Pivotal Unsung Heroes in Acts

We remember Paul as one of the heroes of the church, but often overlook a key person in the process to Paul’s incredible ministry.  I am referring to Ananias…not the infamous one (cut to the Three Amigos defining infamous as more than famous), but I mean the one with an ear open to heaven.

The church does a great job of promoting leadership and bookstores are not short on resources for leadership and ministry strategy. Those departments of the church have their place even if that place might be out of balance as we are looking for more leaders to take the church where it needs to go, but in overhyping leadership, we miss out on other necessary principles to effective ministry.

We need more people like Ananias who listen to God and follow through on what he assigns us. God met Ananias while he was at home minding his own business. I will take some license and postulate he was laying low as the prolific enemy of the church was coming to town to drag any of those heretics following Jesus’ teachings into jail. This madman looking to destroy the church, Saul, was looking for some people he could teach a lesson to. While keeping his head down, God came to him to go find this Saul and pray for him. Ananias balked, saying, are you sure you are talking about the right person? I love when we want to check the facts God comes to us with. God took Ananias’ questioning in stride and said, yes, I mean that Saul. He is going to be a powerful instrument for us reaching the Gentiles.

God knew where Saul would go and how he was preparing him for a long and tough ministry to bring the church from the Judea/Samaria region to the utmost regions of the Roman Empire. However, without Ananias, would we have Paul? Without Ananias, would Paul still be moping, blind and in despair for his missteps in persecuting Jesus?

I think of those unsung heroes that played a pivotal role in the life of the stars of ministry. One of my favorite stories include a faithful Sunday school teacher in the mid 19th century, or what would be a youth leader in today’s church. He showed up faithfully, but one day a boy came in unable to find his place in the Bible or read at the level of the other teenagers in that class. This young man felt out of place and stayed on the fringe not making new friends or connecting well. His mom pushed him to go to the church even though he would prefer to be doing other things.

The youth leader kept pushing to make a relationship with this boy. He connected with him at a deeper level and one day while dropping in on him as he worked at the local shoe store; he led Dwight Moody to a relationship with Jesus. Moody went on to be the greatest evangelist of the 19th century, preaching to more than a million people in large cities in America, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Most people won’t be the Paul or Dwight Moody, but they can play a pivotal role in the life of those that have more up front ministries. They can be equally as valuable in the process of God’s kingdom advancing around the world. Who are you impacting for Christ?

The Reluctant Missionary

Sometimes we think of missionaries as an elite group, and those that preach as a specialized few. Our thinking could not be further from God’s intentions. Some of the great heroes of mission who have blazed a trail for all of us who follow in their footsteps kept a humble approach about the calling God placed on their life.

As I looked at the story of Phillip in Acts 8 while I prepared last week’s class for the Bible College, I saw God’s hand on preaching and mission. We set up the class into three phases of God’s working. I called it the three movements of the church following the prophetic statement left the apostles with in Acts 1:8. The first movement, chapters 1-7 covered the church in Jerusalem. The second movement in chapters 8-12 looked at the church moving beyond their borders into Judea and Samaria while the third movement, Acts 13-21 spanned the movement of the church into all the known world with Paul’s three missionary journeys. This week, we looked at phase II. Most of us hold Paul in high esteem as the great missionary and church planter and forget that he wasn’t the first missionary or even the first to lead a gentile to faith. That distinction belongs to Phillip.

In Acts 8, Phillip brings the good news of the Kingdom of God into Samaria and later leads the first Gentile to know God, the Ethiopian Eunuch, but that is a story for another day. I want to focus on a few verses at the beginning of the chapter, Acts 8:4-8 to get a grasp on how all Christians are called to preach no matter the setting God has placed them in.

Keep in mind that not too much earlier Phillip became one of the 7 deacons chosen from among the Greek believers to care for the poor in their community of faith. We know him only as a man full of the spirit and wisdom. The church commissioned him along with the others to literally wait on tables. Most of us who have graduated from Bible College, trained for the ministry, would scoff at such a lowly position. Phillip did not. He ministered (which means served) with grace and power.

However, when the persecution from the Jewish leaders came to the Christians following Stephen’s death, many of the believers scattered from Jerusalem. They didn’t leave commissioned by the church as missionaries on a mission. They ran for safety, but they took the good news with them everywhere they went. Phillip turned out to be a perfect agent to bring the gospel to the Samaritans. He, like the Samaritans could not worship at the temple in Jerusalem. As a Greek, he could connect with them at a level the Jewish believers would have difficulty relating.

In telling the story, Luke shows us God did not intend for the preaching to be limited to a select few. Phillip never received a commission to preach, yet he felt compelled by the spirit to preach everywhere he went. His position in the church entitled him to take care of the needs of the poor in the church. His heart for people not yet connected with God pushed him to preach everywhere and to everyone God led him to. Notice the end of the chapter as he preaches from town to town on his way home.

