A Room Shaking Night

The ending of Mark’s gospel is frightening to me.

Women attended the grave of Jesus, only to find him gone. An angelic being told them that Jesus was en route to Galilee.

The women left the grave, in the words of the gospel, afraid. At once, the women realized the gravity of such an event.

Aftermath of RedemptionThe resurrection of Jesus, and the promise of the resurrection for humanity, is a controversial idea. In one year, the amount of people who believe in Jesus’ resurrection dropped 13%, from 77% to 64%. Other statistics state that only 75% of those who describe themselves as “born again” believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

I tend to think it’s a threatening, for one reason. Imagine, for a moment, standing fully in the presence of the God of all, without harm. Whatever you believe about God — whether Creator or Provider or Protector — to stand in his Presence without harm is an incredible thought.

Which is why the resurrection threatens us. It speaks to our own arrogance. The message of the resurrection is that we, now, are incomplete, regardless of personal success. The resurrection confronts our own immaturity, this side of death, and that, I think, is why we have difficulty accepting it at face value.

This post, the next in a succession of comments over the New Testament book of Acts, makes us confront the resurrection, through the eyes of those who believe it, and those who are threatened by it.

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Comment over Acts 4:1-31

What began as a time for evening prayer for Peter and John became an epic confrontation between those who were to be the true “rulers of the twelve tribes of Israel”: the apostles … or the Sanhedrin.

Peter invoked the ire of the current leadership, not because a man had been healed, but because Peter taught that because of Jesus, resurrection from the realm of the dead is a certainty. Peter didn’t try to persuade this group that Jesus’ resurrection really happened. Instead, he told them that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees a future resurrection for everyone. The Sadducees, who were there, wanted none of that – they refused to believe in the resurrection, historically, because the Torah said nothing about the resurrection. So they could never buy the idea that the Messiah of Israel had died, only to come back to life.

It’s easy to see why such teaching, and the healing of the lame man, made Peter and John viable threats, though – the people believed the apostles instead of the Jewish religious leaders. So, in an effort to damage the credibility of the two apostles, the religious leaders imprisoned Peter and John.

Their plan backfired.

The imprisonment of the two apostles was the catalyst for yet another miraculous growth, with 5,000 men counted as believers in resurrection.

But the Sanhedrin was not content. The following day, Peter and John were forced into a hearing before the Jerusalem leadership (apparently the same group that sentenced Jesus to death), where the apostles were questioned about the power that allowed them to heal the former lame man. Peter, though, saw it as a moment to share the gospel with the seditious group who killed his rabbi.

So filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter addressed the skeptical group. His words were few, but powerful. He proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, and that it was Jesus’ name which provided the power to heal the man

Perhaps the most startling teaching Peter shared, though, was that salvation can only be found in the name of Jesus. This is the first time the word salvation appears in Acts and it appears, not in the context of thousands of people calling on the name of Jesus and being baptized in his name, but rather it appears in the context of a lame man being healed. That’s important. The man’s healing, after all, was the point of Peter’s and John’s questioning. So salvation, at least here, must mean more than perhaps what we’ve believed, what we’ve learned, or maybe even what we’ve been taught. In this context, salvation means the total restoration of a person from every kind of brokenness and stigmatization – physical, spiritual, political, moral, and even eschatological. (That’s a pretty big word which really means an understanding of what happens after death.) The lame man’s physical condition prohibited him from enjoying full rights in any of those categories. But once healed, he was fully accepted in every category, and could now function, without reservation, in the social realm of the Jewish culture. In fact, according to Luke, every division on planet earth was controlled by the devil. Jesus, and the power of his name, erases such divisions, however they appear, and saves people from separation. This, in Luke’s world, was the meaning of the word salvation.

So, for Peter and John, the lame man found salvation, not simply healing, in the name of Jesus. His entire life was restored back to its original intention, an intention broken by  his inability to physically walk, itself a result of sin in the world.

