When writing this week’s devotions, this scripture passage felt the most difficult. I returned to it, again and again, unable to focus on just one idea. Why?
Is it because I’m still bothered that the story of the slave girl is unresolved and she just disappears into the crowd, unnoticed? Yes.
Is it because the slave owners act (and are treated) like they are the victims because they can no longer exploit this girl for money? Yes.
Is it because of the blatant anti-Semitism in that just identifying Paul and Silas as Jews makes everyone else see them as threats? Yes.
Is it because of the violence—the stripping and beating of the accused in public? Yes.
Even though I know this is not the end of the story for Paul and Silas, that God is with them, this passage is still so unsettling. There’s just so much wrong here, and yet Philippi goes on with business as usual. That is what bothers me most. I can think of too many ways that our culture is not very different from ancient Philippi. We go on, after every mass shooting. We go on, after every “natural” disaster, if not caused by, surely exacerbated by climate change. We go on, knowing that there are many children separated from their families at the border who are still unaccounted for. We go on after hundreds of thousands of deaths from COVID-19, seemingly more bothered by interrupted supply chains than the loved ones who still grieve. We do the same thing as Philippi every day. And that’s what really bothers me.
Keeping up with what’s going on in the world can be overwhelming. When there is so much need, how do you choose what concerns to become personally involved in?
God, it’s tempting to just become numb to all the pain in the world. Give me wisdom and strength so that I may find ways to make a difference. Amen.
The Instagram account “Humans of New York” has 11.5 million followers and shares the stories of all kinds of people through interviews and photos. Some stories take just one entry. Others span several days, holding readers in suspense until they find out what happens next in the person’s journey. Some stories deal with unrequited love, separation or estrangement from family members, or someone’s lifelong quest to realize a dream. Some celebrate the faithfulness of friends or loved ones. Some are triumphant. Many are heartbreaking. Some leave questions unanswered. They remind me of stories in the Bible.
When we’re looking for an example of an independent woman who was both a leader in the Christian faith and a gracious host, we can look to Lydia, the businesswoman who converted to Christianity. But Scripture invites us to consider more complicated stories as well, like this story of the slave girl in Acts. While Lydia’s story shows the successful side of Philippi, the text about the unnamed slave girl exposes the harshness of a marketplace that values money over lives. Lydia owns a home and belongs to a community while the slave girl is alone, trailing after strangers for days, trying to get their attention.
I don’t wonder about what happened next to Lydia, but I’m concerned about this young girl. My imagination asks why Paul couldn’t have connected these two women. How would the girl’s life been different if she had been an apprentice in Lydia’s thriving purple cloth business? Might she have been bought and freed? As I grasp for a happy ending here, I find myself led to ponder how I can care for at-risk children today right in my own city.
Which stories tend to “haunt” you and lead you to wonder what happened next?
God, help me to pay attention to the stories that unsettle me and find ways to help those who need my concern and an extra hand. Amen.
These words from Jesus are a fitting conclusion to Paul’s conversion story. The simple assertion that no one can serve two masters summarizes the change that occurred within the apostle’s life. Prior to meeting the risen Lord, Saul gives his primary allegiance to putting an end to Christ’s church. Afterwards, Paul becomes the church’s foremost advocate for the gospel. To become the latter, he had to let go of the former. He could not serve the church’s mission in the world while trying to destroy it at the same time!
Paul’s life remains a spot-on illustration of this teaching of Jesus. To our detriment, we imagine that we can serve many masters while remaining primarily faithful to Jesus. We serve lots of different causes on any given day. How much of my life is driven by financial concerns as opposed to a desire to extend God’s kingdom? How often do I seek a reward while doing good for others? Am I aware of the times I attempt to do something good for all the wrong reasons? We may not bow the knee to someone or something else, but we often try to serve other purposes while we attempt to serve Jesus.
To be honest, I don’t think any one of us ever becomes completely free from self-interest in this lifetime. Our motives are never entirely pure. Nevertheless, fostering the continual transformation that disciples need requires us to periodically ask ourselves, “Who’s being served here?”
What do I need to let go of today to focus more fully on serving Jesus? Who or what captures most of my attention and energy on any given day?
Wise and merciful Lord, sift my soul that I may serve you wholeheartedly. Amen.
Whenever we wrestle with skepticism and doubt, being honest with God is crucial. When Ananias confesses to God what is on his mind, God assures him that he can trust these unusual directions that the Lord is giving him. And so Ananias went and entered the house (v. 17).
