Monday, August 19 — Saturday, August 24

Monday, August 19

Read: Exodus 20:1-6

Consider: It may seem like a tangent, like we’re veering away from the main point. But we’re not swerving to the margins, we’re going to the heart—the essence—of our concern. In these weeks of considering the art of simple living, we’re going to spend a couple of days talking about one of the gravest sins addressed in the Bible. Now, hang in there with me. This won’t be guilt-inducing. It will be liberating.

I know we can’t really rank sins. We always want to, because we want to assure ourselves that we only participate in the minor ones—you know, a little gossip here, a short-term stinky attitude there. Nothing major. And even our larger sins are common ones, so we figure we’re no worse than anyone else.

Obviously, some sins are more grievous than others because of the resulting damage. So, don’t hear me being light-hearted about this. Sin has devastating consequences in our lives, our families and our world. But, because we can’t always understand intent and motive, we have a hard time ranking the sins.

Having said that, after decades of reading and studying the Bible, I have discovered a few things that seem to be especially offensive to God. If I were to judge them on the frequency with which they are mentioned, and the intensity of the words used by the prophets and by Jesus, a few things would rise to the top.

Jesus used his harshest words to denounce neglect of the vulnerable, and religious hypocrisy. (If you don’t believe me, read Matthew 23:13-33. Wow!) Of course, these sins are the very antithesis of Christ-like love—the essence of our calling. In the Old Testament, we see the same things expressed in different ways. Continually, Israel was called to care for the poor and oppressed, and the nation’s rulers and people were excoriated by the prophets when they neglected the vulnerable (particularly when they enriched themselves in the process).

But, there was a foundational sin that brought about these and all the other sins. Though using different words, Jesus and the prophets spoke clearly and forcefully about the sin of idolatry.

“Idolatry” is a word we don’t often use. But we sure know how insidious it is. The “idols” we create may not be the altars, sacred stones, Asherah poles and carved images described in Exodus, but our idol worship is just as devastating. It rips us away from all that God has for us and all that God wants to do in us and through us.

In today’s reading, God describes himself as “a jealous God” (20:5). That’s not the kind of jealousy that we experience. Ours is self-centered, insecure and pitiful. God’s “jealousy” is for us not to have our lives stolen from us while we’re bowing down to the wrong gods.

We’re going to see that simplicity breaks down the idols. And the destruction of our idols simplifies our lives.

Pray: “Lord, in the days to come, open my eyes so I can understand which idols are trying to seduce me—which gods are easy for me to worship. And help me today, and every day, to keep the most basic command of all, to have no other gods that stand beside or in front of you.”

 

Tuesday, August 20

Read: Exodus 34:10-14

Consider: The Bible doesn’t spell out a working definition of idolatry. That’s not the way our scriptures give us truth. We get it through story, image, metaphor and a vision of the God who came to us in the flesh—Jesus Christ. But since you and I are still influenced by The Enlightenment—the Age of Reason—we still think in systematic ways. So, my “definition” of idolatry is not taken from one particular verse or passage. It is simply my feeble attempt to describe what separates us from God.

I describe idolatry as looking to something or someone else to give me what God wants to give me. It may be security, peace, joy, significance or meaning. Those are things God wants for me. And God is able and willing to pour this grace into my life. But too often I look for those wonderful gifts from other sources.

Take, for example, significance. Have you ever, without realizing it, looked for increased self-esteem to give you a sense of significance? Again, without really examining it, you assumed that if you raised your self-esteem, you would have a sense of worthiness that would bring you real joy. (This was at the core of so much of the self-help literature of recent decades.) And how did we usually look for self-esteem in our culture? Well, we often looked for the approval and esteem of others, thinking that if they liked us more, we would like ourselves. Either that, or we looked for self-esteem and significance through accomplishment. Get that degree. Land the important job. Make a name for yourself in the community.

Crazy, isn’t it. We so easily make an idol out of how we are perceived by our culture. And, of course, our culture can never give us the sense of meaning and significance for which we were created.

That’s why God hates idolatry. He loves us beyond what we can comprehend, and he knows that false gods never deliver the goods. What is more, those idols steal from us what God is trying to give us.

We need to develop a healthy skepticism of the promises that pour into our consciousness every day from what scripture repeatedly refers to as “worthless idols.”

Pray: “Lord, the beauty of Christian simplicity is clearly seen when I compare it to the kind of lives we live when we’re chasing all the other gods. Thank you for loving me too much to give me over to those gods. Clarify my vision today, giving me eyes to see and ears to hear.”

                                     

Wednesday, August 21

Read: Matthew 6:19-24

Consider: Simplicity is not easy. Although we often use “simple” and “easy” as interchangeable words, following the path of Christian simplicity is not an easy thing, especially at the outset of the journey. It takes a reorientation of our thinking—what Paul called “the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). And it also takes some concrete action (which we’ll look at in the days to come).

The reason simplicity of heart and life is so challenging is that the pull toward idolatry is so pervasive and so subtle. As we’ve seen over the past two days, simplicity and idolatry are constantly at odds with one another.

To get a handle on it, yesterday I shared my belief that idolatry can be described as looking to something or someone else to give me what God wants to give me. I’m always trying to put things into words—to define and describe. But Jesus—the master communicator (the Word)—used a simple image to liberate us from the pursuit of false gods. He said…

“No one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24)

Jesus was speaking to people who knew what a master was. A slaveowner came to their minds. And if they weren’t envisioning a harshly treated slave who was captured from another country, they were thinking about a destitute man who was working (perhaps along with his whole family) to pay off his debt and stay out of prison. In other words, the master had full power over the servant or slave. So, it was evident that, of course, you couldn’t serve two masters.

And then Jesus opened their eyes…

“You cannot serve both God and money.” (6:24)

The master owned the slave. So, if you’re serving money—or any other idol—you are owned by it. You are owned by what you serve.

We keep coming back to why God hates idolatry—why he is “a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). Like any one of us, he would hate to see his children enslaved.

Pray: “Lord, as idolatry is honored by our culture, help me to see through the deceit of the false gods. Thank you for calling us to something bigger and better than these lesser masters can ever give. I’m amazed by your love.”

 

Thursday, August 22

Read: Matthew 6:19-24

Consider: Jesus called us to have “eyes that see” and “ears that hear” (and we’ve prayed for that this week). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained why he repeatedly told us to keep our eyes open.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” (6:22-23)

These words are sandwiched between Jesus’ teaching on what to treasure and his statement on the absurdity of trying to serve two masters. As we saw yesterday, this was a warning against being owned by something or someone other than our Creator. And Jesus spoke of this duplicity—the giving of ourselves to competing masters—as living in darkness.

Have you ever had so many things running through your mind that you felt helpless to focus on one thing? I think we’ve all had that crazy experience of lying awake at night, unable to sleep because we couldn’t quiet our minds. Our brains were on overdrive, but we couldn’t think straight. The sheer volume and speed of our thoughts kept us from really thinking through the issues that were bothering us. So, eventually we fell asleep only to wake up exhausted, and no closer to the answers we needed.

Now, I’m not calling stress-induced insomnia a sign of sin. I’m just using this mental picture to illustrate a spiritual reality. I think that kind of cluttered mental state is a good picture of the spiritual darkness that can descend upon us. If our “eyes are unhealthy”—if our spiritual vision is cluttered with competing values—we can’t really see anything at all.

So, Jesus teaches us to follow one Master. He tells us to “treasure” what is eternal and to let go of things that have no real lasting value. He teaches us to simplify our desires, our values and our love. And he tells us that, in so doing, our life will be “full of light.”

This light is not a reward that is dangled in front of our eyes to get us to do the right things. No, it is not something we earn. It is simply the result of removing the clutter that blocks the light.

Pray: Ask the Lord to help you discern if there are things that may be blocking the light. Are there competing claims on your affection? Are certain desires taking mastery over you—owning you? Are you trying to go two directions at one time? The beautiful thing is, if we are willing to obey, the Holy Spirit will gently reveal these things to us. And the Lord will empower us to walk into new light with him.

 

Friday, August 23

Read: John 4:23-24

Consider: As we’ve considered idolatry this week, we’ve looked at it from a couple of perspectives. We’ve seen it as the act of looking for good things in all the wrong places. Remember, idolatry is looking to something or someone else to give us what God wants to give us. It is the delusion that security, peace, joy, significance or meaning can be found anywhere else. That produces false gods.

We’ve also seen it in Jesus’ image of a person attempting to “serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). So, we don’t only have the issue of serving the wrong gods, but of serving too many gods. Masters are owners and God doesn’t want any person or thing to own us. He alone wants sovereignty over our lives, for he alone can be trusted because of his love for us.

But we haven’t looked at the main image of idolatry that is found throughout scripture—the image of worship. Idolatry is almost always described as worship. Sometimes it is the worship of “worthless idols” that are made by the hands of men. Sometimes it is the worship of God’s handiwork—worshipping the creation instead of the Creator.

So, as I have pursued the life of Christian simplicity, one of the things I’ve learned is the necessity of simplicity of worship.

Over the years, I’ve read about worship, thought about worship, gone to worship seminars, discussed worship with friends and co-workers, taught and preached on worship, and, oh yes, worshipped. And what I keep discovering is that worship has a whole lot to do with affection. The object of my true worship is also the object of my affection. What do we worship? We worship what we love the most.

Keeping that in mind gives us a purity and simplicity of worship that honors the God to whom we bow. We don’t perform worship to appease God or beg him for favors. That would be idolatry. We simply love God, which is what we do when we worship him “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).

This Sunday when you gather with the Body of Christ to worship the Father, keep it simple. Don’t worry about the kind of music you’ll hear or sing. Don’t look for an emotional experience. Don’t judge worship based on your preferences. Don’t worry about the “quality” of worship (this is, don’t worship the act of worship). Just love God. Bask in his love for you and your affection for him. Then do that in your time of private worship—your time alone with God. Then learn to do it every moment of every day.

Pray: “Lord, take me deeper. I want my life to be filled with acts of love and affection for you and for all who are made in your image. That is the worship you desire, and it is the worship I will to offer to you.”

 

Saturday, August 24

Read: James 4:7-8

Consider: The word “integrity” shares its Latin origin with the word, integer—a whole number. “Duplicity” is from the Latin word, duplicitās—being double. In other words, we use the concept of “one” to describe honesty and all that is good, while the concept of “two” is what we use to describe deception and corruption (as in being two-faced).

Duplicity is what James was talking about when he wrote, “purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8). In the Greek language in which James wrote his letter, the term “double-minded” can also be translated “two-souled.”

I share these fascinating words for a reason. For me, the concept of simplicity is increasingly associated with “oneness” and integrity. And I’m starting to see the clutter of the soul—the opposite of simplicity—as duplicity.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging anyone, nor am I disparaging myself. I’m not saying that, until we reach a certain level of simplicity, we’re being deceitful or dishonest. We’re all on a journey. We’re all learning. I have so much simplifying yet to do. I’m a novice.

What I am saying is that simplicity of heart and mind empowers us to live integrated lives—lives of integrity. Simple living has a way of purifying our motives, our desires and our joy. We’re free to love without calculating what we can get in return.

Soul clutter does the opposite. When I’m double-minded—or two-souled—my priorities are distorted. I am worried about things that don’t really matter, which makes me defensive and protective of the wrong things. I can begin to value what is cheap and de-value what is precious (Matthew 6:19-20).

In recent years, I’ve tried to learn from one of the great teachers of Christian simplicity, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). His beliefs have been summarized in various ways. The one that resonates with me is that Francis approached life as one who was naked, little and poor.

Naked — nothing to hide

Little — nothing to prove

Poor — nothing to lose

To me, that’s the life of simplicity, integrity and freedom—a single-minded pursuit of God.

Pray:“Lord, I present my heart to you for your purification. Deliver me from double-mindedness and grant me a single soul with single-minded love for you.”

Simplicity — 3

Monday, August 12

Read: Philippians 4:10-12

Consider: When I read Paul’s words on the secret of contentment, I feel them deeply. It’s a mixture of, “I know what he’s talking about” and “I long to know that way of living.” I’ll be honest, too many times I’ve postponed contentment because I didn’t grasp the art of simple living.