These were pretty strong words by Peter, and the council knew it, not because of Peter’s actual speech, but rather how the apostles appeared. The council watched Peter and John be transformed from just unschooled, uneducated, ordinary men, into men who spoke with boldness. The word “boldness” is an important distinction for these men — it was a Greek word often used to describe Greek philosophers. Peter and John, then, were no longer just men unschooled in the rhetoric of the Torah. They were no longer just men untaught in the skills of oration. They were extraordinary, and the delivery of their words was extraordinary, because they were filled with the Holy Spirit and had been with Jesus. In fact, the council of Jewish rulers – the very same council that had condemned Jesus to die – were speechless, could not deny the apostles’ testimony, and were unable to even mention Jesus’ name, even when they told Peter and John stop such public teaching.

Peter and John, though, chose to defy their order, because they just simply couldn’t help but talk about what they witnessed. The two men were released, not only because they had not broken any law thus far, but because the council was afraid of the people.

Peter and John “went back to their own” – meaning the other apostles, the true rulers of “the twelve tribes of Israel,” (certainly not all 8,000 believers!) – and shared the edict of the council. The first response of this group was to pray, not to be spared from persecution, but for boldness to continue to witness. And theirs was a prayer of unanimity!

They addressed God as “Sovereign Lord,” and the following words of the prayer indicated the belief that everything — creation, the words of David, and the so-called decisions to arrest and kill Jesus — happened because God decided them to happen. Even the threats the believers received were part of a divine plan. And this group did not pray for a release from the persecution, but rather prayed for boldness in the face of persecution.

The Lord heard the prayer (the room shook – a new symbol in Acts of the presence of the Spirit), they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they did speak the word of God boldly.

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A Few Discussion Questions

  • Have you experienced legitimate persecution and threats because of your belief in Jesus? If so, explain.
    • If you haven’t, then explain why you haven’t.
    • Why does following Jesus threaten people, anyway?
  • Read Acts 4:1-4.
    • Who interrupted Peter and John? Why?
    • Why would the resurrection disturb people? Those who deny the resurrection – what do they believe about life and purpose? Explain.
    • Is the resurrection of Jesus still a disturbing thing? Explain.
  • Read Acts 4:5-12.
    • Peter and John healed a lame man in Acts 3. Is this sort of healing still possible today? By what power did Peter and John heal? If that power is still active, then shouldn’t healing still be possible? Explain.
    • Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit (v 8). Wasn’t he already filled with the Holy Spirit? (See Acts 2:4.) So what does this mean? And how would he know? How did Luke know?
    • What does “salvation” mean? What did Peter think it meant?
  • Read Acts 4:13-17.
    • How did the council react to Peter and John? What was different about them?
    • Does being filled with the Holy Spirit produce such a dramatic change? Every time? Explain. Should it?
    • Why couldn’t the council even say the name of Jesus, in v 17? Why is the name of Jesus so threatening?
  • Read Acts 4:18-22.
    • Peter and John refused to abide by the council’s order according to what reason?
    • Does their reason surprise you? Convict you? Why do they feel so compelled to keep talking about Jesus? Do they have something we don’t? Explain.
  • Read Acts 4:23-31.
    • How did this group pray?
    • How did they address God? The Greek word for “sovereign” is the origin of the English word “despot.” Is that an accurate depiction of God? In their prayer, for what do they credit God? Are we as eager to credit God for every single thing … even the things we determine as harmful? Explain.
    • Why didn’t they ask to be spared from persecution? What did they ask for, instead? Why does that matter?
    • How did they know God heard their cries? Does God still shake rooms today, because of the cries of his people? Explain.

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A Prayer

Father, you are sovereign. We don’t tell you in order to remind you. We say that, in this prayer, because we need to hear our own mouths say that.

We ask today for courage to proclaim resurrection in your name. We know that the events that may threaten us are, in fact, ordained by you, for your own glory, and we pray, now, that we can have the freedom to proclaim the good news even in the midst of events that would cause us to suffer.

Bless your name, God!

