Friday, September 14, 2007

Twenty-four hours, the Lord, the Word, and me

Gleanings from a day of prayer and reading

Recently, I took a short, personal prayer retreat in order to seek clarity from the Lord. So many things have been bombarding my heart and mind, both in our family's life and in my ministry life, that I had to get away. I have to tell you...I didn't even think of it myself. It was the counsel of a good friend, and I took it. Now, admittedly, when I got to the cabin on that Sunday night, I had no clue what I was going to do all day. It seemed random enough, but I felt compelled to read the second half of Acts as my guide for the day. I would read a while, pray a while, journal a while...rinse, and repeat.

I don't know if you've ever found yourself "stuck" asking for the same thing from the Lord, but most of my prayers came back to this phrase: "Lord, I need clarity." So, I kept on asking, believing it would be given to me (Mt. 7:7). I was not disappointed, as the Lord spoke through Paul's missionary journeys in the book of Acts...not only what I will relay here, but more. He did more than I asked or imagined could happen in one day (Eph. 3:20).

So, how do I walk forward? How do I live with clarity in waiting for governmental paperwork to enable me to bring home my daughter? How I continue being a spiritual shepherd with clarity when I feel beat up all the time? How do I walk with joy and peace and strength, instead of throwing myself a pity party? What was the clarity? Well, in order to give you the three things I learned, I need to remind you first of Paul's journey.

In Acts 9, Paul, formerly known as Saul, was interrupted and converted by Christ in dramatic fashion as he was traveling to Damascus to imprison and torture Christians (v. 1-19a). After preaching instead of persecuting in the city of Damascus, Paul was aided by Barnabas in being accepted by the apostles in Jerusalem (v. 19b-28). After spending some time in the church at Antioch, the Holy Spirit set Paul and Barnabas aside to do mission work, the church laid hands on them, and they departed (Acts 13:1-4). These initial travelings will bring the pair to Pisidian Antioch, where Paul (Saul) was invited to speak, and you can read Paul's first printed sermon in Acts 13:16-41.

The next Sabbath, an incredible crowd gathered to hear the Word again, but this time, the Jews stirred up opposition, contradicting Paul, getting the well-to-do and leaders of the city incited against Paul and Barnabas, and driving them out of town (13:44-50). In response, verse 51 tells us that Paul and Barnabas "shook off the dust of their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium". This was Jesus' instruction for the disciples...when people would not accept them or listen to their words, they were to leave, shaking the dust from their feet as an indictment against them (Mt. 10:14; Mk. 6:11; Lk. 9:5, 10:10-11). It is in what happens next that I found my encouragement for the journey, and there are three things that sunk deep into my heart.

(1) They went away full of joy and the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52).

How did they do this? How could they walk away from being driven out of the city with hearts full of joy? I have this sneaking suspicion that it was because their source of ultimate joy was not ministry. It didn't flow from their success or failure, from reception or rejection. Their joy was in the Lord. I know it sounds simple, but that's what hit me like a ton of bricks, and I hope it hits you. Certainly, seeing people's lives changed, seeing the people of God grow in their walks with Christ, watching as Christians act like Christians...these things add to joy, but even in these, the source is the Lord. None of these things happen apart from the Lord. Paul said, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth" (1 Cor. 3:6). Our belief must be that God causes any growth we see...not our hard work, not our cleverness of speech, not our flashiness of program, not the style of music we fact, not anything we do. The Lord uses us to accomplish His work, but it is still His work. I wish I could remember the source, but I read recently as a man wrote (and I paraphrase), "Can the axe brag of all the trees that it has cut down? No! It is the power of the one who swings the axe that affects the trees. The axe can be sharp, shiny, and sturdy, but without someone swinging it, it is useless." We are but axes, and it is the power of the Lord that "swings" us, making us effective. So, let us not pridefully think that we are the only axes out there or that we're the "sharpest tool in the shed".

Back to the point...their joy was in the Lord. Verse 52 says that they were "continually filled with joy and the Holy Spirit". This seems to be the theme of the persecuted church in Acts. As riots are formed, as people rejected them, as they are brought to trial, as stones are hurled at them, as rods beat their backs...they are filled. The joy of the Lord was their strength. It's not that they ignored the pain, smiled away their trouble, "turned their frown upside down", or any other such nonsense. It was simply that bad circumstances could not take their joy, and even the absence of opposition could not give them joy. The filling of the Holy Spirit, being God's child and ambassador, and knowing they were obeying the heavenly vision (Acts 26:19)...these gave Paul joy. In this case, man could not take his joy, and man could not give it. There is only one place where this kind of joy and contentment the person and work of Jesus Christ. With this as his background, Paul can confidently say, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice" (Phil. 4:4).

