Thursday, April 9, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 38

Scripture Reading: Acts 27:1-26 (NRSV)

The first part of this passage reminds me of a road trip journal.  We are seeing various ports in the Mediterranean Sea that give us an idea of Paul's journey to Rome.

The trouble with the storm reminds me of Jonah's flight to Tarshish.  While it is clear that Paul is sailing to Rome on behalf of God's call on his life, Jonah had done the opposite.  God was the one behind the storms in Jonah's day as we see in Jonah 1:4-6:
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
Jonah seems to have a sense of calm about him even when running from God!  He's able to sleep through the storm and had to be awakened.  We find that Jonah's answer will be to save the ship and crew through sacrificing himself by jumping into the raging waters.

Paul doesn't make this same offer, likely because he doesn't see the storm as a stumbling block from God.  We do see them throw the cargo overboard as the mariners did in Jonah's day.  God's message to Paul is that everyone is going to live through this ordeal.

We also remember that Jesus slept through a storm on the waters.  We see it in Luke 8:22-25:
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.  He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
While Paul has worked miracles including exorcisms, healing and even raising one from the dead, he evidently doesn't have authority over the waves as Jesus did.  I'm sure it wasn't for lack of prayer!

I feel like I'm waiting for the rainbow
at the end of the storm.
This is a good reminder that we often sail into storms in life not of our making.  We get caught up in chaos that just happens.  This is what it feels like as we bunker down for COVID-19.  We were minding our own business when business as usual just came to a screeching halt.  Some people are feeling annoyed.  Others are frightened.  We might even have the idea of "just a little bit longer..." and the whole thing will go away and we'll be back to normal any day now.

We remember that when the storms rage, we turn to our faith.  We would like for Jesus to wake up and rebuke the pandemic.  Barring that, we would like to hear a word like Paul's that says, "I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you" and "God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you."

Ultimately, we will make it through this.  It will be difficult.  We will likely be touched by grief and loss.  But we remember that God sails with us.  And every age has its storms.

Prayer for the day:

Lord, our heavenly Father, who orders all things for our eternal good, mercifully enlighten our minds, and give us a firm and abiding trust in your love and care.  Silence our murmurings, quiet our fears, and dispel our doubts, that rising above our afflictions and our anxieties, we may rest on you, the rock of everlasting strength.  Amen.

Prayer from New Church Book of Worship, 1876

Photo by Rob Romard via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 37

Scripture Reading: Acts 26:19-32 (NRSV)

Paul continues with his appeal to King Agrippa.  In reality, we see that Paul is seeking not to prove his innocence so much as convert Agrippa to Christianity!

When Paul mentions that the Messiah was foretold by the prophets that he must suffer, the risen Lord said this same message to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:26:
Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
We have already seen Isaiah's suffering servant referenced as the Messiah from Acts 8 where Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Agrippa's response is not as harsh as that of Festus who claims that Paul is crazy!  But Luke gives the impression that maybe a seed was planted with the king.  History shows us that nothing comes of this and Josephus the historian implies an incestuous relationship (Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 7) with Agrippa and his sister Bernice who was also present for Paul's testimony.

We can applaud Paul for his tenacity though!  What do we do with people who hear the testimony but do not believe?  Jesus mentions this very situation in Luke 10:23-24:
Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
This reminds us that it is a common experience for people to miss what is in front of them.  What do we do with truth as we see it which others may not merely miss but actively refute?  We trust in our testimony and remind ourselves that God is also at work in their lives just as God is at work in ours.  As we engage in dialogue with them, we must remember that true dialogue happens when we learn from each other and we're not just letting them speak while we think about what we'll say next.

Authentic dialogue takes trust.
Sometimes Christians are so charged by their transformation in Christ that they want this same experience for everyone!  Their enthusiasm may be just what some people are looking for while simultaneously turning others off completely.  For these same others, a quiet confidence may be needed for them to hear.  But this seeming lack of enthusiasm may cause the first group to pass on their faith!

We may relax and remember that God uses all kinds of people to get the witness across.  How would you describe your own sense of witness to the world?  Does it primarily rely upon your actions to your neighbors?  If so, is there a good word you might say that would accompany this?  And if you are more verbal in your witness, how might doing a good deed quietly accentuate your message?

Prayer for the day:

give us weak eyes for things that are of no account
and clear eyes for all your truth.

Prayer by Soren Kierkegaard, Denmark, 19th Century 

Photo by Public Relations Society of America via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 36

Scripture Reading: Acts 26:1-18 (NRSV)

Paul begins his testimony before King Agrippa who was the ruler of parts of Palestine.  This is the third time in the Book of Acts that Luke relates his conversion (the first being 9:1-8; the second being 22:4-16).  We see Paul stand upon his Jewish credentials.  This was likely something he did throughout his career as he went from place to place, sharing faith in the synagogues.  We see this in his own words from Philippians 3:4b-6 as he writes:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
In today's reading, he expounds upon his persecution of the church.  He was certainly a bulldog in his pursuit of those he felt were wrong.  In this third account, when Jesus speaks to Paul, we hear him add the phrase, "It hurts you to kick against the goads."  A goad was a sharp stick used to prod a donkey or an ox.  We see even Jesus acknowledging Paul's tiresome doggedness in pursuing what he thought was right.

