Thursday, June 30, 2011

Romans 5: How does Suffering Produce Hope?

With Paul I rejoice that by the grace of the cross, through faith, I now have peace with God. The Jew in me joyfully lays down the unbearable burden of trying to please a holy God by being good.  The good news is that the Holy One of Israel understands my moral weakness and has taken up the full burden of righteousness himself. I need only walk by His side. The Gentile in me weeps with relief that the capricious gods of Rome and Greece are false, and that the One God is knowable, and known, and knows me. There is gno longer any gneed for gnosis. God has made his wisdom accessible to all people, stupid or smart, Jew or Gentile, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.

With Paul I rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Now I see it through a glass darkly; one day, face to face, Hallelujah, my heart thrills. Just thinking about it is enough to make me get up out of the bed in the morning and then some.

With Paul I even rejoice in my sufferings, because they produce perseverance, which produces character. In training for the July 31 Colchester Triathlon I find that my hours in the Racquet’s Edge pool have produced new strength and stamina. On really good days I simply surge up and out of the water with every stroke. I get the sufferings-perseverance-character parallel between physical and moral strength. Larry Staab, a fellow swimmer and brother at JCC who endured the notorious Hell Week of Navy SEAL training with a broken foot, has encouraged me in this regard.

But I DON’T get the last link in Paul’s chain of suffering: hope. How, exactly, does the suffering that produces perseverance and character culminate in hope? What’s the connection there? To me, it is not humanly intuitive, as is suffering's link with perseverance and character. As I finish the passage - “And hope does not disappoint us, for God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given to us” – I see I have partially misunderstood the teaching about suffering, perseverance, and character. God is not my Jillian Michaels of America’s Biggest Loser, my trainer in self-improvement for my benefit. In His eyes I am identified with Christ. As His son underwent suffering and perseverance and displayed character, so must I; and as His son endured all in hope and joy and was resurrected unto glorious life, so will I through His Spirit of Power.

As the Spirit uses sufferings to produce Christ-like perseverance and character, He also bestows on those “in training” the strength-enhancing gift of Hope, the protein of the soul. “I am my beloved, and He is mine, his banner over me is love,” said the expectant bride in Song of Solomon. “I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand in the last day,” said suffering Job. The Spirit gives me strong hope as I give Him my waiting and suffering; now, in the Garden; daily, under the Cross; one day, at the Resurrection.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Romans 4: Father Abraham had many sons; I am one of them, and so are you

Romans 4: Father Abraham had many sons

I remember a ridiculous Christian camp song, "Father Abraham had many sons/ many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ so let's just praise the Lord" and then we would wiggle our right arm, then our left arm, etc.....

The song is silly but the words are true. I am a son of Abraham. Abraham is Guy Page's forefather. Paul, a son of Abraham according to the flesh, says so in Romans 4, in stirring language that goes more than flesh deep, right down into my heart and soul.

In Chapter 3, Paul introduced a New Thing: Universal Peace With God, for Jew and Gentile alike. The Romulan lion shall lie down with the Vulcan lamb.

"But hold on just one blasted minute, there, Paul,” the Judaizers respond. "What about Abraham? What about David? According to the family Torah scroll, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand-father was David’s court dogcatcher and second cousin once removed! And that makes us kin to Abraham, too! Are you absurdly suggested that I am related to some gentile [dog] just because he says he believes in Messiah?"

In Chapter 4, Paul responds:

Our Father Abraham was declared righteous because he believed God. Before he was circumcized. Just like your gentile brother. In the eyes of God, that makes him a Son of Abraham.

Abraham received and believed his promise that his offspring would inherit the earth. Before the law was given. The Law did not, could not, justify Abraham. Just like it does not and cannot justify your gentile brother. In the eyes of God, that makes him a Son of Abraham.

Abraham believed God that he would become "the father of many nations." Not just Israel. Many nations. Including the nation of your gentile brother. In the eyes of God, that makes him a Son of Abraham.

Against all hope, Abraham believed that life could be brought forth from the dead. Both he and Sarah were old and effectively "dead" as potential parents. But God, but God......

“Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ’it was credited to him as righteousness.’ The words ’it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification."

“Our” includes our Gentile brother who displays the faith of Abraham regarding the resurrection of Christ from the dead. In the eyes of God, that makes him a Son of Abraham.

The hero of the 19th century British adventure novel "She" by H. Rider Haggard, the creator of Allan Quartermain, has just encountered the title character, a beautiful woman who is 2,300 years old. A rational scientist and historian, he grapples to understand: "the thing was quite adverse to the experience of humanity, and absolutely and unutterably impossible." In the same way did Greek and Roman skeptics struggle in vain to filter the truth of the Risen Christ through their worldviews. Yet showing that faith that at least twice "amazed" Jesus, by God's grace they believed. They became true sons of Abraham. "I am one of them." I, Guy Page, a skeptic and Unitarian born and raised, am a Son of Abraham. The real-life application of that truth (beyond justification through faith) would be a worthy meditation.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Romans 3: Vince Lombardi, and a conversation between a Romulan and a Vulcan

Romans 3: Vince Lombardi, and a conversation between a Romulan and a Vulcan

Back in the sixties, during the heyday of the civil rights movement, someone asked Willie Davis, an African-American starring for the Green Bay Packers, if legendary coach Vince Lombardi treated the black and white players equally.

