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.

A Word for Ministers

There are some things that just need to be pointed out.

For a church in crisis, it was simple:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5; NIV84)

  • There will be a moral abandonment.
  • Those who lead this abandonment are hypocritical liars, with a seared conscience.
  • They preach intense spiritual asceticism, with abstinence from marriage and certain foods.
  • God is not interested in intense spiritual asceticism, though.

Well, that seems simple enough. But this is the twenty-first century, and how do we bring this teaching to today’s modern church?

The key, I think, has little to do with what was plaguing the Ephesian church. Each of our churches, to some degree, are infected with some degree of teaching that is not grounded in the gospel.

I think the key lies in the messenger.

Yet how are we to know who is an hypocritical liar, with a seared conscience?

I’m not real sure.

But I am sure that we have a moral obligation to ensure our own character is daily molded by God. Which would then keep us far from the category above.

1 Timothy 4 is an intense chapter, and it is some intense instruction to Timothy, as he leads the Ephesian church through this time of crisis. What makes it all the more fascinating is that this instruction is given by Paul. It’s safe to say that 1 Timothy 4 is how Paul lived his life as a teacher.

Look at these characteristics:

  • Point out heresy (4:6).
  • Avoid “godless myths and old wives’ tales” (4:7). In other words, STAY AWAY FROM DRAMA.
  • Train to be godly (4:7).
  • Command, and teach, that hope is found only in Jesus (4:9-11).
  • Do not let anyone look down on you because of your age (4:12). By the way, it’s safe to say that Timothy probably wasn’t a teenager, as has often been taught. It’s more likely that he was in his thirties or forties.
  • Set an example, for the believers, in your public life (i.e, “speech,” and “life”), in love, faith, and purity (4:12). Purity, too, probably refers to sexual purity, seeing that sexual impurity was plaguing the Ephesian church, especially in the immodesty of the women (1 Timothy 2:9).
  • Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture (4:13).
  • Devote yourself to exhortation (4:13).
  • Devote yourself to teaching (4:13).
  • Watch your life and your doctrine closely (4:16).

I despise “to-do” lists. I didn’t really want to present these things as a list today, but it helps me see them better. I hope it helps you see them better, too.

Look at the verbs alone: point, avoid, train, command, set, devote, watch. Those words, alone, define this as a constant lifestyle for those of us who are called to ministry.

It is also the very way Paul lived his life.

I see it this way. We never get “a break” from our life with God. It is a constant feat to nurture our side of the relationship.

It is intentional.

It is both public, and private.

It is drama (Facebook?) free.

It is an investment of all of our time.

It makes us check our doctrine. This doctrine, by the way, isn’t what you think it is. It isn’t the rote acceptance of everything your church believes to be truth. It is, rather, the very antithesis of everything that was plaguing the Ephesian church. Paul did not want Timothy’s belief system to be infected by all of the damaging things that were being taught to the believers. (If you want to see the list, click here.)

Ministry is not a job. It is not a career. It is not a stopping-place until the next position opens. It is a calling. It is the result of a prophecy, spoken into your life. Yes — prophecy. This is how Paul explained it to Timothy:

Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. (1 Timothy 4:16)

The moment that we, as ministers, start to think that our jobs are just jobs, and treat them as such, is the moment we neglect the prophetic gift given to us.

I highly doubt Timothy wanted to minister to a church in such moral and spiritual trouble. It was not the promised-land of churches, with big stages and bright lights. His calling was dirty. Gritty. Tough. Which was why Paul chose to spend one-sixth of this letter encouraging him. His calling there would not be easy.

So let’s just be real this morning, and bring 1 Timothy 4 to our current environment. Those of us in ministry do not have time to be consumed with drama, with culture, with sports, or with anything other than Jesus.

It is true that God expects us to find enjoyment in various avenues, but devotion is only reserved for the Word and it’s ability to teach others.

That’s it. And that’s enough.

The Word of God, Working In You

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13; NIV84)

Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote the first letter to the Thessalonians while they were in the city of Corinth, somewhere around 49 or 50 AD. While there, Acts 17 records that “some of the Jews … a large number of God-fearing Greeks, and not a few prominent women” accepted the message and grace of Jesus.

However, their story in Acts is suspenseful. While in the city, they stayed with a believer named Jason, but were driven from the city because of the accusation that they were convincing people, in the city, to worship a king other than Caesar. The telling remark, to me, though, comes in Acts 17:6, when the Thessalonian agitators said, referencing Paul and Silas, “These men have caused trouble all over the whole world, and now they have come here.”

