A Recurring Nightmare

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 10.39
We will not neglect the house of our God.

Acts 20.20-21
You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. 

From John:

Again this year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, we look back to a sermon from Dr. King

Like Dr. King, Paul was interested in actions which spring from the full implications of the gospel. Though racism and slavery took centuries to fall, it was Paul’s theology that struck the killing blow in the 1st century. Dr. King drew from Paul’s teaching, which demolished the cultural and theological foundations of racism and made actions of racial bias and inequity indefensible. (Though some will still try to defend them…)

The gospel is the only theology or philosophy which poisons racism at its root.

When we speak of spreading the gospel, may it be with the purpose of eradicating the scourge of racism, rather than apathetically denying its existence or mitigating our responsibility to oppose it.

Reflection: A Recurring Nightmare

By Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C. and talked to the nation about many things. Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had—and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare.

I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty.

I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisors, sixteen thousand strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over five hundred thousand American boys are fighting on Asian soil.

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.…

I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made smooth and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.

With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.

*Abridged from A Christmas Sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — audio on YouTube (29:52)

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. — Psalm 96.12

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.


Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 10 (Listen -4:41)
Acts 20 (Listen -5:22)

Extremism as a Discipleship Problem

Scripture Focus: Acts 17.4-5
Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. 
But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.

1 Thessalonians 4.6
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

Reflection: Extremism as a Discipleship Problem
By John Tillman

Audiences have long been fascinated with extremism and the process of radicalization. In 2018 a TV series retelling events surrounding the 1993 raid that killed David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, served as a reminder that radicalization is not merely a third-world or a Muslim problem.

Radicalization has been imagined in fiction as psychological manipulation, as brainwashing, and as bribery. It has even been sympathetically redressed as the rational actions of those with legitimate grievances. But the radicalization of persons in any religion or belief system often comes down to an education problem. Christians would call it a discipleship problem.

Islamist terrorists such as, Sayfullo Saipov, who carried out a truck attack in Manhattan in 2017, are often motivated by a faith that in the end is little more than a political and ethnic identity.

After acts of violence from their members, many Imams and Christian pastors can be found saying some version of, “That’s not what we teach.” Whether these statements are true or not, they are a confession of poor discipleship which has far wider-ranging effects than the infinitesimal percentage of Christians (or Muslims) who resort to violent attacks.

Poor discipleship in Western faith is allowing Christianity to become little more than a political distinction and in some cases, a racial one. Our brand of moralism is a hair’s breadth off from the Pharisees of the New Testament. Like the Pharisees, we use moralistic interpretations of scripture to justify denying assistance to the needy. We are not ashamed to make embarrassing political alliances to ensure that we don’t lose our place of cultural influence.

We can find hope, however, in today’s readings in Acts. Though the Bereans are called “more noble” than the Thessalonians, it is the Thessalonian church that is more well known to us through the letters Paul writes to them. First Thessalonians is a joyful celebration of those who were left in a difficult situation, without Paul who introduced them to Christianity. (And without Google.) Yet through diligence, faith, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, persevered and blossomed in faith.

Even in a culture dominated by a brutal empire, those willing to devote themselves to prayer, Bible reading, and connecting to the Holy Spirit, can not only survive our culture but continue the process of transforming it one life at a time.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus taught us, saying: “Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take that splinter out of your eye,’ when you cannot see the great log in your own? Hypocrite! Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take out the splinter in your brother’s eye.” — Luke 6.41-42

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 7 (Listen -6:37)
Acts 17 (Listen -5:28)

This Weekend’s Readings
Nehemiah 8 (Listen -4:07) Acts 18 (Listen -4:06)
Nehemiah 9 (Listen -7:48) Acts 19 (Listen -5:47)

Read more about The Church of Acts
The clue Luke gives us is in the title—Acts. They will know we are Christians by our love. By our actions.

Read more about The Energy of Expectancy
The time of waiting is past. The light is here. The starting pistol has fired. The gate is open. The race has begun.

Detoured by the Holy Spirit

Scripture Focus: Scripture: Acts 16.6-7
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.

Reflection:  Detoured by the Holy Spirit

By Jon Polk

Paul, Silas and Timothy intended to go and spread the message of Christ in some very major and influential cities in Asia Minor, cities that had access to roads and commerce which would help the gospel message spread. While this certainly sounds like a smart idea, God had other plans for them in Macedonia. God often changes the plans of even those with the best intentions.

Scottish pioneer medical missionary and explorer David Livingstone had hoped to travel to China as a missionary, but the Opium Wars kept him from going. He later met a missionary on leave from South Africa who convinced him to go there instead. It was there that Livingstone laid the groundwork for several major European missionary efforts to Africa.

Adoniram Judson
, one of the first American missionaries to travel overseas, initially began his work in India, but along with many others, he was ordered out of the country by the British East India Company. He then moved to Burma, where he started a number of churches and translated the Bible into Burmese.

The legendary William Carey, called the “father of modern missions,” wanted to go to the Polynesian Islands, but God had directed another missionary there, so William Carey ended up in India instead. While there, he helped form the Baptist Missionary Society, one of the first major modern mission sending organizations.

Sometimes we like to think we have everything in our life so planned out that all we need to do is pray to God and ask him to bless our plans. We expect everything to unfold exactly as we’ve scripted it, but in reality that is almost never the case. Often, it is the interruptions, the redirections, and the unexpected changes that shape and mold us most. When following God, we need to be ready and willing to take a detour in unexpected directions.