“Sure he treats us equally,” Davis laughed. “He treats us all like dogs.”

Halfway through Romans chapter three, that is pretty much where Paul has assigned both Jew and Gentile. Both “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” Both have seen God’s light, and shut their eyes. Like a good drill instructor, he's torn 'em down to build 'em up: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known.” All who believe are made righteous by faith.

And then Paul says something Really Important. The prophets hint at it. Jesus mentions it. Paul makes it crystal clear. This new teaching is for Everyone. Jew. Gentile. If you are breathing and have opposable thumbs, Jesus is for you. This is the world’s first truly Universal Religion. Until now, gods were not very transportable. At best, someone from Them might join Us.

But God, through Paul, Roman citizen and devout Jew, has made Them no better than Us, and Us no better than Them. “Is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles, too?” From now on, the Kingdom is officially We.

The Romulans of Star Trek were patterned after Romans: proud, grasping, superior, contemptuous, with last names that ended in “us”. Leonard Nimoy, a Jew, drew on his heritage to play Spock as an intellectual outsider torn by loyalties to two cultures. The split-finger “live long and prosper” sign so universally beloved by nerds was conceived by Nimoy, who as a child saw a rabbi use it during the High Holy Days, spelling with his hands the holy and unutterable name of God.  Like Jews and Gentiles, Vulcans and Romulans were once the same people. Spock, like Paul, seeks reunification.  I picture a Romulan/Vulcan conversation about Spock going something like this:

Romulan: “Ho, Vulcan elitist! What is this I hear about your fellow Vulcan Spock blaspheming against the gods of the Great Romulan Empire?”

Vulcan: “Greetings, my imperialist cousin of an emotion-soiled planet. It is I who must, alas, ask you: why is this same Spock aligning himself with your intellectually-weak bloodline, except to pollute mine?”

Romulan: “Spock says both Vulcan and Romulus face a threat that will destroy us both.  He says that unless we take immediate action, everyone on all planets will become One with the Borg. What defeatist rubbish! Mighty Romulus shall prevail forever! Still….it is rumored that we have lost outposts. Perhaps Spock has some intelligence.”

“Vulcan: “It is not logical to assume that so intellectually superior a planet as Vulcan could fall to the Borg. And yet…. logic would suggest prudent inquiry.”

Together, they search for Spock.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Romans 2: Condemnation for the Gentile first, then the Jew

In God's economy, both judgment and blessing go "first to the Jew, then to the Gentile." Author Paul reverses the order: at the end of Chapter One, he speaks scathing condemnation on the clueless, godless, blind, futile, darkened Gentiles. Picturing in his mind's eyes the Pharisees looking on in smug approval, he turns on them in Chapter Two and in the best tradition of Jesus BLASTS them for their religious pride, stubbornness, and self-seeking.

I read Chapter Two and cannot help but think of the sad wail of every iconic punch-drunk boxer in every pugilistic drama from "On the Waterfront" to "Rocky": "I coulda been a contendah!" That is how Paul sees the rebellious Jews. As Burgess Meredith tells Sylvester Stallone: "you coulda been great - now, you're a bum." Wasted opportunities. Spiritual dissolution. Lost greatness.

I hear the heartcry of Paul for his doubly-enslaved people in this dirge (set to a minor key, 4/4, accent on first beat):

"Where is our Moses, where are our judges, where are our Davids, they're all lying in the grave/
Gone is Elijah, Gone Nehemiah, none are among us who are Mighty to Save/

(change to higher minor key)

"Prophets you sent us, we have ignored them, beatened and tortured and crucified/
while all our princes, just like our conquerers, fawned and stole and killed and lied"

There were of course many godly Jews, both in and (to use the words of Jesus) "not far" from the Kingdom, who wholeheartedly agreed and were praying for divine victory. But how? How can Israel overcome the political power of Appollo, and the just condemnation of their Creed? But God.....

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Romans 1 - that long, endless slide

Even in his opening salutation, Paul self-identifies as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and then walks the talk, preaching the gospel of a savior promised in the scriptures, descended from David, declared by the Spirit to be God’s son, and raised from the dead.

In the case of Romans, you CAN tell a book by its cover, or at least by its opening paragraph. It is Paul’s summa, his great work of theology and godly living. Excepting perhaps one of the gospels, it may be the most influential book of western civilization. He wrote it in 57 AD, probably in Corinth. He dives right in. I can’t. I don’t have the Spiritual lungpower to stay down so long, marveling at the treasure. The best I can manage is a deep breath, a few strokes down, a quick look, and then it’s back to the surface.