That’s pretty stout. And it gives us an idea of Paul’s tenacity.

Shortly after they left, though, there were a few stops they made before settling in Corinth, and that’s when they composed this letter.

Our reading schedule varies through these few days, and I have taken the liberty of changing it a bit, only because I am writing every day, so today’s reading will be 1 Thessalonians 1, 2. If you are following the schedule, today’s reading will be a bit different. Thanks for your flexibility.

Today, though, one passage struck me. I’ve read these chapters, and read some subsequent historical information surrounding this letter, but one verse, just one verse, has lodged itself in my thoughts. It’s the passage, quoted at the top. I’ll put it here, again:

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13; NIV84)

While the first two chapters, essentially, are one long introduction by the letter writers, it was this verse that caught my attention. It spoke to me.

The word of God, the message of redemption, was at work in them.

It was their chief time-filler. It was their hobby. It was their pastime. It consumed their thoughts.

You may think that those previous statements are stretching the meaning a bit. But I don’t. If the word of God is at work in someone, it has been given time and space to work. It moves, and shakes thoughts and motivations.

Our chief offense, at a statement like this, is how many other “words” we let work in us.

Quick — what’s your favorite movie quote?

See?

See how many “words” we let fill our time? It becomes difficult to let the word of God work in our own lives, when we keep making it compete with other things.

A little bit of Jesus is not enough. The Word must be given space in our lives. It must be given free rein. It must be offered a blank check, to change what needs to be changed.

But how?

The most interesting part of this statement is that Paul is not referencing Scripture — because they didn’t have Scripture. The Jewish believers were familiar with Scripture, from their days in the synagogue, but their acceptance of Jesus would have excluded them from synagogue fellowship, thus excluding them from public readings.

And no one owned a personal copy of the Hebrew Scriptures. Also, there were no gospels. There were no epistles. Their entire believing community was based around the message, or word, in their lives, not on a page.

The transforming power of the Word of God was all they needed. It consumed their thoughts.

How strange, then, that we own multiple copies of the written Word, yet rarely make time for it.

Yet we crave hobbies and pursuits and pastimes and Facebook, and constantly fill our lives with the “words” of others.

I’ll stop there. I’ve written about this before. I am not holy, though. Please don’t use these words in a misguided belief that I have somehow achieved something good.

But I do know, from personal experience, that my life changed, two years ago, when I began a daily adventure in the Word of God, separate from what I taught as a minister. My family changed. My relationships changed. My calling in ministry changed.

It was an intentional change, though. I had to stop filling my mind with other “words.”

I only encourage you to do the same. And watch the word of God start working in you.

The Social Network

Welcome to my 37th straight post in 37 straight days, while reading the New Testament. I must say, every morning so far has been met with eager anticipation over the readings for that particular day, and how God will move my heart and spirit and thoughts. God speaks something to me, and I can’t wait to hear it.

Today’s reading is Acts 16 through Acts 18, and it is probably my favorite passage in the book of Acts.

Paul, now, becomes a world traveler, and becomes part of an amazing social network.

And, as you read this, I want you to ask yourself this question:

What if I used my Facebook and Twitter account to exclusively expand the kingdom of God?

Before we get to that, though, I want to show you a map of Paul’s travels during these three chapters, and what ultimately led him to his very own social network.

He began his second expedition from Antioch.

Yet this entire trip is the result of a detour.

A Detour

Paul did have some sort of plan. When you look at the map above, and read Acts 16, you get the idea that after he and Silas traveled through Tarsus, Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, he wanted to continue due east, to the city of Ephesus.

Here are the famous passages, though, which show how Paul was pushed into a completely different direction.

6 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. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16)

Paul wanted to go further into Asia, to travel a route that would have carried him all the way to Ephesus. But the spirit of God refused to allow him to travel into Asia. That was detour number one.

So they moved northwest, into the territory of Mysia, but couldn’t enter the city of Bithynia, because the spirit of Jesus would not allow it. That was detour number two.

Because of these two detours, then, Paul was pushed into to the city of Troas.

While there, Paul received a vision of a man, beckoning him to come to Macedonia. Paul and his companions left at once, crossed the Aegean Sea, and headed to the city of Philippi. And that was detour number three.

Wow. God moved Paul in this direction.

Yet God didn’t give Paul a full revelation of this trip before he began.

He didn’t lay out the plan to Paul, but instead gave Paul the only thing that would’ve gotten him moving immediately. Specifically, anger. Paul believed zealous Jews had traveled to the cities of Galatia, and were undoing all of his previous work there. He bore the scars on his back from his time in that region. That was certainly more than enough to get him moving.

