Scripture I’m Reading: Acts 2
My thoughts so Far: So I’ve started attending an Arabic speaking church. Its mostly composed of Egyptians, and I’m hoping to learn a different dialect of Arabic, but Egyptian Arabic is better practice than none. The first two weeks the pastor has preached out of Acts 2:1-4, well at least its been the first verse put on the screen.
Now, thus far I’ve had translators and assistance when in an Arabic language environment, so this was the first time I’ve been out on my own and not speaking enough of the language to amount to anything. Then I look up Acts 2:1-4 when it gets put on the screen, and I really had this funny feeling when I read verse 4 “ And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.” I really had the feeling that God was teasing me a little. I’ve always traveled places where I at least speak an intermediate level of the language or have a translator, and this was the first time I was totally lost clueless, so when the pastor uses the scripture where the ability to speak another language just fell out of the sky on people, of course I’m like ‘Yo, God, that’d be pretty cool right now.’ I’ve taken three semesters of formal Arabic, but can’t speak any modern dialects. When I think about how much time I’ve spent studying, and I can’t yet even hold a basic conversation with someone, its disappointing. It kind of felt like God was saying, ‘Oh look, I could totally save you years of hard work and study, and I’ve totally done it before. Wouldn’t that be cool, Nathan?’, but in a light-hearted, joking way. I’ve never felt teased by a verse before. It was good.
Then this week too, the pastor started with the same verses, before moving in a slightly different direction with it. This time I really focused and was able to pick out a few common words he used and managed to translate most of them on my own, though I did need help on a few. So I felt less teasing this week and more encouragement. I’m keeping a list of words I’ve picked up:
الصليب the Cross
الروح القدس the Holy Spirit
خمسين fifty, can also refer to the fifty days, or Pentecost
عيد الفطير feast of unleavened bread
بكورة first fruits
Scripture I’m Reading: Philippians 3
My Thoughts so far: Verses 10 and 11 say “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” (NLT). The western church doesn’t always do a good job of preaching the whole truth; we tend to emphasize the parts of it that we like. Jesus is the answer to life’s problems; preaching that is 100% true. However, there are more parts to correctly understanding the truth. The scriptures continually juxtapose living new life in the Spirit and putting the flesh to death:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 NLT)
Jesus called the people and His followers to Him. He said to them, “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must give up himself and his own desires. He must take up his cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34 NLT)
Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. “(Luke 9:23 NLT)
But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8: 10-13 ESV)
So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. (Colossians 3:5 NLT)
The 3 synoptic gospels all record the same moment where Jesus directs us to carry the cross; the cross is a tool to kill people slowly and agonizingly. Not only do you need to crucify the flesh, you need to be the one to actively engage in it. Baptized into His death, we can then rise alive in Christ. Here in verses 10 and 11, Paul again clearly indicates the union of living into the suffering of Christ so that one can know Christ and experience His power.
Great. So what does any of that mean? What the heck does that look like in real life? It means that living a life for Jesus means you have to give up stuff you want. I love food, but gluttony is a sin. The more time I spend engaged in sin, the less time I spend actively receiving from God. I love video games, but I need to be careful, as laziness is a sin. I want newer, lighter backpacking gear, but I need to be a good steward of my resources and spend them in a way that God would approve of. The more that I give up things that are bad for me and some neutral things that God has asked me to give up, then the more time I actively engage with receiving what God wants for me.
Fasting is a wonderful opportunity to embrace your weakness, as God’s power is made perfect in our wekaness. When I’m hungry and tired and not sure if I can even make it to work, let alone perform at my job, then I’m praying all day. We really do need God everyday, but we manage to convince ourselves that we can do most things on our won, when in fact they should be done while recognizing that God is doing good things through us.
Last year our church did a fast together for 33 days. It was a great opportunity to live into elevating spiritual things over the things of the flesh and to support one another in doing it. I am not very charismatic. I am very much a Presbyterian. Things like prophetic dreams are not me and were never been a part of my walk. I don’t even remember dreams; either I have no recollection or, on occasion, I’ll wake up with the last moment of a dream in mind, but during the church wide fast I woke up with long stretches of vivid, powerful dreams. Everything would be the random sequences of nonsense that make up dreams, and then the shifting would stop and settle in on a particular set of characters in one setting and I’d see a coherent scene play out. I would then wake up with the transition and the coherent scene in my full recollection and write it down in the morning. After praying about these dreams with pastors and elders in my church, we felt them to be from the Lord, so I shared them with the people they were about. Over the last year they have been shown to be good advice and insight to the people I shared them with.
