About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church.He killed James the brother of John with the sword,and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Acts 12:1-3
There is a fair amount of debate these days over just what the accurate number is of Christians in this world who are being persecuted for their faith. A lot of that debate has to do with how we define “persecuted for their faith” and which genocidal numbers should or should not be included in that count. There is actually a pretty decent description of those numbers and that debate from this Christianity Today article last year. Our struggles here in the U.S. do not yet rise to the level of “persecution”. Indeed, I am embarrassed that we sometimes use that label to describe our culture wars here in this country, when our brothers and sisters around the world are being tortured, dismembered, and killed by political entities. Still, for our purposes here, suffice it to say, genuine followers of Christ are finding the journey more and more difficult.
I am struck, then, when I read about the early church’s responses to political persecution. And I am convicted when I compare their response to our response today. From the account of Peter’s miraculous rescue in Acts 12, here are a few observations about the natural tension between Christ followers and the world in which they are called to be salt and light:
The battle is the Lord’s and, as with all battles He fights, He wins in the end. OK, we don’t necessarily learn that from this particular passage. In fact, this account takes place as the culture wars are only just getting started. But still, you
And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.”But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Mark 9:26-29
I can still remember the first church dispute I officially mediated. I had been involved in literally hundreds of mediations as an attorney/mediator, many involving issues worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Then there was this conflict in a tiny church involving a dozen or so people and I thought to myself, “How hard can this be?” I remember whispering a short prayer or two on my way to the church, thinking this would be a simple matter to iron out…three, maybe four hours, tops. Two days later, the church split, the pastor left, and I had almost certainly done more damage than good. It was by far the most humbling experience of my life.
The lesson there had nothing to do with mediation skills. It had everything to do with prayer, and the only meaningful source of power for anything at all having to do with Christ’s church. Unfortunately, I did not learn the lesson then. There have been many more occasions in my own church since then where my own “expertise” or efficiencies have gotten in the way of what God was doing. I have come to see this problem as a part of the human condition…or at least MY human condition.
It was certainly the lesson for the disciples in Mark 9. A very short time before that failure at …
Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom…When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:3, 10
Our circumstances are similar to Daniel’s in some respects, aren’t they? Babylon was not his home. Rather, he was exiled there for a lifetime, instructed to invest, make a home, and seek the welfare of this lifetime home. As Christ followers, this world is not our home. It is merely where we are for this lifetime. And we are instructed to invest, make a home, and seek the welfare of our lifetime home. God expected Daniel to be salt and light in his new home. God expects the same from us. Finally, like Daniel, we find ourselves in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic toward us and toward the God we worship. So, what does Daniel have to teach us about these circumstances?
When the opposition organized against Daniel and created laws which his walk with God simply could not abide, what did Daniel do? How did he respond? Here’s a list of ways he did NOT respond:
He did not take to his loud, proud social media voice and begin slamming those who had conspired against his God;
He did not stoop to his adversaries’ political ways by mobilizing his own political action committee to fight the battle in the world’s arena;
He did not create a bunch of hateful protest signs and organize a march on King
Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.’” And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city. 1 Samuel 20:42
Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul.And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 2 Samuel 12:7-9
These are confusing and chaotic times, aren’t they? In the midst of all the “culture wars” and PR posturing on social media and political battles over moral issues that, frankly, will never be resolved in the political arena, we in the church are haunted by a single question: what does love look like? In the face of ISIS and others persecuting Christians around the world, the church must figure out what does love look like? On politically entangled issues of immigration, the church must answer what does love look like? In response to legalized same-sex marriage and increasing pressure against the church for teaching what it believes on this issue, the church must know what does love look like? And those pundits on either side of …
And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!” 1 Samuel 17:37
I have known the story of David and Goliath most of my life. It is possibly one of the most familiar stories in all of scripture. We use it every time we need to illustrate an unlikely hero overcoming impossible odds to defeat a seemingly unstoppable foe. So, as I am studying 1 Samuel 17 this week, thinking about the “foes” whom Christ followers face in our current culture, I am asking myself, “Today, who/what is the church’s Goliath?” The list of possibilities is long. I think I have the winner, but first, here are some things that are NOT our Goliath:
Different worldviews from ours are NOT our Goliath. Whether it is the Muslim world, or atheists, or people who vote differently from you in national elections, our Biblical worldview does not mean our struggle is with these groups. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood…Eph. 6:12;
A culture that is increasingly hostile to Christianity is NOT our Goliath. It is a fact: from a global perspective, persecution of Christians is at an all-time high. And, though we in the U.S. would be hard-pressed to call our difficulties “persecution” at this point, we have certainly seen the needle moving in that direction as anti-Christian sentiment seems to grow stronger with each news cycle. Nevertheless, we really must stop acting so shocked and surprised by this. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first… you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out
Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 1 Samuel 1:6-7
In ancient times, being barren was a major affliction. I suppose it probably still is in many parts of the world. But for Hannah (and for all the other women in the Bible whose stories begin with being barren), it meant no security at all for their future. Once their husbands were gone, with no children of their own and with no ability to own property or to earn a living, they would be destitute. Desperation, then, does not begin to describe their plight.