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¹Depending on translations, Jesus was referred to either as a capstone or cornerstone. The Greek word can be used interchangeably. The capstone finished and completed a Roman arch, and held the two opposing sides together. A cornerstone was the first stone of a building, the stone by which all subsequent stones were measured. Either way, the word meant that Jesus was the ultimate completion of life, or the ultimate beginning of life.

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A Jolly Conspiracy

In one of those awful Disney movies about dogs who talk, there is a scene where a sleigh pulled by puppies is trying to get back to the North Pole. Yet these puppies had never pulled a sleigh before, and they didn’t fully believe in the North Pole anyway, so they had to ask how to get there. The driver of the sleigh, another puppy, said, “Just follow the North Star!”

My family watched that scene, just last night, and after the sleigh puppies were told to follow the North Star, one of my daughters said, “That’s not how you get to the North Pole. That’s how you get to Jesus!”

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Saint Nicholas is everywhere. His image is on boxes of cereal and band aids and chocolate goodies. He is featured in countless commercials, seated on firetrucks in local parades, and is embroidered on those really bad Christmas sweaters. He’s mostly caucasian, with a white beard and a red suit. And he’s always smiling.

It struck me as odd, though, that for an annual season, an entire culture (the entire world?) promotes a belief in a supernatural benefactor that requires an inherent goodness from people before gifts are given — and his name isn’t God. And mostly, we are fine with that, until we realize that we are the ones giving gifts in the name of the patron saint of both thieves and children.

We spend money so gifts can be given in the name of someone who really isn’t even alive. Inordinate amounts of money, by the way — amounts that are probably disproportional to our income. We spend gobs just to make sure that this jolly conspiracy is perpetuated.

I wouldn’t call it lying.

But I would call it a masterful deception.

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One day a year, children awake with sleepy eyes and generous dreams, with the hope that Saint Nicholas has visited their home. They soon hold in their hands the gifts and presents that were given to them in the name of Saint Nicholas. (“We don’t need no stinkin’ parents!”)

Parents smile, and create Instagram shots of their kids. Grandmothers call and say sweet things like, “Santa was good to you this year, wasn’t he?”

And then, a few days later, when the tree becomes a nuisance, parents receive the credit card statements, and wonder why they spent so much money on gifts that are already forgotten.

So the budget-shuffling to pay those bills begins, because the minimum monthly payment has just grown by more than moms and dads had expected.

(“We just wanted them to have a good Christmas!”)

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We are slaves to something that, in the end, does more damage to our family than does it good.

This jolly conspiracy is built around debt, over-consumption, and excess, and it enslaves us. Moreover, it becomes difficult to find the mission of Jesus in the midst of soaring credit card bills. Yet we continue to be a part of it, even when it hurts.

When it’s put that way, it sounds almost diabolic, doesn’t it?

Or, like an addiction that needs some serious therapy.

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It’s hard — really hard — to not look at this jolly conspiracy as it is filtered through a gospel lens. Read no farther than Luke 4, and Jesus’ own mission statement, where he believed his divine mission was to feed the poor, to give sight to the blind, to give freedom to prisoners and to give freedom to the oppressed.

Freedom.

Freedom!

Jesus’ mission was to give freedom, yet our national spending habits from November 25 through December 25 rob us of freedom.

We willingly make decisions that teach our children about the gross excess of Americanism, at the expense of the very freedom Jesus offers.

And, by default, our kids will continue the cycle of ignoring the the most profound blessing of Jesus on the biggest gift-giving day of the year.

I’m not sure that’s exactly what we want to teach our kids, especially if we believe in Jesus, and believe in his message of freedom.

(An iPad mini just doesn’t seem to compare to that kind of freedom, does it?)

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Isn’t it interesting that we are partial to such a conspiracy, though? To underscore the point, consider this question:

What would Christmas morning look like if our children received gifts from their parents in the name of Jesus, instead of the name of Santa?

I think gift-giving, and gift-receiving would change. I know, because I speak from experience.