This is the perspective that Paul, Silas and Timothy had to have as they were time and again redirected by God on their travels. This perspective helps keep us in touch with God’s leading in our lives, allowing him to take us where he pleases, rather than us trying to find the easiest or shortest path between two points. Growth can occur most along the twisting, winding path and God knows the way much better than we do.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; knit my heart to you that I may fear your name. — Psalm 86.11

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 6 (Listen -3:19)
Acts 16 (Listen -5:53)

Read more about Following Through Jerusalem
When Jesus calls us to follow him, …the path leading to glory with Christ is the path leading through suffering to death.

Read more about Christ’s Supremacy :: A Guided Prayer
People, issues, politics, career—these things all push to the front of our minds and demand our supreme attention and commitment.

A Mutual Conversion

Scripture Focus: Acts 10:34-35
Then Peter began to speak: “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.”

Reflection: A Mutual Conversion
By Jon Polk

Cornelius was a big deal in Caesarea. A Roman centurion stationed in the city as a member of the Italian Regiment, Cornelius and his entire family were “God-fearing” Gentiles, regularly praying to the God of the Jews. He was also known for his generosity to the poor and needy.

None of this, however, is why Cornelius is recorded in the history of the early church. Instead, he is remembered for a vision and a summons.

During the middle of the day, Cornelius was visited by an angel, who instructed him to send for Peter. Marshalling his resources, he sent two servants and a trusted soldier on the mission to persuade Peter to come visit.

Meanwhile, Peter was experiencing his own vision in which he was instructed by God to eat unclean animals. While Peter wrestled with the meaning of his vision, Cornelius’ entourage arrived and convinced him to accompany them to Caesarea.

Impressed by Cornelius’ faith, Peter began preaching to the crowd gathered in the house, opening with the words, “I realize now that God does not show favoritism, but accepts anyone who fears him.” He then recounted for those assembled the gospel story of Jesus Christ.

Peter’s opening statement indicates a change in his own understanding. As a good Jew it was unlawful for him to even associate with Gentiles. It was incomprehensible to him that uncircumcised Gentiles could become disciples of Jesus, but that’s exactly what happened. We witness a mutual conversion, both of Cornelius the Gentile and of Peter the Jew.

Scholar Beverly Gaventa writes, “The end of [verse 36, chapter 10] may be the most important line in the drama: ‘He is Lord of all’ means not only that there is no other Lord but that no one can be excluded from his Lordship.”

Through the conversion of Cornelius and company, the news of God’s impartial love for all humanity impacted Peter, but it also compels us as well. Because God shows impartial love to all kinds of people, we have a responsibility to show the same kind of love to all people. As God seeks out relationships with all people, we too are called to open ourselves to relationships outside our own social and cultural spheres.

It took the power of the Holy Spirit to bridge a relationship between Peter and Cornelius. That same Spirit empowers us in our calling to love others.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror. — Psalm 34.4

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 10 (Listen -3:19) 
Acts 10 (Listen -6:05)

This Weekend’s Readings
Nehemiah 1 (Listen -2:06), Acts 11 (Listen -3:52)
Nehemiah 2 (Listen -3:42), Acts 12 (Listen -3:49)

Read more about Putting To Death Racial Hostility
Christians must take the lead in racial issues…We cannot tire of addressing the issue. We have the only answer.

Read more about Racism Wears a Mask
It is rare that a person will admit, even to themselves, that they act out of racism directly. Racism always wears a mask.

A Congregation of Hope

Scripture Focus: Acts 9:40
Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.

Reflection: A Congregation of Hope
By Jon Polk

Tabitha was a big deal in Joppa. A disciple and prominent member of the Joppa congregation, she was known for her generosity and considerable service to others, especially the widows in their midst. Apparently, her reputation carried outside the church to the larger Greek community as well, where she was known by her Greek name, Dorcas.

Tabitha’s great significance to the church is revealed after her untimely illness and death. Upon hearing that the miracle-working Peter was in nearby Lydda, not one but two witnesses were dispatched to urgently summon him. When Peter arrived on the scene, the group of weeping widows—who were not the usual professional mourners common of the day, but rather dear friends of Tabitha—showed him that the very clothes they were wearing were made by Tabitha, who distributed them to the poor and needy.

For the congregation in Joppa, Tabitha’s death was more than the loss of a close friend, it presented a serious impact on their ministry outreach to the poor. Without attempting to deal with the situation on their own, they reached out in tremendous faith for the power of God, represented by the healer, Peter.

In The Sacred Journey, author Frederick Buechner writes,

“When it comes to putting broken lives back together—when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls—the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still.”

The congregation at Joppa recognized they had a God-sized need that required a God-sized solution. This congregation believed in a resurrection hope, in a God that could exceed all expectations. They came together to mourn and weep, but also to hope and pray, and eventually, to celebrate. They were vulnerable enough to accept that the situation was desperate beyond their control.

Life presents us with our share of challenges from daily nuisances to more significant needs for physical healing or spiritual resurrection. May we have the faith of the Joppa congregation and be willing to place our hope daily in our great God, the giver of life.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. — Psalm 69.1

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 9 (Listen -3:19) 
Acts 9 (Listen -6:05)

Read more from Buechner: Too Good Not to Be True
The preacher is apt to preach the gospel with the high magic taken out, the deep mystery reduced to a manageable size. — Frederick Buechner

Read more from Buechner: Restoration of Civility
“In Hebrew the term dabar means both word and deed,” Frederick Buechner observes. “Thus, to say something is to do something.”

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