Among the Pagans

I believe it was Francis Schaeffer who asked the question, “How should we then live?”  Then, of course, is a vital part of the question.  Once we know a certain array of facts, they affect our lives.  The knowledge we receive, we become responsible for.

I wrote recently about a man who assumed that everyone *who has made different choices than he has in life* is a bad person.  Though opinions like that seem narrow-minded and ignorant, we all have a tendency to make them.

And since he was talking particularly about communities, it makes me think of the different types of communities people form.  Though many simply stay where they were born, some people search for decades to find a community that fits with their ideals.

There are many people who have decided that the first century community of The Way described in Acts 4:32 is the perfect community.  “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”  It does indeed sound beautiful, and in their persecuted state, it was an effective way to survive.

Unfortunately, every experiment in the modern world devoted to “sharing everything equally” has failed, possibly because the first part of that verse is actually a prerequisite:  “All the believers were one in heart and mind.”  That was necessary before the sharing could happen successfully.  And even in those days, pride and hypocrisy intruded to mar the serenity.  It was in this setting that Ananias and Sapphira conspired in a pretense of selfless generosity and were put to death for it.  God cares much more about the desires of our hearts than He does about our net worth.

Not long after that incident, though, heavy persecution arose against that community.  Stephen was stoned, and Saul went on a rampage, dragging people from their homes and imprisoning them.  To escape this horror, the community fled from Jerusalem into the outlying areas.  It occurred to me recently that this Jerusalem commune, so idealized by many in the church, only existed for a very short time before God allowed it to be scattered.  It makes me think that God did not want them living in that setting.  Yes, God is all about community and gathering with other believers, but He doesn’t want us to insulate ourselves.  Peter wrote in his first epistle, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God.” (2: 12)  Did you catch that?  Live among the pagans!

I believe it’s tempting for church people to seclude themselves, to stop associating with unbelievers.  When we do that, we become ignorant of them.  Though we once numbered among them, we forget–we lose our compassion for them.  We become like that poor man who thinks that rural people are stupid and bad.  We judge harshly because we don’t understand them and don’t see the problems they face.

Maybe you have never thought about this before, but I want to challenge you.  This week, deliberately seek out someone who thinks differently than you and spend some time trying to understand them–not to become like them, but to strengthen what is true.

Live such a GOOD life among the pagans that they will learn to glorify God.

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Some Teachers Just Shouldn’t

A philosophy instructor at Berkeley tweeted something recently that simply caused me to shake my head in amazement.  Here it is:

I unironically embrace the bashing of rural Americans.  they, as a group, are bad people who have made bad life decisions.  Some, I assume, are good people.  But this nostalgia for some pastoral way of life is stupid and we should shame people who aren’t pro-city.

He has since deleted the tweet (one would hope because he has become more enlightened?) but he has been rather outspoken in his derision of non-city-dwellers.

Rural Healthcare Should be expensive! And that expense should be borne by those who choose rural America!  Same goes for rural broadband. And gas taxes. It should be uncomfortable to live in rural America. It should be uncomfortable to not move.

It is unbelievable to me that a person can supposedly have a good education, yet still be this ignorant.  Did none of his many years of schooling ever inform him where food and clothing and lumber comes from?  Has he been so deprived of travel and adventure that he simply has never made contact with any aspect of rural life?  How can an adult person possibly be this completely uninformed about the basics of life?  Obviously, he has never spent any time on a farm or he would quickly lose his ideas about it being nostalgic.  It kind of makes me want to see the guy bale hay…  Or pick asparagus.

And how, on another note, could a person live such an arrogant life that he is ready, at the drop of a tweet, to lump all of a huge demographic together as “bad” and “stupid?”  He seems to have no awareness at all that these “bad people” he so disapproves of make life possible for him.

The bit about being “pro-city” is also interesting.  I have never thought in those terms before.  I see cities as necessary and fun to visit, so I certainly wouldn’t have thought of myself as anti-city, yet he assumes automatically that anyone who lives in the country is exactly that?

And then there is the fact that he is encouraging “bashing” and “shaming” people.  Somehow I had the idea that those things were not acceptable.  But not this guy, apparently.

It’s just bizarre, and really rather terrifying, to think that this person is teaching young people.  The man is not only incredibly naive, but apparently delighted to pass judgment on something about which he obviously knows nothing.

Someone who promotes uninformed and outrageous bashing and shaming.
Just the kind of teacher we definitely do not need.

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Willing To Be Undone

Thy will be done

I love this so much.  And it continues on perfectly from where my musings have been wandering the past few days.  Last week I read in Acts 12 of Peter’s miraculous release from imprisonment while 16 men were supposed to be guarding him, BUT in the second verse of that chapter it tells us that James, also captured by Herod around that time, was executed.  Isn’t it be a little difficult to understand why one receives death, while the other is delivered?  Both were faithful men, by all reports.  Both loved their Lord.

