God Can Surprise Us

Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. —Acts 9.1-2

One of the worst feelings in life is fatalism – that is, the feeling of resignation that this is the way things will be forever and nothing will change. This is the way that I am or my spouse is or my kids are or work is or my small group is or government is or society is. I am powerless to do anything about it. It will go on this way forever and, most likely, it will just get worse.

On the day that Stephen was killed, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, which scattered the believers throughout the region.” One of the main leaders of the persecution was a young Pharisee named Saul: “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”

Imagine how hopeless the church felt – they had no Bill of Rights to protect them, the Roman government was hostile toward them, and the religious leaders had letters of authority to imprison them. The momentum against them was enormous. Would this ever change? Would there ever be peace?

Then, out of nowhere, God took Saul and turned him around. Saul was on his way to Damascus, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” and God opened his heart. He changed so much that he went from being the worst enemy of Christ to being his strongest advocate.

In fact, his former Jewish colleagues and brothers began conspiring to murder him. What happened to the church? In the entire region, it “had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”

Prayer
Lord, You are near and strong and interested in the affairs of this world and in the mission of your church. You continue to change us and make us into your image to reflect the glory of your name. Today, remind us – especially those of us who struggle with despairing without hope – that you are full of surprises for churches, nations, families and individuals. Give us expectant hearts about our futures and increase our faith in your freedom and sovereignty. Amen.

Today’s Readings
Judges 5 (Listen – 4:36)
Acts 9 (Listen – 6:05)

The Object of Our Faith

Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. —Acts 8.35

Coming to belief in Christ is a mysterious and wonderful thing. As Augustine explained, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek Him the greatest adventure; to find Him, the greatest human achievement.”

Acts 8-9 recounts the stories of salvation among the least likely of subjects: a racially oppressed group, a mystic, a pagan leader, and ultimately a radical extremist who had dedicated the first half of his life to terrorizing the early Christians.

What each held in common was their willingness to forfeit their previous systems of belief as a response to the glorious grace set before them. Because the stories move so quickly from one to another it’s easy to miss the struggle each would have faced in yielding their worldview to an outside source.

This struggle has not diminished today. Timothy Keller recounts the story Duke University professor Stanley Hauerwas tells of his philosophy students and their assumption that modern individuals must determine truth for themselves.

The professor explains that “Every religion and culture was different, but every culture before our culture said, ‘Right and wrong is determined by something outside the self, and it’s the job of the self to harmonize with it.’ We are the first culture, Hauerwas says, that is marked by “expressive individualism.”

“Expressive individualism is the view that right and wrong is not determined by outside the self, but right and wrong is determined by what you find in your own consciousness.”

Hauerwas challenges his students with this; “‘I’m not going to argue which of these views is right. All I’m going to tell you is this: When an American says you have to think and determine truth for yourself, you are not thinking for yourself at all. You are adopting a particular way of thinking, a particular view of truth and spiritual reality. It is a Western, almost tribal, white European way of thinking based on the Enlightenment, based on Romanticism, those European movements, and you’re believing it not because you’re thinking for yourself, but because your culture has told you to do it.’”

Responding to Christ challenges our assumptions, pride, and illusion of self-sufficiency. The alternative, assimilating God into our personal worldview, is just as much an act of faith, but one rooted in selfishness. Augustine put it another way, “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”

Today’s Readings
Judges 4 (Listen – 3:57)
Acts 8 (Listen – 5:10)

Faith, Love, and Apps

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. —Acts 7.55

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do,” Steve Jobs famously admonished Stanford’s graduating class a decade ago. “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” The message was reverberant; Follow your passion became the central career goal of an entire generation.

Steve Jobs got to do what he loved because tens of thousands of laborers on the other side of the world did not have access to such privilege. They labored daily — and still do — to painstakingly assemble tens of millions of electronic devices for the western world’s insatiable consumption.

We don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to see such effects from technology. The on demand economy is roaring into the mainstream — lead by the likes of Uber, a so-called unicorn, valued at $50 billion.

Uber has over 130,000 drivers worldwide — none of them are employees. They do not get healthcare, holidays, vacation, or overtime. Drivers in California are fighting back — but Uber’s plans for the future don’t appear to be focused around making life better for drivers. The company recently lured 40 robotics engineers away from Carnegie Mellon. Drivers are a stop-gap until the robots take over.

The world does not need another impotent social media campaign against injustice. It needs Christians who, like Stephen in Acts, are willing to lay down their lives because they have a clear vision of God’s glory.

I struggle with this reality. I regularly punch through emails on my iPhone while riding through Midtown in an Uber. I try to connect with my drivers on a personal level, to tip, and to enter into even small moments of redemption in what can otherwise be a dehumanized transaction. But I feel like there is more to be done.