My family ended this jolly conspiracy a few years ago, telling our own children that the gifts they would receive, meager though they may be in the eyes of some, and extravagant in the eyes of others, would be because we were blessed by God to give those gifts. These gifts would no longer come in the name of a man in a red suit. And, we told them,  there may come a day when the Lord gives us trials, and gifts would be sparse. I am not a pessimist, but no one is spared from times of desperation, and I didn’t want to find myself enslaved to something, and someone, that — if that day ever came — wasn’t even real.

So, no more conspiracy. No more strange men visiting our home in the middle of the night, while everyone sleeps.

(And no more strange rabbit delivering eggs, either.)

In fairness, it took us almost a year to reach this decision, in large part because our culture says to uphold this jolly conspiracy as long as we can. For the longest time we thought perpetuating the deception was the right thing to do.

In the end, though, I grew tired of my kids “praying” to Santa — in the form of a Christmas list — and asking him for the things that would make their lives complete. I found myself to blame for those strange moments, when I began to believe that this loved tradition ignored the God who had graciously provided for my family.

I wanted to praise God on Christmas morning, and I wanted my kids to do the same.

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I’m dreaming of a better Christmas — a Christmas that doesn’t mix a fictional character with the birth of the Messiah. Our world has very little against the man in the red suit, but is quick to disregard the baby in the manger. I, for one, am tired of that.

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So here I am, and here you are, together, on some strange corner of the Internet, talking about Christmas. We haven’t discussed children in foster care, who wish to be reconciled to their families. We haven’t discussed the poverty experienced by some children, and we certainly don’t want to discuss it when we gather around a table of plenty. We haven’t talked about those who sleep in their cars on Christmas eve, or those who wake up with a hangover on Christmas morning. I’m not sure we need to.

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If the reason for the season is Jesus, then let Jesus be that reason. Let the gifts we give be in his name. Let those in our circle, in our community, know we care because we become the hands that give the gift of freedom in the name of Jesus. Let our kids see Jesus throughout the season, not only in pedantic Christmas specials on television, but in the face of the hungry who are fed.

It’s time to end this jolly conspiracy.

I’m not trying to start a movement. I just want you to pray about it, and let the Lord show you what you should do next.

In a Row of Graves

Check out this picture …

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Eran and I took our daughters last weekend to visit all of the headstones of those in our family who have passed away. This row of markers is the row of my grandfather’s family. The headstone, in the bottom left corner, is my grandfather’s. Trace the row to the top right corner, and you’ll see the headstones of his brothers and sisters, and his parents.

This is their family. Once upon a time, my grandfather was a kid, in a house full of kids. His parents were in the middle of parenting. There was once a lot of noise in their house; memories were being made, and exhaustion was being fought. But the kids grew up. They left their house, fought a war, had a family, and had their own grandchildren. And now, he and his family are together again, next to each other in their graves.

The time we have with our children is precious. And it’s fleeting. Don’t waste a minute with them. Don’t emphasize petty things like sports and movies. Emphasize, instead, God’s love and grace and mercy, and how God wants to use them to heal a broken world.

Read the gospels together.

Pray together.

Speak to them of how God is testing you, and how he is blessing you.

Remind them that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are just illusions of community.

Teach them how God wants his church to be a kingdom — the kingdom — on earth, and not an organization with great things to do, and with fantastic personalities to hear.

All of this has been especially heightened for me, though, in my two experiences in the past month serving the families of children with cancer. To say that I was humbled, and overwhelmed, at the serious tests these families endure is a vast understatement. These parents truly know the value of family, and they embrace it to its fullest experience, every day — in ways I cannot.

So again, I say, the time we have with our children is precious.

Because one day, regardless of our health and wealth right now, each of our families will only be known by the words etched in the stones at our graves.

Three Years Without Cable TV

I cancelled my cable service three years ago.

And it still has been one of the best decisions I, and my family, have ever made.

After our first year, without cable TV, I wrote four posts to describe the process. They were great journeys in writing for me. They are raw, I think, but were certainly written out of passion and intensity. They are a little bit funny, a little bit satirical, and a whole lot serious. And in 2011, I wrote one addendum on what I believe to have been a spiritual battle, and my subsequent failure of such.

