living a life of freedom

Category : Acts, Luke, Paul

……….

I posted this on the website Longing for a Holiday at Sea.  But frankly I liked it so much I thought it should be said again:

This week’s message at church was on freedom.  So I’ve been thinking about the story of Acts 16.  In this story, Paul and Silas are thrown into jail.  After being beaten and while they are in chains, they start signing songs.  While in jail.

I can’t even wrap my mind around that.

That night there is such a violent earthquake that the doors fly open and their chains fall off.  The guard, who’s life is on the line if the prisoners escape, fears the worst and is about to kill himself.  But Paul says, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

What kind of freedom did Paul and Silas live with that allows them be so calm after being beaten and thrown in jail?

We often forget that in Jesus’ first deceleration of his mission and identity, he said, “[God] has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).  God’s goal isn’t moralizing or giving us more stuff.  God’s goal isn’t a bigger house, a nicer car or prayers said in Latin.  It’s to set us free!

I’m not free yet.  Not like Paul and Silas anyway.  But I want to be.  And that’s what I am working towards, with Jesus’ help.

nonnegotiables: community

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Category : Acts, God, different, taking action

 

A few weeks back I read an advance copy of Erwin McManus’ new book Wide Awake. Out of this I began to consider my own nonnegotiables. In other words, the things that I’m simply not willing to give up.

As I’ve been thinking about that for the last few weeks I’m convinced one of them is community.

For many years I lived virtually isolated (by choice, circumstance, and distance) from friends and family. Virtually overnight I went from having a vibrant community of friends to having almost no one. To say it was devastating would be an understatement.

But like so many things in life, God took that moment and changed it’s meaning. He took something that was horrible and changed my perspective on it. He showed me how important it is to reach out to people who are suffering, especially those doing it alone. My heart breaks when I hear that someone had to go through a major event by themselves – no one should have to do that.

I think the early church new this instinctively.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2: 42-47)

Usually this passage is discussed in terms of money. (The believers did, of course, sell “their possessions and goods.”) But I think that misses part of the story, the part about community. The believers didn’t simply sell their belongings, they also “continued to meet together” and they “ate together.” They never lost the fact that they were in community with each other.

It’s not a coincidence that God is described as a personal God. It’s not chance that we refer to him as “Father.” We were never designed to live in isolation. We only can reach our full potential when we’re living in community with others.

Of course that’s easier said than done. Sometimes maintaining community comes at a cost. For the early church it cost them many of their possessions. But they weren’t willing to sacrifice their community. They were willing to make that choice. And I think that’s what I should aspire to. Even if I don’t always feel like it.

you want me to do what?!

Category : Acts, God, Jesus, Numbers, faith

  

The LORD said to Aaron, “You, your sons and your father’s family are to bear the responsibility for offenses against the sanctuary, and you and your sons alone are to bear the responsibility for offenses against the priesthood. (Numbers 18: 1)

Talk about some serious responsibility!  How would you like to know that you are literally responsible for every time someone else screws up?  I can barely keep my own life together, how would I manage to bear the responsibility for someone else?  And yet, the Levites were “to be responsible for the care of the sanctuary and the altar, so that wrath will not fall on the Israelites again.” (Numbers 18: 5)

God seems to work that way.  He seems to give us bigger burdens when we succeed. 

Paul was arrested and drug off to the court in Jerusalem.  While being both physically and verbally attacked in front of the court, he gave his testimony about Jesus. For his reward, Jesus told him, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” (Acts 23: 11)

Jesus specifically told Paul to “take courage” because he was going to make Paul go through this all again.  But this time in front of a bigger crowd.  Paul’s reward for being faithful and obedient was to be given an even more difficult task.

Don’t think that God simply demands things though.  In fact he rewards us generously.  For the Levites he promised that in exchange for their great responsibility they would receive ”all the finest olive oil and all the finest new wine and grain they give the LORD as the firstfruits of their harvest.  All the land’s firstfruits that they bring to the LORD will be yours.” (Numbers 18: 12-13)

God may ask a lot from us.  But he also generously rewards us. 

even disciples need encouragement

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Category : Acts, Paul, bible, faith, hope

  

Have you ever met someone who was totally confident of their faith?  Someone through whom God really worked?  These are the people who always look “put together” and “with it” when it comes to their trust in God.  They trust God with everything in their lives. 

What do you think when you see them?