Because Ananias gives himself to God’s directions, Paul gives himself to them as well. From this courageous follower of Christ, Paul learns about his new mission. As a symbol of his new understanding, something like scales fall from his eyes. Having seen the risen Lord, Paul now begins to visualize his new calling and the new path for his life.
We see the most important sign of Saul’s reorientation in the way that Ananias addresses him. When he meets Saul, Ananias calls him “Brother,” signaling that Saul is now a part of their faith family. This development is nothing short of breathtaking! At the outset of this chapter, Saul is an avowed and determined enemy of the church; now, he belongs. He is welcomed into the circle of the faithful. Ananias and Paul are bound together, not by genealogy, but by their shared experience with the risen Lord.
This part of the story reveals a vital component in spiritual transformation. Belonging to a community unleashes enormous power. Being welcomed and accepted often creates the conditions in which genuine conversion takes place. To be called a sibling validates our experience and gives us the freedom to embrace new possibilities.
Who welcomed me into the circle of the faithful? Who made me feel as though I belonged? To whom may I offer that gift today?
Lord, help me to welcome others just as you have welcomed me. Amen.
Even though God is the one who tells him to go find Saul, Ananias is more than reluctant to embrace this assignment. He has heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done, and he is naturally
skeptical (v. 13).
How could such a determined persecutor of the church suddenly become a convert? How could Saul possibly be ready to be God’s ambassador of the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike? None of this makes sense to Ananias. God has to twist his arm to make the necessary visit.
This chapter tells two conversion stories. Not only is Saul being converted, so is Ananias, who must undergo a change in attitude and outlook before he can carry out the charge God gives him. Although he is a devoted disciple of Christ, Ananias, like Saul, is still in process. He still wrestles with the realities of prejudice, bias, and fear. Such attitudes feed his reluctance to reach out to the future apostle. Ananias needs another round of transformation.
Ananias’s experience underscores our own need to be continually renewed. No matter how long we have been devoted to the way of Jesus, we will never arrive at perfection this side of eternity. We each harbor attitudes and perspectives that require renovation. To uncover what these are, we must ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions. Whom do we resist engaging? Whom are we reluctant to reach out to? Whom do we fear?
When was the last time I engaged someone whose outlook and perspective was markedly different from my own?
Merciful God, just as you are in Christ reconciling the world to yourself, make me an instrument of your reconciliation. Amen.
In these verses, Luke shifts the focus from Saul to Ananias, a disciple who resides in Damascus. In a vision, the Lord instructs Ananias to go the house of Judas on the street called Straight where he will find Saul. The Lord also informs Ananias that Saul is praying at this same moment and is also having a vision in which he sees Ananias showing up to lay hands on him so that he might recover his sight. It becomes clear that Ananias will bring Saul both physical healing and spiritual understanding. Paul will not only be able to see; he will discover the full significance of his encounter on the Damascus Road.
Ananias’s role in this story is a bit surprising. Unlike other accounts of a divine calling in Scripture, God does not tell Saul what’s next. Instead, God leaves it to Ananias to fill in the blanks and help Saul understand his new role. This disciple will help Saul “see” what his encounter with the risen Lord means.
The more disorienting the experience, the more help we need to interpret its significance. The more unfamiliar the path, the more we need a guide who has experience for the road ahead. This truth cuts two ways. Certainly, we need friends who can do as Ananias did and offer us perspectives and insights that we are unable to grasp in the moment. Sometimes it takes an outside observer to help us see what’s really going on. And sometimes God calls us to offer this kind of guidance to our friends. The perspectives we offer from our journey could help someone refocus, gain understanding, and find their way forward.
How have others helped you see? How have you helped others find their way?
Lord, grant me the humility to accept help from my friends. Grant me the courage and compassion to help others. Amen.
Before these verses show up, Saul presents himself as determined, ambitious, driven, and passionate. He is most definitely in charge. In the aftermath of his encounter with the risen Lord, Saul possesses none of those characteristics. He slowly gets to his feet and discovers he cannot see. Instead of charging off, relying on his own power, Saul must now rely on someone else to lead him. This encounter reduces him to a helpless dependence, a condition Luke emphasizes by calling attention to Saul’s blindness twice. This repeated reference hints that Saul’s condition is more than a physical one. He is unable to find his bearings; he is completely disoriented.
Absent the dramatic special effects, most of us have lived through similar experiences. Something totally unexpected that we never saw coming knocks us off our feet, and we can’t figure out what to do next. Our internal compass spins wildly. We lack the insight we need for this situation and nothing makes sense. Instead of being in charge, we feel powerless and helpless. This is a miserable experience.