To better understand salvation by grace through faith (v. 17), I must understand man’s depravity. He has willfully rejected the obvious truths of God evident in creation. This wrong turn leads to a long slide at midnight down a cliff of lies. The longer the slide, the faster and messier it gets. From Darwin to gay marriage and plenty in between, you can connect the dots. Paul leaves no room for catching a root and pulling oneself back up the cliff like Indiana Jones. Mankind without grace is in eternal free fall. God throws up his hands and says, “you want filth, then go ahead and wallow in it.”

But God…..

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Acts 29

I know there is no Acts 29. Tim Steiner knows there is no Acts 29. So when he asked me to write about it, I asked why, and he said that Back in the Day, the Jesus People of the early 1970's saw themselves as renewing New Testament church life. They were picking up where Paul and Peter left off. Hence, Acts 29.

Paul ends the book with the ringing declaration, yea prophecy: "I will bring the gospel to the Gentiles: and they will listen!" So here is an overview of 20 centuries of raving oversimplification of how and when Gentiles embraced the gospel. Every statement could be qualified with a "yes but" and a "you forgot this." And that would be true.

So here goes......

Every Roman bishop for many decades is martyred. Burned as torches and torn by lions, believers die trusting in Christ's resurrection and return. Romans respect courage which, combined with kingdom preaching and good works like nursing the sick and saving abandoned babies, produces many converts. The double-edged sword of political power comes in 314 AD when Emperor Constantine declares Christianity a state religion. Monastics, early "reformers" reject urban worldliness and seek God in desert solitude. Great councils of the established church codify doctrine and scriptures. When the western Roman empire crumbles, the church remains, preserving learning and universal language (the "Romance languages" and church latin) during the lawless Dark Ages (600 - 900 AD). Shining lights include Patrick, an English missionary to Ireland's druids and celts. Christian kings and princes protect and sometimes co-opt the church. The Viking terrorists eventually forsake Thor for Christ. The Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople (Istanbul) and its Orthodox church thrive, sending missionaries to Russia and Eastern Europe, where kings receive Christianity and the people (eventually) embrace Orthodox faith. The new faith of Islam carves out huge chunks of African and middle eastern Christian countries.

Everywhere Christians periodically rediscover the gospel. Sometimes this threatens church and state, and persecution follows. Countless movements experience the cycles of receiving truth, faithfulness, and legalism or apostasy. Believers become pharisees oppressing new believers. Wheat and tares grow side by side, awaiting the Master Gardener's separation. The greatest reform is the Protestant Reformation, led by German Martin Luther, a man like Paul: a brilliant, learned theologian, by nature stubborn, impatient, and energetic, not humble by nature but led through crisis to wholly embrace Christ's salvation by grace through faith. Politics and the printing press help Luther survive and prevail. Soon almost half of Europe is Protestant, including the dominant sea power, England, which eventually controls North America. Thus is Protestantism, complete with countless mini-reformations (Edwards, Whitefield, Finney, Moody, AB Simpson, Nazarene and pentacostalism, etc. etc. etc.) established in the U.S. and Canada.

I see a pattern: the Spirit prompts "normal people" to consider the powerful teachings and example of the most amazing man who ever lived, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God and Mary. In stark contrast to the falseness and shadows of their religious experience, they see something - no, Someone - Real. They fall in love and will live and die for Him. The ardor fades with subsequent generations, and the cycle is repeated. The Bridegroom woos his bride without domination and without ceasing, praise His name.

In the late 1700's the Protestants, perhaps inspired by earlier generations of German Moravians, get serious about world missions. William Carey evangelizes India, to be followed in example by Hudson Taylor to China, David Livingstone to Africa, Adoniram Judson to Burma. The list of servants at home and abroad is endless and will not be written until Jesus returns.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Acts 28: Shake That Serpent Off

So I'm climbing Bryce Hill Road tonight on a drop-dead gorgeous Midsummer evening, with Mt. Mansfield looming ahead, and a marching song comes to me. Or it could be a work song, a group of men singing along in time with the dip of their shovels. Or a sea chanty, with one man singing out the verse and the rest singing the chorus as they haul on a line.

It sounded great as I walked along, but either I forgot the tune, or it wasn't anywhere near as good as the beautiful setting made it sound. Either way, the rhythm and verse/response chorus resembles the old spiritual and slave's field song, "Let My People Go".

Shake That Serpent Off

Old Paul was shipwrecked on the isle
shake that serpent off
pulled a stick from the woodpile
shake that serpent off
the serpent straight right up he stand
shake that serpent off
and bit th'apostle on his hand
shake that serpent off, Paul, shake that serpent off

His friends they gave up Paul for dead
shake that serpent off
He jus' toss it in the fire and said
shake that serpent off
No rest for me till my work's done
shake that serpent off
Gotta teach you 'bout the healing one
shake that serpent off, Paul, shake that serpent off

Now listen to a word that's true
shake that serpent off
resist the devil he flee from you
shake that serpent off
and no impossibility
shake that serpent off
can stop our savior's victory
shake that serpent off, Paul, shake that serpent off

I ain't no God I'm just a man
shake that serpent off
I give him glory when I can
shake that serpent off
Now bring your sick and lame to me
shake that serpent off
with them I'll share God's victory
shake that serpent off, Paul, shake that serpent off

Monday, June 20, 2011

Acts 27: Vrroom! Vrroom! & Other Upheavals

A sight to sadden, scare and thrill a father's heart: his "little girl" driving off by herself in her car!

