Acts: The Church

Whenever we moved to a new town, among our first priorities was to find a church. My husband and I both grew up in church. We met in a church and enjoyed the blessings of the community of faith. Church is the place we “belong.” It is also a place we love.

The first believers established the church concept as Luke recorded it in the book of Acts. In Acts 2:42-47 he described life in this little Christian community: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (v. 42).  The apostles accepted Jesus’ commission to “teach them to obey every I have commanded you” (Mat 28:20). Their priority was teaching and the church’s role was learning for the purpose of obedience. Not just to fill their heads with information about Jesus, but to understand who He was/is, to understand His mission, and to follow Him in it.

They also gave themselves to “the fellowship” – notice the “the.” It wasn’t about the camaraderie; it was about what Paul would later call “the body.” One people with many moving parts all working together for one purpose: The glory of Christ and the expanse of His kingdom. And there were elements that fostered that oneness: “the breaking of bread and prayer.” This means both sharing mutual common meals and sharing in the sacred meal of communion. One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had was serving the communion elements. As I handed each person a piece of bread, I said, “This is the Body of Christ, broken for you.” That communion service brought the reality of being part of the Body to life for me. It was profound and I’ve never forgotten it.

The first church also gathered regularly and faithfully to pray. Something tells me they didn’t pray for Aunt June’s infected toenail, but they prayed for power, boldness, opportunities, wisdom, and direction. Then again, maybe they did pray for Aunt June for they shared their lives, their needs, their sorrows, their struggles, and their possessions. They were one in every way.

But I want to draw your mind to one word: “devoted.” This means they gave the community of faith their constant attention. Church wasn’t squeezed into their busy lives when they found the time. Their life was lived around and among the body of believers and their shared faith. They were together in the temple and in their homes. The temple was the place of witness and homes were the place for fellowship – for “glad and sincere hearts” joined together in “praising God.”

Are you a devoted part of a local church? Not just there when there’s nothing else on your calendar, but regularly, faithfully, wholeheartedly. You will find no better place to grow, heal, learn, lean, and give yourself away. Beloved, find your place in the Body.

God Loves You

She looked at my t-shirt and snorted. “Yeah, I know, ‘God loves me.’ But He’s way up in heaven and I am down here on this miserable earth. He’s too far away to care about me or do anything for me.” She walked away before I could answer, but she left me thinking about what I would have said.

I would tell her about Psalm 107. The Psalmist starts by saying, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever” (v. 1). Then he sets up several examples: People with no place to go, wandering hungry and thirsty; but when “they cried out to the Lord, He delivered them” and brought them to a place to call home (vs. 4-9). Prisoners who were suffering for their sin and rejection of God, who cried out to the Lord, and “He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom and broke away their chains” (vs 10-16). People whose foolishness and rebellion brought them great affliction to the point of death, still, when they cried out to the Lord, “He sent for His Word and healed them; He rescued them from the grave (vs. 17-22).

Then there were the ones who were in grave danger in a storm at sea and “at their wits’ end” (can you relate?). You know the next line, when they cried out the Lord stilled the storm and hushed the waves and brought them safely to shore (vs. 23-32). He caused rivers and springs to appear in the desert, created a lush and fruitful land, and blessed and multiplied His people. And when they rebelled, He disciplined them. But then He “lifted the needy out of their affliction” – affliction they brought on themselves – and blessed them again (vs. 33-42).

With every situation, the Psalmist punctuates his story with the words: “Let them give thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for men” (vs. 8, 15, 21, and 31).  I wish I could tell her that God’s love is not a far-flung concept, but a reality that is seen and felt in the lives of those who trust and cry out to Him. I would share the Psalmist’s last words: “consider the great love of the Lord” (v. 43), and then I would tell her about Jesus. Maybe you are the one who doubts the love and care of God. Oh, Beloved, His eye is on you and He is as near as a whispered prayer.

Christ Is Your Life

In the first century, when a Christian met someone they thought might also be a believer, they would draw half of a fish symbol in the sand.  If the other person completed the symbol that was an affirmation, but if they stared with a puzzled look on their face they were not. When someone claims to be a Christian in this day, it’s not symbols we should look for, but fruit – the Fruit of the Holy Spirit. The Fruit of love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control are evidence of Christ’s presence in us. We should look for compassion and holiness and devotion to the Lord.