Paul wrote about contentment in the middle of a letter that is known for and filled with joy. Now, as abstract concepts, I’m sure we could split hairs on the definition and peculiarities of contentment and how it differs from and relates to joy. But then, why would we want to talk about them in abstract, theoretical ways? When we think about contentment and joy, we don’t ask, “What?” We ask, “How? How can I know contentment and how can I experience joy?”

Because contentment and joy are bound together in our experience, this week we’re going to look at both as we continue to engage the journey of simplicity. As we grow in living the Christian value of simplicity, we will see results in every area of our lives. But some of the most profound changes we will experience will be in the quality and depth of our peace, contentment and joy.

Of course, the thing that strikes us about Paul’s words is that his joy and contentment were not dependent on his circumstances. He said…

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…” (4:11-12)

That’s remarkable! “Any and every” situation?

This is at odds with all that we’ve ever known. We spend our lives saying, “I’ll have joy when…” and “I’ll be content when…” When I’m done with my degree, when I get that job, when I get out of debt, when I can retire, when, when, when…

In other words, most people think—or at least, live as though—contentment and peace are achieved by engineering our lives into the best conditions. We believe the right circumstances yield security, contentment, joy and peace. And yet, we must remind ourselves that Philippians is one of the New Testament’s prison letters. That’s right, from prison Paul wrote, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”

Pray: “Lord, I know you want me to grow. You want me to flourish. And yet, so often I think that can only happen in the right circumstances. Help me to understand that I can know real life ‘in any and every situation.’ Today I’ll ask you to change my circumstances. But please change me, so that, until my circumstances change, I will know your peace and contentment. Please do the impossible in me.”

 

Tuesday, August 13

Read: Philippians 4:10-13

Consider: Yesterday we marveled that, from prison, a man could say…

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…” (4:11-12)

I’ve read Philippians for decades, and I’m still blown away by those words.

The “secret” Paul learned had to do with this thing we’re calling simplicity. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve laid some groundwork by considering simplicity of expectation and simplicity of desire.

Remember, stress (the kind of stress that destroys peace and contentment) is experienced in the gap between expectation and reality. Unrealistic expectations work to steal our contentment and joy, at times even consuming us with bitterness and self-pity. But simple—realistic—expectations bring us to reality and help us find Christ there. Knowing that this life will bring pain does not diminish us. It empowers us to journey with Christ through the pain.

Am I saying that Paul expected to go to prison? Well…yes. He said…

“Compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” (Acts 20:22-23)

Now, Paul did his best to stay out of prison. There is nothing wrong with trying to avoid disaster and striving to improve our situations. But, because he knew the cost of following Jesus, he was never surprised by what he had to endure. He didn’t sit in prison, increasingly consumed by bitterness, railing at his misfortune.

And his realistic expectations impacted his desires.

I think if I were in prison, my greatest desire would be to get out—fast! I would yearn to be released and vindicated. But Paul’s longing was for something much greater. In that powerful letter from prison—the letter of joy—Paul said…

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…” (3:10)

His expectations were simple. He knew that following Christ would give him a life full of joy and a life full of trouble.

Simple expectations with a simple desire — “I want to know Christ…”

And the profound simplicity of his desire brought him to the point where he would say, “I’ve learned the secret…”

Pray: “Lord, too often I’ve looked for improved situations on the outside to give me peace and contentment on the inside. Of course, the perfect situation seldom arrives, and when it does, it never lasts very long. That leaves me yearning for circumstantial change rather than longing for you. Help me to make Paul’s prayer my prayer — ‘I want to know Christ’.”

                                     

Wednesday, August 14

Read: 1 Timothy 6:6-7

Consider: Every night I lay my head on the pillow and begin my final prayer of the day with these words…

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

Paul thought it was important to remind Timothy, his son in the faith, of that same truth. He said…

“We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” (6:7)

Now, if we take that prayer or Paul’s words out of context, they may sound hopeless. What’s the use? Why am I working so hard? Why is life so tough? If it’s just a slog through a transitory existence, what’s the point?

But those are not the words of a cynic. They’re words of great hope, joy, peace and contentment. In fact, Paul was giving us great insight into simplicity. It’s the paradox that we must understand if we’re going to grasp Christian simplicity—less is more.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world…”

Our “great gain” is found in our emptiness. Jesus taught this repeatedly, particularly in the first Beatitude — “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Our emptiness is the space readied for his presence. The clutter of our expectations, our desires, our ambitions—the clutter in our souls—is the very thing that robs us of contentment and joy. When we simplify—when we choose to embrace our emptiness before God—we allow ourselves to experience the “great gain” of the knowledge of his presence.

Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century Christian writer, was fond of saying, “The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction.”

Pray: “Lord, I came into this world naked and empty-handed, and that is how I will enter the fullness of your presence when I leave the world as I know it now. Too often I’ve lost sight of that as I’ve tried to accumulate things—material things, reputation, honor, esteem and so much more. Lord, you are all I really have and all I really need. May I allow you to plant this truth deep in my soul, so that I will know the contentment and joy of your presence. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

 

Thursday, August 15

Read: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Consider: Words are funny. Words are strange. Words are powerful. I love words. They convey pictures and ideas. And sometimes they are used to communicate what is beyond our comprehension. Words like “love” and “faith” and “God” are meager vehicles for what they are trying to convey.

This week we’ve been talking about contentment and joy. But contentment is not a thing. Even though we speak of “finding” contentment, it really isn’t some thing that can be grasped. Even though we “look” for joy, it’s not something that can be pursued—though we often try to chase it down, tackle it and hold on to it.

No, contentment, joy and peace are not entities that God doles out to us if we ask for them in the right way or work hard enough to earn them. Those words are simply inadequate descriptions of a relationship that the New Testament describes as Christ in us and us in Christ. We do not pursue contentment and joy. We open our spiritual “eyes” to see and our spiritual “ears” to hear, then we begin to know the reality of Christ’s presence in us and the reality of life in him.

I believe this rut—thinking of contentment and joy as things—causes us to read some portions of scripture through the wrong lens. Today’s passage is an example.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances…” (5:16-18)

If you read this as three rules to follow so you can gain peace and joy, those words will seem shallow. You’ll feel like a hypocrite rejoicing and giving thanks when you’re wounded and devastated. You’ll feel like those words don’t relate to the real world. In fact, you may even feel angry with God that he would expect you to rejoice when the world—your world—is falling apart before your eyes.

But these are not words that deny reality. They open us to reality. No, I can’t give thanks that my loved one died. But I can believe and see that, in my profound grief, God kept his promise, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). I may not be able to rejoice that I’m in a dark place right now, but I can be grateful that “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

Our act of giving thanks is not an attempt to appease God, or even an attempt to manufacture a certain emotion within ourselves that helps us cope with life. No, it is an act of opening our eyes and recognizing the reality of God’s presence with us. A person who is never grateful loses touch with reality.

When we dispense with trying to grasp joy or peace or contentment, we just may simplify our spirits enough to receive the gift of his presence. Then we’ll see again that less is more. Our emptiness makes his presence a reality.

Pray: Throughout this day, allow those words to sink deep into your soul — “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.” Don’t use it as a mantra or as an attempt to lift your emotions. Don’t “pray continually” with words. Simply ask the Lord to help you open your spiritual senses to his presence and to reality. That’s prayer. And give God thanks for his presence in all circumstances” regardless of whether you can thank him for all circumstances.

 

Friday, August 16

Read: Philippians 4:10-13

Consider: Let’s return to the passage we looked at on Monday and Tuesday. We need to dwell a little longer on the grace and power of the Spirit’s work that taught Paul contentment “in any and every situation” (4:11-12).

Paul wrote about “the secret” of that kind of contentment. Of course, he was speaking in a figurative manner. It was not a secret to be hidden, but a secret to be shared—simple truth that changes everything.

But you’ll notice that he didn’t say that he discovered the secret or happened on it by accident. No, he said that he learned the secret of being content” (4:12). That rings true for me, because on my journey, contentment has never come naturally. I must learn it. In fact, I must learn it every day.

We all learn in different ways, and sometimes we do learn things by accident. (We usually refer to those instances as the times we “learned it the hard way.”) But our best learning is our intentional learning. Even when I learn from my mistakes, I usually learn the most when I consciously look for what I can learn from the messes I’ve made.

So how do we learn this secret? What disciplines or actions do we need to take?

Speaking from my own experience, there are two things I’m trying to learn about living a joy-filled, contented life. First, I’m learning to simplify my desires. The wrong desires, too many desires, or inappropriate intensity of lesser desires can make contentment impossible. So, I must discipline my mind and ask God to mold my heart so that I may desire what he desires for me. Remember the secret of simplicity—less is more.

Secondly, I’m trying to grow in my continual awareness of God’s presence. The more we know his presence, the more we experience his peace. And the more we live in peace, the more we long for his presence. So, we can partner with God by using spiritual disciplines of subtraction to raise and enhance our sense of his presence. But remember, we’re not earning contentment. We’re learning the secret of contentment.

Pray: “Lord, to know your presence is the meaning of prayer. It’s not my words that matter, but my awareness of you. Help me to make this day a prayer. And as I live one day at a time, I’ll trust you to make my life a prayer—a celebration that God is with us.”

 

Saturday, August 17

Read: Genesis 28:10-16

Consider: What brings you joy? Well, that probably depends on how you define joy.

I used to differentiate between joy and happiness. I thought happiness was fleeting because it was based on short-lived experiences. I spoke about joy as something deep in our souls, something that would outlast happiness.

Well, there’s probably some good truth there. After all, the joy of salvation is more important than the happiness of ice cream. But I really think I was missing something very important. What we may consider to be small joys—moments of happiness—really are amazing gifts from God. I call them eternal moments. And on my journey to fully embrace Christian simplicity, I’m discovering the importance of the simplicity of joy in those moments when eternity enters time.

I know this is going to sound like a cliché—you know, “stop and smell the roses”—and I really don’t want to come off sounding schmaltzy. But, we all know that the complexity of our lives—the clutter of our days and the clutter in our souls—keeps us from seeing, hearing and experiencing daily gifts from God, which in fact, are the very presence of God. We don’t stop to listen to talking children or laughing toddlers. We don’t go outside to watch sunsets. We don’t smile when we see teenagers or elderly people holding hands. We don’t dance at weddings or cry at funerals. We don’t even savor our food because we’re snarfing it down while we drive. God keeps showing himself to us and keeps pouring beauty into our lives day-by-day and moment-by-moment, but we’re too busy to see it. Far too many times I lived like Jacob who said, “The Lord was here, and I didn’t even notice” (Genesis 10:16—my paraphrase).

I keep discovering that joy is offered to me every day of my life. If I can have eyes to see and ears to hear, I’ll encounter God more often than I ever thought I could. The great saints of the past would say that this is the essence of Christian spirituality. A saint is not someone who accomplishes great things or someone who is naturally more “holy” than others. The great saints were simply people who saw God every day, every moment in everything that surrounded them. And that sense of God’s presence revolutionized their lives and made them agents of grace in a broken world.

I’ve tried to make this a spiritual discipline—a lovely, wonderful discipline. I used to actually put it on my to-do list (what an un-saintly thing to do). Every day my list had an entry that said “DSTBYJ”—which meant, “Do something that brings you joy.” It was my way of reminding myself to look for God in the small things. It may be getting up early enough to watch the sun rise. It may be stopping by my favorite coffee shop and savoring a beautiful mocha latte. It may be taking my wife to lunch. It may be playing with my grandkids. It was usually something so simple that no one would notice it but me.

I use different reminders now, but I’m finding that what had to be intentional is beginning to become more habitual. Oh, how I long for the habit of seeing God and dwelling with Christ every moment.

I challenge you to do the same. Don’t make it complicated. Most days you won’t have time to go rock climbing or fishing. Those are good, but it’s important to learn how to find joy in the daily, simple things, because there is where you see God. So even if you are going through the darkest of times, look for God in smallness—in the places where you least expect to see him.

Pray:“Lord, I realize that finding daily joy starts with daily thanksgiving. So today, I will have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart that says, ‘Thank you!’ Amen.”