We have all known people with this personality trait.  You may wonder why God would choose Paul to be such an emissary to the faith.  It may have been because he was so relentless in his pursuit of his ideals.  With his new understanding of faith, Paul will work toward this witness with the same sense of zeal.  When we began chapter one of Acts and we heard in verse eight, "you will be my the ends of the earth" we were thinking that it would be the original twelve (minus Judas) disciples.

Paul's transformation and elevation reminds us that God works in ways we would not foresee.  I don't think God inspired Paul to persecute the early church so that later Paul would have the appropriate cred to reach future persecutors.  But I do think that God uses misspent free will to create something new.

What places in your life were difficult to overcome or endure?  Which things would bring you shame if you trotted them out in the light of day?  Have they given you mettle?  Made you more compassionate?  Because of the sins of our past, are we more willing to forgive people who commit sins in the present?

Prayer for the day:

Gracious God, raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness.  Do not let us forget our past but rather heal us from what still hurts.  As it scabs over and becomes a scar, let us bear it wisely.  Give us empathy with others who may be so currently afflicted.  May your Holy Spirit use our entire selves for the witness of the evangel that pervades the earth.  Amen.

Photo by judyboo via  Used under the Creative Commons license.
All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 35

Scripture Reading: Acts 25:13-27 (NRSV)

Which kind of headwear do you think God prefers?
This is a good reminder of how outsiders perceive us when we have disagreements with those who are within the faith.  The Jews accusing Paul saw their differences as blasphemous and felt justified in wanting Paul's death for his work in sharing the gospel.  Paul understood his allegiance to Jesus Christ as fitting within the scope of Judaism as he saw it pointing to his Messiah.  But Festus and Felix only saw it as "they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive."

After two years of imprisonment, Paul is receiving an audience before the King.  In 60 CE, this would have been King Herod Agrippa II and Bernice was sister to the king.  This rising of Paul from prison to stand before the king is reminiscent of Joseph going from prison to stand before Pharaoh although Paul will not be elevated to an adviser. Interestingly, Joseph also waits in prison for two years before he receives an audience.

This also fulfills what Jesus declares in Luke 21:12-15:
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict."
As I have read about all of the disagreements within Christianity through the centuries, they don't ever seem as urgent from the pages of history as they must have seemed at the time.  This should remind us to step back from our religious disagreements if they are getting too heated.  Why are we getting so upset?  What is it about the disagreement that makes us so angry?  What is happening in your opponent's life that would make this upsetting for them?  Why are they getting hot under the collar?

To reduce our own heat and to understand ourselves is important in any conflict.  Then we can take the next step and seek understanding of our neighbor.  To really love our neighbors is to listen to them and seek clarification on why they think the way they do.  But I think it is always difficult to understand them if we don't understand ourselves.  If Christians can begin to disagree respectfully, those on the outside looking in might take notice about The Way.

Prayer for the day:

Father, we pray for your Church throughout the world, that it may share to the full in the work of your Son, revealing you to all and reconciling all to you and one another; that Christians may learn to love one another and their neighbors, as you have loved us; that your Church may more and more reflect the unity which is your will and your gift; we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Prayer from Coventry Cathedral, Chapel of Unity, Church of England.

Photo by Finizio via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Palm Sunday

Scripture Reading: Acts 25:1-12 (NRSV)

Porcius Festus was the new procurator of Judea and was appointed by Nero in 60 CE.  Since the previous procurator Felix was unwilling to do anything about Paul except to keep him imprisoned, the Jews Paul had enraged thought they might have better luck with the new leader.  They would like to get Paul out of Caesarea and back to Jerusalem.

Who was really imprisoned?  Paul or those
who would seek his death?
Festus invites them to come with him to Caesarea to accuse Paul there while Festus is present.  He asks Paul if he wishes to be tried in Jerusalem and Paul appeals to his right to trial as a Roman citizen.  This was his right if he was being accused of treason.   It must have been one of the charges they brought as he states that he has committed no offense "against the emperor."

This is a textbook case in letting your anger get the best of you.  If those who hated Paul for his teachings had left him to rot in jail, he may have been forgotten and unrecognized by the new procurator.  Would Festus have even been aware of Paul?  But by seeking greater vengeance against him, this gives him a greater stage.

Luke references Jesus from his gospel when he states in Luke 6:37-38:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
This is not easy to do when we have an enemy.  When you have been slighted in your mind, the offender will often remain in our thoughts long after the slight has occurred.  But the power of forgiveness is that it limits an enemy's hold over your mindfulness.  We can move on to better things.

