Thursday, May 19

Acts 17:29-31

God “commands all people everywhere to repent” sounds hard, so the church has tried to make it easier (v. 17). 

In 1984, Richard Halverson, chaplain to the U.S. Senate, said: “In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next it moved to Europe where it became a culture, and, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.”

The church has always been tempted to skip the hard work of repentance. Treating the church like a business is simpler than changing the way we live. 

Christianity makes demands. When faced with a world filled with religions, some take the easy route and say, “When you come down to it, all religions are saying about the same thing.” If all religions are the same, then there is no need to make sacrifices. 

The people who think that all religions are the same do not know much about religion. They are not all saying the same thing. Some people simply do not want to make the effort to listen to what a religion says about itself. This kind of religious indifference is an offense to all religions. 

Saying that any religion is as good as any other implies that no religion makes any difference. Lots of non-judgmental, open-minded people live with a cowardly acquiescence to the undiscerning spirit of our day. 

Christians need to take faith seriously enough to repent of the indifference that keeps us from living as God’s children.

Consider

What kind of repenting do you need to do today?

Pray

God, help me live as your child, holding tightly to the truth that surrounds me. Amen. 

Wednesday, May 18

Acts 17:26-28

When I was a Baylor University student forty years ago, the religion courses were limited to, for the most part, Old Testament, New Testament, Greek, Hebrew, Ethics, Church History, and Theology. The religion courses at New York University include American Religion; Religion and Medicine; Intro to Buddhism; Sex, Gender and the Bible; Monsters and Jewish Modernity; Intro to Ancient Indian Literature; Living a Good Life: Greek and Jewish Perspectives; Modern Jewish History; and Sufis: Mystics of Islam.

Today’s religion departments sound like ancient Greece’s continuing ed program. Athens was a university town filled with sophisticated intellectuals. Philosophers sat around the marketplace talking about the latest ideas and obscure theories. While religious pluralism may be a new experience for some of us, it is not a new experience for Paul. He recognizes their genuine longing for God and does not criticize their open-mindedness. He even quotes two Stoic poets—Epimenides, “in him we live and move and have our being” and Aratus, “we too are his offspring.” 

Paul proclaims that God is not far from any of us. Some of us were surprised when we first met Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who live grace-filled lives because of their love of God. Those who are not paying attention may try to believe that only those with the name of Christian have any truth, but we shouldn’t be thrown when we discover that others are closer to God than we’ve been led to believe they could be.

God made everything, including the space for us to look for God. God is not hiding. We find God when we understand that we live each day in God. 

Consider

What does it mean to know that in God we “live and move and have our being” (v. 28)?

Pray

God, help me see your light in places others might think are dark. Amen.

Tuesday, May 17

Acts 17:22-25

The Book of Mormon—the Broadway play, not the actual book—follows the story of a young Mormon missionary in Uganda. He starts to lose faith, but instead of abandoning his church, he reaffirms everything he has been taught. He sings a triumphant solo which starts reasonably, “I believe that the Lord God created the universe.” But then it gets shaky: “I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I believe that God will give me my own planet. I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about Black people. I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.” 

Some of that does not make sense to a lot of people. Some of what Christians believe does not make sense to a lot of people either. 

Paul begins his sermon: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (v. 22). Paul may secretly believe they are practicing a chaotic devotion to all kinds of gods, but their impulse to worship is commendable. The time that Paul spent looking around Athens turned up a curiosity to which he pins his message: an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god” (v. 23). Paul tells the audience that he is not going to speak about a foreign god, but a god that the Athenians have identified and built an altar to.

God is not a stranger to Athens. God always precedes the messengers. 

In a world of a thousand religions, what should we do? We should treat others with understanding and respect. We should tell the story of Jesus, live the Gospel, and trust God for the rest.

Consider

What difference does it make that God made the world and everything in it?

Pray

God who cannot be captured in shrines made by human hands, thank you for being bigger than I imagine. Amen.

Monday, May 16

Acts 17:19-21

Luke wants us to admire Paul, but it’s hard not to be a little impressed with the Athenians. Most people are not curious enough to spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new, but the Athenians were unique (v. 21). Stoics believed in one God who could be experienced through nature. Epicureans wanted to live with deep joy. Both groups tried to have a thoughtful approach to life.

Now they wonder where Paul gets his ideas. The crowd gets loud downtown, so they invite Paul to give a speech at the Areopagus (Mars Hill) where things are quieter. 