Simplicity — 2

Monday, August 5

Read: Psalm 37:3-4

Consider: Last week we began a journey to recover the art of simple living. We began by looking, in a general way, at what simplicity is and what it does for us. If you were walking with us, I hope you were captured by the necessity and beauty of Christian simplicity. It is a value and a discipline given to us by Jesus and passed along by the New Testament writers and the “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1).

Having looked at simplicity of expectation (last Friday and Saturday), I want us to consider simplicity of desire. Like our expectations, many times our desires go unexamined. We often allow our preferences to morph into desires without asking ourselves if they should. If our desires are unexamined, they will go unchallenged. And like expectations, if we don’t make conscious choices, we’ll allow others to tell us what we should desire.

I once had a friend who was a garbage collector—by vocation and by avocation. Every day he worked for the city, loading a truck with trash. And he loved his job. He loved looking for hidden treasures—discarded items that may be valuable to someone else. But he told me that he felt guilty. He felt guilty because he loved his job and everyone else thought he should hate it. His joy was stolen because he was allowing others to tell him what he should desire.

Of course, the irony is evident. Unhappy people were telling a happy man that he would be happier if he lived like they did.

Has this happened to you? Have you listened to a dysfunctional culture that tells you what you should desire? There’s a simple remedy for this. Under the gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit, ask yourself and ask the Lord what you should desire. And then, begin to change your desires.

Yes, change them. It can be done. It is a journey, but it is possible. Advertisers believe they can alter your desires and, over time, radically change them. And they are probably right. If they can, then certainly you can, especially as you allow the Lord to implant his desires in you.

Pray: “Lord, search my heart. I open myself to your guidance. Clarify my desires to me and help me see the value or the absurdity of the things I desire the most. I want to desire what you desire for me.”

 

Tuesday, August 6

Read: Mark 4:15-20

Consider: Yesterday we considered how easy it is to embrace the wrong desires. But when we speak about simplicity, we can’t narrow our concern to destructive desires alone. We must also contend with the multiplicity of desires we are tempted to embrace and pursue.

Most of us were raised and taught to avoid the pollutants of life—those desires and addictions that can destroy us. (Some are more obvious than others.) But we weren’t taught the danger of too many good desires. Our culture—and perhaps our families—said, “Go for it. You can have it all!” We were infected with the plague that used to be called, FOMO—the Fear of Missing Out. And the people who experienced the most—the ones who were busiest at business and at pleasure—were held up as those who really knew how to live life to the fullest. That became the picture of success.

But according to Jesus, that way of living will choke the life out of us.

“Others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19)

While we tried to avoid poisonous desires, we ingested the toxins that come with too many desires.

So, we return to the concept of simplicity as clearing the clutter. Part of the task of de-cluttering our souls, is to choose which desires we will pursue, and which ones will be rejected. And when we choose and actively work to ignore certain desires, we’ll discover very soon that they lose their power over us.

Pray: “Lord, sometimes I’ve fallen for the lie that more is always better. And in that clutter, some desires have competed with others. I don’t want to be ‘double-minded’ (James 4:8). I want simplicity and purity of intent to open me to an increased awareness of your presence in my life.”

 

Wednesday, August 7

Read: Mark 4:15-20

Consider: This week we’ve looked at two aspects of simplifying our desires. On Monday we saw the importance of rejecting false, socially imposed desires that can be so very destructive. And yesterday we considered Jesus’ warning against too many desires. We saw that de-cluttering our souls means restricting the number of desires we choose to embrace and pursue. But there is a third aspect we must consider when it comes to simplifying. It has to do with the intensity with which we pursue our desires—emotionally and in practice.

In Jesus’ parable about the farmer and his seed, we find three “thorns” that can choke our spiritual lives…

“the worries of this life”

“the deceitfulness of wealth”

“the desires for other things” (Mark 4:18-19)

Now, these may have been three distinct things Jesus was describing, or he may simply have been restating one thing in three different ways. I think we can apply it either way.

We see here a big emphasis on security. Most of our “worries of this life” tend to revolve around issues of health, finances, safety and security. That would also be true when it comes to “the deceitfulness of wealth.” One of the ways money tricks us is that it disguises itself as security.

Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be and feel secure. I certainly want financial security for my family and myself. That is a legitimate desire. But how intense is this desire? Is it the “other thing” that drains so much of my emotional energy that it chokes out my spiritual vitality?

For me, and I’m guessing for most of us, this aspect of simplicity is difficult. I feel like I have some control when it comes to rejecting destructive desires and reducing the number of desires I will pursue. But sometimes it is so hard to limit the emotional energy I will put into legitimate desires—such as the desire for security.

Yet, I know that God has more for me than simply longing for, working for and pouring my energy into some unattainable illusion. I need to re-orient my thinking, my expectations and my desires. That involves some serious unlearning.

So, as we’ve been reminding ourselves, we must see simplicity as a journey. A long, slow and joyous journey. The thing that makes it enjoyable for me, is the belief that it is a walk with Jesus and that he’s thrilled that I’ve joined him on the journey. He will teach me—and is teaching me—to trust him.

Pray: “Lord, I know that simplicity yields trust and trust yields simplicity. They are dependent on one another. But really, all is dependent on you. Thank you for inviting me on this journey. With joy I give myself to you. Please change me, teach me, and grow me as we walk together.”

 

Thursday, August 8

Read: 1 Corinthians 12:27–13:3

Consider: Some desires need to be rejected, because they are poisonous (see Monday). Some desires need to be left by the side of the road, because if you carry too many of them, they’ll weigh you down and eventually bury you (see Tuesday). Some desires need to be put in perspective because, even though they may be good, they are not worthy of monopolizing your time, energy and emotional investment (see Wednesday). And some desires need to be embraced with your whole heart.

This simplicity of desire is one of the solutions that the Apostle Paul presented to the struggling, corrupt, divided Corinthian church. He taught them to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (12:31).

That one sentence is sandwiched between two amazing thoughts. Prior to it, Paul discussed the various gifts and ministries in the church. There was great division in Corinth surrounding these. People said that some gifts—and therefore, those who had those gifts—were more important than others. This skewed their desires. They were trying to prove themselves. They were jealous of one another. Some felt superior to others. It was a real mess.

So, Paul tried to explain the gifts of the Spirit. But really, he knew their problem was not primarily a lack of understanding. It was much deeper. They needed new desires. They had been poisoned by toxic desires, and their legitimate desires had been contaminated. It was time to simplify, so that Christ could be seen, rather than their pettiness.

Paul’s words are powerful — “Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”

Perhaps we can begin to desire “the most excellent way” by repeatedly reading the words that follow—the great love poem of 1 Corinthians 13. We need to get into our minds and into our souls the truth that “the greatest of these is love” (13:13).

Pray: “Lord, I must confess that love is not always my greatest desire. It’s there, but sometimes it’s down the list. Teach me how to love like Jesus and teach me to love loving. Thank you for your patience with me.”

 

Friday, August 9

Read: Matthew 6:19-21

Consider: Simplicity happens on the inside and on the outside. I always say that simplicity is an inside-out job. That’s why we begin by talking about things like simplicity of expectation and simplicity of desire. But I can’t wait till I have it perfected on the inside before I practice it and live it each day on the outside—in the flesh.

I love what Jesus had to say about desire in his Sermon on the Mount. It captivates me because it is an inside-out and an outside-in approach. He said…

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (6:21)

What do you treasure? I’m not only asking what you treasure with your heart. What do you treasure by investing in it with your time, your money, your emotions and your energy? What do you treasure?

You probably treasure several things—your spouse, your kids, your house, your hobbies, your books, your vacation time, your ministry, your work. You and I have been given so much that it can be difficult to keep things in proper perspective. And therein lies the brilliance of Jesus’ words.

If I choose to treasure my wife with my time, my energy, my prayers and my money, she’ll also get my heart. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That’s outside in. And when she has my heart, the natural result will be that I’ll joyfully treasure her with my actions. That’s inside-out.

So, my actions influence my desires as my desires influence my actions. That means I have some choice in the matter, even as I ask God to conform my desires to what he wants them to be.

Simple. Not always easy. But simple.

Pray: “Lord, help me to discern where you want my heart. Then give me the strength and grace to treasure that in daily life. Please continue to change me and form me with the desires that honor you. Thank you for this beautiful journey.”

 

Saturday, August 10

Read: Philippians 3:7-14

Consider: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” That phrase has been part of my preaching, and an approach to life I have pursued for many years. It comes from the great theologian and philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. And, for me, it sums up what we’ve been talking about this week—simplicity of desire.

Now, of course, you and I have more than one desire. We desire food, clothing, shelter, security, pleasure and so much more. Good things. But our brother, Søren, is confronting us with one of the most important questions we could ever be asked — What is your one thing? What is the thing that takes precedence over everything and everyone else?

As Christians, the first response that probably jumps from our lips is, “God—God is my one thing.” He is. (Even when we don’t realize it.) And he wants us to know our One Thing at a deeper and more expansive level every day of our lives.

On Thursday, we heard the Apostle Paul tell us that love is the most excellent way—love is our one thing. I’m trying to learn that love and God are my one thing.

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)

God is love. Love is God. Living in love is living in God. Living in God is living in love. It’s our one thing.

Kierkegaard is right when he tells us that having one thing—one ultimate desire—purifies us. That’s what simplicity of desire is and what it does. And that’s the path we’ve taken. On our long, slow, joyous journey, Christ is doing an amazing, purifying, liberating work in our lives.

In the weeks ahead, we’re going to look at other aspects of Christian simplicity, such as simplicity of joy, simplicity of contentment, and living simply so others can simply live.

Pray:“Lord, I join with Paul in saying, ‘But one thing I do’ (Philippians 3:13). Of course, I need your guidance as to how to live in you and live in love today. I trust you to guide me and I thank you for that guidance.”

Simplicity — 1

I’m reprising a series on simplicity (from January 2018).

On more than one occasion, the Apostle Paul talked about the importance of being reminded. I know that I need continual reminders of this vital work the Spirit can do in my life. (And, besides, reducing my weekend writing obligations for a few weeks will simplify my life!)

I hope these days of focusing on simplicity will remind you in a manner that will beautify and empower your journey with Jesus.

 

Monday, July 29

Read: Matthew 6:33

Consider: I’ve heard it said that if you attend church your entire life and hear hundreds of sermons, you’ll probably only remember a handful of them. Perhaps three will stand out to you for a lifetime. Well, I’ve preached hundreds of times over four decades and I can say there is some truth to that. But I don’t think of it in terms of individual sermons. Instead, I think of the great themes—the amazing truths of our faith that have impacted me. I hope people have heard me preach love, grace, acceptance and care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). I hope they have heard the good news of a new kingdom—a new way of thinking, living and loving—that has come to us in Christ.

But as I look at my preaching, there is one theme that captures people in a manner that always surprises me. I am consistently amazed at the response I get whenever I preach, teach or write about simplicity. I hear from people who say that their lives have been revolutionized by it and I hear from those who yearn for it.

Now, we’re tempted to believe that this is a modern phenomenon. We think it’s the busyness that our culture imposes on us that steals our contentment and joy, and causes us to yearn for something different. Of course, there is some truth to that. But it is wrong to believe that if we could just go back a century or so, simplicity would be a given and that we would not have to choose it—that it would not require intentionality to practice. That’s not what history teaches us.

If you look back, you will find many saints who went to the desert, looking for simplicity. You will find that people like Francis of Assisi had to live radically counter-cultural lives in order to find it. Even in his day, people thought he was crazy.

No, this is not merely a cultural issue. It is a spiritual issue. That’s why there is a longing in our hearts for simplicity. It is a God-given longing.

We’re going to spend some time in the days ahead to try to grasp and embrace the gift of simplicity. It is not a fad or a gimmick. It is a gift from God and a journey to which he has called us.  

Pray: “Lord, sometimes my mind and my heart are so cluttered that I cannot see you with my spiritual eyes or hear you with my spiritual ears. I don’t want anything to cloud the sense of your presence in my life. So, thank you for calling me to a journey of ever-increasing simplicity and the spiritual gifts that come with it.”

 

Tuesday, July 30

Read: 1 John 1:7

Consider: Simplicity is a journey. A long, slow journey. It is not a destination.

It’s not a New Year’s resolution that you will check off your list of accomplishments on December 31st. If you go on this journey, you will look back in a year and see that God is doing some wonderful things in you and through you. But you’ll never feel like you’ve arrived. Of course, that’s the nature of our walk with Jesus.