And if I claim to be a Christian, I should look at myself and see if this is true of me. Not just outwardly, but inwardly. Because I can put on a good face, behave well, and be at church every Sunday –and be far from God. Billy Graham said, “ A Christian is more than a person who is living a system of ethics. A Christian is more than a person living a good moral life. A Christian is a person in whom Christ dwells.”

My granddaughter Joy (and her parents) live with us and it shows. Her scissors, books, and papers from “Honey School” are here on my desk. There are scraps on the floor where she was cutting paper last night. Two of her dresses are hanging up in here and a pair of her socks sits next to her backpack. There’s a basket filled with her books and art supplies behind me. Her cups and snacks fill two cabinets in the kitchen. Her blanket awaits naptime on my bed. The bathroom houses her bath toys and dirty clothes basket. She has a pair of her shoes in the cubby of my shoe rack. Her swingset sits in the backyard. The patio is covered with chalk art. Both of our vehicles have car seats and blankets. I won’t describe the chaos in the living room where she plays. Her pictures are on my phone, my laptop, my refrigerator, and my walls. She dwells in this house and the proof is everywhere. There’s not a single space where her presence is not felt. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Being a Christian is a total take-over. There should not be any part of our lives where Christ’s presence is not felt. He should be heard when we speak. He should be seen when we enter a room. His love should spill out of us. His grace should be our perfume. He should rule our minds and hearts. As Paul said, “Christ . . . is your life” (Col 3:4). Beloved, does He dwell in you?

Acts: The Door is Open

We return in Acts to the scene in an upper room in Jerusalem. Amid the wind and flames of the Holy Spirit and the languages declaring the mighty works of God, there was awe and wonder. There was also confusion and derision. One group asked, “What does this mean?” while another group mocked and said, “They have had too much wine.” Before chaos could take over Peter stood up.

This is a beautiful fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy. When He declared that Satan had permission to sift Peter He also assured Peter that he would not fail his Lord. He said “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Because He knew Peter would. And here the disciple stands with his brothers to encourage and strengthen them.

Peter explained that this was Joel’s prophecy come to life when every nation and every gender and every age would declare the Word of the Lord. Judaism was an exclusive religion. Jesus came to break down every barrier to God. Joel’s words were the promise that the Spirit of God would no longer be reserved for Israel but would be a universal gift to all believers of every nation, gender, and age. Even Gentiles. And women. And men young and old.

“In those days,” gives way to apocalyptic imagery of wonders and signs and blood, fire, and smoke. This is generally believed to refer to the final cosmic events preceding the return of Christ, which Peter assumed was very near. There’s a whole lot here that we don’t have time to unpack because the point of Peter’s message was not the impending return – it was the wide open door to heaven.

When God called Abraham and established the Jewish nation, he drew a distinctive line between those who were “in” and those who were “out.” Now, because of Jesus, everyone was welcome to come in. When the curtain in the temple was torn in two at Jesus’ death, the rip started at the top (Matt 27:51). Now all nations and all genders and all ages were invited to the house of God. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21).

That means you, Beloved. God gave His one and only Son to save you. To welcome you to His family and His house and His eternal heaven. No matter your family or your gender or your age. God won’t even hold your past sins and mistakes against you. Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me I will not drive away” (John 6:37). The only thing you have to be is willing.

The Eternal Way

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

“I need a bigger map than this,” I complained. “I need to see my whole route.”  The image on my GPS only showed the next several hundred yards in front of me.  But I wanted to see my present location in relation to where I wanted to end up.  I needed a bigger picture. 

We live in the moment, in the hours of our days, looking at our weekly schedules and our monthly calendars, planning for college educations and retirement, and think we’re wise in our future forecasts.  But life isn’t just about our plans for the here and now.  Real life is eternal.

I’m learning to evaluate every situation and circumstance for its eternal impact.  Paul said, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Though our struggles don’t feel “light and momentary,” in the reality of eternity, they are just one tick on the clock of forever. 

I’m also learning to let the words I say pass through this eternal filter.  Several years ago, God gave me a verse to motivate me toward my calling: “If you utter worthy, not worthless words, you will be my spokesman,” (Jeremiah 15:19).  I’m making an intentional effort to speak and write “worthy words” that have an eternal purpose.   I ask myself, “How will my words impact someone’s eternity?”

This eternal perspective affects my desires too.  When I start to feel the pinch of envy, I remember that Jesus is preparing an eternal place for me that rivals any earthly mansion.  I will wear a robe of righteousness that no fashion designer could ever create.  I will have a perfect body that doesn’t require hours in a gym.