So as we begin the season of Lent, we have a real opportunity to actively engage with receiving from God. This is not just a cultural norm or an expected religious duty, but an opportunity to elevate the things of God over the things of the flesh. If you haven’t yet, I would encourage you to pray and ask God if there is something you need to set aside for awhile. Maybe there is a sin that you need to take more seriously; maybe there is something neutral that takes up too much time, or is becoming unhealthy for your walk with God. Maybe God isn’t asking anything specific of you, and you just pick something as a freewill offering; that’s cool too. Some options to think about: developing world fast (just 1 cup of beans and 2 cups of rice per day), Daniel fast, fasting one or two meals a day, giving up a food item you enjoy, not watching TV, or turning off all non-work related media (internet, TV, magazines, radio, etc.).
Can I just take a moment to talk about how good obedience can be for us. So there is a fantastic young couple that attends our missional community (an MC somewhere between a small home group and a house church) that my wife and I help lead with a few other folks. The husband to be is white and the wife to be is black. I love talking about race because I have spent decades contemplating the nature of race. My dad was pretty light skinned, but still black, and my mom was of Irish decent, so I pass for white, but I’m not exactly white. I’ve held several different views over the years, but I had a moment of revelation a few years back where I believe that God told me that I was fully an equally the son of a black man and a white woman and that was it. What folks do with that is up to them. I guess I’m sort of racially nebulous, but the point is that I’m really comfortable talking about this stuff, and as hard as it has been (growing up out in south-west Virginia meant that race was still a big deal to most people and it meant I spent quite a bit of my childhood and adolescence repeatedly rejected by both large groups blacks and whites), it also means that I have a neat perspective on race. I can genuinely own issues of race and communicate them to white people without the usual heavy doses of guilt that come with it when more phenotypically African Americans discuss these matters with whites.
So there’s a small group of us at dinner after a basketball game, and I ask about their discussions so far regarding race. Lo and behold, they haven’t really talked much about it. I don’t know them well enough to know why, but I do know that it really needs to be discussed prior to marriage. It was awkward to bring up who I am and how much I’ve struggled with the topic of race (I really do not like being open and vulnerable), but it opened up an important conversation. We were able to set the stage for a number of difficult topics: what white privilege was and wasn’t, how much African Americans remain responsible for wealth disparities, the importance of socioeconomics on matters of race, how other groups have dealt with racism, etc. In an hour and a half we didn’t come to any great conclusions, but we did put a lot of the cards out on the table. My hope is that they’ll feel more empowered and less awkward now that the ice has been broken and I’ve already introduced some difficult things.
This is just one of the gifts God has given to me. I didn’t ask for it, but now that I’ve embraced it, all I have to do is show up and submit to God, and God will take care of the rest. I’m pretty awkward normally, but there are moments when I sound pretty well put together. Those times are typically when the Holy Spirit is at work, helping me to express the things I need to. Usually in discussions about something potentially offensive I get nervous and struggle when I’m put on the spot; I do silly things like forget simple facts that I know or lose my train of thought or think so hard about a previous point that I don’t listen to what’s being said now. When I was introducing this issue that night, I had none of that. No nervousness (after my initial awkwardness opening it up), no stuttering, kept every train of thought going, followed what other people were saying, responded with appropriate facts and analogies, and had answers for most concerns that were brought up. I am not a good speaker. It didn’t come off perfectly, but it went pretty well only thanks to God. Left to my own devices I would have rambled and made a huge mess of it. Pretending to have it together is not important. Showing up and saying ‘yes’ to God is.