Let’s picture ourselves in a group of twelve people, walking down a dusty road with Jesus, headed to the next village he wants to visit. We’re talking and laughing. We’re thinking back on what we saw in the last village and asking Jesus questions about healing, about this new kingdom he keeps talking about, and why some people are so thrilled with his message while others are so hostile. And even though you don’t have all the answers, you’re just happy to be walking with Jesus. If you were honest, you’d say that you always try to be the closest one to him on these walks. And sometimes you’d just have to pinch yourself to see if this is real. “Imagine! I’m walking with Jesus!”

You’d listen intently, wanting to learn all you can. You wouldn’t worry that you can’t learn it all in one day. You know there are a lot more miles that you will walk with him. You’ll keep listening, keep watching and keep learning. You’ll enjoy this journey.

Simplicity is not a list of things you need to do. It is not a series of hoops you must jump through to feel good about yourself. It is a journey—a slow, long and wonderful journey.

Pray: Thank the Lord that as you walk this journey of simplicity, he doesn’t lay more burdens on you. He removes them. Make the choice right now that today you are going live in gratitude as you enjoy the journey.

 

Wednesday, July 31

Read: 1 Timothy 4:8-10

Consider: As Christians, we often talk about the disciplines of the spirit. “Spiritual disciplines” is an important term, but it is often misunderstood.

For one thing, the meaning of “discipline” has become less clear in our culture. It is often seen as a negative term. It may be used to talk about punishing wrongdoing, as when a parent disciplines a child. And even when we talk about disciplining ourselves, we usually put a bad spin on it—as in, “I have to discipline myself to do the things I hate to do.”

That’s unfortunate when it comes to our spiritual disciplines. We don’t want to view them as things we need to do—things we need to get out of the way—before we can do the things we really enjoy. We don’t want the disciplines, such as prayer, to become events in our day (maybe even items to check off the to-do list), rather than the ongoing infusion of life into our spirits.

The other misunderstanding comes because “spiritual disciplines” are often narrowed down to a few activities, such a prayer, Bible study, fasting and church attendance. But the New Testament includes so much more — worship, giving, serving, solitude, meditation and simplicity.

Yes, simplicity is a deeply spiritual activity. As we go on this journey of simplicity, we’ll discover the profoundly spiritual nature of it. And we’ll discover that, as is the case with all the spiritual disciplines, it yields amazing results in everyday life. All the while, it helps us see our purpose in Christ.

Does simplicity require discipline? Yes. But perhaps we need a new paradigm. Perhaps we should see it not so much as disciplining ourselves in the conventional manner, but as discipling ourselves—or better yet, allowing Christ to form us as his disciples.

Pray: “Lord, help me to understand the importance of simplicity. Just as prayer is a vehicle for you to form me, help me to understand that you use many avenues to conform me to your image. Expand my horizon. Help me to see the many ways you want to breathe life into me.”

 

Thursday, August 1

Read: Matthew 6:21

Consider: We’ve been talking about simplicity. A lot of people are talking about it.

There are so many wonderful web sites and blogs on simplicity and minimalism that I cannot keep up with them. That’s good, but it can have a downside. Because minimalism is popular, some people have concluded that simplicity is a fad that will pass by before too long. While that may happen on a pop culture level, we need to understand that Christian simplicity is something so much deeper. It was taught and practiced by Jesus, by his disciples and by Jesus-followers for the past two millennia.

To most people, modern simplicity (usually called “minimalism”) is a matter of de-cluttering. People clean out their garages, remove the clutter from their homes, get their finances in order, learn to practice healthy eating, etc. Of course, those things are very important. But if that’s all there is, then we’ve totally missed the point.

Simplicity is an inside-out job. We can clean out our garages and still have cluttered minds. We can single-purpose our professions and still have a duplicitous spirit (serving more than one master). Simplicity is, first and foremost, a work of the Holy Spirit. That is why it revolutionizes our lives, rather than merely rearranging them.

On Monday, I mentioned my passion to proclaim love, grace, acceptance and care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). I said that I hoped people could hear from me the good news of a new kingdom—a new way of thinking, living and loving. I’ve come to realize that simplicity empowers this.

Simplicity empowers our love, our grace-giving and our acceptance of others. Simplicity makes it possible to see the richness of the new kingdom that Jesus brought and to discern the emptiness of the kingdoms of this world. Simplicity humbles us, giving us the ability to see ourselves and to see Jesus in the “least of these.” It helps us—through the power of the Holy Spirit—to live like Jesus.

Pray: “Lord, today I ask you to help me on this journey of ‘de-cluttering’ my soul. There are so many things I desire—so many masters—vying for my attention. I choose to seek you today. And when my mind and heart are seduced by imposters, I will focus again on the One who has already given me everything. Thank you!”

 

Friday, August 2

Read: Philippians 1:20-21

Consider: We’ve spent this week thinking about simplicity in general terms. I’ve tried to make the point that simplicity is first and foremost a spiritual issue—an inside-out work that God does in our lives. Living the Christian value of simplicity is a vital, life-changing, thrilling journey.

So, what is it that needs to change inside of us? What clutter can be removed that will change the way we think, and will open us up to new levels of intimacy with God? Of course, this will be different for each one of us. We will all struggle with different forms of duplicity. But let’s start with simplicity of expectation.

One good description of stress is that stress is found in the gap between expectation and reality. We all carry certain expectations of what life should be. Too often those expectations are unexamined. And if we don’t prayerfully think through, examine, and choose our expectations, we’ll simply adopt the expectations of the people around us, or those of the broader culture. And could there be a source of more unrealistic expectations than our media saturated culture? Is the “good life” presented in our world anywhere close to the life to which God calls us?

So, many people—including Christians—walk through life feeling troubled, stressed, cheated, and even angry because their daily life is not living up to their undefined, unexamined and unrealistic expectations.

Now, we don’t take lightly the fact that sometimes life is cruel. We all go through excruciating times of loss, suffering and pain. So, what do we expect?

There are so many narratives out there that deliver the message that we can bypass the ugly stuff, that pain can be indefinitely postponed. We know that is absurd. And yet, it works on our expectations. What do we expect from God? What can we expect?

In my ministry I spend significant amount of time each week with terminally ill people and their families. It’s important that I do not give them false hope or simply repeat some pat answers. But there is a promise from God that I find myself repeating every day, and thanking God for in every prayer that I pray with them — “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

Pray: Ask God to help you examine your expectations. Ask him to help you see the amazing and beautiful things you can and should expect from him. It will probably be a short, simple list. And you will find it liberating.

 

Saturday, August 3

Read: 1 Peter 4:12-16

Consider: Yesterday we looked at simplicity of expectation. What is the difference between simplifying our expectations and lowering our expectations?

None of us would ever tell someone to lower their expectations of life in Christ. We believe God loves us. We believe he wants his story to be our story. We can’t imagine real life apart from him. So, shouldn’t we have high expectations—even higher than we can comprehend?

Yes.

“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10, quoting Isaiah 64:4)

And yet, Peter said, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). In other words, expect some really bad stuff.

Just as Jesus was incarnated to live in the mess of this world, he filled us with his Spirit—incarnating himself in us. We, too, are called to be the face of Christ to our world. It’s a beautiful world in which some ugly things happen. As we live the life of Christ, we can count on pain, suffering and loss. We should not be surprised. But we can also believe—and expect to be sustained by—the One who said…

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Jesus placed before us simple and unbelievably high expectations.

In the weeks ahead, we’re going to look at other avenues of spiritual simplicity, such as simplicity of desire and simplicity of joy.

Pray: As you pray, ask the Lord to help you leave the expectations of a perfect or easy life, so you can embrace the beautiful expectations of life in Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to implant these expectations and desires deep within you.

One Another

We’ve spent a few weeks in the first fifteen chapters of Acts, discovering how the Holy Spirit formed diverse people—Jew and Gentile—into the Body of Christ. “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15-16).

This week we’ll consider some sage advice from the New Testament to help us live in this new reality.

 

Monday, July 22

Read: Romans 12:9-13

Consider: There is a view of Christianity that is prevalent today that is peculiarly modern, distinctively western and totally contrary to the Christian life described in the New Testament. It’s the view that you can be a Christian in isolation. Many people today believe that their Christianity is a private matter and that they do not need a church or any other kind of faith community. They can pray on their own. They can worship God on their own. They can fulfill the call of Christ on their own.

There are many problems with this approach that are too numerous to mention here. But the main problem is that “lone ranger” Christianity is not the faith of the New Testament. God always worked through a community. In the Old Testament, he formed a people—Israel—who would carry God’s covenant with creation. In the New Testament, Jesus formed a community. The Book of Acts describes that community, and the New Testament letters teach us how to live in that community. Never does the Bible even address how to live for God in isolation, because that is never God’s design for us.

So, this week we’re going to look at how we live in this new community by considering some of the “one anothers” of the Bible. They are all through the New Testament, as in today’s reading…

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love.” (Romans 12:9-10)

“One another” describes a reciprocal relationship. It doesn’t work if I’m devoted to you, but you’re not devoted to me. It doesn’t work if you’re devoted to me, but I’m not devoted to you. That’s why this thing must be done in community. The devotion that we have for God is to be lived out in devotion to one another.

In our culture, we know what it means to be a devoted wife or a devoted husband. We know what it means to be devoted to our children. But what does it mean in the community of faith? That’s more difficult for us to discern. But that’s part of our task as Christians, to learn what it means to be devoted to the Body of Christ—his church.

Pray: Thank the Lord that he poured his Spirit into his people. Thank him that you get to encounter him in the lives of those people. Ask him to help you learn what it means to be devoted to the Body of Christ.

 

Tuesday, July 23

Read: Romans 12:9-21

Consider: Let’s look at a second “one another” that comes on the heels of the one we considered yesterday.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” (Romans 12:9-10)

When I think of the word “honor,” I also think of the word “dignity.” Jesus was emphatic at this point. He taught us to show dignity to all people. When you read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), you see numerous references to this. Jesus’ teachings on adultery, divorce, our words, the way we treat our enemies, giving to those in need, and judging others, all point to the demand to bestow dignity on our fellow human beings.

In Romans 12, Paul is specifically speaking about honoring one another in the Body of Christ. Imagine the atmosphere of a church where everyone honored—bestowed dignity—on everyone else. Imagine children, the elderly, the strong, the weak, the rich, the poor, the vulnerable, racial minorities, sexual minorities, the spiritually mature and the spiritually confused all being honored and shown dignity! That’s what Paul is calling us to do and to be.

There is something else interesting about this passage. In verses 17-21 Paul takes this notion of honor and dignity and applies it to our enemies. I believe that is possible when we are honoring one another. If we intentionally bestow honor and dignity on our loved ones, it will help us learn to do that to others as well. We then take the unity we have been building in the Body of Christ and use it to “overcome evil with good” (12:21).

What a way to live!

Pray: “Lord, please give me the opportunity today to bestow honor and dignity on another human being. Help me not to be so wrapped up in my concerns that I miss the opportunities that you give. I approach this day with joy because I can do for someone else what you have done for me.”

 

Wednesday, July 24

Read: Hebrews 10:19-25

Consider: People with the gift of encouragement use that gift in a variety of ways. They encourage through their words, through their actions and by their presence.

Presence. Have you ever been encouraged simply because someone showed up? Many times, as I’ve stood in a funeral home, I’ve seen the eyes of those who mourn light up as people entered the room. I’ve seen new courage in the face of profound grief. I’m always amazed at what can happen through the ministry of presence.

The writer to the Hebrew Christians instructed them (and us) to encourage one another and to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (10:24). And one of the tools he instructed us to use was our presence.

“Let us not give up meeting together…” (10:25)

In our age of consumer Christianity, many people decide whether to attend church on a given day based on their own needs. They ask themselves if they need to or want to go to church. A friend of mine used to say, “Maybe you don’t think you need to be there, but maybe someone else needs you to be there.” The ministry of presence.

Christians have a 2000-year history of gathering together. And, of course, when we look to the Jewish roots of our faith, we can add several more centuries to that tradition. People of faith have always gathered as a community. We gather so that we can worship, learn and grow. But we also gather to encourage one another and to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (10:24).

