Tag Archives: Persecution

The Sower and the Seeds

From Peter, an apostle of Jesus the Anointed One, to the chosen ones who have been scattered abroad like “seed” into the nations living as refugees…
1 Peter 1:1 (TPT)

I’ve always had an appreciation for Vincent Van Gogh. The tragic Dutch artist who failed at almost everything in his life, including his desire and failed attempt to become a pastor. The story of his descent into madness is well known, along with his most famous works of a Starry Night, sunflowers, and his haunting self-portraits.

I find that most people are unaware that one of Van Gogh’s favorite themes was that of a sower sowing his seed. He sketched the sower from different perspectives and painted multiple works depicting the lone sower, his arm outstretched and the seed scattered on the field.

This morning I’m jumping from the ancient prophet Zechariah to a letter Peter wrote around 30 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. In recent months, I’ve been blogging through texts that surround the Babylonian exile 400-500 years before Jesus. But that wasn’t the only exile recorded in God’s Message. Peter wrote his letter to followers of Jesus who had fled persecution from both Jews and Romans in Jerusalem. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, exile is a consistent theme in the Great Story.

At that point in time, thousands upon thousands of people had become followers of Jesus and were creating social upheaval by the way they were living out their faith. They were caring for people who were marginalized, sick, and needy. When followers of Jesus gathered in homes to worship and share a meal, everyone was welcome as equals. Men and women, Jews and non-Jews, and even slaves and their masters were treated the same at Christ’s table. This was a radical shift that threatened established social mores in both Roman and Jewish culture. So, the establishment came after them with a vengeance.

Peter begins his letter to the Christian exiles by immediately claiming for them a purpose in their exile. He gives the word picture of being the “seed” of Christ scattered by the Great Sower to various nations. They were to take root where they landed, dig deep, and bear the fruit of the Spirit so that the people around them might come to faith in Christ. God’s instructions through the prophet Jeremiah to the Babylonian exiles could just as easily apply to them:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Jeremiah 29:4-7 (NIV)

And, in the quiet this morning I realize that it can also apply to me wherever my journey leads me. There is a purpose for me wherever that may be. I am the seed of Christ. I am to dig deep, create roots, draw living water from the depths, grow, mature, and bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, perseverance, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I can’t help but think of Van Gogh, the failed minister who found himself in several exilic circumstances that inspired his paintings. I’ve read his letters, and I find that scholars tend to diminish or ignore the role of faith in Vincent’s life and work, despite his many struggles. Then I think of that sower who shows up again and again in his work. I can’t help but wonder if when he repeatedly sketched and painted the sower, if he thought about his works being the seed of God’s creativity he was scattering in order to reflect the light which he saw so differently than everyone else, and so beautifully portrayed. I find it tragic that he never lived to see the fruit of his those artistic seeds. Yet, I recognize that for those living in exile, that is sometimes the reality of the journey.

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The Grace Response

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecutedthe church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them….
1 Corinthians 15:9-10a (NIV)

I was reminded yesterday of a high school teacher who showed me grace. That is, he showed favor to me that I did not merit. As I recall it was the last day of the semester and my grade was teetering between an A and a B. There was one assignment, a book report, that was sitting there blank in the teacher’s grade book. I hated reading when I was that age, a condition that didn’t change until late into my college years. I simply didn’t want to read a book and write a paper on it. I kept putting it off until it was too late. And so it was, I was called up to the teacher’s desk. He explained that the missing book report was the only thing standing in the way of me getting an A in the class.

I didn’t do it,” I told the teacher honestly.

He looked at me curiously. “You ‘didn’t do it’?” he asked. “That’s all you have to say?”

Look,” I answered, “I could stand here and tell you that the dog ate my paper or give you all sorts of excuses about why I didn’t get it done, but they would all be lies. The honest truth is that I simply procrastinated and didn’t get it done. I understand. I’ll have to accept a B for the course.”

Weeks later when my grades came in the mail (In the old days, you had to wait for the Postal Service to deliver your grades to your home), I was shocked to discover that the teacher had given me an A. Perhaps he was rewarding my honesty and candor. Perhaps he was simply doing a good deed. I don’t know why he graciously gave me the grade I didn’t deserve.