Scripture I’m Reading: Acts 12
My Thoughts so Far: Radical obedience to God is dangerous. Most of the prophets were persecuted, Moses fled the army Pharaoh, King David fled from Saul, and most of the apostles were martyred. Here we learn of James the son of Zebedee’s, aka the brother of John’s, death. We tend to pick up more strongly on Peter’s dramatic escape as an angel wakes him up and leads him out through prison bars and armed guards. The single verse observing James can be overlooked, but its really important. If church history is correct, then it looks like 10 apostles were martyred, Judas hung himself, and only John lived long enough to die of natural causes. That’s not a good ratio for those of us looking to follow in their footsteps. Now yes, times are different. We are not students that learned directly from the incarnate Christ and we are not the first set of church planters to ever go forth, but the devil is the devil and until his final defeat he reigns as the prince of this world. If we are ministering to God’s people obediently and advancing the kingdom into what he believes to be his territory, then he’ll take notice and try to stop us.
So, why do we do it? First, the prize is worth the risk. Jesus is our portion and our inheritance. We get to live a life learning from Jesus how to live life and be more like Him; we continue to receive love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self control in ever increasing measure. Then we get to spend an eternity with Him in His kingdom. Second, the risk is far greater without Jesus. I can’t go back to struggling through life without hope in the future. Life is just too hard, putting one foot in front of the other for 72 years, unsure of anything, unsure if all the work will ever amount to anything. Let alone considering what portions of God’s judgement that are meted out here on earth, and then the final judgment on that day.
The example we receive from the martyrs like James is that ministry is not merely a good thing to do as a good christian, but a part of a greater struggle that is life and death types of serious. Every day, people around the globe die without the opportunity to have faith in Christ. Now, I’m not a big fan of theologies that put all the responsibility on us, as I believe that God is sovereign and can move His plan forward regardless of whether or not we obey, but given the situation, we need to respond to God’s call with urgency. Following Christ is not just what good people do. The kingdom is at war and there will be casualties.
Danger, but with the assurance of the Holy Spirit’s presence now and Heaven later, or danger and nothing.
Scripture I’m Reading: Galatians 3
My Thoughts so Far: The Galatians appear to be struggling with the influence of the Judaizers, those who want to follow the Law and Christ. There have always been and likely always be those that want to make double extra sure that they get into Heaven, so they decide to follow Christ, but also want to make sure they: offer sacrifices for sin, follow kosher food rules, tithe, worship in the temple, observe the feasts, and all of the things required in the Old Testament. Now, most of these things are good (you totally should tithe and worship and observe holidays), but they should be freely done in response to God’s love and not out of duty to earn your ticket to Heaven. If in your heart you aren’t sure that Christ’s atonement is enough, then trying to earn it will not increase your faith. You cannot have Christ in one hand and the Law in the other; you do not get double coverage, but you end up taking from one to give to the other, and end up with too little of either. Building a life around Christ not being enough will never help you to fully believe that Christ is enough.
Paul addresses the issue by starting nearer the beginning, with Abraham. He lays out that most of the gospel is spelled out way back in Genesis 17. Abram believed God, so his faith was credited to him as righteousness; God then renamed him Abraham. I’m not a bible scholar, so I can’t tell you if that means Abram was born again or merely given a new name, but it clearly points to becoming new in Christ. Here we have a covenant mediated through faith that allows Abram to receive a credit of righteousness not his own so he can be right with God and he receives a new name to mark the moment. That really sounds like the gospel as we know it today.
So why the Law? If Abraham’s covenant covers the basic foundations of the gospel, then isn’t the Law of Moses a step backward? If we’re that close in Genesis 17, then what’s up with the next 1000 years and 38 books? Well, verse 19 says “Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins.” People needed to really understand their need for a savior. Apparently, merely explaining that they were sinful and wicked and completely unable to please God in their own strength wasn’t enough. They needed to come to the temple and offer the same sacrifice for the same transgression over and over and over and over and over again; day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. They needed to see the animal butchered, watch the priests splatter the blood on the alter, and smell the burning flesh of the burnt portion repeatedly. They needed to see the cost to understand their wickedness and how much they needed a savior. They needed to see that merely trying really hard wasn’t going to cut it; they needed to see that they needed divine power to live for God. Most of us have learned quite a few lessons the hard way; often that means we were oblivious to learning the easy way and had to learn the hard way. It would have been great if God had just sent a messenger to explain to His people that they were sinners in need of a savior and the people just believed and obeyed, but we’re hard headed, so it was His divine providence that He showed us through the Law.