I see Acts 8 as pivotal to the story of the church. The number of times that gospel and good news appears throughout the narrative gives a view of how the church spread cross culturally. We often overlook this chapter on our way to Saul’s conversion and Cornelius’ powerful story with Peter. I see Acts 8 driving the mission of the church, and God using whatever means necessary to push the church beyond its own community.

The first missionary recorded in Acts went reluctantly, but God moved powerfully. He didn’t quite complete the task as the Apostles Peter and John came and laid their hands on the new believers to be filled with the Holy Spirit, yet his impact could not be greater on the movement of the church beyond its home in Jerusalem. If we all rely on God and follow his prompting, we can impact our community as well. How can we allow God to move through us more?

How can we see the miraculous signs accompany our preaching as we go about our routines, serving in whatever capacity God has placed us in?

My Call to Missions

I was relaying the story of my calling to missions recently to someone interested in serving in Thailand with us. I thought I would share this story on the blog as well.

I went on my first missions trip when I was 13 years old. My dad led a team of adults called to missions to Bolivia and invited me along so I could experience missions. It was an intense trip, with at one point people from the town we were visiting wanting to kill us (and would have except one of the church members told everyone we were his family). I wondered on the plane ride home if God was calling me to missions but easily dismissed it from my mind and thought no more about it. It was after that trip, that I decided that missions is great for some people, but I liked the US and would never live in a foreign country.

Just before my senior year of high school God told me to give him my future. I knew I was going to be a teacher since I was a little girl. I even started practicing in first grade by bringing home our work and then teaching it to my younger sister. I already knew what I wanted to do for my future so resisted a little bit. After finally relenting and giving God my future, God told me that he wanted me to be a missionary, but I still had the desire to teach deeply burned in my heart. During the next 6 months, every time I would pray, I felt like God asking me to trust him with my future, but I didn’t want to be a missionary. There was a constant struggle between God and myself during that time. This continued on until a guest speaker looked at me during a youth prayer night and said, “God says to stop fighting with him.” This person didn’t know what was going on between God and me, and it shocked me into releasing my dreams to God. It was then that I started to trust God with my future.

I went to Vanguard University and double majored in Liberal Studies (to be a teacher) and Religion, with an emphasis in Cross Cultural Ministry. I figured that God wanted me to teach in a missions context for 1-2 years before moving to the States and being a teacher there. A long story short, I got married while working on my teaching credential and stayed longer State-side than I ever imagined before coming to the mission field (4 years after graduating college). The crazy part is that God really wanted us to stay longer in Thailand than either of us ever imagined. Trusting God with our future has been an awesome experience so far.

Missional vs. Attractional Churches

I love to think about the discussion on church philosophy between attraction and missional folks. I am convinced more and more that the church must be both. We need to train and equip those in the church to be the church as they go into the world on Monday morning and throughout the week. Jesus often healed people in the market place. Peter and Paul went seeking people outside the church building. Jesus sent the disciples out.

At the same time, we need to live a life that makes Jesus attractive to others. The church, when filled with the joy and freedom that comes with Christ and the kingdom of God, full of life and power might just become naturally attractive. Maybe what many are missing is the how we are attractive. The goal of attraction should not be to organize everything around one meeting, do everything we can to grab as many people as we can to gather a crowd and hopefully give them something that rivals the movies, theater and a nightclub. Jesus turned the world upside down. The church, led by contrarians such as Paul, was accused of turning the world upside down, Acts 17:6. We often get caught up in doing something so much better than the show down the road that we forget what people are really seeking. Jesus wasn’t just a better Rabbi than everyone else; he flew in the face of conventional wisdom. The church stood out as different.

As I study Acts for my class, I am more convinced than ever that the ministry Jesus began and the disciples continued shared a centripetal and centrifugal force in tension. God used everything at his disposal to get them out, to get them out of Jerusalem and around the world with his story. The early disciples, when filled with the fullness of God could do little but boldly proclaim his message wherever they went, Acts 4:31. A few verses later (Acts 5:16), Luke describes droves of people from the surrounding towns coming to Jerusalem to encounter the living God.

Meanwhile, something drew men to the church with such force that the ruling powers did anything they could to prevent the disciples to speak of Jesus. Yet the divine nature of the new movement could not be stopped, Acts 5:35-39.

For me, I see the church and those who are part of the people of God are always on a mission. We need to seize every opportunity to draw people to know God. As St. Francis famously said, “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.”

However, as the church, we are called together to worship God and encourage one another. We need to hold in tension with the ongoing mission the unstoppable attraction of God. We are not using gimmicks to attract people to a great lineup of TV Shows on NBC each Thursday night. We have something far more attractive. We have the source of life. We have one who offers eternal life. We have Jesus, who said I have come to give life and life more abundantly.