This week as you gather for a Sunday worship service, a study group, the Eucharist, or simply with friends at a restaurant, determine to give as well as to receive. Determine to be present with your joy, your sorrow, your burdens and your hope. Ask God to be present to others through your presence with them.

Pray: “Lord, forgive me for the times that I’ve acted as if the church existed for me alone. May my life be enveloped in your life and in your calling to be the Body of Christ.”

 

Thursday, July 25

Read: Romans 12:10-18

Consider: Back to Romans 12. There is one more “one another” there.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. (Romans 12:15-16)

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Live in harmony with one another. Okay. We’re all believers. Christ has forgiven us and we’re walking in fellowship with him. How could we not live in harmony with one another?

But it isn’t that simple, is it? We all know that to accomplish this, we must fully submit ourselves to Christ and then submit ourselves to one another (Ephesians 5:21).

Paul followed his words on harmony with three simple instructions:

“Do not be proud…”

“…be willing to associate with people of low position.”

“Do not be conceited.”

In other words, harmony is not about me and my desires. It’s about us.

The great conductor, Leonard Bernstein, was once asked which instrument is the most difficult to play. He said, “Second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who plays second violin with enthusiasm is difficult. Yet, if no one plays second fiddle, we have no harmony.”

When we are willing to be anything God wants us to be and willing to do anything God wants us to do, there can be harmony in the church and in our lives. But harmony doesn’t come easily. It requires change, forgiveness, repentance, more change and more forgiveness. It requires humility and it requires courage.

Pray:  “Lord, you are the composer and the conductor. Help me to be an instrument that adds to the beautiful harmony that you have created and that you continue to bring into being through us. As you lead, I’ll follow.”

 

Friday, July 26

Read: Ephesians 4:1-6, 29-32

Consider: As Paul calls us to unity in the Body of Christ, he reminds us that doing life together—living in harmony—requires the embodiment of certain values. He gives us three “one anothers” in this chapter.

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (4:2)

“Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (4:32)

“…forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (4:32)

If I am going to live in relationship with other human beings—I mean real relationship—I am going to have to repeatedly forgive and to repeatedly be forgiven. Perhaps “repeatedly” isn’t the right word. Maybe the best way to express it is to say that we must continually forgive and continually be forgiven.

Paul gave us a reminder to help us with this when he told us to forgive “just as in Christ God forgave you” (4:32). If we always remember that God is patient with us, that he is kind to us, that he has compassion for us, and he continually forgives us, it will be possible for us to see others the way that he wants us to see them. It will be easier to see them as he sees us.

Pray: Thank God for his patience, kindness, compassion and forgiveness. Ask him to make you an agent of that grace this very day. Thank him for that honor.

 

Saturday, July 27

Read: John 13:33-35

Consider: The command to love was not new. Yet Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another” (13:34). What made it new was what Jesus said next…

As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (13:34)

When we look at that statement in the context it was given, it overwhelms us. Jesus gave us this mandate at the Passover meal with his disciples, hours before his arrest and crucifixion.* He was about to lay down his life for us. How can we possibly love like that?

Of all the “one anothers” we’ve looked at this week, none is more demanding. But there is no need to be intimidated by it, because Jesus showed us how to approach this journey of self-sacrificing love. He showed where to begin.

Before Jesus called us to love like he loves, he did something very tangible. Like the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine, Jesus did something we could see and something we can do. He washed his disciples’ feet. Then he said…

“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you…now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (13:15, 17)

If we live our lives—individually and communally—with a commitment to serve, we will learn how to love as Christ loves. We’ll learn how to do the things we’ve considered this week. We’ll honor one another. We’ll forgive each other. We’ll be kind and patient. We’ll treat each other with compassion and bestow dignity on one another. We’ll spur one another on toward love and good works.

If we take on the heart of our servant leader, his Spirit fills us, guides us and teaches us. We will learn how to love as he loves.

Pray: “Thank you, Lord, for the call to communal life—life together with you, with my sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ, and with all who are created in your image. Teach us—teach me—how to love.”

*This mandate is why we call that day Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” is a form of the Latin word, mandatum, which means “mandate” or “command.” Every year, on the Thursday of Holy Week, we remember the mandate to love as Christ loves.

The Early Believers — 5

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7-8)

 

Monday, July 15

Read: Acts 9:15-16

Consider: Last week we saw the beauty of the Lord’s words to Ananias when he referred to Saul as “my chosen instrument to carry my name” (9:15). I believe you and I are chosen instruments as well. But if we embrace that reality, there is another part of the calling that we must face. The Lord went on to say, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (9:16).

Like you, that makes me a little uncomfortable. I like the serene images of uninterrupted peace and joy. I want wisdom, but I’m hoping I can attain it without suffering.

I’m guessing most of us recoil from that statement but find assurance by deciding that Saul was special, and God does not consider us to be of the same caliber. And yet we know better. We know that ultimately, while our callings are diverse in how they will be implemented, the substance is the same. We are called to give our lives fully to Jesus Christ.

In one of his letters Saul—who, at this point was known as Paul—reflected on the experiences that followed his calling…

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)

Yet, there is something very special about Paul’s response. Even though he recounts his trials, he never seems to complain. Quite the opposite. He seems to be filled with gratitude and contentment…

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

Don’t fear Christ’s calling on your life. Don’t be afraid of where he will take you. That peace and joy we crave can be present in the most strenuous moments of our journeys. Praise him that you are counted worthy to be his chosen instrument for a hurting world.

Pray: “Lord, perfect your strength in my weakness. I give my life to you. Do to me, in me and through me all that you want to do.”

 

Tuesday, July 16

Read: Acts 11:19-26

Consider: “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (11:26). That term has stuck for two thousand years. Christian. What does it mean to you? What does it mean to our culture? What did it mean when they first used it to describe Jesus-followers?

Originally people referred to the early believers as “Nazarenes” because they were followers of Jesus of Nazareth. But the new name they received at Antioch showed a deeper understanding of what it was that these Jesus people believed.

The Greek word, “Christ”—Christos—was simply a translation of the Hebrew word, “Messiah.” The Messiah that the Old Testament prophets spoke of, was the One who would come and set all things right. Isaiah said….

“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all humanity together will see it.” (Isaiah 40:4-5)

Luke later quoted that prophecy from Isaiah to tell us that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, that Messiah (Luke 3:5-6).

When the people of Antioch called the first century disciples “Christians,” they were calling them “Messianists.” They were saying, “These people actually believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. And they believe it with their lives!”

Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah—the Christ? Do you believe that he is making “everything new” (Revelation 21:5)? Do you believe that he is setting all things right, rather than settling for the cynical belief that this world is going to hell? Are you allowing him to use your life to make his will a reality “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)? If so, Christian, proudly wear the name of the Messiah.

Pray: Thank the Lord that the long-awaited Messiah has come. Thank him that you know Messiah and Messiah knows you. Ask him to empower you to be an agent of the Messiah’s work here on earth—this very day.

 

Wednesday, July 17

Read: John 1:35-46

Consider: As Jesus called his first disciples, we can see that the concept of the Messiah was familiar and important to them. In fact, it was central to their faith. Look at the first words that came from Andrew when he found Jesus (or when Jesus found him).

“The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (that is, the Christ).” (John 1:41)

Nathanael’s response was interesting. After Philip told him that they had found the Messiah—“the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote, Jesus of Nazareth”—Nathanael replied, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:45-46).

Apparently, Nazareth was not a highly respected place. So, when the Jesus-followers were called “Nazarenes” it wasn’t a term of respect. The same is true when the people of Antioch started calling them “Christians” (see yesterday’s meditation). It was probably a term of contempt for many who used it.

I think we would be safe to say that for some people today, the term “Christian” is still a term of contempt. But we discover it usually doesn’t stem from contempt for Jesus, but from contempt for people who have done atrocious things in the name of Jesus. History is replete with those who did unspeakable acts in the name of Christ—the Crusades, the Inquisitions, persecution of the Jews, blatant racism—as well as examples we see in today’s headlines. People can smell hypocrisy a mile away. So, many times the name “Christian” is said with a sneer.

But history is made every day. And today you and I can make history. We can embrace those who are rejected. We can defend the vulnerable. We can give from our abundance to those who have little. We can include the excluded. We can give voice to those who have no voice. We can love with abandon. We can be the face of Christ to hurting people in such a way that the name of Jesus is honored.

Even in our brokenness, we can act like Jesus.

Pray: “Lord, I want my life to bring honor to you. Get me out of the way. I don’t want people to see me. I want them to see you in me. Help me today to bring honor to you by how I serve you and how I serve others.”

 

Thursday, July 18

Read: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Consider: Let’s be honest. Sometimes the world has contempt for Christians because some Christians have contempt for the world. I know we don’t like to admit to that. We say we love the sinner but hate the sin. That may sound good to us, but it doesn’t really connect, or even make sense, to those who feel condemned by our words.

God loves this world and everyone in it. If we claim to be the people of God, we must love what God loves. And that means treating people with whom we disagree with dignity and respect. Listen to Peter’s advice…

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15)

…and Paul’s…

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6)

An ambassador is someone who goes to a foreign land to speak for his or her leader or country. An American ambassador abroad is the face and voice of America to that foreign government. Paul used this image when he said…

“We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)

We must take seriously our charge to be the face of Christ. And that means conveying the love of Christ to the kingdoms of this world. Only then can we carry the “message of reconciliation” and participate in the “ministry of reconciliation” to which we are called (5:18, 19).

Pray: “Lord, today may the world see Christ in Christians—starting with me.”

 

Friday, July 19

Read: Acts 15:1-11

Consider: Old habits and old ways of thinking are hard to break. It is difficult to grow out of old belief systems. The guilt of the past can rear its ugly head again and again. Suppose that for your entire childhood and adolescence you had been taught that it was a sin to wear brown shoes. Only black was acceptable. Suppose this had been driven into your consciousness. Then you became an adult and realized that this prohibition made no sense whatsoever. So, you started wearing brown shoes. You knew that it was fine, that there was nothing wrong with wearing brown shoes. But every time you laced up those brown shoes, you felt a twinge of guilt. Your head knew what was right, but your heart didn’t cooperate.

Now imagine what it must have been like for first century Pharisees. They had a deeply held belief that it was the strict observance of the law that would bring salvation. Some of those Pharisees (like Saul) became followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced the liberating power of the cross. They had been forgiven of their sins based on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But old habits die hard. It seems that there was some residue of belief (perhaps induced by false guilt) that our observance of the law makes our salvation possible. So, when Gentiles—who had never known the law of Moses—started coming to Christ, “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’” (15:5). Some bluntly said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1).

Wow! Imagine that! Christians telling other Christians, “If you do not live in the manner I live, you cannot be saved.”

What was at stake was the very meaning of Christianity. What does it mean to be a Christ follower? What does it mean to be saved? How is one saved? From what are we saved? Is it based on Christ’s work, my work, or a combination of both? Paul and Barnabas disagreed with those who said salvation was dependent upon the laws of Moses. When the apostles and elders met to discuss it, Peter stood up and said…

“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them… We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (15:7-9, 11)

There is so much in that statement, so much that was life-changing for them and continues to be life-changing for us. But, for now, let’s consider just one thing—“it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved” (15:11).

Remember today, that it’s all about grace. You are God’s child because of grace. You can experience God’s presence today because of grace. God has removed your sin from you “as far as the east is from the west” because of grace (Psalm 103:12). If you forget that, you may try today to be good enough to earn God’s favor. You may lose the joy of your service to God, because you’ll be doing it out of duty rather than out of gratitude. Don’t lose your awareness of grace today or you may lose your joy.

Pray:  Thank the Lord that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

 

Saturday, July 20

Read: Acts 15:12-19

Consider: This really is a big deal. The meeting at Jerusalem that is described by Luke in the fifteenth chapter of Acts is one of the most significant events in the Bible. You see, up until that time, the Jewish Jesus-followers were viewed as just another sect of Judaism. You had the Pharisees, the Sadducees (or the Herodians), the Zealots, the Essences, and now the Nazarenes (the Jesus-followers). But when the Gentiles began to follow Jesus, the early Christians had to deal with a specific question: Do you have to be a Jew to be a Christian? Some of the Pharisee Christians said, yes, the pagans must convert to Judaism to become Christ-followers.

