Extremism as a Discipleship Problem

Scripture: 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. This month a TV series will premiere retelling events surrounding the 1993 raid that killed David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, reminding us that radicalization is not merely a third-world or a Muslim problem.

Radicalization has been imagined in fiction as psychological manipulation, as brainwashing, as bribery, and 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, are often motivated by a faith that in the end is little more than a political and ethnic identity.

“That’s not what we teach,” is often said by both Imam’s and Christian pastors after acts of violence from their members. 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 are not above using our 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.

The Call to Prayer
Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him! — Psalm 34.8

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

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

Detoured by the Holy Spirit

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.

The Greeting
Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory.— Psalm 50.2

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

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

Taking Advantage of the Desperate

Scripture: Nehemiah 5.9, 13
So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?…I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”

Reflection: Taking Advantage of the Desperate
By John Tillman

There is a reason economically disadvantaged neighborhoods often contain payday lenders and abortion clinics, but few doctor’s offices or grocery stores—monetization of desperation.

From a business perspective, the noblemen confronted by Nehemiah were simply following the market. Payday lenders would describe it as filling a “financial service void.” As lien-holders, the noblemen could have denied responsibility. As long as customers make loan payments, who cares how they get the money? If they can’t pay, it’s their problem.

But as fellow humans, as children of God, Nehemiah challenged the rich to see their actions as directly causing the continuing, systematic enslavement of their brothers and sisters. Systemic poverty was literally tearing families apart.

The economic system these families were trapped in was socially acceptable, market based, and entirely legal. What Nehemiah challenged the noblemen to do was economically nonsensical, entirely compassionate, and was an investment in the community.

It would be easy for us to dismiss this scripture in Nehemiah as being about the evils of big business, or payday lenders, or “Capitalism.” We are much more comfortable pointing fingers at faceless entities or ideologies. But if we reflect long enough, there are many ways this comes home to us. The undocumented workers who make our groceries cheaper. The millions of workers who must work two jobs—being separated from family—to make one income.

How are our socially acceptable, market based, and entirely legal interactions with humans dehumanizing them? How can we compassionately invest in our communities, relieving some of the financial pressure that those around us experience and short-circuiting systems rigged to extract as much money as possible from the pain of marginalized brothers and sisters?

As the church, we can be difference-makers, rebuilding the broken in our society. To do this, we must engage in economically nonsensical, entirely compassionate, community investment. Let us pray for churches, political leaders, and ourselves to innovate in this space—to create ways to lighten the burden of the oppressed and to set free the captives.

Today, on Martin Luther King day in the United States, we acknowledge that the systems that create economic disparity affect minorities disproportionately. Economic disadvantagement isn’t racist, but minorities are statistically more affected by it. The church must continue to move compassionately to the aid of all disadvantaged people regardless of race.

The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed. — Psalm 51.2

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 5 (Listen – 3:29)
Acts 15 (Listen – 5:43)

Blind to Injustice, Deaf to Oppression :: Worldwide Prayer

Scripture: Acts 13.38-39
“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”

This prayer was first published in 1998 mere months after nationwide unrest and riots that killed over a thousand people in Jakarta and other regions of Indonesia. Many modern, Western democracies would do well to take up this prayer’s wrenching confession of obsession with wealth and power at the expense of the disadvantaged.

Reflection: Blind to Injustice, Deaf to Oppression :: Worldwide Prayer
A prayer of confession from Indonesia

O Lord our God,

Our nations need your forgiveness. We bow deeply before you.

We have betrayed you Lord and done evil before you.

We have stolen, plundered, raped, killed, and oppressed your people and your churches.
As a result of our sin, our forests burn, locusts destroy our crops, disease strikes, poverty lurks, and our political life is corrupt.

We were fascinated by the lure of prosperity and closed our eyes to injustice and our ears to the cries of the oppressed.

Now we plead for your forgiveness from the bottom of our hearts.

We cry aloud to you oh God. Forgive us according to your promise. Forgive our government and our people. May we humble ourselves and realize that without you we can do nothing.

Dear God, we cannot predict tomorrow but we know you hold tomorrow in your hand. Show us your love and mighty power.

Oh Lord Jesus Christ, please help us. Give us your strength day by day.

In Jesus’ holy name we pray.

*Prayer from Hallowed be Your Name: A collection of prayers from around the world, Dr. Tony Cupit, Editor.

The Request for Presence
Hearken to my voice, O Lord, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.
You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.” Your face, Lord, will I seek.
Hide not your face from me, nor turn away your servant in displeasure. — Psalm 27.10-12

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 2 (Listen – 3:42)
Acts 12 (Listen – 3:49)

This Weekend’s Readings
Nehemiah 3 (Listen – 5:43) Acts 13 (Listen – 7:36)
Nehemiah 4 (Listen – 3:38) Acts 14 (Listen – 3:54)

Going Where the Gospel Goes

Scripture: Acts 11:17-18
“So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Reflection: Going Where the Gospel Goes
By Jon Polk

News of the Gentile converts was a big deal in Jerusalem. When Peter arrived in the city, he had some explaining to do.

“You went into the house of a Gentile?” “You actually shared a meal with his family?” “Peter, you of all people. What were you thinking?”

To participate in the church community, Gentiles needed to be purified by observing the Torah—specifically circumcision—so discovering that Peter had welcomed uncircumcised Gentiles into fellowship was a cause of consternation among the believers in Jerusalem.

Lest we underestimate the radical importance of this event, Luke, the author of Acts, records the account of Cornelius the Gentile’s conversion three times: the original event in chapter 10, Peter’s recollection here in chapter 11 and Peter’s argument before the Jerusalem council in chapter 15. Peter’s first-hand experience with Cornelius and the other Gentiles in Caesarea changed the attitudes of the early Jewish followers of Jesus and opened the door of fellowship for the Gentiles.

It was Peter’s story that was convincing. Not theological arguments. Not propositional statements. Not disconnected rationalizations. Real stories of real people and their real experience with God made the difference. Peter’s own attitude about Gentiles was changed and likewise, when the believers in Jerusalem heard his story, they also dropped their objections.

In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

We could apply the same principle from travel to any experiences with peoples or cultures outside of our own. It is easy to pass judgment from afar, but sharing a conversation or a meal allows us to see first-hand that the same Spirit of God that we hold dear also works in the lives of others very different from us.

Our modern lives are becoming increasingly segregated by our social-media echo-chambers, our holy huddles of the like-minded, and a prevailing negativity towards anything—or anyone—outside of our safe preconceived notions and beliefs. If we allow ourselves to step outside of our familiar circles, we might find that we understand Peter’s assessment of God’s acceptance of the Gentile converts, “Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is more to be feared than all gods. — Psalm 96.2-4

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 1 (Listen – 2:06)
Acts 11 (Listen – 3:52)