And the Law does this admirably. The Law is a great way to understand your sin. Why then is Paul so critical of it? My (non-bible scholar) opinion is that Paul is critical of how people are trying to use the Law rather than the Law itself. In verse 10 Paul refers back to Deuteronomy 27 saying “But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.’ ” and previously Paul describes the Law as the ministry of death (2 cor 3:7). Elsewhere he affirms that the Law is holy (Romans 7:12), so I think he’s saying that using the Law as a checklist to buy a ticket to Heaven will result in death, not that the Law is in itself wrong. Just because the Law isn’t working for you doesn’t mean that it’s not working as intended; just because the Law isn’t doing what you want it to do doesn’t mean that it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.
Scripture I’m Reading: Acts 6
My Thoughts so Far: I love how amazingly practical the bible can be. The apostles are busy and still really dedicated to taking care of widows, so they delegate some responsibility. How they did so was also really neat. There was a concern that the minority Greeks were not getting their fair share, so they gave the authority and responsibility to folks with Greek names who were presumably of Greek descent. This has some applicability not just to us in the U.S., but to all cultures. For example, how many issues would be solved by giving more authority to African Americans to oversee receiving their fair share?
The other neat thing they do is select men of wisdom and full of the Spirit. A lot of us consider something like food distribution to be just a natural, nonspiritual exercise, so why then did the folks running it have to be full of the Spirit? Perhaps there are actually deep spiritual aspects to loving people well and looking after them; perhaps loving people well is more complicated than just meeting their physical needs? Certainly the widows will have a hard time following Christ with empty stomachs, but what they need is more than food. Matthew 4:4 does say that we don’t live on bread alone, but the word of God.
I tend to do too much in the natural skills God has given me; its great that God has given them to me and that I have opportunities to use them, but there’s a lot I’m missing out on. I think through problems with logic and solve them with the things around me. I usually exclude illogical solutions or solutions that include resources not within immediate reach. If someone gets a job and needs a ride to work everyday, my two solutions are either to split it up and have several folks drive or to pool money for bus passes. I usually wouldn’t listen and pray to see if God has an alternate solution: receiving another car, getting another person hired there and carpooling everyday, etc. As they involve resources not in immediate reach, then I wouldn’t readily consider them. I need to be more open to what God has, rather than purely natural, as some cool stuff can happen, and I’m not seeing it.
Scripture I’m Reading: Luke 16
My Thoughts so Far: My devotional gave me Luke 16 yesterday, and Luke 16 is hard; like, really hard. I heard a sermon at church that finally gave me some clarity, so I’ll paraphrase if I may. The best explanation I’ve heard is that Jesus is setting up some general principles about how important different things are. In descending order you can break them down into 5 different categories of capital: spiritual, relational, physical, intellectual, and financial. Financial capital is the simplest to grasp; its money or wealth in general. Intellectual capital includes things like skills, ideas, knowledge, and creativity. Physical capital is mainly the time you have to invest and your health. Relational capital includes your friends and family. Spiritual capital is the most complex; its your spiritual gifts, wisdom, and treasure in heaven.
The idea is to trade up when possible as wealth is the least valuable and spiritual capital is the most valuable. A simple example may be helpful. If your car breaks down, then you can pay someone to fix it, trading financial capital for intellectual. It would be more efficient if you could do the work yourself, i.e. if you have learned how to do it, then you have already invested sufficiently in intellectual capital, but even better is if a family member is a mechanic. If you have invested in the relationship, then they might be inclined to do the work for free, so if you have the relational capital, then you don’t need to spend the time (physical capital), money, or learn how to do it yourself (intellectual capital). So, what about Luke 16?
He’s a book keeper and about to loose his job, so by using his employer’s finances he made friends that would take care of him and he didn’t have to either dig ditches or become homeless. He’s sitting on intellectual capital, but about to loose everything else, so he found a way to turn someone else’s financial capital into relational capital to protect his physical capital. He takes the least important form and, for folks that don’t understand the value of following Christ, transforms it into the most valuable kind of capital. Its clearly not an invitation to dishonest gain, but it is a reminder to invest in what’s really important. If even the dishonest book keeper was commended for making a wise investment, then how much more so when we appropriately invest everything (tithing, bible study, time with God, and building relationship with Christ and His people) in God for spiritual capital (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self control).