“This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them” (15:2). Paul, Barnabas, Peter and others affirmed that you don’t have to be Jewish or convert to Judaism to be a Christian. Later, some Christians would swing in the opposite direction and say you can’t be a Jew and be a Christian. That unfortunate misinterpretation of Acts 15 has brought untold pain to our world. You certainly can be a Jew and a Jesus-follower—the first Christians were. But the wise believers of Acts 15, led by James, said that the grace of Jesus even transcends our religious beliefs or lack thereof.

The leaders of the church at Jerusalem put their conviction on this matter down in writing—in a letter to the Gentile believers. I love the way they worded it as they welcomed them into the family…

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (15:28)

Beautiful. I’m so glad our early leaders were sensitive to the Holy Spirit. It changed our lives.

Pray: Pray for the leaders of today’s church—local, national and global leaders. Ask the Lord to help all Christian leaders to be humble and to live in such a manner that they can know the leading of the Holy Spirit. Thank God for the humble leaders who have gone before us. And, as the writer to the Hebrews implored us, “Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

The Early Believers — 4

We continue to explore the lessons learned by our first century sisters and brothers as they walked together, following Jesus Christ. We stand on the shoulders of that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

 

Monday, July 8

Read: Acts 6:8-15

Consider: Before we consider the impact of Stephen’s witness* to the world, let’s take note of a brief mention of him in 6:5. Stephen was one of seven people who were chosen as leaders in the infant church. And we are told that they were chosen, in part, because they were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3).

Stephen was not one of the twelve apostles. He was one who was chosen to help oversee the daily distribution of food to the impoverished widows in the church at Jerusalem. If we were to look to a contemporary parallel in the church, and use modern parlance, we might say that Stephen was not a clergyman, but was a lay leader in the church. But really his title or lack thereof, was not the issue. The issue was…

He was a man “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3).

He was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5).

He was “a man full of God’s grace and power” who was used by God to do “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (6:8).

He was a man whose enemies “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (6:10).

He was a man who, when he was accused unjustly, slandered and maligned, had a countenance “like the face of an angel” (6:15).

And, as we shall see, he was a man who forgave and prayed for his enemies while he died for his faith (7:60).

The first Christian martyr—the first one to die for his faith in Christ—was a man whose only “credentials” were spiritual. We don’t hear anything about his education, his occupation or his skills. We only hear about how powerfully the Holy Spirit worked in him and through him. That same Spirit is available to each one of us who submit ourselves to God to be his vessel in this world.

Pray: “Lord, help me to be willing to pay any price to walk in your steps. May I not look for my worth in the things deemed important by this world. Rather, help me to find my identity and significance in you. I want to be totally given to you and filled with your Spirit.”

*When Luke shared Jesus’ call for us to be his “witnesses” (Acts 1:8), he used the term márturos, which also means “martyr.”

 

Tuesday, July 9

Read: Acts 7:51-60

Consider: Between Luke’s accounts of Stephen’s arrest and his execution, he recorded Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:1-53). If you ever need a primer on Old Testament history, this is the place to go. Stephen was retelling a story that those leaders knew, but that they did not fully understand. The facts weren’t hard for them to hear. The truth was.

The account of Stephen’s witness—his martyrdom—presents some beautiful parallels to the way Jesus lived, died and loved. We see some striking similarities to Jesus’ final hours before his crucifixion.

At his so-called trial, Stephen was accused of blasphemy as they trumped up false charges (6:11-14).

“…but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke.” (7:10)

“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.” (7:59-60)

It puts Stephen’s spirit into perspective. With all the wonderful things said about him (see yesterday’s thoughts), what we find is very basic. Stephen was striving to be like Jesus. The Spirit of Jesus Christ lived in Stephen and empowered him to be like his master. That kind of greatness is available to any person who is willing to follow Christ, no matter what it costs, and who is humble enough to invite the Holy Spirit to rule their life.

In our culture where so many people define Christianity by what one believes, Stephen show us that the witness is defined by a life lived for Christ—a life that actually looks like the life of Jesus.

Pray:

I have one deep, supreme desire, that I may be like Jesus.
To this I fervently aspire, that I may be like Jesus.
I want my heart His throne to be, so that a watching world may see
His likeness shining forth in me.
I want to be like Jesus.

O perfect life of Christ, my Lord! I want to be like Jesus.
My recompense and my reward, that I may be like Jesus.
His Spirit fill my hungering soul, His power all my life control.
My deepest prayer, my highest goal, that I may be like Jesus. 

— Thomas O. Chisolm (1945)

 

Wednesday, July 10

Read: Acts 7:59-8:4

Consider: It’s a sobering statement. Every time I read it, I hurt for our sisters and brothers who went before us. Luke tells us that…

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.” (8:1-2)

It’s difficult to comprehend the pain and suffering in those two simple sentences. One of their leaders was murdered and now they had to leave the city. They were spread out—Luke says “scattered”—throughout the rural areas. The Body of Christ that gave them strength, stability and love was no longer physically together in one place. Unlike today, when we can keep contact with family and friends across the miles, those believers had no contact with the church as a whole community. And they had no idea when—if ever—they would be together again. There was deep mourning for Stephen, but also profound grief for all the losses they were taking. This man, Saul, was going from house to house, ripping families apart and terrorizing the children by throwing men and women into prison (8:3). Imagine being separated from your children and not knowing if you’ll ever see them again. Imagine the panic of wondering what had happened to them and hoping that they knew that you had not intentionally abandoned them.

And out of this dreadful chaos came something remarkable.

“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (8:4)

Saul was trying to “destroy” the church (8:3), but instead, he forced the church out of the city, into the outlying areas of Judea and Samaria. And there the word of God spread. There the message of Jesus flourished. There Christ was at work in new and wonderful ways.

Sometimes the circumstances of life will force us into areas we never intended to go. Life-threatening illness, depression, financial reverses, the loss of loved ones, and many other situations take us from our safe place. But we remember that Christ is still with us. Christ is still at work. And Christ still wants to work through us to touch a hurting world.

Pray: “Lord, when I’m ‘scattered’ to places I don’t want to be, remind me of my brothers and sisters who have gone before me. Thank you for their faithfulness in horrendous circumstances. Thank you that I also can cling to you and be used by you no matter what comes my way.”

 

Thursday, July 11

Read: 1 Timothy 1:12-14

Consider: Ignorance is a dreadful thing. I’ve always been fascinated by one particular scene in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The Ghost of Christmas Present was just concluding its time with Ebenezer Scrooge when it said, “Look here!”

From the folding of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! Look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters’ half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! Are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy…

I’ve always found it intriguing that when Dickens (who grew up in poverty) warned about want and ignorance, ignorance was the thing he said to fear the most. It begins to make sense when you consider today’s scripture reading. Saul was a violent persecutor of the followers of Christ. Mercilessly he separated families, threw men and women in prison, and encouraged the murder of Stephen. And those are just the things we know about him. Only God knows what else he did to “destroy the church” (Acts 8:3). He was a man of “murderous threats” (Acts 9:1). Yet, he would later confide to Timothy, “I acted in ignorance” (1 Timothy 1:13).

What that means is that, at the time that Saul was persecuting the church, he was convinced that he was doing the right thing. His actions were not motivated by a desire to destroy the work of God. He thought he was doing the work of God.

That’s why I say that ignorance is a dreadful and frightening thing. What does Saul have in common with the Crusaders who tried to convert Muslims at the point of a sword, or Islamic terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center? They all did unspeakable acts in the name of God.

We have two mighty weapons against ignorance—revelation and love. Revelation comes to us from God when we humbly seek his face in the accountable context of the Body of Christ. And love protects us when we are confused in our faith. If Saul had put love into action, he would have been able to avoid his gravest sins until he received revelation from Jesus Christ. “God is love” (1 John 4:16). We must always remember that his love must be the context for everything we do. If we love, we can learn. If we don’t love as he loves, we may become the victims of our own ignorance.

Pray: “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” (Psalm 25:4-5)

 

Friday, July 12

Read: Acts 9:1-9

Consider: Saul was an impressive man. Before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, he had gained prestige and power within the religious establishment.

“I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:14)

He was a brilliant theologian and a leader with tremendous confidence in his religion. That is, until Jesus dismantled his religious props and replaced them with himself. I love the simplicity with which Jesus spoke to Saul in that vision…

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…” (Acts 9:5)

It was as though Jesus was saying, “I’m not going to introduce a new religious system to you, just allow me to introduce myself.” (I know. I’m reading a lot into that, but that’s my paraphrase.)

At some point, we must all make that exchange—experience that conversion. We must discard our religious accomplishments and rely solely on Jesus Christ. The simple call that was extended to Saul is extended to each one of us.

And when he met Jesus, Saul understood. He got it. He later said…

“If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” (Philippians 3:3-8)

Pray: Thank the Lord that it is by his grace, not your accomplishments, that you are saved. Praise him for the relationship he has offered to you.

 

Saturday, July 13

Read: Acts 9:1-15

Consider: I don’t know what kind of underground intelligence system the early church had, but somehow Ananias knew about Saul’s mission.

“Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” (9:13-14)

It strikes me as a little humorous. Ananias seems to be giving the Lord more details so that God will fully understand the situation and change his mind. Well, the Lord already knew about Saul’s mission, but he was planning a greater one.

“But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument…’” (9:15)

I know that we don’t see ourselves as we see the great leaders who went on before us. After all, we now call Saul, “Saint Paul” or “The Apostle Paul.” We don’t put ourselves in the same category as saints and apostles. But that is unfortunate, because saints are precisely what we are called to be. And that is how Paul would later address the people of God. He wrote his letters to “the saints”—to us.

If that seems like a stretch (perhaps you grew up in a tradition that reserved that term for a select group of people), consider another designation. Jesus called Saul his “chosen instrument” (9:15). Now there’s a title we can’t ignore. Each one of us is a chosen instrument for the purposes of Christ on this earth.

Don’t deify Saul (later called Paul). He was not cut from a different cloth than you or me. He was a violent, blasphemous, murderous man who was chosen by Christ to be an agent of God’s grace and mercy on this earth. You may not be violent, blasphemous or murderous, but you are chosen.

Pray: “Teach me, Lord, what it means for me to be a chosen instrument. I humble myself before you. I give myself to discovering and fulfilling your will for my life. I’m honored that you have chosen me.”

The Early Believers — 3

This week we continue to explore the lessons learned by our first century sisters and brothers as they walked together, following Jesus Christ. We stand on the shoulders of that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

 

Monday, July 1

Read: Acts 4:1-4

Consider: In this very brief passage, we see two things that will recur throughout the Book of Acts and throughout the history of Christianity—the preaching of the resurrection and the persecution of the church.

The officials “were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (4:2). Why was that so offensive? Why were they so bothered by this good news? After all, it’s a beautiful story, isn’t it? A man rising from the dead ought to bring us feelings of joy and celebration.

The response of the officials to the preaching of the resurrection reminds us that the resurrection makes all things new. It changes everything. And change is threatening. In the first century, it threatened the authority of the religious leaders. It threatened the authority of the state. It brought into focus the new thing that God was doing in and through Jesus Christ. And to many, that was frightening.

It still is. That’s why people like to consign the resurrection to a manageable place. As long as it’s a religious myth, they’re okay with it. Or even if they claim to believe it, if they can keep it in the confines of churches, it shouldn’t be too much trouble. But when it threatens the status quo, the powerful shudder. (You may want to re-read Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55.)

Do not think that our faith is private. It is personal, to be sure. But it is not private. It is not intended to be kept on a shelf in our hearts. The resurrection is part of the very definition of who we are. And the resurrected Lord, who dwells inside of us, also works through us to touch a world that is afraid of the purity and power of Christ’s love.

Love is hard to manage. So, this world proclaims a form of love (which really is not love at all) that is conditional, predictable and manageable. Political leaders have always taught that love is not the basis of good governing, and they have always had religious leaders who would back them up on that.

But the risky, selfless, lay-down-your-life-agape-love that is given to us by Christ, is wild and freely given. The world cannot understand that kind of love. So, people can feel threatened when we try to give that love in the extravagant manner and measure in which we have received it.