Churches often go through seasons of desperation as well. Maybe you understand what I mean. After years of budget shortfalls and then an economic crisis, there is suddenly a severe conflict and families leaving the church, and then the sudden death of a key leader and then a moral failure on another’s part and so on and so forth…the desperation can pile up pretty quickly. Then there are the anguishing cries to the Lord, “How long will you allow this to continue?!” Month after month of praying can turn into year after year. The landscape of the church turns into a parched, dry, barren land. Heretofore strong, faithful members begin to question whether the Lord has simply lifted his hand from the church…His glory has departed…He has written “Ichabod” across the door.
In such “barren” circumstances, hope for the future is all but waned completely. It becomes impossible to even imagine a future. Only the most faithful few even remain. It can feel awfully destitute…much like Hannah no doubt …
What might happen in a city or a community if all the churches began praying for the same things at the same time? How might genuine transformation look in that community if God were to respond to those prayers in a powerful way, making His manifest presence known?
The folks over at Waymakers.org have been working on answers to those questions for the last few years with excellent prayer guides for 40 Days of Prayer for the City leading up to Palm Sunday. I came across this material last year and found it to be especially meaningful. Especially powerful. So, this year, I am inviting you to join me in the prayer for our cities.
You can order the 2018 material here. Better yet, if you’re like me and prefer an app for your smartphone rather than a paper product, look here or go to your app store and search for “Seek God for the city 2018”. You will love the experience!
The 40 Days of Prayer for the City begins on February 14. I will be praying for my home city of San Antonio, Texas, as we celebrate our 300th anniversary this year. You pray for your city. Let’s do this together. More importantly, let’s get our churches doing this together!
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”… When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. Matthew 1:19-21, 23
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. Luke 1:35-38
The Christmas story is filled with contrasts between those who rearranged their very lives in order to make room for the birth of the Messiah and those who either opposed His birth or were completely indifferent to it. Mary and Joseph had their lives changed forever. Their obedience and their ability to embrace a seemingly impossible circumstance set them apart. Even more, it was their willingness to set aside their own pretty good plans in order to be obedient to God which makes them perfect …
And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel…And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. Judges 2:7, 10
If I were to even begin a list of the men and women who poured into me spiritually as a child and as a teenager and as a college student and as a young adult, I would probably inadvertently leave out more names than the hundred or so that I can remember! It is one of the many blessings of having grown up in the church. I was given many, many stories and opportunities to learn about the work of God in the generation(s) before mine. Those stories have no doubt colored my understanding of and thirst for unity among God’s people.
Unity is all about relationships. And relationships are all about communication. And few obstacles to meaningful communication can be more perplexing than the very different cultural frameworks developed within generations. But doesn’t a Biblical worldview impose upon us a responsibility to communicate well across generational lines, so that God’s story is told seamlessly across time and His people continue to grow in their faith?
So, as I study and contemplate the plight of the nation of Israel in Judges 2, and then begin to draw applications to my own life, I am prompted to pray this way…
Lord, show me your ways and your hand in my life today, and then help me tell those stories to the next generation. Bolster my testimony of when I have seen you……
Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you…Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good successwherever you go.This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Joshua 1:5, 7-8
Leadership changes are scary…and not just the political ones. Leadership changes at church are just as troublesome. None are more scary than changing shepherds of a congregation. Having served on pastor search teams myself, and having trained dozens of other such teams and processes for various churches and organizations, I have lots of stories of the many “pitfalls” and traps which await us when it comes to prayerfully searching for a new shepherd. So, for those of you who find this topic relevant, here are three mistakes Pastor search teams often make:
1. Making it a secular process. As laymen, we all bring whatever experiences and expertise we may have from our industries to our ministry, and it would be easy to think of the pastor search process as primarily (or essentially) a human resources process. But it is not…not primarily. Rather, it is first and foremost a spiritual discernment process. And as with any spiritual discernment process, it should bubble up out of deep and humbling gathered prayer. Indeed, prayer should not only be foundational and central to the process, but it …