“Brothers and fathers, listen to the defense that I now make before you.” Acts 22:1 (NRSV)
For a couple of chapters the tension has been building. Paul is determined to return to Jerusalem. It has been prophesied that he will be arrested by the Jewish religious leaders as a traitor if he does. Everyone begs him not to go. Paul refuses to be deterred and now, the prophesy has been fulfilled. He finds himself in the middle of a riot. His people are screaming for his blood.
When the Roman guard arrives to break up the riot and discover who the controversy is all about, they nab Paul and take him into custody. But, Paul isn’t ready to be rescued quite yet. He wants to address the crowd and asks the Roman guards for permission. With the Romans present, the mob is a bit less zealous. Paul has a chance to speak.
He tells them his story.
He could have argued law. He could have shown from scripture the prophecies that pointed to Jesus. He could have defended his actions and refuted the accusations made against him. There were a million directions Paul could have gone with his opportunity to speak, but he simply tells them his story.
Our stories are personal. They are intimate and almost always compelling. Some, like Paul’s, are even quite dramatic. Others don’t tend to argue and refute a personal story unless it is full of lies and hyperbole.
This morning I’m reminded that, when given the opportunity, it’s always a good idea to simply tell your story.
The Lord will vindicate me; your love, Lord, endures forever— do not abandon the works of your hands. Psalm 138:8 (NIV)
David was a leader. After his miraculous victory over Goliath in his youth, David had been thrust into the spotlight and he never left the spotlight. David was warrior, field general, outlaw, ancient Robin Hood, spy, ruler of Judah, and King of Israel. He knew that others were constantly observing him.
What I found interesting about David’s lyrics in Psalm 138 is that he is well aware that many eyes are on him:
When David bows down to God, he does so in full sight of the pantheon of regional pagan gods and their followers.
Other kings are watching, and David knows that he has influence with them as he desires that they all exalt God as he does.
His foes are watching and he acknowledges that God’s protection and preservation of him stands as a testimony.
Today, I’m thinking about the role of being a leader and the ways I find myself in positions of influence. Like David, I hope and pray that as others see me in various spotlights of leadership my life, words, actions are a positive witness of God’s love, grace, forgiveness and Life giving power.
Meanwhile, the boy Samuel served the Lord by assisting Eli. Now in those days messages from the Lord were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon.
One night Eli, who was almost blind by now, had gone to bed. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God. Suddenly the Lord called out, “Samuel!”
“Yes?” Samuel replied. “What is it?” 5 He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?” 1 Samuel 3:1-5a (NLT)
I have rarely told the story of the beginning of my spiritual journey. Like Samuel, I was called by God as a young man and after sharing the story with my friend Kevin for the first time this past year, he challenged me to share it in a blog post. I have been waiting for the right time. This morning as I read about God’s calling of young Samuel and see the loose parallel, I think that this is the time. Be prepared. This will be a longer post than usual.
I was raised in a nice little neighborhood Methodist church. I like to joke that despite all that I was taught in the Methodist church, I still believed in God. Like a lot of kids in the junior high or middle school age, I experienced the crisis of trying to figure out who I was in the world. I had been “confirmed” in church at the age of 13 and my parents let me know that after being confirmed I was allowed to decide for myself whether I wanted to attend church or not. I believed in God at this point. I mentally accepted the basic tenets of the Christian faith. In retrospect, however, I didn’t have a relationship with the God in whom I said I believed.
After confirmation I stopped going to church for a while. I was a good kid. I enjoyed my junior high years, but over a short period of time there grew within me a nagging confusion about life and what it all meant. I felt depressed and sunk into full blown teen angst. Realizing that I had not been to church regularly for a while I decided to return, wondering if that might not be part of the answer. I got involved in my youth group and started to feel better about things.
In February 1981, a girl in my youth group invited me to make an hour long trip to Marshalltown with her and her dad on a Friday night to hear some guy speak. She was a senior, I was a freshman, and I had a bit of a crush on her – so of course I said “yes.” There was another friend from church going and it sounded better than anything else I might be doing on that Friday night. The speaker was part of a weekend conference at a church there Marshalltown. I listened to this guy talk about God in a way I had never, ever heard before. He spoke about faith being a living relationship with God which was something very different from the simple mental acquiescence to certain spiritual truths that I had always considered “my faith.” Jesus spoke of the eyes of your heart being opened to see the truth clearly, and that night I experienced it personally. The eyes of my heart were opened for the first time. I committed my life to following Jesus. I asked Him to come into my heart to start a personal relationship together. There was a subtle, but substantial shift in my soul. I knew I would never be the same, which has proven true to this day.
My sister, Jody, is two years older than me. Upon arriving back home late that night I shared with her what had happened to me and pretty much demanded that she go with us the following night. She did, and that night I could tell that the eyes of her heart were being opened too. At the end of the service an invitation was given to any who wanted to start a relationship with Jesus and follow Him. She went forward to pray and I was left sitting in the pew praying. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting about 4-5 pews back on the stage right side of the stage right section of pews.