I can tell you that I was truly humbled by the gesture. I didn’t feel like I’d gotten away with something. It didn’t motivate me to try blowing off other assignments assuming that the “honesty ruse” would work again. Quite the opposite, the teacher’s grace motivated me to not do it again. Making sure I got my assignments done, even the book reports I didn’t want to do in college, was a way of honoring and showing gratitude for the grace that my teacher showed me. The favor I didn’t deserve.

During the early years of the Jesus Movement, there was a group within the community who argued that Jesus’ forgiveness and grace was a moral “Get Out of Jail Free” card. “If I’m forgiven from my sins,” they reasoned, “I’m going to sin all I want! Jesus will forgive me! In fact, if I increase the rate of my sinning it means I get more of grace!” Paul addressed this foolishness in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome (see Romans 6).

In today’s chapter, Paul points to the unmerited favor he had been shown by Jesus when, as a murderer of Stephen and a persecutor of Jesus’ followers, Jesus forgave him and called him to be an apostle. Paul knew he didn’t deserve to be an apostle. He deserved to by punished for what he’d done. Paul knew he deserved Jesus’ forgiveness and call to apostleship less than any of the other apostles. It motivated him to work harder than all the rest – to show his gratitude for the grace he’d been shown.

Along the journey I’ve come to observe that you can tell a lot about a person’s faith by the way he or she responds to grace.

 

To Be Continued….

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.
Acts 28:30 (NIV)

It’s always frustrating when a television series that I love comes to an untimely end. There have been a number of shows over the years that I wish had continued. What makes it even more frustrating when a smart, intelligent show gets cancelled is all of the mindless schlock that seems to perpetuate itself for decades.

As an amateur writer, I’m always fascinated how the writers and producers handle a show’s storyline once they know the show has been cancelled. Many shows are written from the beginning to contain multiple story lines or “arcs.” This allows for there to be a sense of closure after one season, or a part of a season, while leaving other story arcs open to lead into future seasons. So, what happens when the writing team is told that they only have two episodes to wrap things up for good?

I’ve observed that some try to wrap up all of the loose ends, which leaves things feeling clunky, because not all of the story arcs have been fully fleshed out. Some introduce a tragic end to the protagonist which allows for a reason that the series has ended. Much like the untimely end of a loved one in real life, this option leaves viewers grieving for what “might have been.” Sometimes the writers simply let the series end without ever trying to give viewers closure. This, in turn, reminds me of Wendy.

Wendy has always been an avid reader. She tells me that when she was a young girl she never wanted to put a book down in the middle because she was afraid the story would go on without her. Instead of “to be continued” the next time she picked up the book, she feared that the story wouldn’t wait for her.

I mention this because in today’s final chapter of the book of Acts we find Paul arriving in Rome to wait for his trial with the Roman Emperor, Nero. The tension of the story has been building as Paul appeals his case to Caesar and makes an epic journey, including shipwreck, to Rome. In this final chapter, Luke tells us that Paul rented his own place, was allowed to live a relatively free existence with his Centurion guard. He met with the local Jewish population. He “welcomed all” who came to see him and continued to proclaim the Message of Jesus.

And then it ends, as if the show suddenly got cancelled. Luke simply leaves the storyline there, and we must assume that his historical narrative, penned for a man named Theophilus, was wrapped up and sent off at this point. Luke leaves the rest of the story open because it hadn’t happened yet.

The rest of Paul’s story is left for us to piece together from the writings of early Christians and Roman historians. In July 64 AD the “Great Fire of Rome” broke out for six days. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, only four of Rome’s 14 districts escaped damage. Nero blamed the fire on Christians and immediately set out to persecute them. It is documented that Nero had both Paul and Peter executed, which is consistent with his persecution of Jesus’ followers. The exact dates and the specifics surrounding the events and executions were not well documented at the time.

In the quiet this morning I’m smiling as I think of a young, curly-haired Wendy, with her nose in a book, convinced that the story will go on without her. Indeed, as the story of Acts comes to an abrupt, even unsatisfying end, I’m meditating on the fact that the story did go on. We know that Paul was executed and that the Message of Jesus continued to spread despite horrific persecution. The story continued, and continues to this day. Having taken up the mantel of faith in my youth, I am a part of the same story; Just a wayfaring stranger traveling through this particular story arc, in this particular chapter, during this particular point in the epic.

