Tag Archives: Witness

The Hard Facts

As for the other events of Solomon’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Nathan the prophet, in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite and in the visions of Iddo the seer concerning Jeroboam son of Nebat?
2 Chronicles 9:29 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, the author of Chronicles concludes his account of Solomon’s reign. He chooses, however, to leave out some pertinent facts provided in the eleventh chapter of 1 Kings.

Solomon was a womanizer. He married 700 wives, most of them were daughters or women from foreign royal families seeking to make political alliances with the king. On top of that, Solomon kept 300 concubines. Solomon’s wives worshiped foreign gods, and they convinced Solomon to build altars and temples to their gods. Solomon even worshipped the gods of his wives, including a couple of nasty ones who demanded child sacrifice.

By the end of his reign, Solomon’s years of conscripting slave-labor had created political problems for him. The nation his father worked so hard to unite was falling apart. Rebellions and uprisings began to occur. Prophets began prophesying the end of the united kingdom. Solomon resorted to assassination to maintain power and rid himself of threats.

All of this, the Chronicler fails to mention.

We can only assume why the writer of 2 Chronicles whitewashes Solomon’s story. Scholars believe that the Chronicles were written at the time the Hebrew exiles returned from captivity in Babylon. The temple needed to be rebuilt, and the Chronicler’s account may have been intended to drum up support for the new temple by glorifying Solomon and the old temple. This scholarly assumption concludes that the Chronicler chose to focus on Solomon’s glory and  leave the inconvenient truths buried in the bibliography.

This past Sunday at our local gathering of Jesus’ followers I gave a message about “Story.” Over the centuries the institutional church has turned the concept of “witnessing” into a host of systematic programs for communicating the theological concepts of salvation. However, when Jesus told his followers to be “witnesses” He simply meant for them to share their stories about their experiences with Him. In the opening lines of the letter that became 1 John, Jesus’ disciple literally gives the testimony “I heard him. I saw him. I touched him.” John’s story is how his experiences with Jesus transformed him from being known as a “Son of Thunder” (because of his anger and rage) to “The disciple of love.” Each of us has a story. Each of us has a God story whether that story is how we came to believe or disbelieve.

We also choose how to tell our stories, how to give witness, and what that testimony will be. We may choose to tell our story differently depending on the audience and the circumstances. This is  not only common, but I would argue that sometimes it is even wise. Nevertheless, our stories all contain hard facts. I made huge mistakes in life. I became addicted to porn as a child. My first marriage failed. I was unfaithful. I made a complete mess of things. A big theme of my God story is the grace, forgiveness, and redemption God has shown me despite my being a complete boogerhead. I can’t tell that story without also sharing some hard facts about what a deeply flawed person I am.

This morning I’m thinking about my story. I’m thinking about the hard facts of my life. My life journey is riddled with big mistakes I’ve made. To this day I struggle with being self-ish and self-centered. Wendy can give witness to my melancholy and pessimism, my emotional overreactions, and complete blindness to anyone or anything other than what I’m focused on in the moment.  But there’s also the story of my journey, of God growing me up, freeing me, and giving me second chances. There’s a story of transformation that has come from following Jesus and what God has done in me. It’s a good story.

For whatever reason, the Chronicler chose to leave out the hard facts about Solomon. It makes me sad. Our stories are much more powerful and interesting when we’re honest about the hard facts. Even tragedies make powerful stories from which we can benefit.

Special Vows

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite….”
Numbers 6:2 (NIV)

I run into some of the most interesting people in my job. Years ago there was a Customer Service Representative (CSR) for a client company who stood out from the crowd because he had the longest hair I’d ever seen on a man. The man was tall and thin and had incredibly straight, long hair that most women would envy. It went all the way down his back. It was so distinctive and prompted such curiosity that one of my colleagues went out of his way to ask the man about it.

It turns out that this man was a follower of Jesus, and he had a friend who was in prison. He wanted to find a tangible way to express his love and loyalty to his friend, and so he informed his friend that he was making a special vow to God, and his friend, that he would not cut his hair until his friend was released from prison. It had obviously been several years, and he was obviously committed to his friend and to God.