In this same way, the Holy Spirit's filling was not based on their visible success or continued opposition. Instead, it was based on Christ's salvation of these men and His using them as the axes that would cut down the backward thinking of the world. They emptied themselves out in preaching, teaching, traveling, suffering, etc., and the Holy Spirit continued to fill them along the way.

APPLICATION...Isn't is obvious? You and I must not depend so heavily on what we see in order to satisfy and give spiritual joy. We will face hard things in this life...unexpected job loss, church strife, personal opposition from those who should be our allies in Christ, rebellious children, etc. Remember this in bad times...that your joy must come from the Lord and not what you see. you know, it may be even more tempting in good times to base our joy on what we see, but we cannot do it. We no longer belong to this world, so why would our joy come from it?

(2) They went back to Antioch to minister (Acts 14:21-23). Let me quote it: "After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, 'Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.' When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they believed." (italics added)

WHAT?!? They went back? After being run off, I can almost understand that Paul and Barnabas went away full of joy and the Holy Spirit. How am I supposed to understand going back to minister in such a place of opposition? Well, the verses I just quoted give us a picture of five things they would accomplish in going back to such a place.

(a) Strengthen souls - Sure, there was opposition, but there was also a great need for these spiritual newborns to be nurtured in the faith. Leaving them to fend for themselves would be like not feeding a baby, hoping the child would find his way to a bottle before dying. That would be crazy...and so would not nurturing these disciples' souls.
(b) Encourage perseverance - If the apostle was opposed, those who had come to believe would certainly be opposed, too. They had to continue in the faith, and to do that, they would need encouragement to cling to Jesus alone in the face of continuing opposition.
(c) Teach expectations - Paul explained that they should expect tribulation, but he also explained how they should see the tribulation. It was the path down which they must walk to enter the kingdom of God. James says it's the way we become perfect, lacking nothing (James 1). Paul wrote to the Romans that these tribulations produce hope (Romans 5).
(d) Set things right - Leaving these believers to themselves could have resulted in false teaching and chaos in their fellowship. So, Paul and Barnabas appoint elders...probably after discipling them and instructing them, as they did with the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20). With proper leadership in place, the teaching of doctrine is more likely to stay pure and continued encouragement and perseverance can take place.
(e) Leave them to God - Verse 23 says that Paul and Barnabas commended them to God. It was an example for the Antioch Christians...the same God whose Holy Spirit and joy belonged to Paul and Barnabas also belonged to these believers. Their faith must not be based on human leadership, but on God, who is their life. This way, nobody could say, 'If only Paul were here...' They have Someone far superior to Paul...they had Paul's Savior.

APPLICATION: When the faith of others is on the line, it is necessary to continue going back, even when things are chaotic and full of pain. Souls need strengthening, faith needs encouraging, expectations need to be taught, things must be set biblically right, and the church needs to be full of people entrusting the everything to God.

(3) They focused on the work of the Lord, not opposition.

Acts 14:27, 15:4, and 15:12 tell us that as Paul and Barnabas are reporting in (you know, giving their missionary testimony in church), they report what God has done with them. Admittedly, there may have been a passing mention of the opposition, but it was not the focus. The focus was on the work of the Lord. It would have been easy to talk about the difficulties, wouldn't it? Talking about how hard things are usually gathers empathy...people saying 'well, bless your heart'...thinking you're a hero. Neither Paul nor Barnabas wanted to be seen as the hero; instead, they wanted to point to the Hero of the mission, God Himself. So, they talked about the door of faith among the Gentiles (14:27) and the miraculous signs and wonders God did among them (15:12).

APPLICATION: Sometimes, it's easy to get fixated on the trouble...on the difficulty. After all, if it's surrounding you to the point of suffocating, it can look like the trouble is all that's there. However, let's refocus...let's remember who the Lord is...we must focus on the Lord. It doesn't mean turning a blind eye to the reality of difficulty, but it does mean that our fixation is the Lord Jesus...that our eyes are on the Savior.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, nobody had a greater right to be upset than Jeremiah. He had preached the Lord's message to His people with no visible success. They remained a stubborn people, who were ultimately destroyed and taken into captivity by the Babylonians. In his writing of Lamentations, you can read the first 18 verses of chapter 3 and get quite a suffocating picture. Maybe you feel that way. However, verses 21-23 show us the refocus that we all need in those times. "This I recall to mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness." Can I sit in the Babylonian prison of life and say these words? In Christ, I can, and you can, too!

Well, that's it...those three things are sticking to my soul after my prayer retreat. I hope you find something to encourage you, and I hope that you will consider getting away for a day or two...praying, reading, and seeking the Lord. It's worth it! (1) Our joy is from the Lord alone, not our visible success or opposition. (2) It's necessary to go back where the opposition or trouble is...especially when there are souls in need. (3) Keep your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, and avoid focusing on things that only swell the feelings of pity and selfishness.