So, what am I to do with this? Am I to pursue a different visa type when I move abroad? Am I too worried about finances? Am I sufficiently investing in gaining spiritual capital? Am I not being diligent and shrewd enough with the things God has given me to steward?
Scripture I’m reading: Luke 3
My thoughts so far: I think many of us in different ministries are too hard on ourselves. John the baptist is recorded here going out and teaching water baptism for repentance, and then providing very basic instruction: share with those in need and don’t steal. That’s it. He didn’t start any schools, he didn’t start any food distribution programs, he didn’t lobby for government reform, etc. He just went out and relayed a very basic message that was given to him, and crowds came to him. Folks even wondered if he was the messiah. He isn’t recorded revealing deep mysteries or performing signs; he just went out and told people to do the things they knew they should be doing anyway. He just went out and obeyed God.
As I go and try to serve God, I must continue to remember that obedience to God is way more valuable than anything else. No matter how highly I think about my plans, and no matter how obviously superior my plan seems, obedience to God is best. I’m pleased with how the refugee pharmacy tech program is coming along, and I’m happy that the folks at Alcansa have let me work with them on this project. I’m happy we have spots for 10 folks now and I hope we get something hammered out that will allow for more advanced training. The hard part for me will be discerning failure from redirection. Maybe God wants them to have all of the best training; maybe God wants a simple program so they develop their skills over time. I’m going to pursue getting these folks everything possible until I hear otherwise, but I’m not sure I’m really open to hearing that. I think the trick is being open to the possibility of smaller goals without using it as an excuse to pursue smaller goals.
Scripture I’m Reading: John 20
My Thoughts so Far: In this chapter the disciples learn that Jesus has risen from the dead. It seems like they were getting the notion that Jesus was the messiah they were waiting for, but I don’t think any of them understood the part about Jesus being the sacrifice to complete all the temple sacrifice by being crucified and rising three days later, so it was with much confusion and then joy that they received this news.
What stuck out to me was that there are two clear moments when it says that someone came to believe in Jesus as the risen Lord: when John sees the discarded wrappings and when Thomas is invited to put his hands into the wounds left on Jesus’ body. I assume that everyone else believed somewhere in between, both chronologically and regarding the amount of proof required. Where exactly the disciples came to saving faith is beyond our scope here; this will just be about when they believed God about a specific event and how that relates to believing God in saving faith in general. Now, both of these moments surround miracles, and in the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the greatest miracle conceivable, but they responded differently. John believed when he saw the empty tomb, but Thomas doubted. The disciples then saw Jesus after the resurrection, but Thomas doubted their testimony. He said he would need to touch the wounds, so Jesus showed up again and invited Thomas to do just that. He just needed a little more convincing than the rest. This is a pattern we see repeated in scripture; some folks believe readily and others need a little more proof. John 1:43-50 describes Nathaniel coming to faith because Jesus said he saw him under a fig tree and Luke 7 describes a centurion that believes that Jesus can heal and only wants a word to confirm it (rather than asking for the direct presence of Jesus and to see it done), but then there are many who see many miracles and never believe. Some, like Nicodemus in John 3, had seen the signs (John 3:2), but were still struggling with questions.
So this is where I do something daft like encourage us all to be more like John than Thomas and try and have faith to believe with as little proof as possible. Faith is a gift. You have to actively engage with receiving it over time, but you can’t just make yourself have it all today, so when something happens today, then you only have as much faith as you have received thus far. Over time you have to choose to accept and build your faith, but in the moment you only have what you have and that’s it, so I don’t want to focus on who’s better or worse based upon how much proof they needed to believe. What I want to emphasize was that they all came to believe.
As a prospective missionary it will be my job to love people well and teach Christ. There are going to be people of peace that have been prepared to receive the good news and will come to believe relatively quickly, there will be folks entrenched in things not of God that will require big miracles, and there will be lots of people in between. The Bible clearly shows us that all of them can believe, and that Jesus does in fact show up and let folks in doubt really see Him. There are going to be folks that are stuck in unbelief, and I’m going to want to write them off as a waste of time, but it is never a waste of time to obey God. If one of God’s elect needs to physically see Jesus and touch Him, then I need to remember that Jesus has done exactly that before. I must remember to obey God rather than my own understanding.