Although none of us welcomes such moments, can we at least acknowledge that such disorientation is often the prelude to meaningful change? Disruption is often a necessary precursor to significant re-orientation. Losing our way prompts us to explore options we would never consider otherwise. Discomfort can open the door to new adventures. In this light, Saul’s experience reminds us that whenever we find ourselves helpless and unable to see, something new and hopeful may indeed be around the corner.
When did life last overwhelm you? Where and how did you meet God there?
God who helps us grow, help me to make the most of the moments that drive me to my knees and deprive me of my sight. Amen.
A blinding light drives him to the ground. A voice from heaven calls his name. The bystanders who are with him are struck speechless because they hear something but see nothing. Saul is struck blind. All of these elements add up to a swiftly moving, overwhelming experience. Saul’s encounter with the risen Lord on this Damascus road could not be more dramatic.
Those special effects aside, the most compelling aspect of this story is the question Jesus puts to Saul: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? (v. 4).
Apart from the Lord’s close identification with his church—to persecute it is to persecute him—what stands out most to me is the simple word “why.” “Saul, why are you doing this? Why have you chosen this course of action?”
Why?” is a question of an entirely different order than “What?” “When?” “Where?” or “How?” The question “Why?” prompts some soul-searching. Wrestling with that question and attempting to answer it is the necessary prelude to any meaningful change. Until we answer “why?” we will never fully discern our “what?”
Living faithfully requires pausing frequently to ask ourselves some simple questions. Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why did I choose this over that? Why am I here? Asking “why?” on a regular basis will help us keep our darker impulses at bay and anchor us more firmly on the path of purposeful living.
What is your “why?” that drives and motivates you?
Searching God, probe my soul until I align my purpose with yours. Amen.
“Before” and “after” pictures are supposed to be stunning. But few transformations are as dramatic as Luke’s picture of Saul becoming Paul, which we will explore this week. In Acts 8:1-3, Saul is a determined enemy of Christ’s church. Not only does Saul approve of Stephen’s execution, he wants to eliminate the Jesus Way as quickly as possible. He raids homes and imprisons anyone suspected of following Jesus. Saul’s fervor borders on fanatical. He feels driven to destroy the church in its infancy.
He displays this same drive as his conversion story begins. Meanwhile, Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest (v. 1). “Still” signals that Saul has not changed since Luke introduced him in chapter 8. In fact, his obsession has intensified and grown darker. Not content to root out disciples in Jerusalem, he now widens his search to include Damascus. No one orders or suggests that he do this; this is his initiative. Fueled by fierce animosity, he persistently enlarges his efforts to destroy the church. He is still who he was at the outset, only worse.
Our behavior doesn’t rise to Saul’s level, but we too get stuck in ways of living that diminish our witness and hinder our spiritual growth. We pour concrete around some of our attitudes and activities and refuse to entertain the idea that we need to change. “Still” accurately captures where we are much of the time. Our faith stays stunted; we can’t add a mark to the doorsill to show any growth. We are “still” who we were yesterday or a year ago. Grace eventually teaches us all that conversion is never a “one and done” event. It’s a lifelong process that requires we offer up the habits, routines, and actions that “still” persist in our lives. Our conversion can continue even today.
What habits and attitudes of my own have I declared beyond God’s reach?
Life-giving Lord, break the hardened patterns of my life and set me free. Amen.
Don Saliers has had the distinction of serving as Theologian-in-Residence at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has what he would probably call the greater distinction of being the father of Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls. Together, Don and Emily have written a book on music and the life of faith entitled, A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice.
Despite coming from different musical experiences and styles, they affirm the power of music to connect human beings to the mystery of God. In coming to know God and thereby knowing more nearly our true selves, music is as essential a practice as it is ancient. Music has the potential to speak to and for our hearts and souls in ways beyond words. It can capture our attention and draw us in. It can inspire us and send us out to live into the song of faith that is the gospel.
While I can’t say for certain that our friend Thomas was a singer, I feel confident in knowing it would have been part of the milieux of faith in his growing up. He would have known of the psalms, even if he didn’t know them by heart. Still, there is a tradition in the church that says Thomas was the first to evangelize in Syria, Persia (Iran), and India, where he is believed to have died. As we have walked this week together with Thomas, I keep imagining Thomas as he makes his love for Jesus real in his life, walking road after road to far off places, while the song of the gospel plays in his head, setting his cadence and pace. As he lives the rest of his life to the lyrics of the grace and mercy of Jesus, may we experience the same.
How do I engage worship in ways that inspire me to engage with the world?
O God, teach me your song of faith that brings the mystery of who you are closer to my life. Help me to love you more. Amen.