Ted Lasso explains to the evil millionaire Rupert why he is an optimist: “One day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote from Walt Whitman painted on the wall there that said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that.”

Fans of Ted Lasso went looking for the source. We found “Be curious, not judgmental” on posters, coffee mugs, and T-shirts, but Whitman did not write it. The line is so good and the sentiment so thoughtful that people falsely attributed it to the iconic poet. 

On their good days, the Athenians were curious and not judgmental. On our good days, we are curious and not judgmental. 

If Christianity is true, then our curiosity cannot be shut in by boundaries of language, race, or nationality. God offers grace to all people, or it is not grace. A thoughtful, joyful Christian faith helps us see that God meets us in a variety of ways. God is doing new things for everyone who is curious enough to pay attention.

Consider

What new idea is worth exploring?

Pray

God, help me see that you are in more places, in more ways, and with more people than I have imagined. Amen.

Sunday, May 15

Acts 17:16-18

A first-century tourist with time to kill in Athens has a lot of great choices. The Acropolis, the temple on a mountain in the center of the city, is breathtaking. The statue of Minerva, forty feet high, could be seen from anywhere in Athens. The Olympic Stadium, which hosted both sports and theater, could seat 60,000 spectators. Paul could catch a big javelin match or a Sunday matinee of Oedipus Rex. 

Paul, however, is not a normal tourist. First, he does what he usually does when he visits a new city and heads to the synagogue for theological ping-pong. When that doesn’t go well, he goes to the Agora, the marketplace, and finds some sophisticated intellectuals with whom to disagree. Epicureans want to be happy and Stoics think the goal is to be logical, so it wouldn’t be hard to get an argument going. 

Some love pointless debate, but not Paul. He wants to talk about God because he is “deeply distressed.” Who does that? Who goes to one of the greatest cities in the world and worries about the city’s spiritual condition?

The Athenians dismiss him with sarcasm. The hecklers say Paul is a “babbler” (v. 18). 

If we look around thoughtfully, we will see that our city is also full of idols. Most cities have broken people who are consistently overlooked. If we talk about the distress we feel about our city, some may dismiss us as babbling foreigners who do not understand, but we should care enough to care anyway. 

Be distressed about the homeless, unemployed, and underemployed in your city. Be concerned about children who are abused or neglected. Pray for your hospitals, shelters, and schools.

Consider

What does God want you to pray about in your city?

Pray

God, we pray for those who are left out as others prosper. Make us instruments by which our cities and communities become more just. Amen.

Saturday, May 14

Luke 6:22-23

These words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain may be another reason why Paul and Silas are singing in their prison cell. Even though they are incarcerated, they rejoice because at least they have made the right people angry: the slave owners, the greedy, the corrupt, the shallow. In this sermon, Jesus says we shouldn’t be surprised that such people will hate you when you call them out or obstruct their greed. They will not understand you or your motivation, Jesus says, but do not worry too much about it. They didn’t get the prophets either. In fact, rejoice in it. 

Paul and Silas’ ability to host a hymn sing in a jail cell may have everything to do with their perspective. While their circumstances may not look like they are “winning,” they know that they are part of God’s bigger work in the world. Some days there will be dramatic shows of power, like the earthquake shaking the prison doors open. Other days, though, there will be smaller victories that no one really sees—the quiet sharing of goods, a changed heart, someone lonely being included. These are what my chaplain friend calls “kingdom moments,” not because they are grandiose but because they are small shifts in the status quo that are part of a bigger reality coming to pass in God’s time.

Consider

Who is someone you admire for taking a stand against corruption, greed, or injustice? What do you think sustains them and keeps them working for good? 

Pray

God, may I recognize and celebrate your “kingdom moments” no matter how small they may seem, knowing that they are part of your vision. Amen.

Friday, May 13

Luke 6:17-19

In my Introduction to Christian Education class, our seminary professor said, “Although we tend to think about Christian Education as specific activities like Sunday school, teaching retreats, and workshops, the truth is that everything we do at church is educational. Everything that happens in worship, every meeting, every encounter, every Wednesday night supper served and shared, every mission trip is modeling something about who we experience God
to be.” 

Although we have many examples in Scripture when Jesus engages in formal teaching, sitting in a field or at a disciple’s home, in truth he is constantly teaching and showing those around him who God is. In this story from Luke, Jesus came down with them and stood at their level, close enough for them to touch him. (v. 17). By doing this, Jesus demonstrates who he is: Emmanuel, God with us. Luke tells us that the people who surround him have come from all over the region because we need to learn that God is for and with everyone. 