It happened last week, just a day after Imani earned her driver's license. The girl who refused to use training wheels on her bicycle but hopped right on a two wheel and pedaled furiously and successfully down the road was also the first of our three kids to get a license! She is a very good driver, and God willing she will get through the nerve-wracking first year of driving just fine.

The car is a 1996 Mercury Mystique, driven until a few months ago by Linda's landlady Pat Halsey. It has been very well cared for over the years by none other than Craig Sheppard, car mechanic extraordinaire, fairly new grandpa and husband of the extremely pregnant Heather. Imani being Imani, she drove out to an auto parts store and bought stylish seat covers, air freshener and other "bling". I bought the gas! She is, however, looking hard for a job to meet her responsibilities. Anyone got any work for her?

Her newfound independence and Joe's graduation and pending on-campus life at St. Mike's unsettled me. Slow down, world, too much loss for one year......but a terrific Father's Day helped a lot. Joe made me a cheesecake and cleaned the downstairs, Imani gave me no-bake cookies, and Tim and I enjoyed a happy Father's Day phone call. Even better, I am blessed to know that all three of my children are healthy, walking in faith, and using their particular strengths and gifts to be servant leaders in their respective communities. Truly my quiver is full!

The Acts 27 application to my life has nothing to do with comparing Imani's driving to the heaving and tossing of a storm-wracked ship off the coast of Cyprus, except perhaps by sharp contrast. The upheaval, the "will it never end" feeling, did describe my state of mind sometimes last week, though. I resembled the tired, sick, despairing sailors and soldiers on the ship. Like them I was blessed to hear from a few encouraging Pauls, brothers and sisters who assured me that trusting God and His word would bring me into a calm, safe haven. And after some prayer, and some TLC from my kids, that's exactly what happened.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Acts 26: A Powerful Testimony

King Agrippa is not just a Big Dog in the Roman hierarchy. He also controls the purse strings of the temple and appoints the high priest. Rome considers him an expert on the Jews. Festus' report on Paul won't be complete without Agrippa's perspective. At a hearing before Agrippa and Festus, Paul shares his compelling testimony, complete with an unforgettable first-person encounter with God, colorful colloquial expressions, and a direct presentation of the gospel.

It's all too much for Festus, who calls Paul "insane". As this is Father's Day, I will share a story of my father, Guy Page Jr., who at one time held the "record" as the youngest lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Before Parkinson's Disease robbed him of the pleasure of speech, he loved to tell anecdotes and stories. Out of the blue he once told me, "Guy, when the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the law and the facts are against you, call the other lawyer names." Which is pretty much what Festus does here. Paul responds firmly and rationally and then turns to Agrippa and basically lays an altar call on him in the form of a question:

"King Agrippa, do you believe in the prophets? I know you do."

Agrippa, no greenhorn in the art of Jewish discourse, answers with a question:

"Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian?"

Paul's answers with commitment, certainty and laser-like focus: "Short time or long - I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains."

Paul has not won Agrippa's heart, but he has won a degree of support: in his opinion, Paul could be set free. His powerful testimony has made an impression. Which reminds me of another powerful testimony, made this morning by Joe before several hundred people at Jericho Congregational Church. As a graduate, he was offered the opportunity to deliver his testimony, and he made the most of it - see below - proud of you Joe and Imani and Tim and Happy Father's Day, everyone!

My Testimony

There are many ways I could begin with my testimony.  When I sat down at the computer to write this,  I really didn’t quite know where to start. Luckily, I phoned Pastor Carter, who returned my call, so that helped. Now I know just how to begin, and that is, firstly, by thanking God, withall of my heart, for all the wonderful people he has placed i n my life. From this supportive congregation, to my close friends who have recently graduated from Rice Memorial High School (along with myself and the rest of my class), to all the teachers and staff at Rice who have made a difference in my life, and last, but by no means least, to my family, including my mom in Heaven.

As many of you know, earlier this year, my family and I suffered the loss of my mother, Diane Page. As painful as the situation was, and still will be, I know that my family and I have been, and still are, in the prayers of many people. However, it is not only through prayer that people have reached out in their own ways:  Pastor Anderson and his wife graciously brought over dinners to us. Mrs. Jaquith has been a positive influence on me, sending out e-mails reminding me that God is ever-present, and that we are part of, to quote her directly, “His cloud of witnesses.” Mr. and Mrs. Sims, the Rainfords, and of course, my dad and Uncle Bill have always been there for me, no matter life’s ups and downs.

(For those of you I did not mention, as there are a great many of us who attend this church, I thank you as well). And it is only through what everyone has done for me, and the kindness and continued support I have been shown, and the prayer I have been a part of, that I’ve been able to keep going forward.