Is there someone negative in your life that dominates your thoughts?  Do they take up a disproportionate amount of your awareness?  If you considered forgiveness for this person, you might be able to limit the larger stage he or she is occupying. 

Prayer for the day:

Lord, you remind us that you will give us rest for our heavy burdens.  We do not need the burden of enmity but we have become used to carrying it.  We have forgotten what it is like to be light.  Aid us in our forgiveness of others.  May we remember that you will help us to be merciful when we are unable to begin the work ourselves.  Amen.

Photo by Jeffrey via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 34

Scripture Reading: Acts 24:1-27 (NRSV)

Paul has now been moved to Caesarea, a coastal city NW of Jerusalem.  He's under trial before Antonius Felix who was the Roman procurator of the Judea province from 52-60 CE.  The prosecuting attorney, Tertullus, makes his case against Paul as an agitator and states that the last straw was Paul's attempt to profane the temple.  This was referring to Acts 21:27-29:
When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.
I have already referred to the Jewish restriction of Gentiles in the temple.  Roman rule sought to keep order in all of its provinces.  But they also sought to protect Roman citizens and Paul qualified.

Paul makes his own case and testifies that Christianity (aka the sect of the Nazarenes, aka the Way) remained within standard observance of Judaism.  His defense further underscores that this is really a matter of intra-religious debate in the Jewish faith concerning the resurrection.

Felix is note shown in the best light by Luke as he seems to be ruled by fear and greed.  He keeps Paul imprisoned in Caesarea for two years (58-60 CE) without making a judgment against him one way or another.  We see that the prophecy of Argabus from Acts 21:10-11 came true:
While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 
Paul certainly understood suffering for the sake of the gospel.  Within his epistles, the themes of freedom in Christ take on a new ring.  When he writes in 1 Corinthians 13:7 that love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" we have new insight.

Quiet contemplation can lead us
to greater spiritual insights if we
take the time to ponder.
As we undergo the shelter-in-place orders while the world seeks to get a handle on COVID-19, we may also have a new appreciation for Paul.  We recognize that our own exile from society is nothing compared to Paul's imprisonment.  There was no Wi-Fi, cell phones or ice cream available to him!

Paul was productive in his incarceration.  We have the epistles that were composed while he was in jail.  This makes us think about "throw-away" time.  How can we take some time in thinking about the larger spiritual matters that we face in life?  Are there ways that we can incorporate spirituality into everyday chores that must be done?  Is there a larger issue of your faith that you would like to research?

Prayer for the day:

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
   Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
   Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
   so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
   and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
   For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
   and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
   from all its iniquities.

Photo by photoholic1 via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 33

Scripture Reading: Acts 23:23-35 (NRSV)

Paul is being evacuated from Jerusalem for his own safety.  The number of soldiers listed by Luke seems a little exaggerated.  It would be economically unfeasible to give this kind of attention to every citizen of Rome that was threatened across the empire.

I think it is important when we read this today to realize that we experience it from a totally different context.  As Paul experienced persecution from Jewish rioters in Jerusalem, this was done in the circumstance where Christians were a minority among a Jewish majority.  Today, in the United States, there are around 6 million Jews as compared to Christians at around 213,000,000.  This difference equates to a power differential concerning life in our country.  For instance through much of the 20th century, blue laws shut down American life on Sundays (the Christian sabbath) rather than Saturday (the Jewish sabbath).

If we don't understand the power differential, tragedies like the Holocaust can occur. 

Paul understands both sides.  Prior to his baptism, he was a persecutor himself.  He experienced all of the privilege of being in the religious majority.  Now he is on the other side and yet his privilege this time is coming from his Roman citizenship.  This may have further enraged the Jewish population in Jerusalem because they would have preferred to self-govern.   

This dismissive slogan is insulting to a generation
but it also speaks volumes to how they are received
by those entering adulthood.
Christians in the United States today are finding a shifting population as far as how they are being received.  There is more skepticism these days concerning organized religion.  Things that we took for granted such as couples returning to church after they started having children are no longer the norm.  Nevertheless, we are still the majority in this country.  The danger is that Christianity may be seen as something quaint or outdated by younger generations. 

How do we speak as a majority to a generation that finds much of the majority tedious?  How do we share our faith in ways that can be heard rather than dismissed?  I'll take my cue from Paul.  It seems that he was going to be authentically himself.  He would speak to those who would hear and move on from those who wouldn't.  But his interest was in giving everyone a shot no matter where they showed up on the social status radar.

Prayer for the day:

O God, who has bound us together in this bundle of life,
give us grace to understand how our lives depend on the industry,
the honesty and integrity of our fellows;
that we may be mindful of their needs,
grateful for their faithfulness,
and faithful in our responsibilities to them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, Union Theological Seminary, 20th Century 

Photo by Trending Topics 2019 via  Used under the Creative Commons license.