Whenever I look at someone who has these traits I often think they must have it pretty easy.  I mean they don’t have to struggle with their faith, or wonder why things aren’t happening the way they expected.  After all, they get to see God act in visible ways all the time.  (Usually because they are on the front lines doing radical things for God)  

I start comparing how they appear, to how I am.  I see their steadfast belief and their determination to follow God.  Then I look at my own life and a lot of the time all I can see is my roller coaster of ups and downs. 

But is that really how things are?

Paul made it a regular habit to go back to communities he’d set up to encourage them.  He knew that no matter what they saw, no matter what they experienced, they still needed to be reminded of just who God is.  

He went back to cities like Antioch and Lystra (where he was nearly killed by a mob) just so he could “strength[en] the souls of the disciples and encourag[e] them to continue in the faith” (Acts 14:21-22).

Apparently even the disciples needed encouragement.

Paul wasn’t always on the giving end of encouragement though.  Sometimes he was the one who needed encouragement.  Towards the end of his life, while in jail, everyone abandoned Paul.  I can’t imagine what that would feel like to have lived so much for other people, and then when you needed a friend – they all ran away. But that’s where Paul found himself.  (Which, by the way, is also where Jesus found himself)

It’s hard to remind myself that even people like Paul need encouragement.  But it’s true.  In fact, every single Christian, who has ever lived, has needed encouragement at one time or another.  Which means I’m not alone in needing it.

I’d like to think that the next time I am feeling guilty about my waning faith, instead of turning from God out of shame, I turn to him.

Because even disciples need encouragement.

suffering for faith

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Category : Acts, Paul, bible, hope, live for the eternal, sharing faith, taking action

 

Sometimes I think it would be fun to be Paul.  (not this Paul)

This was a guy who traveled the world talking about God.  He was bold, action-oriented, and totally committed to God.  He was someone who lived his life to the fullest.  

But then I read stories about Paul’s experience in a city called Lystra. 

When Paul first arrived there, everything went well.  He was able to talk about God, people were listening, and some even started to believe.  But as time went on, people began to change their minds.  They began to no longer accept Paul’s teaching.  So they did what comes naturally to any crowd after a lecture they don’t like – they picked up rocks and threw them at Paul.  In fact, the crowd was so confident in their aim, they drug his body outside of town thinking he was dead. 

Days like this make me want to reconsider my plan to be more like Paul.

But as Monty Python might say, “he’s not quite dead yet.”  And so Paul got up and went back into town. 

I don’t know about you, but heading back into the town where people threw blunt objects at me would not be high on my ‘To Do’ list.  But for Paul, that’s just who he was.  So after returning to town, he and his friend Barnabas moved on to a different city.  Presumably to do the whole thing over again.

But Paul wasn’t done with Lystra. 

After visiting a few more cities Paul came back to encourage the Christians who lived there.  But he didn’t say, “don’t worry everything’s okay” or “believe in God and everything will go smoothly.”  Paul actually said, ”It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.”  (Acts 14: 22

Ouch.  This being-like-Paul-thing sounds less fun all the time!

In a world that values comfort over all, this is hard to swallow.  How can suffering be a part of God’s Kingdom?  But the truth is the closer we get to God’s will the more dangerous it can become.  Just look at Paul’s life.  Even Jesus, someone who probably knew what God wanted, died a horrible death.

Now if suffering was all there was, this would be bad news.  Fortunately we don’t suffer because God enjoys it, or because it’s an initiation.  We suffer because sharing God’s message often means being in direct conflict with the world’s message.  And we suffer because this world is broken.

The people in Lystra went from thinking Paul was a god to trying to kill him.  Why?  Because Paul didn’t stop talking about who God was when they thought he was a god.  He kept teaching and explaining.  And eventually they decided they didn’t like his message anymore.  But if Paul had stopped teaching, no one would have learned about God.  And no one would have been saved.

That’s why Paul could be so bold and passionate when he knew some people might try to kill him for his beliefs.  Paul knew that sometimes to accomplish a bigger goal sacrifices personal have to be made.

high density

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Category : Acts, God, Jesus, revolutionary

 

Some days its tough for me as I struggle with my failures.  I say to myself, “can’t you get your act together?!”

It’s these days when the Bible seems particularly encouraging.  Not because of the message about God (which is encouraging).  But because the Disciples were so dense!

They may have spent years with Jesus, but certain things took them a long time to grasp.  Even in the opening of Acts we see the Disciples still not getting it.  They had witnessed Jesus return from the dead.  They had seen him perform countless miracles.  And what’s one of the first questions they ask to a resurrected Jesus?