I am looking forward to attending Saint Michael’s College in August, and meeting new faces and forming new friendships. God-willing, I hope to be able to live on campus, and become comfortable in the new college setting as time progresses. I feel amazed that my four years of high school have now come to an end, reluctant to part ways from my friends and those I have gotten to know, while at the same time having hope that we will someday meet again, and feeling excitement to start another chapter of my life. Looking further ahead, I know that the Lord will be with me, wherever I go, and that one day, I too will join my mom and other loved ones who have passed away, in Heaven, where there is eternal life, salvation, healing and forgiveness through the death of Jesus Christ.

I end with this Bible verse from Proverbs 3:3, which says: “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.”

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Acts 24: The Power of Powerlessness

After yesterday's post, Tim Steiner commented that Paul's unending trip from one Roman court to another could have been the inspiration for a similar story by Franz Kafka. The term "kafkaesque" describes an absurd, unpleasant, unending experience. The difference, though, is that Paul actually seems to have invited this experience. Yes, he was making himself powerless; yes, he was giving up his high position as a law-abiding citizen of the Roman Empire to become an accused, shackled criminal, at the mercy of the "authorities" who more often than not are just paying back favors to Paul's enemies. Yes, he willingly goes before yet another Herod (Agrippa), something that never worked out well in human terms for Jesus, John the Baptist, James, Peter and John, just to name a few.

But that's okay with Paul. He's not a masochist. He just accepts that his life is not his own, anyway, and that his mission and passion is to preach Christ to the Gentiles. So where better to do this, than Rome? And who better to speak to, than princes and governors and centurions and travelers? Sure, Paul was chained to the Roman transportation, military and justice systems; more important, they were chained to him. I don't know if this apparently one-way trip to Rome is considered a "missionary journey," but it should be. It is not a victory lap, except in the sense that "in all these things we are more than conquerors". The man who wrote "when I am weak, then I am strong" knew a thing or two from personal experience and CHOICES about surrendering personal power and relying on God's.

I have been very, very angry this week. Angry at all I have lost and am losing. Just a blip in time ago this familiar old house of mine was bustling with the activities of four busy people. It wasn't always happy, but it was four "real" people living their busy lives together. Now one is dead, another lives elsewhere (with a new car and drivers license!), and a third graduated from high school this past Sunday and will be leaving home in two months. So WOE IS ME. At Deb Bensen's advice I took this to prayer. What I heard back was this: "God loves you. He knows what you are experiencing. You wouldn't be going through this if He didn't have a good reason." And yeah, receiving that takes away some of the anger, loss and sting of experiencing life in process.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Acts 23: Paul's "Day" In Roman Court Begins

Flattery and lies. Kiss up and kick down. That about describes the "litigation strategy" of Paul's accusers before the Roman governor Felix in Caesarea.

By contrast, Paul tersely acknowledges the governor's authority to judge, and gets right to the point with accurate, verifiable fact after fact after fact. And, being Paul, he testifies to the power of the resurrection. In this first hearing he does not mention Christ, perhaps that is because he knows that Felix "was well acquainted with The Way" (v. 22). In the second and subsequent hearings, at which Felix is joined by his Jewish wife Drusilla, Paul presents the whole gospel. Felix is afraid of the message of judgment but greedy for a bribe, so he keeps calling for Paul, who keeps coming to share the gospel.

Eventually Felix is recalled to Rome for mishandling ethnic riots and is replaced by a new governor of the Jews with the unfortunate name of Porcius. Historical accounts say he was, however, wiser and more honest than his predecessor.

Drusilla was the daughter of Herod Agrippa 1 (the "godlike" one whose stomach was filled with worms), and was married at age 15 to Azizus King of Emesa before deserting him after a year and marrying Felix. Her son, also named Agrippa, died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Thus, hopefully, ended the miserable line of proud, violent persecutors and sometime killers of godly men (John the Baptist, Jesus, James, Peter, John, Paul, etc. etc.).

As the conclusion of Acts approaches, I wonder why Luke spends so much time on the details of the ups and downs of Paul the Litigator. Maybe it has something to do with dignifying the gospel message in the eyes of Roman readers by presenting it in a positive light before an institution they knew and respected and indeed took pride in as a lynchpin in the Pax Romana: the courts. Think Billy Graham in Yankee Stadium.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Acts 23: what to do when 40 men want to kill you

I am trying to think of the last time 40 people promised to not eat or drink before killing me.

And I am drawing a blank. Either my enemies hate me too little or love food and drink too much. So against the day when "those who seek to kill you will believe they are doing God a favor," I look at what Paul does in this situation:

1) He pays attention to the warning signs. Paul's sister's son gets wind of the plot and tells Uncle Paul right away.

2) He doesn't turn and run. That's why thugs talk so big and bad - they want us to lose heart and do their work for them. The trick is to realize they are not so tough.