Here they are, again, for you. May they inspire you a bit today to think about what you allow your eyes to see.

Part 1 :: Television and Life: The Beginning of the End of My Cable Subscription

Part 2 :: Television and Life: The Philosophical Reasons We Cancelled Our Television Subscription

Part 3 :: Television and Life: My TV, My Movies, and Jesus

Part 4 :: Television and Life: What I’ve Done Since Canceling My TV

Part 5 :: Name: The Name of God and My Mistake

Eight Things I Learned From Reading the New Testament

It’s been a cool eight weeks since I published my ninetieth straight blog in ninety days.

Through this past summer, I ventured into the readings of the New Testament, every day, and then, through prayer and some additional readings, would write something here that moved me.

I’ve blogged only once since then, writing (or really just quoting) something brief I was reading.

There has been little time since the end of August to write much. And also, the process was so exhausting that I needed a break from this format.

Yet, in the past week or so, this format has beckoned me. My creativity seems to be waning right now, in this season of life, and this is a shred of an outlet. So I’m back. At least for now.

I did want to share here, though, some of my perspectives on reading and writing through the New Testament. And since I keep reading that blog posts should be short, I’ll make this one brief.

Here’s what I figured out.

  • Reading the Word of God requires an investment. Once we relegate our reading to “something that has to be done,” we’ve lost the passion of the narrative, and the intensity of God’s story in our world. It should not be a burden, but it should cost us something.
  • Outside writings were very helpful. It’s no secret that reading a document written in a different millennium, and from a different culture, would have scores of nuances about that environment that are just lost to us. Even the language of the New Testament, Koine Greek, isn’t readily known by most of us, and translation steers interpretation.
  • People get mad quickly. A few posts of mine generated some heat. I attribute that solely to people’s unmovable opinions, and a lack of biblical literacy. If we can’t read the Word of God and expect to be shaken, then we’ve sorely missed the point.
  • It is a relentless story. Morning after morning, day after day, three chapters at a time, the Word was a force in my life. It consumed every thought. I liked that. But it changed me, and my family. Our search for God’s purpose in our own lives, I think, has just begun.

Here are my bothers, though:

  • Jesus attacked the good folk. While we’ve tried to vilify Jesus’ opponents, they weren’t bad people — at least before they began to plot his death. They tithed, preached against adultery, had an extreme desire for holiness, went to communal worship, read the Scriptures, and raised their kids together. They had good behavior. Until Jesus’ advent, the Pharisees weren’t the villains. Their lifestyle was, in fact, aspirational. In every sense, they were good, “church-going” people. Yet their obstinacy, and their inability to be moved by the very presence of God in their lives exposed their blackened hearts. I wonder if the good folk in our world, the good, church-going folk, would be the ones Jesus would expose.
  • My experience with Western Christianity has been to ignore the things that are troubling. Where did women actually fit in the story of the New Testament? What about Mark 4, when the Word was sown, but was never given a chance to grow — and not to the fault of the people (or the soil) — where does God fit in that? What about the three stories of baptism in Acts 8, 9, and 10, when the Spirit was received by people before, during, or after their water baptism? Or Revelation 17, when God is the one controlling the evil in the vision? Is our ignorance the right response to the story of God?
  • We know, and teach, very little of the culture of Paul’s travels. How quickly our perspective of each of his letters would change, if we only knew what life was like to the recipients! How many temples of various gods did he see? What was the celebratory culture in each of those temples like? Why did he say so much about eating together?
  • Discipleship, to Jesus, was a mobile lifestyle. Very little, in the New Testament, is said about people staying put. Now, to be fair, letters and gospel stories were written to people who were static. But the idea of discipleship is mobile. Even if you are settled, aren’t there scores of people in need? Why do those people, today, remain largely untouched by the gospel message?

I promised brevity, and I’ll keep that promise. It’s no surprise that my 90-day journey is still being referenced. I’ve gravitated now, though, to a through study of the gospel of Mark, and am writing a few things for our leaders and teachers of our small groups. I hope, one day, to make those accessible.

And, by the way, you can find all 90 posts right here.