Paul was a smart man, too. He was a Jewish man, and probably wouldn’t have traveled as far as he did. Because in the Roman Empire, of its population of 100 million people, there were only about 7 million Jews.

He would’ve been in a visible ethnic minority everywhere but Judea. There was a significant Jewish presence in Galatia, because of historical reasons, but once he entered the region of Macedonia and Greece, Paul was outnumbered. He even looked different.

As a matter of fact, he didn’t even find a Jewish synagogue in Philippi. And his visit to Greece freaked him out a little.

I don’t think Paul would’ve opted to go this far. He didn’t really want to leave Asia. Yet God took him to a different continent.

Which allowed God to give Paul an incredible social network.

The Social Network

I want to list for us some of the people Paul met on this journey. I hope it shocks you a little.

  • Timothy (in Lystra) – a young man who was the product of an interracial marriage, who eventually ministered to the church in Ephesus, was the recipient of two of Paul’s letters, and was imprisoned for the cause of Christ.
  • Luke (in Troas) – a doctor probably from Philippi who traveled with Paul for a time. Had Paul never met Luke, we wouldn’t have the gospel of Luke, or Acts of the Apostles.
  • Lydia (in Philippi) – a woman, and the first convert in the continent of Europe. She was probably connected to the Caesars in Rome because she sold purple clothing. Purple was the exclusive color of the Caesars. Because she dealt with the Caesars, she probably first lived in Rome, but was expelled by the emperor Claudius probably because of her belief in Jesus.
  • Acquila and Priscila (in Corinth) – a powerhouse couple from Rome, expelled, too, by Claudius, probably because of their belief in Jesus as well. They, too, were tentmakers, like Paul, and Paul lived with them for 18 months. They taught Apollos, and later in their life, returned to Rome.

Understand this: Paul would’ve never met these people had it not been for the detour God forced him to take.

And, if that is the case, you and I would have never known these people, or their story, if not for this journey. These meetings were not accidental.

This tells me something.

Our relationships are not accidental. Every decision we have made in our lives is the result of God moving us to this very moment. Everyone around us is a part of a vast social network in the kingdom, and God has us at the center of a hub designed to further the message of Jesus.

Wealth, status, and experience are all relative things to God. Paul, along this detour, met an interracial man, a doctor, a wealthy refugee, and a married couple with a mobile profession. Again, there is no rhyme or reason here.

Because the kingdom is the only social network worth our time. It’s urgent that we open our eyes to see everyone in our lives as people living in, or living in the shadow of, the kingdom. Our web of connections is only useful for the expansion of God’s kingdom.

So imagine this: what if we lived in this reality?

Or, to be a bit more relevant to our own social networks, what would it look like if all believers used their own participation in various social networks to further the kingdom?

Or, what if we used our participation in social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, to write our own epistles among our own social connections?

What would happen in the world if we stopped posting petty, snarky comments, and instead focused every status update on building the kingdom of God?

Maybe that will give us something to think about today.

Escaping Our View of Communion (Day Fifteen)

Today is the fifteenth day in my ninety-day reading and blogging journey through the New Testament. We find ourselves today in Mark 13, Mark 14, and Mark 15.

Imagine being at a family reunion.

It’s a nice summer day. The grill is smoking, and the smell of hamburgers lingers beneath your nose. The kids, all of them, all the cousins, are running and playing, even though they have never met each other until this moment.

You look around, and see familiar faces sitting at picnic tables. Lawn chairs are open, sprawling over the grounds like aluminum flowers with their colors of red and blue and yellow. You faintly notice the smell of cut grass under the smell of the meal that’s being served, and you kick the green clippings with your restless feet. You didn’t really want to be here, but your dad called you and said to bring the family, and he would pay for the travel expenses.

But you are actually enjoying yourself. It’s been good to see those in your family in person, rather than liking their comments on Facebook. And you are living this reunion in a surreal way, because the picture your cousin just took of you appeared on your Facebook news feed almost immediately.

Evidently people can’t stay away from that site for just a few hours.

You eat a big meal, though. Pickles and onions and mustard on your burger, followed quick by homemade brownies and homemade ice cream. It’s a festive time, after all, and the nagging tensions in your family seem to pause when everyone has a full stomach.

Your dad, then, waits for a quiet moment. All of the kids are swimming, and the caucus of their noise is now very ambient. You, and everyone else, just sit in these uncomfortable chairs and watch him. Tears flood his eyes, and he keeps people from comforting him. His demeanor is extremely unusual, and you fear immediately for his health. After he composes himself, he begins to speak, his voice clear but trembling. This is what he says:

“I’m about to be murdered. And one of you will be part of this death.”