Pray: Thank the Lord for the resurrection. Praise him that he proclaims, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5). Ask him today to make your actions part of the risky, self-giving love that he is using to change the world.

 

Tuesday, July 2

Read: Acts 4:1-4

Consider: With the persecution of those early believers, something happened that their persecutors could never have imagined.

“They seized Peter and John…they put them in jail…but many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” (4:3-4)

We see this phenomenon in the Book of Acts and throughout history. The church grows and becomes stronger during times of intense persecution.

This is so counterintuitive to us. One would think that if people were being thrown into jail for their faith, those around them would give up their faith to avoid prison, economic hardship, separation from their families, or even death. And unbelievers would certainly keep their distance. Why would anyone accept a faith and life that would endanger them and their families?

One explanation is the purity of the faith during times of persecution. Today in America, anyone can call himself or herself a Christian with no fear of reprisal. You may be ridiculed, but you won’t lose your job, your home, your freedom, or your life if you call yourself a Christian. So, many people wear that name. But suppose it would cost you everything. Obviously, there would be fewer people claiming Christ as Lord. It would mean that those who took the name of Christ would be those whose faith was authentic and whose hearts and lives were totally given to him. The church would consist of people like those first century believers who were “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

That’s what we mean by the purity of the faith during times of persecution. Persecution did not make it a “majority religion” as Christianity is seen today. It made it a growing movement that had the capacity to authentically reflect the love of Jesus Christ.

It is said that the purest water is not the stagnant water that is never troubled. The purest water is the water that has been forced to flow underground and over the rough, jagged rocks of the spring. That water surfaces with purity and life.

Persecution is not the biggest threat to Christianity. Assimilation to the values of our culture is a much deadlier threat.

Pray: “Lord, my prayer is that you will purify my heart and my life. Use everything—trouble, adversity, good times, frightening times, everything—to draw me closer to you. Give me an authentic faith—like the faith of those early believers—that draws other sincere seekers to you.”

 

Wednesday, July 3

Read: Acts 4:5-12

Consider: There is a phrase in this story that has become a creedal statement for Christ followers…

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (4:12)

If you’ve been a part of the church for a long time, you’ve heard that so much that it doesn’t seem like a particularly shocking statement. But when Peter made that statement the jaws in the room dropped. They could not believe what Peter had just said. For Peter had just committed treason. He had just opened himself up to the death penalty at the hands of the Romans. You see, that was the creedal statement of the theology of the empire. Peter was messing with—perhaps even mocking—the values of the government.

The Roman Empire of that day had an imperial theology—emperor worship. And one of their statements of faith was that Caesar was Lord, Savior and Deliverer, and that there was no other name under heaven given to men by which we can be saved. That’s right; Peter stole their creed about Caesar and made it a statement of faith in Jesus.

Paul was also adept at this. Richard Horsley writes…

“…we have recently been able to notice the extent to which much of Paul’s key terminology is borrowed from and turned back against imperial discourse. In the Roman imperial world, the ‘gospel’ was the good news of Caesar’s having established peace and security for the world. Caesar was the ‘savior’ who had brought ‘salvation’ to the whole world. By applying this key imperial language to Jesus Christ, Paul was making him into the alternative or real emperor of the world. No wonder Paul had a reputation of having preached in Thessalonica and elsewhere that ‘there is another emperor named Jesus’ and that his assemblies were all ‘acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar.’” (Acts 17:7)

Living for Jesus will mean acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar—contrary to the values of this world and its kingdoms. Greg Boyd wrote, “Our allegiance to God’s kingdom must subvert all other allegiances.”

Pray: “Lord, help me to understand how my allegiance to you and your ways must change everything else in my life. Show me in the daily work of life what it means to live by the values of your kingdom.”

 

Thursday, July 4

Read: 2 Chronicles 7:11-16

Consider: Immediately after the dedication of the temple, God gave promises and warnings to Solomon, the king of Israel. In this communication from God we find a passage that is often cited in our country at this time of the year…

“…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (7:14)

We often hear people use that promise as a call to repentance for America. There’s no doubt that America needs to repent, but that is not the best interpretation of this passage. It was a call to Israel, and the New Testament manifestation of Israel is not America. The New Testament parallel of Israel—God’s people—is the church. If we are to be true to this promise, we must understand that it is a call to us—God’s people—to be humble, to pray, to seek God’s face, to forsake our wicked ways. Therefore, we do not read this passage and say, “If only they would repent” (meaning people in our nation). We read this passage and ask, “For what must we—the church—repent?” God’s people are to be God’s people who live among the nations of this world. The church—the Spirit-filled Body of Christ—is the hope of this world. So, we must always humble ourselves before God and seek his face. When we discover that our love is conditional, that we embrace the might of empire over the vulnerability of sacrifice, that we “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13), our only response can be repentance. 

The story from Acts 4 that we’re looking at this week is important for us to hear. It is the story of the disciples’ allegiance to Christ that superseded all other allegiances. This week, as you celebrate a national holiday, thank God for the privileges that you have been given. Be grateful for what you can give to others. But don’t forget that we are citizens of another kingdom (Philippians 3:20). Our values come from that kingdom and our ultimate allegiance is to that King.

Pray: While living among the kingdoms of this world, ask the Lord to help you clearly see the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. Ask him for the Spirit’s power to live by those values today and every day. By those values, God’s people can bless this nation.

 

Friday, July 5

Read: Acts 4:8-13

Consider: After Peter’s astounding act of treason—his unequivocal statement of allegiance to Jesus Christ (see Wednesday’s thoughts)—Luke stated that…

“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (4:13)

Earlier they had asked Peter and John a question: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7). They wanted to know the source of Peter’s and John’s authority. Perhaps they were expecting a theological discussion since Peter and John were standing before the Sanhedrin—the Jewish ruling council comprised of elders and scholars. Perhaps they were anticipating political justifications, since Peter and John were Jews who were defying the Romans. But they learned that the authority and power of these men did not rest on their education or even on their cause. They realized that the power and authority of their lives rested on one thing — “these men had been with Jesus.” And the result “astonished” them (4:13).

I want my life to be characterized by one thing alone. I want my life to show that I have been with Jesus. If there is any courage in my life, I want it to point to Jesus. If there is any authority or power in my life, I want it to point to Jesus. If there is any love in my life, I want it to point to Jesus. Anything that may come from us, will pale in comparison to what Christ wants to do in us and through us.

Pray: “Lord, when people see me, may they see you.”

 

Saturday, July 6

Read: Acts 4:13-20

Consider: Persecution was not a one-time event for Peter, John and the other disciples. It was their new reality as Christ-followers. They would have to learn how to find peace, how to serve, and how to thrive in the throes of great suffering and hardship. They discovered that following Jesus would cost them everything.

The religious leaders threatened Peter and John and “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (4:18). I love Peter’s response. It was so clear to him what he must do, that he turned it back on those officials, knowing that it must be evident to them as well.

“Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (4:19)

Peter was not hesitating between two futures. He had made the decision to follow Christ, no matter what may come his way. So, when he was presented with the fact that Jesus’ way would be the most difficult way, it did not deter him. He drew on the strength of the Holy Spirit, who had entered and filled his life (Acts 2). He was determined to rely on that strength as he navigated the immense challenges of proclaiming Jesus with his words and with his life.

This would not be the last time that Peter would see his calling in such stark terms. In the very next chapter, again under persecution, we again read his words, “We must obey God rather than men!” (5:29).

This is only possible by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It takes a higher power to live beyond yourself.

Pray: “Lord, I open myself to be filled with your Holy Spirit. For only with your indwelling presence can I overcome the forces and seductions of the values of this world. I do not want to waver between two futures. I want your power to enable me to ‘obey God rather than’ anyone or anything else.”

The Early Believers — 2

This week we continue to explore the lessons learned by our first century sisters and brothers as they walked together, following Jesus Christ. We stand on the shoulders of that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

 

Monday, June 24

Read: Acts 5:1-11

Consider: Wow! That’s not something you see every day! I’m not surprised that “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (5:11). I can’t imagine how I would have reacted.

This is a puzzling story. God doesn’t deal with us in the same way. I’ve never heard of this happening from the time of Ananias and Sapphira until now. Yet it’s important for us to deal with Luke’s account of this strange event from the opening days of the church’s life together.

It appears that this was not an issue about how much was given to God. Peter was straightforward with Ananias concerning the property and the money from the sale of it. Peter said, “Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?” (5:4).

There was no coercion to give. What Peter was pointing to was Ananias’ deceitfulness. Apparently, Ananias, “with his wife’s full knowledge…kept back part of the money for himself” (5:2) but presented himself as having given the full amount to God. Peter was dismayed. “How is it” he asked, “that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit?” (5:3). Sapphira was also trapped in the lie…

Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?”
(5:8-9)

I certainly don’t understand this event. But one thing seems to be apparent—Christ cannot build his church on duplicity. If the Body of Christ operates by presenting one image, and living another reality, the name of Christ is dishonored, and the world cannot see who Jesus really is.

The church is full of people like you and me—frail, prone to fall, and full of inconsistencies. Yet, inconsistencies are not the same thing as hypocrisy. The word Jesus used—hupokrités—was a term for an actor. It reminded people of the huge masks that were used in the Greek theatre productions. We will all deal with our inconsistencies, but we don’t have to wear self-righteous masks. We are all pilgrims on a journey to know Christ and to live up to our calling. We are nothing more than that and we must be nothing less.

When we are honest about our shortcomings, we free ourselves and the people around us. We take the attention off us and put it on Christ.

Pray: “Lord, I don’t want to be two people. I want to be one person—one person, honestly and authentically following Christ. May my shortcomings not be a discouragement to me, but may they simply remind me of my dependence on you. Thank you for always forgiving me and always encouraging me as I walk with you.”

 

Tuesday, June 25

Read: Luke 6:20-26

Consider: Sometimes people wonder why Jesus seemed to go so easy on obvious sinners, and yet seemed so harsh with religious people—people who, by outward appearances, were doing a pretty good job at living clean lives and following the rules. The answer is simple. Jesus hated hypocrisy. The sinner who was willing to admit his or her sinfulness—those who Jesus called “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3)—were never rebuffed. They were always accepted and welcomed by Christ. But those who claimed to be without sin…well, that was another matter.

Today you read the “blessings” and “woes” that Jesus gave in comparing the two groups. Luke’s account is brief. If you want to read the heavy-duty stuff, check out Matthew 23. It will blow your mind.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (23:13)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (23:15)

“You blind fools!” (23:17)

“You blind guides!” (23:24)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (23:25)

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (23:33)

There’s more, but you get the idea. Now as frightening as those statements sound, they can also be comforting to us. You see, what Jesus was condemning was hypocrisy, not imperfection. Don’t lament the fact that on this earth you will never be perfect. God knows that about you and me. Rather, rejoice that when we are authentic before God and before one another, we are always forgiven. And authenticity is possible. I can’t be perfect. But I can be real.

The choice you and I must make is to be one of those who are quick to admit our own unrighteousness, quick to admit that we need God’s grace and forgiveness, and quick to admit our failures. When we keep it real—and really pursue God’s will in our lives—we are always recipients of grace. And then we find it easier to give grace to others.

Pray: “Thank you, Lord, for the constant flow of grace that you pour into my life. May I never take it for granted, as if I somehow deserved it. Help me to always see it for what it is—unearned, amazing grace from the One who loves me more than I can imagine.”

 

Wednesday, June 26

Read: Luke 18:9-14

Consider: Think of the most despicable character you can imagine—someone who cares for no one else, betrays his friends and family, exploits people mercilessly, and makes himself rich in the process. Now think of the most exemplary person you’ve ever seen—a brilliant person whose actions make for success and who would make any parent proud. These are the characters in Jesus’ parable—the tax collector and the Pharisee.

Just when we think religion begins to make sense, Jesus turns it on its head. The despicable one is made righteous. Why?

“The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (18:13)

And the “righteous” one is condemned. Why?

“The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” (18:11-12)

Some of Jesus’ parables are difficult to understand. At times he used his parables to create some major disequilibrium in us. He wanted us to go away thinking, searching and praying. But other times—as is the case here—the point could not be clearer. It takes humility to come to Christ. And it takes humility to stay close to Christ. If we ever begin to feel superior to others—even to hardened sinners—we place ourselves in danger.