At this point, let me explain that I don’t claim to have spiritual dreams and visions all the time. God may work that way with others, but I have only heard God speak to me clearly on a handful of occasions in 35 years (that’s another blog post, for another day). That cold Saturday night in February was the first time. As I sat in the pew praying, I suddenly felt like I was dreaming in deep REM sleep. In the dream I was sitting in the pew right where I was, but as I looked up toward the front of the church I saw myself standing on the platform speaking just like the guy whom we’d listened to the past two nights. “You are going to proclaim My Word,” a voice said to me. I knew it was God’s voice. Here I was, a young kid in Iowa, hearing God’s voice just like the boy Samuel heard in the temple in today’s chapter.
That was it. Dream over. I was back in my pew watching my sister praying to start her own relationship with Jesus. But, I knew what I saw and heard. It sounded so crazy at the time, but I knew that it was real. That night I went home and told my parents that God had called to me that night. Mom was folding clothes on the family room floor. Dad was laying on the couch. They were watching television. I think they must have wanted to check my pockets for hallucinogens.
“Okay God,” I remember praying shortly thereafter. “If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to open the doors for it to happen, because I don’t know what to do.” I began reading and studying the Bible voraciously. A few weeks later, an adult approached me at church.
“In April, we’re having a youth service,” she said. “We were wondering if you would agree to be one of the youth to share the sermon that morning.”
About eight weeks after God called to me in a dream, I preached my first message.
The following summer my parents, having seen a very distinct change in my sister and me, reaffirmed their own faith in Jesus. As a family we decided to leave our little neighborhood church and start attending another church a few blocks away. This church had a large youth group and also had a youth “Gospel Team” (think “Glee” for Christians). My sister decided to join the Gospel Team and early that fall there was a kick off concert at the church. The Gospel Team Director pulled me aside the week before the concert and asked me if I’d be willing to share my story during the concert. I agreed and during a break in the concert I shared the story about how I decided to become a follower of Jesus.
After the concert, the director sought me out. “I think you’ve got a gift,” he said. “I’m wondering if you’d be interested in joining our team. In a few weeks we’ll start going out every Sunday night to do concerts in different churches around the state. I’d like you to consider going with us and giving a message at each concert.”
And so, less than a year after hearing God’s call to proclaim His Word I was travelling around the state every week doing just that. My Gospel Team experience led to other opportunities to speak in churches, camps, and other groups. But, the story doesn’t end there.
I attended Judson College (now University) for four years where God continued to give me opportunities to speak and to teach. I was even the campus Student Chaplain for a year. As I prepared to graduate, I wondered what I was going to do and thought I might pursue full-time pastoral ministry, but I was newly married and didn’t really want to rack up more debt with grad school. Youth Ministry is a common first step breaking into pastoral ministry, so I began applying for positions as a youth pastor.
There was one youth ministry position open that I desperately wanted, but had little chance of getting. It was a large church with a large youth group and a solid reputation. I figured that without a seminary degree and with no experience there was no way I would even be considered for the job, but I sent in my resume anyway. A few weeks later I received a phone call and a subsequent phone interview, but shortly after the interview I received the polite “thanks, but no thanks,” letter from the search committee. I continued to pursue other options.
Weeks went by and I was no further in figuring out what I was going to do after school. I interviewed and was accepted into the Master’s program in acting at the University of Iowa (ironically, my 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success blog post is now a fixture on their department’s homepage). However, that didn’t seem like the right avenue for me any more than going to seminary. Either option would only add to my debt load and my young wife was less than thrilled with the idea of having to continue working full time to support us.
Then, out of the blue, the Chairman of the search committee for the youth pastor position I figured I would never get called me. “We’ve been praying a lot as a committee,” he said, “And the Holy Spirit keeps bringing you back into our conversation. It’s kind of crazy, but we believe we’re supposed to invite you for another interview.” And so I interviewed again. Quickly, I was asked to visit the church for a weekend round of interviews culminating in me giving the message in the Sunday morning worship service and being voted on by the congregation.
And so, I visited the church the following weekend. I breezed through the interviews. On Sunday morning I stood up on the platform to proclaim God’s Word. Incidentally, it was the same platform I had seen in my dream seven years earlier when God called me. I was interviewing for a position in the very church in Marshalltown where my faith journey following Jesus began and where I heard God’s call. The dream like vision I had been given of standing on the platform in that church was literally fulfilled.
Samuel’s story is one in a long string of examples of God calling and using the young, the weak, and the least to accomplish His purposes. My own story has caused this truth to resonate deep within me. Every person who enters into a relationship with Jesus and is a part of the body of Christ has been spiritually gifted to accomplish God’s divine purpose. This is true no matter the age, social status, gender, background, experience, history, pedigree, or educational level. You don’t need a degree, a certificate, or a stamp of approval from the board of your local church. Using the gifts you’ve been given to serve God and others is part of the daily journey of any Jesus follower.