3) He takes prudent, positive action. Like a spiritual martial artist, he turns their strength into a weakness. Paul goes to the Roman authorities (who are probably bending over backwards to help him after their near-mistake of flogging the back of a citizen) and has his nephew tell them about the Jewish "dagger-men" (see last chapter). As is often the case with big-talking activists and other bullies, the 40 Assassins cave when resisted with strength and determination. These fools risked their dignity to gain Paul's death. They lost on both counts. Glory, glory hallelujah, His truth is marching on.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Acts 22: When in Rome, do as the Romans do

The popular cliche "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" was coined by St. Ambrose, a fourth-century bishop of Milan. It's a catchy little tune that goes something like this: si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sicut ibi (if you were in Rome, live in the Roman way; if you are elsewhere, live as they do there). We see Paul give a virtuoso performance in Acts 22.

Centuries later God would send an Englishman (Patrick) to evangelize Ireland. Thanks to the wonders of cinematic time-travel, I know that many, many centuries from now, somewhere on the Final Frontier, Mr. Spock will refer to another influential cross-cultural leader: "the Klingons have a saying, 'only Nixon could go to China.'" Which is more unbelievable, the blue-painted druids preserving Roman Christianity in the Dark Ages, the Chinese outpacing the Americans in capitalism or the Gentiles outpacing the Jews in following the God of Israel? Truly God is great. With Him, all things are possible. Yesterday Bishop Salvatore Matano spoke to the Rice graduates about believing God for the impossible. It was a "good word" for the adults listening, too, and would have received a hearty "amen" from Paul, I am sure.

At the end of Chapter 21, Paul has returned to Jerusalem and (predictably ) is accosted by an angry Jewish mob. The Roman officer "protecting" him interrogates him about being the leader of a specific band of terrorists (literally, "dagger-men" or asassins) also mentioned by the historian Josephus. Paul is between the rock(s) of a lynch mob and the hard place of suspicious Roman soldiers.

Paul softens the Roman first by mentioning (in Greek) his Roman citizenship and his prestigious city of origin ("no ordinary city," a term also ascribed to Athens). He then settles down the mob by giving his testimony (in Aramaic) in decidedly Jewish terms:

  • "Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers" and ""was just as zealous for God as you are today...I persecuted followers of the also the high priest and all the Council can testify."

  • He refers to his Damascus protector Ananias as "a devout observer of the law;" mentions "the God of our fathers; and recalls how he "returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple."

Oh vay, what a mensch!

But the strategy falls apart when he drops the "G" word: Gentiles. Remember Jesus talking about how unbelieving Jews will receive only the Sign of Jonah? God drops a new, Gentile-evangelizing Jonah in their midst and they, well, want to throw him overboard. Sounding much like the Iranian president Ahmejinedab who wants to "erase Israel from the map," they say, "rid the earth of him, he's not fit to live!"

The Romans at first treat Paul like just another troublesome slave. Lashed between two poles with his arms and back outstretched, Paul reverts to his Greek-speaking citizen persona: "it is legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't even been found guilty?"

Uh-oh. Some Roman has put his hobnailed boot into it now! I love the don't-look-at-me response of the centurion (sort of a high-ranking sergeant) to the Man In Charge: "what are you going to do?" What he does, of course, is let Paul go, and that right quickly.

An abbreviated version of I Cor 9:20-23 describes Paul's serious motivation for this comedy of manners, mistaken identity, and cross-cultural evangelism: "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews, to those not having the law I became like one not having the law,so as to win those not having the law. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel."

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Acts 21 - the servant and his reward

 Last night, Joe won two awards at the Senior Awards Ceremony at Rice High School. He won the Drama Award for his hilarious performance at the One-Act Festival this spring and even more so for his willingness to help out in any way necessary. He's a trooper (trouper?) in the spirit of theater: do whatever needs doing because the show must go on. He also won the $500 Ellen Pomerleau Scholarship, for academic achievement and, you guessed it, service. Anyone who knows Joe know that he is always willing to help out, no matter if anyone is looking or how unrewarding the task.

In this way he reminds me of Philip, who returns to the Book of Acts for a "cameo" appearance. You may remember him as one of the Seven picked in the heady, chaotic days of the early Jerusalem church (see Acts 6). His job - oh, what status, what fun, what power! - was to divvy up the food so that the Jewish widows didn't get more than the Gentile widows and to try to make everyone happy about it! Then the Spirit promotes him to evangelize the (ewwww......) Samaritans! And after faithfully fulfilling that task (and probably getting some funny looks from the "faithful" back in Jerusalem), Philip is called by the Spirit to run panting alongside a chariot, not unlike a slave, explaining the gospel to a eunuch who is a highly ranked servant of the queen of Ethiopia. This man was the first century equivalent of a transgender, black, politician. Those enslaved to the spirit of racism, pride and religion back then (and today) would refuse to accept the position of lower status with "that kind of person". Philip was less concerned about the other fellow's identity than his own: a humble servant of Christ loving others, spreading the gospel, and obeying God. His work was blessed by the Spirit of the First and the Last.

So, what is Philip doing, about 15 years later? He is living in Caesarea and has four daughters, all unmarried, all prophets. Raising four outspoken daughters to be godly servants: now THAT'S servanthood! Four times as much of it as I have, anyway.