“When are you going to kick some Roman ass?”

Ok, so maybe that’s my paraphrase.  But the point is, despite all of Jesus’ teachings on love and mercy, they still thought the Messiah would lead a military victory.  They still thought he would change their current situation, not revolutionize it.

If the Disciples messed up, and God gave them grace, maybe I should accept that same grace… 

take courage!

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Category : Acts, Jesus, Paul, live for the eternal, mission

      

Take courage!  As you have testified about me in Jerusalem,
so you must also testify in Rome.
(Acts 23: 11)

Let me get this straight; Paul has been arrested, beaten, put in chains, nearly flogged, held in prison (twice), and was just nearly torn apart by a mob (for the second time in as many days).  And Jesus’ message to him is, “Take courage!”  Not because he’s going to be set free.  Not because he’s going to be given an easier job.  But because he’s being sent to Rome to do the whole thing over again!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that to be very encouraging.

But that’s because I’m looking at this from an earth-bound perspective.  If my goal is to live to old age, have nice things, and take an easy path, then what Jesus is telling Paul sounds horrible.  It sounds as if Paul did something wrong and is being punished.

But if I look at it from an eternal perspective, everything changes.  Suddenly Paul is being rewarded for his faith by being given a harder task.  Now he’s to take God’s message to the center of the world.  Only because Paul was faithful in the little things (Jerusalem) is he able to go and do the big things (Rome).

It’s funny how a little perspective changes things.

God is not Santa Claus

Category : Acts, God, faith, hope, taking action

Growing up I had a lot of delusions, and a more than a few misunderstandings, when it came to Christianity.  Most of those views I’ve learned were wrong.  Sometimes I learned it the easy way, and other times I had to learn it the hard way.  Perhaps the one that’s been hardest to overcome is the idea that if you believe in God your life will be easy.

This is one of those lessons I had to learn the hard way.

At some early point in my life I came to believe that God = Santa Claus.  And as long as I was a good boy, everything would be okay.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that my faith collapsed the first time I experienced a real problem.  After all, I thought I was a good boy, so why was I suddenly getting a lump of coal?

Confronted with that thought my faith evaporated and I became an atheist/agnostic.  I followed that path for years until I managed to find my way to Jesus.

So you’d think I would have learned this lesson.  But you’d be wrong.  Oh I’m aware of it.  But deep down I still believe that following God should make my life stress free.  I don’t mind the occasional intellectual or physical challenge, but I don’t want anything too challenging.  I don’t mind some responsibility, but not too much of course.  I simply don’t want to have to do things that scare me.  I just want to coast through life without too much hardship.

But God does not promise that kind of life for Christians.

God calls us to things bigger than we are.  I think this is done in part so we learn to rely upon him. But I also think it gives us the opportunity to witness to other people.  When we overcome something big, they see God in action – not our own abilities. How many times have I assumed something happening  solely for my benefit, when it may very well be happening for someone else.

Paul characterizes someone who’s life was filled with amazing and inspiring acts, but acts that must have been terrifying.  Yet Paul trusted God, and he placed all of his hope in him. 

In the New Testament book of Acts, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem is outlined.  Essentially he goes, gets beaten, gets arrested, gets thrown in jail, almost gets beaten again, nearly starts a riot, then is turned loose to a crowd that wants his head. Then he is taken back into custody. Sounds like a nice, laid back trip to me!  Nothing stressful about that!

Through all of this, Paul stays strong in his faith. He doesn’t shirk from the beatings, he doesn’t run from the responsibility. So how does God reward him? By saying, “Keep up your courage!” (good so far) “For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” (D’oh!).  God rewards Paul for a job well done by telling him he’s got to do it all again in another city!

There are times where I want God to make my life easier, but that’s not how he operates. God wants us to know him, because it’s through him that we have true happiness and true hope. And that’s not an easy answer to swallow sometimes. We don’t always want what’s better for us, we often just want what’s easier.

I don’t always follow through on things God asks me to do.  In fact, I ignore him way too often.  But I can safely say, whenever I’ve acted on something God gives me, I’ve never regretted doing it.  Terrified? Yes. Regretted, absolutely not. And I bet if you could ask Paul that question, he’d tell you the same thing.

While God is not Santa, and he may not always keep us “safe” in a worldly sense, the reward for trusting in him is always worth it, because that reward is knowing him better.  That’s something that Paul knew, and something I hope to always remember.