently. Faithfully, the Lord waits for us. Encouragement and knowledge awaits us with every effort we make.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Acts 19:11-20

The opening verses of today’s reading is one of those passages that gives Biblical scholars fits. The idea of simply touching articles of clothing that had touched the Apostle Paul being something that brought people miraculous healing is a bit…objectionable. Some might even say it is just plain weird.

I mean really, how different is that than asking someone to touch a TV set in faith as they ask God to heal them? Remember, these are articles of clothing that just touched Paul, not Jesus. How different is this than praying to saints?

Verse 13 makes it clear that Paul was proclaiming Jesus, and we can infer from that the he was equally clear that it was Jesus and not him who was doing the healing. Still, it’s a rather…unorthodox…method, to say the least.

For me, I have to conclude that God is just plain bigger than we are. He works as He will, not as we think He should or even wish He would. He doesn’t fit in our little boxes, no matter how theologically correct they might be. Anyone who reads the Bible seriously is going to have a hard time concluding that the work of God in this fallen world is always a neat and tidy thing.

So…in what ways do we try and restrict God? How might that limit his working in our lives, or cause us to miss what He is doing in the world today?

And what would it be like if denominations, rather than criticizing each other or pretending they are the only ones that get it right, saw that God was bigger than their boxes? What kind of witness might that be in itself to the world around us?

And finally…at the risk of sounding, uh, weird…is God doing anything supernatural in your life and in mine? Is He doing anything that goes beyond what we consider rational, what is humanely possible?

If not, might that in itself tell us something?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Acts 19:1-10

Today's reading has a very interesting and important message. It pertains to the meaning of becoming and being a complete Christian.

In this reading Paul meets several men who were incomplete Christians. They had received the baptism of John but not the baptism of Jesus. What is the difference between the two?

The baptism of John was more a sign of repentance from sin while the baptism of Jesus was the promise of a new life. John's teaching was a necessary first step in what I am calling a two step process to becoming a complete Christian. The first step is when we recognize that we are sinners. We become aware of our own faults and realize that we deserve God's condemnation. The second step is when we realize that through the grace of Jesus Christ our condemnation can be taken away. Becoming a complete Christian requires us to turn from repentance and to Christ.

It is next to impossible for us humans to live a life without sin. In our lives we can recognize our sin and try to repent when we commit sin. However, our human limitations almost always prohibit us from never sinning again. In fact, I submit that our nature is so sinful that the only way we can truly repent and reduce our sin is through the help of the Holy Spirit. Thus, it is paramount that we, as Christians, turn to Jesus and ask for His help to avoid sin. After all, to be a complete Christian we must accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, ask Him to be a part of our lives, and try to live a life that follows His teachings. If we sincerely do this, the Holy Spirit will come into our lives and help us live a life where we not only say the right thing but we act the right way too. And as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Acts 18:12-28

Today’s reading starts with a little historical marker—“When Gallio was proconsul of Achaia . . .” Gallio’s brother was the philosopher Seneca (tutor to the emperor Claudius’ son, Nero). Historians record that Gallio was a calm and fair-minded man who served as proconsul of Achaia (in Greece) from AD 51-52. So this was about 20 years after the death of Jesus. The previous verses tell that Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. Some records suggest this was because of “tumults” over someone called, “Chrestus” (a common misspelling of “Christ.”) In 20 years, a significant stir over Jesus had reached from Jerusalem to Rome (plus Turkey, Greece, and Africa too). Here in Corinth, Gallio did not get drawn into the controversy between believers in Jesus and Jewish nonbelievers.

This vignette about Gallio’s role is an odd little report. Why is it included in Acts, I wonder? At a minimum, it fits with Acts’ other illustrations that proclaiming and following Jesus in those times and places was a risky and sometimes outrageous life to lead. No wonder Paul had to keep moving, all the while encouraging and strengthening believers even as he widened the circle. Despite the hardships, Paul and the other leaders in Acts kept daily choosing it. They did not seem to aspire to a quiet house, a perfect yard, and comfortable savings.

In contrast, pretty much the worst we face if folks discover we follow Jesus is to be thought old-fashioned and a little ignorant. We may be awkwardly out of step with preferences for believing eclectic bits of this and that, a pleasing mix of belief and non-belief to keep life interesting and yet meaningful. But Jesus’ claims about himself as taught by the apostles—those very claims that swept through the Roman Empire in a generation—just don’t lend themselves to a salad bar approach to faith. Jesus claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life”—the only way to come to God, not just one option. He offered true life, eternal life starting right now, for those who follow him. It was enough for Paul to build his life on.

I wonder what Paul would say about my often chameleon-like religiosity? Reading Acts is challenging for a would-be chameleon. But there is hope here as well. The people named throughout the book—Paul, Priscilla, Aquila, Timothy, Lydia, Silas and so on—were just regular people who found ways to be proclaimers of Jesus. Priscilla and Aquila made tents for a living. But in the course of that living, their faith spilled out to those around them. It wasn’t always welcome and was sometimes fiercely unwelcome. But where it found a thirsty soul, it was like water in a desert that brings dormant things to life. Lord, may it be so for me. Give me your living water and with it new courage, clarity, and passion for you. Let it spill out and bring life to others. May it refocus my life too. Amen.

Karen Strong

Monday, August 01, 2005

Acts 18:1-11

In Acts 18:4 is a description of Paul’s activities in Corinth: “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” This verse virtually repeats a description in Acts 17:17 of Paul’s activities in Athens: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”

Taken together, these two verses not only describe Paul’s activities but evoke his mind and heart. Then backing up in Acts 17 to verse 16, we understand clearly his mind and heart: “While Paul was waiting for [Silas and Timothy] in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Paul’s distress at so many people worshipping so many idols impelled him to talk with people who did not know of or worship Jesus. He hoped to persuade them of the truth of Jesus so they would give their mind and heart to Jesus as savior and lord of the universe, savior and lord of their life.

Are we distressed to see our world, our community, filled with so many idols? Idols? What does that mean? Perhaps there were idols and idol-worshippers in Paul’s day. But idols today? Idol-worshippers today?

An idol can be anything elevated to equality with or superiority over God. It is anything that pulls us away from truly acknowledging and worshipping God. In this sense, our world is filled with idols and idol-worshippers. Many people put some thing in place of the true God – another idea of god, a political perspective, a philosophical system, science, ethnicity, kinship, money, power, sex, and more. We may be sorely tempted to give our mind and heart to beliefs, desires, and behaviors that deflect and pull us away from God.

We should be distressed for the sake of others and for our own sake at these idols, at our idol-worship. We should be talking with and trying to persuade others and ourselves, day in and day out, in “places of worship” and in the marketplace, that we should worship only the one true God, uniquely revealed to us in Jesus. Then we will know what Paul heard the Lord say, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you….”

Gregory Strong