Lord Jesus my Servant, who forsook your lofty place and endured humiliation, separation, abuse, and torture to serve unto death both your Father and Bridegroom, I thank and bless you, and I thank and bless all of your servants, those on earth and those in the Great Cloud of Witnesses (one in particular), who have by deed and example helped bring Joe and all other Christian young people to this momentous point. Like Paul in this chapter, Joe is moving on to a new stage in his life, with its own set of new challenges and blessings. I say to this man of God, as Paul's friends said to him in vs. 14, "The Lord's will be done." For Paul, Philip, Joe and Guy, those five words contain blessings and rewards unknown, abundant, sufficient.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Acts 20: Paul, Eutychus and William Borden

This chapter highlights the tenacity and godly zeal of the Apostle Paul. His unstinting capacity to focus and work…… it is unfathomable to me. How can I say this…..he is not like me. Or, I am not like him. The Spirit is willing but my flesh is weak. In this story I am Eutychus, the tired chap who falls asleep during one of Paul’s late night sermons, tumbles out of the third story window and has to be resurrected by Paul. The poor lad is then taken home (either then or later). Paul pauses to eat and then preaches until daylight.  

I know this about myself. Working on political campaigns, I have found myself exhausted and just wanting to go home to bed. I greatly admire dedicated workers like Heather Sheppard and Vermont Right to Life’s Mary Hahn Beerworth, a pair of godly Energizer Bunnies possessing never-ending enthusiasm and energy. But I am not like them, either. Is it lack of physical stamina? Self-indulgence? Or is it just “by the grace of God I am what I am”? For the moment I suppose I will glory in my infirmities so that when blessings occur, Christ will be glorified (despite my tendency to hog the stage).

Last night, on the way home from our grief support group meeting (I am so thankful to leaders Rich and Karen Parker and for the good, patient listeners that gather there), I was thinking about Acts 20 and what do you know, Woodrow Kroll of “Back to the Bible” on 91.5 The Light began to preach on it! Well, I am no fool nor am I one to not benefit from another’s efforts – I paid attention. Dr. Kroll told of William Borden (see link for photo, full bio), the heir to the Borden dairy manufacturing fortune who brought revival to Yale University in the early 1900’s and then rejected “fame and fortune” for the mission field – only to contract meningitis and die within a year. One could argue that he “would have accomplished more” by staying home and supporting missions with his millions, preaching, etc.  But one would miss the point! William Borden wrote three statements in the back of his Bible. The first two were written during his Yale years as he grappled with family expectations, the lure of the world and the call of God:

“No Reserves. No Retreat.”

He wrote the third as he lay dying in Egypt:

“No Regrets.”

William Borden and Paul were kindred spirits. At their very foundations, they were not Kingdom Builders. Yes, their hearts burned for the Kingdom, in the spirit of John Knox who groaned “Lord, give me Scotland or I die!,” but even hotter burned their desire to say yes to Jesus. In his goodbye to the Ephesian elders, amid hugs and tears, Paul says: “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”

To his mission career, William Borden could have added a fourth negative R: “No Results.” At least in the outward, human, observable sense. The eternal “Results” produced by the Holy Spirit through the witness of a person committed heart, mind, body and soul to Jesus are glorious, I suspect, and will learn one day.

There is a sister who has intensely loved Jesus and others for almost 40 years. Her dedicated, risk-taking, gracious, loving lifelong ministry has not produced the tangible results for which she had hoped. This grateful Eutychus comments to her and others the witness of Paul and William Borden: “complete the task the Lord Jesus has given you – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” In the words of songwriter Keith Green, “He’ll take care of the rest, he’s gonna do it, he’ll take care of the rest, the Devil blew it, he’ll take care of the rest!”

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Acts 19: competing spirits in Ephesus

In Ephesus, Paul lays hands (v. 19:6) on disciples of John the Baptist, who then speak in tongues and prophesy.  The Spirit is dramatically proclaiming their adoption into the church he established back at Pentecost. He is saying: by my power you will speak my truth to people of different languages. My gospel will be spread throughout the world by many small people endowed with great power.

In Ephesus, Paul is good to his word to focus more on the Gentiles: after trying to speak in the synagogue but facing predictable opposition, he “had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.” Sounds like Greek to me. He’s there for two years, and God blesses so that “all the Jews and Greeks in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”

In Ephesus, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, especially when practiced by your enemies. The Seven Sons of Sceva – even their names have a sssserpenty sssound – are exorcist wannabes who make the still-common mistake of thinking that saying the right words is a substitute for being in right relationship. (“If you don’t say ‘In Jesus’ Name’ at the end your prayer won’t work.”) The demon beats them silly. A mature, well-armed human being has authority and power over scary wild beasts, which is why we are able to cage tigers and stick them in zoos. Likewise do Christians enjoy authority and power over roving, ravening demons. Non-Christians, however, are just children lost out in the jungle, at night.