When we have an eternal perspective of life we understand better the journey we are on.  Twisting roads, sharp turns, long stretches, and detours cannot stop us from reaching our final destination – heaven and the presence of God forever.  Beloved, I encourage you to widen the view before you and trust the One who is leading you.  This life with all its pain and struggle is part of the journey to your perfect eternal destiny.  Let’s travel on together with our hearts set on forever.

Come to the Word of God

When I speak of the Bible I often say it is “light and life to me and nourishment to my soul.” Those are all from the Scriptures – and they are very special to me.

I come from a family of crafters. My mom was an extraordinary seamstress and my grandmother created beautiful embroidered designs with a needle and thread. When I was about 10 years old, Mom decided it was time for me to take up the family tradition, starting with learning handwork. She bought me a simple embroidery kit and taught me the backstitch, the daisy stitch, and how to fill a piece of fabric with color. The picture had an old-fashioned oil lamp, an opened Bible – with a real velvet bookmark – and the words of Psalm 119:105. As I stitched the letters, the words were “sewn” into my heart: “Thy Word is a Lamp unto my feet and a Light unto my path.” The piece has long been lost but I can close my eyes and see every detail. And I will never forget that verse.

Just before Moses died he gave the Israelites his blessing and the Lord’s instructions. Among his words was an admonition to “Take to heart all the words [of the Lord],” saying “they are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut 32:46, 47). Through the prophet Isaiah, God implored the people to come and satisfy their hunger and thirst saying, “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live” (Is 55:2,3).

Light. Life. Nourishment for the soul.

Granted, I’ve lost my way a few times in my life and found myself in dark scary places. But I would trace those words on my heart and look for the light. I’ve tried to satisfy my spiritual body with worldly junk food and found my life wasting away, but my cravings always sent me back to the nourishing truth of the Scriptures. The Word of God is Light and Life to me. It is stitched on my heart. It is nourishment to my soul. It fills me as nothing else can. Beloved the Bible will show you the path to life and give you strength for the journey. Come and see. Come and hear. Come and taste. These are good words from a good God.

Advent 2022: There’s a Place for You

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7).

Several years ago, while living in a Florida university town, my family was blessed to serve in college ministry. We helped prepare Thanksgiving dinner at the Baptist Student Center. We brought them with us into Shoebox ministry and I taught the College Sunday School class for a season. But the best part of that time was just having them all around my house. We came to love so many of those precious students, their feet were often under my kitchen table and it was not uncommon for them to crash on my couch for the night. One night we hosted a bonfire and had 45 young men and women in our backyard, from 9 different countries! It is one of my sweetest memories. These kids were—and are—dear to us and many still call us “Mom and Dad.” Through that time, I came to understand Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (2:8). Like Paul, we made room for others out of love.

Love opens doors to the lonely. Love puts one more plate on the table. Love slides over to share the seat with a weary soul. Love pours a cup of coffee. Love labors in prayer. Love sleeps on the couch so the visitor can have the bed. Love opens the circle of friendship to add one more person. Love doesn’t shut others out; love welcomes people in.

In the town of Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago, a baby was born in a dark, damp, smelly stable—little more than a cave hewn out of a hillside—because there was no room for His little family in the inn. His father and very pregnant mother were turned away because there was no love there. Now—think about what Jesus told His disciples just before His death: “In my Father’s house are many rooms . . . I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). Why?

Because love makes room.

Advent 2022: Do You Really Understand Christmas?

Our granddaughter was born with syndactyly, the malformation of the fingers on her right hand. To us, she is still “practically perfect in every way.” We believe God is going to use that little hand as a powerful testimony to His glory. Still, she is starting to notice that it – and she – is different. Not less than anyone else, just different. She asked me yesterday, “Nana, why is my hand like this?” I told her that is just how God made her. “God didn’t make me,” she said. “Joy,” I asked, “what is your memory verse from Honey (Sunday) School?” She said, “God made everything!” complete with hands spread wide. “So if God made everything He made you, too, and your hand” I answered. “Oh!” she said, “God made me!” “That’s right, sweet girl!” Joy knew the facts, but she didn’t understand what they meant.