I only hope that I to play my part as faithfully and as well as those in Acts who led the way.

Have a great day, my friend.

Explosion Begets Expansion

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Acts 8:1 (NIV)

In the past week the world has watched as the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Florence have forced thousands of people to flee their homes and communities to seek higher ground. The news has been dotted with interviews of individuals who have owned property along the beautiful Carolina coast for many years, but who now say they’ve had enough.

As a follower of Jesus, seeking to live with purpose, I have always determined that I want to be where God wants me to be doing what God wants me to be doing. This morning I find myself recounting three very distinct moments in my life when circumstances outside of my control put me in such uncomfortable predicaments that I was compelled to make vocational choices that moved me and my family to different places. In retrospect, I can see that each of those moves led me to where I was supposed to be.

Looking back along my Life journey and reading through the Great Story, I recognize that sometimes it takes an uncomfortable, sometimes explosive, change in circumstances to force a person to move. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers and ended up in Egypt, where decades later he would save his entire family from dying of famine. David was forced into the wilderness to live as a mercenary, where he would learn the very leadership lessons that prepared him for the throne. Daniel was taken captive to Babylon where he was used by God in the life of Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus experienced the ultimate example of circumstance conspiring to lead Him to a gruesome yet purposeful death, making salvation available to us all. After the resurrection, Jesus tells his right-hand man, Peter, to expect the same:

When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” [emphasis added]

The resurrected Jesus went on to tell his followers to take His story, their story, to “Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world.” As we approach today’s chapter we find Jesus’ followers still hangin’ with their homies in Jerusalem. The Temple’s religious authorities both tried and executed Stephen in yesterday’s chapter. Now the Sanhedrin decides to snuff out this pesky Jesus movement once and for all. As the persecution against Jesus’ followers breaks out the followers of Jesus scatter to…wait for it…Judea and Samaria! It was an explosion of persecution that forced Jesus followers to move to the very places Jesus had always purposed for them to be.

This morning in the quiet I’m preparing for a message I have to deliver to my local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday. It so happens to be on this very topic from this very book. “Explosion Begets Expansion” is my theme, and today’s chapter could easily be Exhibit A. Sometimes explosive or uncomfortable circumstances flood our lives and force us to move where we would otherwise not have been, only to find out we end up exactly where we were supposed to be all along.

Hope and Reality

What we hope life's road looks like (top) and what we sometimes find to be the reality (bottom).
What we hope life’s road looks like (top) and what we sometimes find to be the reality (bottom).

And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.
Acts 20:22-23 (NRSV)

One of the things that Wendy and I found fascinating about our time in Edinburgh a few weeks ago was that there’s hardly a straight, level street in the entire city. There are steep inclines, winding roads, angled streets, narrow alleys, and stairs upon stairs. We felt like we were constantly going up a steep hill or down a sharp incline. Our calves were killing us.

That came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. I’m reminded that life’s path is not always easy, and the way does not always meander through pleasant, level places. The theme of Dr. Luke’s account of the first generation of Jesus followers if filled with difficulties, persecutions, executions, imprisonments, riots, shipwrecks, and floggings. And, time and time again Luke says that the Message flourished and daily the number of believers grew.

I found it interesting to bullet out Paul’s conversation with his fellow believers from Ephesus in today’s chapter:

  • I was a living example in my time with you. Follow it.
  • I’m going to Jerusalem and expect to be persecuted and imprisoned.
  • You’ll never see me again (I’m going to die before I can return)
  • Be on guard! Wolves are going to infiltrate your flock.
  • Give, and don’t expect anything in return.

The message was followed by weeping and grief.

It’s not exactly a Thomas Kinkade scene come to life. And, so it is with life’s journey. Sometimes the path leads through difficult terrain, but there is purpose in our pains and in the places God leads us. Paul wasn’t complaining about the road ahead. He may have felt fear and grief as he set out, but courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the willingness to press on in spite of fear.

Today, I’m thinking about the balance of hoping for the best while knowing that “the best” does not always look the way I want it to look.