The CSR’s vow was a modified version of a voluntary, “special vow” that the ancient Hebrews called a Nazarite vow, as described in today’s chapter. The idea of the Nazarite vow was a way for individuals to “dedicate themselves to the Lord” for a particular period of time for a particular reason that may have been very personal between themselves and God. The reasons can be as diverse as the persons making them, but I have come to believe that there are stretches of life’s journey when a special vow can be an opportunity for incredible growth of spirit and/or witness.

This morning I’m thinking about the special vows individuals make from choosing a monastic life, to a lenten fast, and even to a chapter-a-day journey.  The thing I appreciate about special vows is that they are not compulsory or demanded. Special vows come from a special place of the heart. They are Spirit led and Spirit driven. They may be for a brief period of time, for the remainder of the journey, or somewhere in between. That’s between the person making a special vow and God.

Years after our relationship with the client ended my colleague told me one day that our CSR friend had contacted him. The CSR reported that his friend had finally been released from prison. He was there to meet his friend at his release. Together, they went to the barber shop. To this day my heart smiles to think of what that moment must have meant to both of them. For me, it illustrates what special vows are all about.

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.

“When I Could Stand it No Longer….”

For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith.
1 Thessalonians 3:5 (NIV)

Wendy and I had a moment of nostalgia the other night as we watched The Man in the High Castle. The show is set in the early 1960s. The phone rang in one of the scenes and the character answered the classic rotary wall phone. It was a “private call” so she walked through the kitchen door into the dining room. She was able to do this because the phone had a “long cord.”

Oh my gosh!” Wendy exclaimed just as I was thinking the same thing. “Do you remember the ‘long chord?'”

Back in the day our house had one phone line. For a while we had only phone on the wall in the kitchen, but my parents eventually added another wall phone extension in the basement. There were rotary phones on which the handset had to be attached to the base unit. If you didn’t want everyone in the house to hear your conversation you had to have this 20′ curly cord that would allow you to walk into another room and shut the door.

Suddenly I was back in my childhood hanging around by the phone in the excruciating wait for a girl to call me. I can remember the agony that came with desperately wanting that phone to ring, and for it to be her, so that I could pull the ‘long chord’ on the basement phone to the back of our storage room and have conversation in hushed tones. And as we talked, I would pray that my parents or siblings would not pick up the phone in the kitchen and totally embarrass me while I was talking to the girl on whom I had a serious crush.

In this morning’s chapter I noticed that Paul twice uses a phrase in talking about his love for his Thessalonian friends: “When I could stand it no longer….” I began to ask myself how I could relate to that sentiment of being so emotionally invested in relationship that silence and the unknown create anxiety. Those moments waiting by the phone were an easy memory, but there are others. It’s the experience of having your children half a world away and knowing that they are struggling, but there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s those moments when tragedy strikes a dear friend who lives far away and you feel so terribly helpless.

This morning in the quiet I’m struck by two distinct thoughts. First I take solace of knowing that Paul, who is often spiritualized by believers to the point of being morphed into superhuman status, also struggled with the very human emotion of anxiety and fear to the point he could “stand it no longer.” The normal humanity I see in “heroes of faith” remind me to have a little grace with myself.  The second thought is simply the intense love and concern Paul shows towards his friends he left back in the Greek seaport. It reminds me of yesterday’s thoughts, that Paul’s ministry was not an impersonal evangelistic tour, but a life sharing mission that bore the fruit of deep relationship.

I’m left thinking this morning of family and friends with whom I have not conversed for a time; Those who my heart wonders about. Maybe today’s a good day to wander down to the dock and make a call or two. I can do that. I no longer require a 500′ “long cord “.

featured photo courtesy kris krüg via Flickr

Bearing Witness

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.
1 Thessalonians 2:8 (NIV)

Before Jesus ascended into heaven He told His followers: “You will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) Growing up in the church, I heard a lot about being a “witness” and what being a “witness” means. Along this life journey my understanding of being a witness has evolved greatly.