It’s Christmas time and that means it’s time to think about the Baby in the manger and about shepherds, angels, and wise men. But just like Joy, if all we know are facts then we don’t understand why He came at all. If we don’t recognize that this Baby is about us and for us then we don’t know the whole story of Christmas. This Baby came for more than parties and pretty paper and ribbons and lights all aglow. He came with a mission. When the Lord sent a dream to Joseph to tell him about the Baby in Mary’s womb, He said, “He will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Luke records Jesus’ words: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). That’s you and me. The Christmas story is about God sending His Son to find us who are lost and bring us back home.

And the Christmas story is as much about the death of Jesus as it is about His birth. If God only sent His Son to be born then we are still lost. If He does not grow up then you and I have no real hope. The Baby in the manger must become the Man on the cross if we are to be saved. He must become the resurrected Lord if we are to have eternal life. This innocent and precious boy must bear the weight and punishment of all of our sins or Christmas means nothing.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas, Beloved. But more than that I wish you the heart of Christmas: “that you may grasp how wide and long and high and deep” is God’s love for you (Eph 3:18).

In The End

I wrote yesterday about God’s pre-knowledge of the ups and downs, blessings and tragedies, and Joys and heartaches in our lives. The question then comes, “Why would He allow us to go through these very hard things?”  “Why does He set us on a path when He knows it leads to hardship?” I confess, I’m far from an expert and I certainly can’t read God’s mind, but I can read His Word and glean some things that might help us to understand.

When the Israelites escaped Egypt they rejoiced, yet “on the fifteenth day of the second month [figure about 6 weeks] after they had come out of Egypt . . . the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron” (Ex 16:1,2). They missed the plentiful food of Egypt. So God sent them food – manna. It was their daily diet for forty years (v. 35). After a long steady run of the stuff, they complained, “we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Num 11:6). It became a source of contention for the Hebrew people.

But God knew all this. He knew when He sent Joseph to Egypt to save his family they would become enslaved for four hundred years. He knew that Pharaoh would oppress and abuse them. He knew Moses would be born at a time when Hebrew baby boys were killed. He knew that Mama would make a basket to float him down the river just as Pharaoh’s daughter would bathe in the same river. He knew that Moses would run after he killed an Egyptian for abusing a Hebrew slave. He knew right where to send him where a bush waited. He knew Pharaoh would forbid the Hebrews to leave. He knew they would be pinned between the river and the enemy. He knew they would rebel. He knew they would wander. He knew they would make a golden calf. He knew they would get hungry. He knew they would eventually grow sick of the manna.

He knew all this. Yet He worked in it all. And Moses declared, “He gave you manna to eat in the desert . . . to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (Deut 8:16). All of it, from Joseph to the manna was part of God’s plan. God used the manna to humble them and test them and bring them to a place of blessing. And that’s what He’s up to in your life too. In the good, the bad, and the ugly, He’s working to make you useful and usable in His kingdom. He’s working for your good. That season you’re questioning is part of His plan. And His plans never fail. Be encouraged, Beloved, God is up to something. And in the end, it will go well with you.

In God’s Hands

Have you noticed that the Scriptures call us “sheep?” I’ve heard people say that sheep are dumb, and I don’t think that is entirely fair. Sheep just get focused on one thing – filling their bellies – and don’t pay attention to what they are doing or where they are going. A sheep will put his head down to graze and keep it down as he moves from one succulent tuft of grass to another. He doesn’t look up to see where he’s headed or how far he has gone from the shepherd or how close he is to the edge of a river bank. One more step and he is tumbling down, down, down, and into serious trouble. If the shepherd doesn’t find him soon he’ll fall prey to a predator and sheep are helpless in a fight.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve wandered. Or maybe you know and love a wanderer. I’ve shared before that I have a prodigal – a wanderer. He grew up in the church and a godly home. But he’s grazing out in the world with his head down. I’ve prayed for him for many, many years: “God, please don’t let him fall away from You.” One morning the Spirit impressed on me to sing “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands.” “Mama,” He said to my heart, “If I have room for the whole world in my hands then you can be sure my hands a big enough for him to roam far and wide without falling off.”

David said, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps 139:7-10). Re-read that last sentence. Your right hand will hold me fast. God loves you too much to let you go. He loves your wanderer more than you do.

If you have wandered from the shepherd, just call out His name from wherever you are. He will leave the ninety-nine and come rescue you and bring you back to the flock. If you are praying for a wanderer, don’t give up. God’s got them, even while they roam. Jesus said the Father is not willing that any of his sheep should be lost (Matt 18:10-14). Beloved, He’s a big God with big hands.