We have often heard it said that we should love the sinner but hate the sin. Let’s retire that statement. It sounds like we’re putting ourselves on the judgement seat. I think I would be better off saying that I need to love the sinner and hate my own sin. With that approach, I’ll never lose sight of my need for grace.

Pray: “Lord, without your grace I am lost. With your grace I have everything. Thank you for your love and grace. Help me to receive it and pass it on to others.”

 

Thursday, June 27

Read: Genesis 12:1-3

Consider: The nation of Israel was formed by God. The Jews are God’s chosen people. There can be no doubt about that. God has made that clear throughout the Old and New Testaments. But there can be a problem with chosen-ness. Chosen people can forget why they were chosen.

God made it clear to Abram (later known as Abraham) that he was chosen so that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). This was clear at the outset of Abram’s call and reaffirmed repeatedly…

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed…” (Genesis 22:17-18)

To Abraham’s son, Isaac, God said…

“To you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed…” (Genesis 26:3-4)

God did not choose Israel for the sake of Israel. He chose Israel for the sake of the world.

The same can be said for us. The New Testament uses this concept of the “chosen” as it refers to the church—the Body of Christ (see, for example Colossians 3:12). In fact, Paul even refers to us as “children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).

“Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:6-9)

The New Testament does not say that the church replaces Israel. It says that we Gentile believers have been “grafted in” to the purposes of Israel (see Romans 11).

As we’ll see tomorrow, some of the chosen people—the people of Israel—forgot why they were chosen. The results were terrible. Instead of having a heart that broke for the rest of the world, they hardened their hearts toward others. The humility of God’s call was replaced with arrogance. They began to believe that they were better than others.

This can happen to us as well if we ever forget our call—our reason for being.

Pray: Thank the Lord that we were included. Praise him that we Gentiles were on his mind when he called Abram. We are part of “all peoples on earth” (Genesis 12:3) who would be blessed by God’s call to Abram and by Abram’s obedience. With the love that included us, ask the Lord to help us include others.

 

Friday, June 28

Read: Acts 10:1-22

Consider: Part of Peter’s life as a Jew was his observance of the dietary laws of his people. There were certain foods that were “unclean” to the Jews. Those foods were never to be consumed. But diet was only one part of their system of cleanliness rituals and laws. There were instructions on how to handle the dead, when a woman was pure and when she was not (relating to her menstrual cycle and childbirth), etc. And among the traditions that had a strong hold on them were those that concerned their associations with Gentiles. They began to see non-Jews as “unclean” and refused to associate with them in any way. Jesus, of course, broke those taboos. But it was difficult for others to change. In Peter and the other disciples, the rejection of Gentiles was deeply engrained.

So, God gave Peter a vision to that shook his world. Three times the word came to Peter — “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15). In the vision Peter was presented with “unclean” animals. But Peter would soon connect the dots. And he didn’t have much time, because knocking at the door were Gentiles who needed Peter.

Imagine having God destroy your religion. Peter’s understanding of his chosen-ness was central to his religion and his identity. His belief in what was clean and what was unclean was built upon his understandings (and misunderstandings) about it meant to be chosen. And then God blew it all away.

How would we respond? Lovingly, “Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests” (10:23). Obedience is better than religion.

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice…” (1 Samuel 15:22)

Pray: “Lord, help me to walk in obedience today. Help me to see every man, woman and child in the manner you see them. May your words to Peter ring in my mind as I treat every person that I meet with the dignity that should be afforded to those made in the image of God.”

 

Saturday, June 29

Read: Acts 10:19-35

Consider: This event changed your life and it changed mine. Up until that time, the Jesus-followers were all Jewish. In fact, people considered them to be just another Jewish sect. You had the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes—and now, the Nazarenes. But God was up to something. You may have noticed God giving birth to this when he called a man named Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul…

“This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” (9:15)

God was not changing the rules. Clear back in the first book of the Hebrew Bible, God made it clear to Abraham that his intent was the salvation of the entire world (see Thursday). No, God was not changing his plan, but he was changing the hearts of his people. Peter articulated his own change very clearly…

“God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (10:28)

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (10:34-35)

Is there anything that needs to change in the heart of today’s church in order for us to participate fully in God’s redemptive plan? Is there anything that needs to change in my heart? Anything in yours?

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-20)

Pray: “Every day, Lord, teach me what it means to ‘regard no one from a worldly point of view.’ Like you did to Peter, change my heart in any manner you wish. I open myself to you for that purpose.”

The Early Believers — 1

This week we’re looking at some post-Pentecost passages from the Book of Acts. After the birthdate of the church—that day when the Holy Spirit made our flesh the Body of Christ (Acts 2)—those early believers had to learn how to live this new life. We can learn a great deal from their experiences.

 

Monday, June 17

Read: 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13

Consider: In the middle of Paul’s letter to a very troubled and divided church, he said, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). What follows is the great, majestic and practical wisdom of 1 Corinthians 13. The “most excellent way” that Paul is pointing to is love. Not sentimental love, but agape-lay-down-your-lives-for-one-another love.

In recent years, segments of the North American church (perhaps small segments that are amplified through social media) have been hurling words like “heresy” and “heretic” at other believers. I’ve been deeply saddened to see well-meaning people become so worried about doctrinal matters that they forget to love their sisters and brothers with whom they disagree on some points of doctrine. In their zeal for truth they have neglected the greatest truth. A few years ago, I encountered some words, written several decades ago, that spoke to this problem. In reference to 1 Corinthians 13:1-2, our brother, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said…

‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels…’ This is a possibility with which we had not reckoned: that even our holiest words can become unholy, godless, common, if they do not have heart, if they do not have love…

‘And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and knowledge…’ If I knew why I must travel this path and why others must travel that path, if I could perceive even here and now the dark ways of God—would that not be blessedness?

Perception, knowledge, and truth without love are nothing. They are not truth, for truth is God, and God is love. Therefore, truth without love is a lie.”

Pray: “Lord, I submit myself to you to be taught by you. Daily, hourly—even minute by minute—teach me how to walk in ‘the most excellent way.’ Without you it is impossible. With you all things are possible.”

 

Tuesday, June 18

Read: Acts 3:1-10

Consider: What do you want? What do you need? Sometimes those are easy questions to answer. There are times when we know that we need money, or peace of mind, or healing, or a change in our circumstances. There are times when we are painfully aware of our need for wisdom and guidance.

But there are other times when what we are asking for may not be what God wants to give us. So was the case of the man that Peter and John encountered on their way to the temple for worship. The man was certain, straight-forward, when it came to his need — “he asked them for money” (3:3).

When he went to sit outside the temple gate called Beautiful, he was simply hoping to collect a small sum of money in order to feed himself. It never occurred to him (how could it?) that something much greater was coming his way. Even if he could have conceived of gaining something he never had, he would not have dared to desire it or expect it. But that is precisely what God gave him—something more. He ended his day “walking and jumping, and praising God” (3:8).

Could it be that in the days ahead God wants to do more than we imagined? Perhaps a change in our circumstances is not always the lead item on his list for us. Perhaps what he wants to do to us and in us is much more important to him.

We can only pray according to our knowledge and according to the discernment he gives us. But don’t be surprised if God surpasses your greatest expectations. Don’t be surprised if your prayers are answered in ways you never expected and in a manner that exceeds your perceptions of what you need.

Pray: Thank the Lord that he has said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Thank him for his plans for you.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory…” (Ephesians 3:20-21)

 

Wednesday, June 19

Read: Acts 3:1-8

Consider: What have you got? That may be a more difficult question to answer than the one we asked yesterday. God has given us so many things—talents, abilities, passions, time, energy, creativity and a variety of resources. But so often it is easier to see what we don’t have than it is to recognize what God has given us. We think we don’t have enough time. We think we’re not smart enough or skilled enough. We think that our abilities and our resources never match our challenges.

Peter was quick to say what he did not have — “Silver or gold I do not have…” Thankfully, he didn’t stop there. He went on to say, “but what I have I give you.” And what he had was amazing. Call it power, call it faith, call it what you will. But it is obvious that Peter had the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life and in the life of the community of which he was a part. You have the same things.

I’ve never grabbed the hands of people who could not walk, pulled them to their feet and watched them dance. I’ve never displayed power that filled people with “wonder and amazement” (3:10). At least I never have on my own. But I’ve been privileged to be part of a body of believers that has been amazed at what Christ can do through us to touch hurting people. To watch God work through his people is humbling and amazing.

What have you got? A lot more than you think.

Pray: “Lord, you have made me part of the Body of Christ. As I draw closer to the body, use me—but more importantly, use us—to do all that you want to do. Thank you for all that you have given us.”

 

Thursday, June 20

Read: Acts 2:42-47

Consider: Luke ended his account of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41) by telling us that “about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Immediately following those words is a brief description of the life those three thousand began to share—and sharing was at the center of that life.

The New Testament word is “koinonia” and a form of it is used twice in that passage.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (2:42)

“All the believers were together and had everything in common (koina).” (2:44)

The Greek word for “fellowship” comes from a root word meaning “common.” And that is how the earliest believers chose to live. They chose to share life and have “everything in common.”

There was no time to form an organization, elect officers, create bylaws and implement a structure. There were no speeches and no one making decisions about how they should structure their lives. But organically they chose to live life together. How did that happen?

I believe it happened under the leadership and anointing of the Holy Spirit. God’s desire was that the church would be the Body of Christ. A body can only survive in interdependency. To be filled with the Holy Spirit meant that they would live their lives in concert with one another. It only made sense.

Pray: Thank the Lord for the Body of Christ. Ask him to help you, in this day of individualism, to see more clearly his desire for his body. Ask him to show you your part in making the body strong and in helping it become all that God wants it to be.

 

Friday, June 21

Read: Acts 2:42-47

Consider: Six simple verses describe what three thousand people did under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—they lived in community, they lived in fellowship and they lived a common life. And what was the result?

“The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (2:47)

It was an example, in flesh and blood, of what happens when God’s people incarnate Jesus. When we become the hands and feet of Christ, we cannot be a closed society. Rather, we open the Jesus message up to the world. They don’t just hear about Jesus. They see Jesus at work. And in seeing Jesus work through his people, they see love that transcends our differences. Those who have been shut out are invited in. Those who have been shunned are embraced. Those who feel unloved see that they have ultimate worth.

In laying down their lives for one another, those early believers truly became “witnesses” in Jerusalem (1:8). Their individual lives and their life together bore witness to the presence and love of God. Everyone was invited to the table.

Pray: “Lord, I want you to be incarnated—en-fleshed—in me. I want your Spirit to live in me, teaching me how to be part of your body. My part may seem small, but I know it is vital. Show me how to incarnate your love for this world as part of the beautiful Body of Christ. And thank you for including me in this high calling.”

 

Saturday, June 22

Read: Acts 4:32-37

Consider: In today’s reading, and in the passage that we’ve read over the past two days (Acts 2:42-47), we find some amazing descriptions of those early days in the church.

“All the believers were together and had everything in common.” (2:44)

“All the believers were one in heart and mind.” (4:32)

But perhaps what is most amazing is…

“There were no needy persons among them.” (4:34)

Most of those early believers were very poor. In turning to Christ, some had lost their source of income as employers and family members rejected them. Also, there was a large number of widows among the Jerusalem believers (6:1)—widows who had no financial resources of their own. Yet, somehow, this body of believers cared for one another to such an extent that Luke reported that all their material needs were being met. How was that possible? What sparked that level of generosity?

The secret is found in 4:32 — “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own.” This conviction was a foundational truth that informed their lives and empowered them in the practical, day-by-day life of love. God owns all things. My house, my car, my clothes, my financial resources—even the air that I breathe—are all on loan from God. He is the owner. So, I’m tasked with the responsibility to use his resources in a manner that honors him, brings dignity to all his people, and protects his creation.

If we see this as a burden, we’re missing the point. This kind of humility and abandonment to love brings liberation beyond what most people ever imagine. Whenever I lose sight of my proper relationship to the material world, I consider Paul’s description of believers as those “having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

Pray: Meditate on the idea of owning nothing but possessing everything. Then thank the Lord for all the beautiful things he has placed in your life. Ask him to guide you in honoring him with how you handle the time, the resources and the passions he has entrusted to you.