Job’s exhortation, “don’t settle,” which he repeats in the speech, is apt advice. God’s grace frees us from demanding our every need be met and from expecting to spend each day in comfort while others suffer. Christians can engage differently in the on demand economy — starting a conversation around this in our communities would be a first step. We can also encourage one another not to simply make the vocational choices of least resistance or most benefit, but to passionately engage our faith in our work.

We remember Stephen not because he did what he loved, but because he gave up everything to follow the one he loved.

Today’s Readings
Judges 3 (Listen – 4:30)
Acts 7 (Listen – 8:49)

The Hardest Prayer

July17

And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness. —Acts 4.29

I pray the safest prayers for the people closest to me. Praying risky things for myself seems slightly more natural: my prayer, my life, my risk. Sometimes I pray for strength and courage for a martyr I’ve read about, partially because I’m not sure how else to pray for them. Their faith is deeper than mine.

Then I get to my family and closest friends. I’m quite content praying for safety, comfort, instant healing, and a host of other luxuries. I just want things for them to be fine.

I’ve often gotten lost looking at the picture of Martin Luther King Jr. pulling a burnt cross out of his lawn. Hatred came to his home. Radical anger burned in his front yard. His young son stands next to him as he pulls the charred cross out of the lawn. Dr. King’s prayers and bold response to the gospel put his family at great risk. Every day.

Surely he meditated Acts 4. In the account, Peter and John have just been released from questioning. They have been threatened with jail — a threat with the subtext of beatings and possibly death — and yet they pray for boldness.

The easy thing for Peter and John would have been to have a prayer meeting about the government’s overreach and pray God would stop it. The comfortable thing would have been to pray for blessing and a new leader. But the Church’s growth would have stopped in that moment.

Like Dr. King, it was the disciples’ boldness, risk, and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of Christ that moved the gospel into the forefront of civic and social life.

Faith atrophies in the pseudo-comfort of modern life. Children who grow up without taking risks or engaging their beliefs against opposition, or friends who never work through hardship and forgiveness together, become intolerable. It is only in great difficulty that people discover the strength woven into them as image-bearers of God. Only when someone is overwhelmed do they look beyond their own strength to a God who loves and cares for them.

The hardest prayers are often the most loving prayers we can pray. They grow our trust in God, engage our faith in the complexity of the world, and challenge our communities to unite around the gospel. God grow our faith.

Today’s Readings
Joshua 24 (Listen – 5:49)
Acts 4 (Listen – 5:15)

This Weekend’s Readings
Saturday: Judges 1 (Listen – 5:08); Acts 5 (Listen – 6:49)
Sunday: Judges 2 (Listen – 3:19); Acts 6 (Listen – 2:35)

Bringing the Gospel to Life

July16

Peter directed his gaze at [the crippled man], as did John, and said, “Look at us.” —Acts 3.4

The Sunshine Hotel opened in 1922 on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. At $4.50 a night the flop house has given tens of thousands of men a four foot by six foot room, crowned with a chickenwire ceiling, and a cot. Many of the men struggle with addiction, isolation, and a host of pain — but each has a story worth hearing.

For years a raspy-voiced man named Nathan Smith sat inside the metal caged reception room at the Sunshine. Smith cared deeply for the men, helping them find jobs, homes, and treatment programs. “He saw a lot of beauty there that a lot of us couldn’t see,” his daughter said when Smith passed away in 2002.

The hotel’s sign was removed years ago and there are fewer rooms available, but there are still full-time residents. It can be easy to miss the faces of these men today, the Sunshine now is eclipsed by a high-end grocer and a $50 million art museum.

Homeless people regularly say the most painful part of living on the street is that other people stop looking them in the eye. It was the same in Acts 3. Peter has to ask a beggar to look at him. Hundreds are streaming by, a few toss some money in his cup to assuage their guilt of not caring. Peter wants to connect.

It is a profound act of faith to discover another person’s humanity — draw it to the front of the conversation — it’s also the context for miraculous things to happen. Faith is always cultivated in the context of relationship.

This year a group of young professional New Yorkers started visiting the Sunshine Hotel to document the stories of the men they found there. Operating under the name Hear the Hungry, the group says, “We aim to create a moving portrait of the human condition.”

It is the work of the church to extend our time, energy, and effort to the marginalized and oppressed, but it starts with listening. Hear the Hungry asks, “What can we do as a society to lift up our neighbors and help seal the cracks that these people fell through?” It is the faith to ask questions, and the courage to reorient our lives in response to what we learn, that brings the gospel to life.

Today’s Readings
Joshua 23 (Listen – 2:31)
Acts 3 (Listen – 3:33)

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