Looking back, the concept of witnessing taught by my church when I was younger was largely a modified sales strategy. I would learn a standard sales pitch from a workshop or class in church. There were a handful of standard ones that usually involved a series of Bible verses marked in a small Bible or a little booklet you could use as a visual aid when telling people about being a follower of Jesus. I was then encouraged to go out in public, knock on doors, and speak to anyone and everyone in an effort to pitch them on receiving Jesus as Lord.

I’m not knocking the process completely. I admit that learning how to simply explain the message of Jesus was a good thing for me. I knew people who were incredibly successful at engaging complete strangers and pitching them on Jesus. I know many people who became followers of Jesus because some stranger took the time to share the message in this way. I, however, confess to being a complete failure as it relates to “witnessing” by the sales pitch strangers technique, and I carried this sense of failure with me for many years.

As I’ve progressed in my journey I’ve come to understand that being a “witness” carries as many different facets as there are personality types and spiritual gifts. I’m reminded this morning of the description Calvin Miller wrote of a faith healer in his tongue-in-cheek parody epistle, The Philippian Fragment:

Sister Helen opened a great crusade in Philippi on Thursday, and is the sensation of the leper colony. She rarely does anything one could call a miracle. Last week she laid hands on a little crippled boy and was not able to heal him, but she gave him a new pair of crutches and promised to take him for a walk in the park here in Philippi.

Yesterday with my own eyes I saw her pass an amputee selling styluses. She touched his legs and cried, “Grow back! Grow back! . . . In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, grow back!” Well, Clement, I so wanted to see the legs grow back, but they did not. Poor Helen. What’s a faith healer to do with an amputee that refuses to grow legs on command?

She sat down with the little man, crossed her legs on the cold pavement, and began selling styluses herself. Soon she was talking to him, and before very long they were both laughing together. For an hour they laughed together, and by nightfall they were having an uproariously good time. When it was time to go, Helen’s legs were so stiff from disuse, they refused to move. Her legless, stylus-selling friend cried in jest, “Grow strong!. . . Grow strong! . . . Grow strong!”

Helen only smiled and staggered upward on her unsteady legs. She looked down at her lowly friend and said, “I offer you healing, you will see. It is only one world away. Someday . . . ,” she stopped and smiled, “you will enter a new life and you will hear our Savior say to your legless stumps, ‘Grow long! . . . Grow long!‘ Then you will know that glory which Sister Helen only dreamed for you.”

Miller, Calvin. The Philippian Fragment (Kindle Locations 147-159). NOVO Ink. Kindle Edition.

I am to witnessing as Sister Helen is to healing.

I love what Paul said to the believers in Thessalonica in today’s chapter. Paul and his buddy Silas didn’t enter the Greek seaport to be strangers with a sales pitch. They “shared their lives as well.” They built relationship and they worked and lived among the people. They became like family. Paul even uses family as a metaphor for their relationships with the Thessalonians.

I’ve come to understand that “sharing life,” as Paul described it, is the style of “witness” I’m better suited for. Let’s walk together, live together, laugh together, and work together. God is love, so let me try and bear witness of that love in my  imperfect human efforts to love you through laughter and tragedies, harmony and discord, successes and failures, daily tasks and long conversations over dinner.

 

God and His Resources

paul before felix

At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul, and for that reason he used to send for him very often and converse with him. After two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus; and since he wanted to grant the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison. Acts 24: 26-27 (NRSV)

Over two years Paul was imprisoned by Governor Felix. Over two years he lived under house arrest. No crowds got to hear Paul speak. Paul did not get to journey from town to town speaking to and encouraging fellow believers. For over two years Paul basically had an audience of one Roman Governor and his wife who would occasionally send for him to have a conversation.

I’ve learned along life’s road that God’s ways are not always our ways. We tend to look at Paul’s imprisonment and think what a waste to have Paul languishing under house arrest when there were so many other things he could have been doing with his time and talents. I wonder if Paul thought that too, or if he was content knowing that he was right where he was supposed to be and doing what he was supposed to do.

Sometimes we have to trust that God knows what He is doing with the use of His resources.

Simply Tell Them Your Story

onceuponatime“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.