All Shook Up

The Dominie and Maria in the Historical Village GardenWhen they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Acts 1:14 (NIV)

Wendy and I enjoyed our first full day of Tulip Time festivities in our little town, dressed up as the town’s founders, H.P. Scholte and his wife Maria. I was fascinated as we worked the crowd in our 1850s costumes (and had our picture taken 5,872,359 times) the different reactions we received. Residents of the town who know the history would stop us and talk to us about the Scholtes. Some commented what great people the Dominie and Maria were and how much our town owes to them. Some spoke of them as arrogant jerks who imprinted their self-righteousness on our community which continues to plagues us 160 years later.

I pondered these things as I walked through the historical village and thought how quickly and radically life changed for the families who left their relatively comfortable, established lives in the Netherlands and journeyed to the barren Iowa prairie to carve out a living from the midwestern soil.

There are seasons in life when things change quickly and radically. The tectonic plates of life shift beneath our feet. Life is shaken up, and when things finally settle we discover that our lives will never be the same again. I’ve observed that some embrace the change, follow the flow, and prosper. Some become critical, eschew the changes, and struggle hopelessly against the current. The same events take on competing and opposed perspectives.

The followers of Jesus found themselves in similar situation as they huddled in a room behind locked doors in today’s chapter. A week earlier they were riding a wave of popularity as Jesus rode triumphantly into town. Then Jesus was suddenly betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed. Then a few days later He was alive again. But, popular opinion had turned against them. Jesus’ resurrection and the empty tomb sent giant shock waves through the community. The authorities wanted to find them and snuff them out. Jesus had told them to stick together and get ready for even more big changes. Things would never be the same.

Even among the crowds of Jesus’ followers who, just a week earlier, were singing His praises, there were those who would shake their heads, eschew the changes, and critically walk away. For the huddled handful who faithfully stuck it out, stuck together, and embraced the sudden changes – they would soon find themselves on the cusp of events that would change them and our world forever.

Today, I’m grateful for those who embraced change before us and prepared a way for us beyond what we can really fathom. I pray that as the tectonic plates of life may shift in our own life journeys we can embrace the change, stick it out, stick together and make the way a little easier and more blessed for those who follow in our footsteps.

Fire, Dross, Faith, and Joy

Aluminum Dross (source: Wikipedia)
Aluminum Dross (source: Wikipedia)

Son of man, the people of Israel have become dross to me; all of them are the copper, tin, iron and lead left inside a furnace. They are but the dross of silver.” Ezekiel 22:18 (NIV)

In today’s chapter God uses the metaphor, or word picture, of dross to describe the ancient nation of Judah, the city of Jerusalem and the people (specifically the rulers and power brokers). So, this morning I’ve been doing a little internet search on metallurgy and learning about dross.

Dross is solid waste material made up of impurities and appears when you fire metal with intense heat into it’s molten, liquid form. The impure dross floats on top of the molten metal and, in the way it would have been dealt with in Ezekiel’s day, was skimmed off as waste.

The word picture is clear to those who had been following and listening to Ezekiel’s messages. The fire of God’s judgement would reveal the impurities in the rulers of Jerusalem, marked by corruption, idolatry, and moral failure. When the heat was turned up (the Babylonians were coming to lay siege to Jerusalem) the corrupt and impure leaders would be skimmed away like dross off of molten metal.

The thing I love about the metaphors God uses throughout His Message is that they are layered with meaning across time and space. Over 500 years later God would speak through Simon Peter in his letter to persecuted Jesus followers scattered across the land:

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

 Once again we find the fires of persecution blazing, this time in the form of the Roman persecution of anyone claiming to be a follower of Jesus. Instead of the fire revealing and skimming off the dross, the fires accomplish a different purpose. The fire refines and reveals the genuine gold, which is the faith of those who were willing to be thrown to the lions in the Roman Circus rather than recant their belief in Jesus.

Today, I am reminded that all of our lives are subject to times of suffering intense heat in circumstances that can run the gamut from judgement to persecution to tragic circumstances that defy reason. I have learned along life’s journey, however, that there is purpose in the pain. Suffering reveals things about our souls and our character. It separates the pure metal from the dross. For those who have faith to see, we find inexplicable joy amidst the suffering.