Being able to accept both of those things as God’s providence and perfect plan is a challenge.  Of course, we prefer the stories of miracles and happy endings, but truly, both did have a happy ending.  Perhaps in a way, James’s story was happier–after all, he was finished with his work and went to be with his Lord!

When I saw the picture above this morning, I was struck with the absolute truth it contains.  Accepting God’s will often means giving up whatever I had planned.  And who could know that more fully than Elisabeth Elliot, who saw her plans changed in an unthinkable way?  One day she woke up as a missionary wife excited to spread the gospel, and that night she went to bed as a single mother of a small baby whose husband had been speared to death by the people he had come to serve.  It’s not often that plans are changed quite so completely and violently as that.

Praying for God’s will is not only a matter of giving up my plans, but giving up my ideas.  Giving up on my understanding, my analysis, my expectations.

I often pray for God’s will, but the accompanying truth is that God is completely unpredictable.  He is outside of any box we can imagine.  He is not restrained by time or space, nor by my ideas of what is right or possible.

They will be done, Lord.

And if my will needs to be undone…  Let me be willing.

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It Begins With Obedience.

I’ve been thinking back over Acts 10–the story of Peter and Cornelius.  I already discussed it here.  (click to read if you missed it)  When Peter is told to kill and eat unclean animals, of course he reacts with horror–I would never eat such nasty stuff!  No doubt he was not only appalled at the idea, but even a bit ashamed that the thought had entered his head.  So when he received instruction to go to a Gentile’s home, surely his first instinct was the same:  How can I do that?  It is against the Law!

To go to a place that he had always seen as unclean and sinful surely was not easy for Peter.  It must have felt completely wrong to him.  Yet God had given him a very direct order.  “What God has made clean, do not call common.”

Peter had to stifle his feelings.  Feelings are based on conditioning–what we have been taught, what we expect, what we desire or fear.  But God asked Peter to step out in obedience, not listening to his feelings but listening instead to God Almighty.

This was a pivotal moment in the church–the event that set in motion the salvation of the Gentiles.  The gospel of Jesus was much bigger than Peter had ever expected, going beyond Judaism to all the world.  Peter’s life and perspective changed forever, as did the composition of the church.  And it all began with Peter’s obedience.

Do you ever have feelings that seem opposite of what God is calling you to do?  Are your feelings keeping you from spreading God’s Word?  Can you trust God to lead you beyond your feelings?

The change in Peter’s life — and in the church — didn’t start with his feelings.
It started with his obedience.

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Fervency is Not Faith

Acts 12 contains a truly thrilling story–the one of Peter’s miraculous escape.  It’s an incredible thing to imagine simply leaving your prison, walking past guards who somehow don’t notice you, with chains falling off and gates opening of their own accord.  It’s no wonder that Peter didn’t really believe it was happening–those are the sort of things that usually happen only in dreams!

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After the initial report of Peter’s arrest, verse 5 goes on to say, “So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.”  The church was praying…  fervently!  And while they prayed, Peter was led from prison by an angel.  His chains were gone!

How perfect is that?  The church prays, God answers… Hallelujah!  Much rejoicing!

But that’s not exactly how it happened, is it?

When he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer.  When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate.  They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was so. They kept saying, “It is his angel.”

Poor Rhoda.  No one believed her!  Though they had been praying fervently, the idea that God had already answered–and not during business hours, even!–was completely incomprehensible to these people.  

Though the church had prayed, and they probably believed that they believed, they suffered from low expectations. We forget that God is not bound by the earthly limitations that we are.  The people praying in that room had probably prayed for Herod to forgive Peter and release him, but perhaps it hadn’t entered their minds that God didn’t need Herod to accomplish the release!

And when they were finally convinced that Rhoda had indeed heard Peter, they still thought that surely it was only his spirit.  Perhaps he was dead–Herod must have gone ahead and executed him.  It was easier for them to believe that than to believe in God’s miraculous intervention to deliver Peter!  Yes, they prayed fervently for him, but deep inside, they may have believed he would probably die.  After all, Herod had already killed James.

How often do I pray, believing that I believe, and yet…  deep inside there is still that core of unbelief?  It happens to me all the time.  (God, help my unbelief!)   I think I always believe that God CAN, but it’s often hard to truly believe that He WILL.

And I can’t help but wonder…  Is it even possible to pray with complete faith, never doubting?  I hear those words, but do I manage to actually DO them?  Because even knowing that God CAN, I also know that His ways are not my ways, and His plan often looks a lot different from my plan.  So how can I ever have absolute faith unless I am absolutely sure that what I am praying is His will?

His will.  Ah, yes.  That is the key.