Everyone is puzzled by this very strange moment. A great meal, Facebook memories, kids and cousins, mustard-stained shirts. It had all the trimmings of normal family gatherings. Until your father said something very, very strange. You swat a buzzing fly from your face.

No one seemed to be puzzled by his prophecy of being murdered, though. Nor was anyone hurt by his seemingly odd behavior. All of a sudden, without notice or anticipation, the reunion turned grim, creepy. Eerie.

What then consumed the thoughts of everyone was which person would help murder your father. Because everyone, almost immediately, began to say the same thing: “Well, it won’t be me. That’s for sure.”

They looked at each other, proud of their full stomachs, and proud of their loyalty.

You watched, with horror, at the easy way your father predicted his murder, and how no one offered to do anything at all to keep that from happening.

Instead, everyone, each member of your family, began to conspire as to which in your family was most likely to kill your dad. You even surprised yourself when you convicted two of your family members with relative ease.

And then your dad stands, with a half-eaten bowl of ice cream. He stumbles for a moment, but catches his balance easily. And then says another eerie statement.

“One of my children will do this. One of my own children.”

He then hands his bowl of ice cream to you, meets your stare with sadness in his eyes, and walks to his car. And the piercing stares of those once-friendly family members pierce your soul, and they convict you with the same betrayal you saw in your father’s eyes.

Someone then holds up their phone to take your picture. Satisfied with your captured reaction, then, they begin typing on the screen.

__________

This is the scene in Mark 14, when Jesus and his disciples eat together for the last time.

Jesus tells them the familiar statement that one of the Twelve, as Mark likes to call them, will, in fact, betray him.

None of them, though, were disturbed by Jesus’ prophecy of being murdered. Instead, the moment became very selfish, and each of them were so self-absorbed that they completely overlooked what Jesus just said — that he will be tragically betrayed by one of those he trusted.

And, according to Jewish custom, those sitting closest to the host were those most favored in the room. Thus we find the ultimate tragedy of the moment. For when Jesus says that he and his betrayer will share an eating utensil, you can see the utter horror, because you can only share a bowl with those sitting closest to you. Evidently Judas had a prominent place in Jesus’ circle.

In spite of this moment, though, Jesus does something profound. Mark makes it careful to avoid any mention of them eating the common and customary lamb at their Passover meal together. There is no lamb on the table.

So instead of eating a lamb, they are eating something else in the presence of the Lamb. And this Lamb is from Bethlehem, the very same town famous for raising the little lambs that would be sold in Jerusalem for sacrifices. Seriously. That little town was responsible for raising maybe 50,000 lambs for all of the Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the feast.

And now we know why Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

And the disciples ate in the presence of this Lamb of a new covenant, their Lamb from Bethlehem, and failed to notice the power of their moment.

Their primary concern was exonerating themselves.

And yet, Jesus still offered them an immense blessing. While we have taken this Passover/communion moment to extreme literalness, that does not seem to be Jesus’ intention, as Mark tells the story.

Jesus is extending a blessing, which was customary for the host of a banquet. He was, in fact, offering the blessing of his sacrifice to those around the table.

He told them to take the blessing of his body and his blood, and handed them bread and wine. Making this blessing with a meal, and then sharing the components of that meal, was a way of saying that the blessing was available to everyone at the table. Commentators agree that Jesus spoke these words in Aramaic, and, if so, he couldn’t have really said the phrase “Take it. this is my body,” because, linguistically, that’s not even possible. He probably said this, then, in Aramaic: “Take it — my body,” and it was translated into Greek, and then into English, as the way we read it in our bibles.

(By the way it’s okay to challenge something we’ve believed all of our lives. It’s a good thing. Keep that in mind.)

So Jesus is not associating the bread with his body. He’s associating his body, and his self-sacrifice, with the blessing. And the same is true for the wine.

Communion is not about the bread, or the wine. It’s about the blessing he gives.

One moment, then, he shares a bowl with his betrayer. The next, he shares his bread of blessing.

And those who receive this blessing only find the quickest way to leave the Christ who offered something so profound. In essence, then, everyone betrayed him, in spite of this amazing gift.

We are no different.

__________

You can find all the previous New Testament posts here. Thanks for reading today.

And for a further comment on Mark’s telling of this Passover meal, read pp. 370-376 in Ben Witherington’s book The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. And please, don’t be afraid to be challenged.