This passage overflows with abundance, from the number of people in the crowd that the Gospel describes as a great multitude to the power that flows out of Jesus and heals everyone who is in need. We find no distance between Jesus and the people in this passage because the writer makes a point of removing all of the barriers we are accustomed to: barriers of geography, status, and accessibility. Jesus is teaching the disciples, those present around him, and those reading this story today that with God there really are no limits on love and goodness. 

Consider

Beyond Sunday school, Bible studies, and sermons, how does your church “teach” who God is? 

Pray

God, help me to learn your ways from those around me who serve generously, live out your hope, and do not limit your compassion. Amen.

Thursday, May 12

Acts 16:33-34

Homemade trail mix, a French toast casserole, a roasted chicken with potatoes, Quiche Lorraine, a heart-shaped hummingbird cake, baked ziti, soup, and freshly baked bread.

These are just some of the meals and special treats brought to us during times of joy and struggle. Whether it was the birth of a baby, the death of a parent, moving to a new home, or healing from a surgery, our community always seemed to show up with a foil-wrapped dish at just the right time.

Some people become “known” for their best recipes—Richard’s meatloaf, Dorothy’s mint brownies, Carrie’s caramels—and we appreciate more than just the taste of their efforts. We value the time and care poured into each dish or tray. There’s just something about sharing food that not only sustains us but connects us to each other. 

The heavenly feast in Isaiah 25 and the Great Banquet in Luke’s Gospel point us to a time when all will share a table with God. Scripture is full of stories about how Jesus shares food in a variety of settings, showing us that food shared “in the meantime” is a way of bringing heaven near. 

To celebrate his newfound faith, the jailer invites Paul and Silas to his home, sets food before them, and reflects the abundance of joy he discovers in his newfound faith.

Consider

Shared food can be food for the soul as much as it is for the body. When you think about meals or special dishes given to you, what food has filled your soul? 

Pray

God, thank you for the ways our meals “in the meantime” nurture and sustain our bodies and souls. Amen.

Wednesday, May 11

Acts 16:29-32

When the jailer asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
(v. 30) Paul tells him to believe in the Lord Jesus and that he and his whole household will be saved. This seems really presumptuous to me when I read it. It goes against the idea that a relationship with God should be a choice each person makes. Yet, I admit that this thinking affirms a level of individualism in me that better reflects American culture than Christianity. 

Thinking about the people and communities that have shaped and continue to nurture my faith challenges that focus on individualism. Even though I entered the waters of baptism as an individual, so many people along the way were a part of nurturing that decision. 

Maybe when the jailer comes home that night, his family immediately notices that something is different about him. Maybe his whole being has shifted in such a way that this inspires his whole household to be saved. Maybe it takes just one person in a household who begins to live their life a little differently to spark a curiosity of faith in others. Maybe it takes someone living with more patience. More generosity. More kindness. More joy. More attention toward others. More love. 

Why wouldn’t that affect a whole household?

Consider

When you think back on your faith journey, who was a part of your
“spiritual household?” Who are the people today you may be influencing and inspiring in their faith journey?

Pray

God, thank you for the relationships that inspire me and show me how to follow you more closely. Amen.

Tuesday, May 10

Acts 16:25-28

Even though Paul and Silas’ circumstances are pretty bleak—placed in the innermost cell with their feet in stocks—their spirits are still somehow able to sing. And the other prisoners were listening to them
(v. 25, NIV). No wonder. Not knowing how long the other inmates have been there, we can assume they have probably not heard music, let alone singing, for a long time.

Yet here Paul and Silas are at midnight, praying and singing to God when no one would have blamed them for outright weeping. We don’t know if they sang familiar hymns or just songs from the heart.

 Were they singing to express their solid faith and trust in God or were they trying to center themselves amidst this crisis? Singing can lower anxiety, slow down heart rate, and lighten the weight of depression. If it can do that within an individual, why couldn’t its power extend beyond itself to others, even into nature? 

The sudden earthquake sets Paul and Silas free from their physical bonds, and it seems they have already experienced a deeper level of freedom. 

As Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies, “Maybe it’s because music is about as physical as it gets: your heartbeat, your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.”

Consider

What are ways you get “out of your head” to pray? Do you pray while you sing, walk, paint, cook, or dance? 

Pray

Open my heart and imagination, God, to experience you through my senses and the world around me. Amen.