I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Psalm 40:1-3 (NLT)
Those who traverse the faith journey have a story to tell. The journey is a story in progress. It is a Pilgrim’s Progress. I started here. I followed Jesus. Now I am here. I have changed. I have progressed. That was old. This is new. That is now dead to me, while this is now alive in me.
While stuck in the Dallas Fort Worth airport this past Saturday I struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to me. He was from Nigeria and was studying for his master’s degree at North Texas University. He was a poet and a filmmaker. When I asked him about his filmmaking he said unashamedly that he decided to make films because it is the best vehicle to share the good news about Jesus. “When people asked Jesus a question,” he said, “Jesus did not respond with a chapter and verse or a sermon. He told a story.”
I thought of my friend this morning as I read the opening lines of psalm 40 and as I heard U2’s song going through my head. Everyone on the journey of faith has a story to tell.
So the next day [King] Agrippa and [his sister] Bernice arrived at the auditorium with great pomp, accompanied by military officers and prominent men of the city. [Governor] Festus ordered that Paul be brought in. Acts 25:23 (NLT)
Confession time. When I was a young man, I was incredibly intimidated to be around people of worldly influence, social status, and power. When I began working for c wenger group, I was occasionally asked to accompany my employer and colleagues into meetings with prominent business leaders. I was nervous and self-conscious. My heart would pound and I could feel my cheeks become flushed if I was ever asked to speak. It took all of my training as a theatre major to act calm.
Over the years, the nerves, fear and anxiety faded. Time and experience taught me that I had nothing to fear. In fact, I began to realize two very important life lessons. First, I came to understand that the people in those positions of relative power are very much human like I am. They have the same human emotions and weaknesses as anyone else. In fact, often because of their position those individuals can feel more lonely and isolated than you might expect. Second, I learned that my position afforded me the sometimes unique opportunity to have relationships and show love to some of these individuals. God was giving me an open door to be a person of influence with persons of influence.
I thought about that as I read in today’s chapter about Paul getting called into deposition after deposition with the various leaders and rulers of the day. Each interview and trial was a unique chance to share his story and share God’s Message with an audience few if any could otherwise reach. It was also a direct fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic message to His followers:
“But before all this occurs, there will be a time of great persecution. You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me. So don’t worry in advance about how to answer the charges against you, for I will give you the right words and such wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to reply or refute you! Even those closest to you—your parents, brothers, relatives, and friends—will betray you. They will even kill some of you. And everyone will hate you because you are my followers. But not a hair of your head will perish! By standing firm, you will win your souls.”
Today, I am thankful for the unique positions God places us in our jobs, our communities, and in life circumstances – that we might have the opportunity to be people of influence. I pray that I will be a good steward of the opportunities I am given.
That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. John 20:19 (NLT)
The religious leaders of Jerusalem had conspired and in less than 24 hours they had apprehended, tried and executed Jesus. If they were so intent on killing their master, it would make sense for them to go after Jesus’ core disciples as well. They could make a clean sweep and be rid of this pesky sect that had caused so many headaches for them.
It is not surprising that Jesus’ followers were shut up behind locked doors fearing for their lives. They had nothing with which to defend themselves. They were uneducated men from the rural Galilee region in the north. They had no money, no political power, and they were in grief over the death of their master. They had alway depended on Jesus to lead them and tell them where they were going and what they should do. Now, they were distraught, afraid, leaderless and utterly without direction or hope.
So, what happened over the course of the following six weeks that changed this fearful, directionless, uneducated lot into a fearless, impassioned, articulate group of men boldly standing up in public to proclaim that Jesus was alive? In fact, all twelve would eventually spread out around the known world to experience persecution, torture and death in order to share with others the story of Jesus, His death and His resurrection.
Today I’m thinking about the fact that following Jesus and experiencing a relationship with Him results in changed lives. Death becomes life. Hate becomes love. Bitterness becomes forgiveness. Selfishness becomes selflessness. Prejudice becomes grace. I see that change in the story and testimony of Jesus’ first followers. I’ve seen it in countless others. I’ve experienced it in my own life, and I pray to experience increasingly more each day.
Perhaps the fact that it was Flag Day earlier this week caused this sentence to jump out of today's chapter. But, it got me meditating on the idea of flags and banners. We don't give a ton of thought to flags these days, but they still hold a quiet a place in communication within our world.
When I'm driving down the street and I see an American flag at half-mast I know that someone died. While boating at the lake I see the flags flying on various docks and quickly determine who supports Kansas (Jay-hawk or K-State flags) or Iowa (Hawkeye Flag).
As Chicago Cubs fans, Wendy and I purchased a large "W" flag to fly when the Cubs win. It hasn't flown much this year. Nevertheless, when we stick it in the flagpole and it flies outside the house, we proclaim that we're Cubs fans. We proclaim (a rare) victory. Everyone in the neighborhood knows that Tom and Wendy are Cubs fans and the Cubs won the night before.
When God tells us to raise our banners high, he's asking us to publicly proclaim him. God wants us to be willing, through our words and actions, to "fly the flag" proclaiming we are God's fans and proclaiming His victory.