Thy will be done.  That is how Jesus taught us to pray.  Whenever I pray for His will, and not my own, I can pray with absolute faith that it will be done.  Fervent prayer is good, but praying for His will in absolute faith–that is the best.

I want what You want, Lord.
Your will, Lord, in Your perfect way.
Your plan, not mine.  

 

 

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The Mercy Stroke

While reading Acts 8 and 9 last week, I was struck by the fact that Saul was spreading the gospel before he was even converted!  The passage tells of the persecution that followed the stoning of Stephen.  Saul went on a rampage, determined to destroy these Jesus-followers however he possibly could.  He dragged them from their homes and threw them in prison, and eventually drove them out of Jerusalem.

But instead of squashing these rabble-rousers, it seemed to have the opposite effect.  Saul probably heard that amazing miracles were happening.  In spite of his harsh action against them, these people had dispersed around the country and were still winning converts!

Not satisfied with the purge he had accomplished in Jerusalem, he got permission from the high priest to track them down in Damascus.  Saul was on the hunt. He would take down these interlopers if it was the last thing he did!

You probably know what happened to Saul on the way to Damascus.  Struck to the ground by an awesomely powerful light and sound which no one seemed quite able to describe, he met Jesus Himself.  Jesus made it abundantly clear to the blinded, humbled man lying on the ground that he needed to change his ways.  Jesus gave Saul the coup de grace, the death blow.   Though I don’t speak French, that term came to my mind, so I looked it up.  Another term for the coup de grace is the mercy stroke.  And that is exactly what Saul received.  Mercy, in the dictionary definition, refers to death–the mercy of ending the suffering.  And Saul was indeed put to death in one sense–his rising political career (possibly in the Sanhedrin?) was smashed to smithereens.  But in the other sense, he received the mercy of a new beginning.  He was given the task of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Where once he had spread the gospel by violence and terror, forcing the Christians to disperse, now he was given the opportunity to spread it in a new way, by using his amazing communication skills for the glory of Christ.

It’s amazing to me how anyone can become an instrument in God’s hands.  God used Pharaoh to show His power, and He can use anyone, no matter how evil, in spite of themselves.  He did that with Saul, for a time.  But it is even more beautiful that God saw the desire in Saul’s heart and converted him.  Though misguided, the things he had been doing to persecute the church were founded in his dedication to the God of Israel.  And when he was confronted with the inescapable Truth of Jesus’ divinity, He turned all his efforts toward sharing that news.

And that is truly a Mercy.

 

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But God… Really!?

We discussed Acts 10 at Bible study yesterday.  Peter was given a vision of unclean animals and told to eat them.  Naturally, he resisted, having been taught all his life that those things are filthy.  God repeated the vision three times, and Peter was still confused.  Why would God, who had made such definite laws about food and many other aspects of life, suddenly repeal them?  And could Peter make himself eat these foods that were utterly repulsive to him, after a lifetime of believing it was utterly wrong?  Peter had dealt with a lot of surprises since meeting Jesus, but this surely seemed almost crazy!

I asked a question:  what would be an equivalent instruction in our lives  today? What could be asked of us that would be as shocking and counter-intuitive as what had been presented to Peter?

After a rather long silence with no definite answers, one woman said, “I guess that says something about our society today, doesn’t it?  That we can’t even think of anything that would shock us as much as that must have shocked Peter.”

Isn’t it true?  Our society does have cultural norms, but we also have a constant barrage of people who are determined to defy those standards at all costs.  Sometimes our culture seems to celebrate the rule-breakers more than we do the rules.

And I would love to know…  Does anyone have an example of something that we might receive in a similar way to Peter’s vision?  Something that is shocking and abhorrent, that you have been taught was very wrong, but that is not actually sinning against God or against another person?  Even then, we won’t quite have approached the magnitude of Peter’s challenge, because the dietary laws actually were a command of God that Israel had been instructed to obey.

Peter surely felt as if his world had turned upside-down.  I can’t completely wrap my brain around it.  It’s really quite remarkable, and evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in him, that he was able to overcome a lifetime of conditioning and go willingly to the home of Cornelius to share the gospel.  And though it may have seemed like it on the surface, this was not a relaxing of a God’s standards.  God wasn’t saying, “Oh, well… the Law was hard.  I don’t really need to be so tough on you.”

No, God’s Law is still perfect, but it was  fulfilled…accomplished…completed in Christ.  This was the sign for Peter that the transition from the Old Law to the New Covenant was not only amazing news for Israel, the people God had chosen to guard His Word through the ages, but that the next step was to share it with all the world.

God has always been full of surprises.  Scripture says that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8) but that certainly doesn’t mean that God is boring!  In Isaiah, God is quoted as saying, “My ways are not your ways.”  Well…  that’s for sure!

I think one way in which God never changes is that He never ceases to amaze us, and we never know what to expect next.

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