In Ephesus, perhaps after seeing what happened to the seven sons, many sorcerers come to faith and burn their scrolls. This is not quite the same thing as modern book burning. One can and often does replace a book, which in any case is usually a mass-produced object of little individual worth. By contrast, the scrolls contained the sorcerer's secret words of power. It’s more like a tradesman intentionally breaking irreplaceable tools and saying “I don’t need these anymore because I’m getting out of this lousy business.”

In Ephesus, the locally-favored fertility goddess Diana/Artemis is not so different from Ceres, goddess of agriculture, whose statue sits atop the Vermont Statehouse. Neither is the greed masked as patriotism, as practiced by the Ephesian artisans guild, so different than the squalid practice of our modern day Mystery Religion known as politics. A group protecting its own financial interest paints critics as outsiders who don’t love Vermont or America or or East Frogsquat as much as the rest of us do. The mob they incite disperses only after the City Clerk echoes Gamaliel’s advice to the Sanhedrin back in Jerusalem: let this thing work itself out, don’t do anything rash.  Religious tolerance may not always be smart politics, but it's good government. And in civic terms at least, it's good religion, too.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Acts 18: Facing opposition alone

It's been a long time coming, but finally the break has come. Paul, who would give his very soul if only Israel could be saved, stands in the synagogue of Corinth, shakes out the dust from his clothing and gives up on directly evangelizing this antagonistic people group: "from now on I will go to the Gentiles". The rejection, the hatred is too much. The call of God has separated Paul from his ancestral, spiritual "mother" Israel. Hear his consolation from the Lord:

"Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. for I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city."

Did the attacks stop? No. Did Paul stop? "May it never be!" Did God keep his promise to provide friends for emotional, physical, and ministry support? Yes! Aquila and Priscilla work with him making tents. Appollos and others join him in ministry.

(Parenthetical thought question: why did Paul choose this line of menial work: Well, who needs tents? Pilgrims. Travelers. People fleeing pogroms. Every one a potential broadcaster of the gospel seed "unto to the ends of the earth." As Paul would later say, "all things work together for good for those who love God and called for His purpose." There's a reason why Christians and communists alike focus on the college campus. And speaking of tentmakers: there is a brother who reads this blog who is not only a carpenter AND a tentmaker but who also lives alone on an island from which he shares his insights [dare I call them Revelations?] with the brethren. His name is not John.)

God's comfort to Paul reminds me of His comfort to Elijah, who complains in I Kings 19, "I am the only one left." God responds: thousands have not bowed to Baal; kings will abolish Baal worship; Elisha will join him in ministry. "And as the Lord spake, it came to pass....." As Father's Day and other family-related annual landmarks come and go, it is easy for me to feel like "I am the only one left." As predicted in all of the grief books, there has been a subtle but real realignment in friendships and relationships, sometimes painful to discover. Thank you to Joanne Carter for finding me a copy of "Facing Loneliness," by J. Oswald Sanders, the great Christian preacher and writer who lost his wife and was a widower for 18 years. And thank you too, to the God Who Sees for his kind intervention in the lives of my brothers Elijah and Paul as recorded in scripture and in the lives of countless brothers and sisters before and since.

I am also beginning to think of some creative ways for other unmarried Christians to spend edifying, enjoyable time together in groups, hopefully without the matchmaking awkwardness.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Acts 16: Timothy, "us," one annoying demon, and lots more

So many interesting events happen in Acts 16. Here are the highlights:

I meet Timothy, Paul's son in the faith. I have a son Timothy by adoption, and another (kind of) son in the faith Timothy. And he's a newspaper publisher - go figure! The name means "honoring God" and praise be to Him that describes both of my Timmers. The Guy Page Translation says that his mother was a Norwegian and his father was a geek. No wait, a Greek. I don't remember pledging anywhere......

I see the Spirit tugging Paul to Macedonia. First he stops him from going the wrong way, then he sends a vision of a Macedonian begging him to come. I guess even Paul needed the equivalent of an angelic tap every now and again.

I see Luke introduce "we" into the narrative. Luke has joined his story. Interesting that his first account is about Lydia, a godly woman (Luke's gospel talks more about women than any other). The second is about a demon who tells everyone that Jesus is the son of God, but repeats itself so often that Paul becomes annoyed even though the content of the preaching really can't be faulted. Repetition, bad delivery, and above all the character of the preacher will spoil even the best sermon.

I see "Paul and Silas went to jail, had no money for their bail," as we used to sing in Rescue. Their crime is depriving slaveowners of a very profitable demon. How upside down is our world, that greed can cause lead to the imprisonment of men who are trying to set the world free. But hold on: what they meant for evil God meant for good: salvation for the jailer and all his household.

I see Paul refusing vehemently the "offer" of the judges to drop all charges once he has discovered Paul is a Roman citizen. Not for his own honor, but keeping his eye on the prize of the furtherance of the gospel, Paul humiliates the magistrates by forcing them to personally escort him out of the city. It reminds me of the end of the book "Lord of the Rings," where Frodo and Sam allow the self-important "sheriffs" to accompany them back to Hobbiton, but it is pretty clear just who is leading who. Paul would allow the Holy Spirit to tell him where to minister, but woe to the human authority who tried to do likewise.