Let me explain this further with a quick example with Jesus in Samaria to show a both/and view of how the church impacts the world they find themselves in. When Jesus brought his ministry to the Samaritans we often see the narrative used to enforce the missional side of the argument. Certainly, Jesus illustrated a missional approach to evangelism. Jesus connected with one person around the water cooler and made life changing impact on that woman of ill-repute, but he remained at that well as the rest of the town came to him. What Jesus offers will attract people. Jesus offers living water.

What I see in the life and ministry of Jesus as lived out by the church in Acts are people both filled with the spirit and characterized by the fruit of the Spirit that a nation and empire were forever changed.

How can we hold the two essential values of the church in tension practically today? How can we live holistically as the church and not be pulled to one end of the spectrum or the other?

God Answers Prayers

One of the challenges or goals I gave the students at the start of the Acts class centered on the theme of the book, the kingdom of God. We are inviting God’s rule and reign into our world with his power and authority.

The goal of the church rests in continuing what Jesus began to do and teach, Acts 1:1.

At the beginning of each class, I ask students if they want to share an experience they had in praying for someone or being prompted by the Holy Spirit to pray for someone in the last week. One of the bolder students spoke up in the second class.

She is a leader in the church and has a gift for evangelism with some of the college students that come through the church. One of the new believers that this leader has been discipling came down with a cold, so the leader decided to pray for her. As she told the story in class, she was shaking inside and quite nervous. She went for it anyway. She then called the girl the next day to see if she was feeling better. Her friend was healed.

I was thrilled for this story to start our second class learning about the power of God and his kingdom principles through the book of Acts. How can we ever be bold enough to pray for someone with a big problem, if we cannot pray something minor? This student is catching the heart and presence of God and will grow in her faith each time she exercises faith in God to move with signs and wonders.

I see the prayer in Acts 4:29-30 relevant for her and the class. We all need to connect with the prayer the disciples made early on in their leadership of the church. Paraphrasing, “God move with signs and wonders through the power of the name of Jesus and give us boldness to proclaim your story.”

The Best Furlough Ever

We’ve been back in Thailand for a month and a half, and I just realized that we never gave a concluding post about our time of furlough in the States. We looked forward to our furlough time this year as a chance to connect with our family and friends in an extended way. We also looked forward to getting to worship in our native language and share with everyone what God is doing in Thailand. We did all of that and it was great, but furlough touched us in unexpected ways as well.

During our furlough, we really were refreshed in about every way possible. Andy got to take classes for his masters, and I even sat in on one for free. It was great being challenged in my walk with the Lord during that week. This jump started spiritual refreshing as we started our time away from Thailand. By the end of our furlough, I felt closer to God than I have in a long time. It is quite uplifting to worship in one’s native language, even if I don’t know many of the songs any more. Also, Americans are much more expressive in their worship and that allowed me to worship God freely, without thinking about how others are acting and wanting to be part of the culture here. All this was combined with sharing the excitement of God moving in Thailand and it made me excited to come before my maker and commune with him.

We are very healthy here in Thailand. To prove that point, I have never had to go to the doctor because I was sick while in Thailand (this is rare for most people, but I am counting my blessings from God and constantly thanking those who pray for our health). We walk almost everywhere we go, even to get to the bus, so we get lots of exercise. We always try to maintain that when we are in the States but it is hard when you have a car just outside the house. While we are healthy, the heat is a constant drain in Thailand. We have learned to live with it, but the constant sweating takes its toll on our bodies. It was refreshing to enjoy cool, sometimes cold, weather while we were visiting the States (in the summer). I didn’t even gain any weight (confirmed by the weight consensus Thais).

During the last two weeks of our furlough, I felt refreshed and ready to jump back into ministry in Thailand. I didn’t know at that time, but we were about to be blessed even more during our furlough. A few days before returning to Thailand, we discovered that we were pregnant. We have been trying for a few years, and had been discouraged to say the least. We traveled a lot during those 3 months so we weren’t worrying about getting pregnant.  It was refreshing to just be and not worry about anything during our furlough.

Baby Sweet Pea: 8 Weeks

After discovering we were pregnant, we ran all over town to get things that aren’t easily available in Thailand. I went shopping for maternity clothes (and had to explain why a woman only 5 weeks along was at the store), pregnancy books (which my doctor in Thailand tells me to read up in so he won’t have to explain it all in English), and prenatal vitamins. We feel so blessed by God that he would answer our prayers, even when we weren’t expecting it.

All this adds up to The Best Furlough Ever!

A Kingdom of God Sandwich (or another look at Acts)

Let’s continue the series looking at observations from Acts. In my first post on Acts, we started by seeing the connection Luke made between his first letter, the Gospel, and his second book, Acts. We saw that everything in his second book was colored by what Jesus began in his life, death and resurrection.

I like to think of Acts as a Kingdom of God sandwich. In this post we’ll take a closer look at Luke’s theme or thrust for this book: the Kingdom of God.

Luke begins with Jesus teaching on the kingdom of God for 40 days prior to his ascension, Acts 1:3, after his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

At the conclusion of the book, Luke leaves us with Paul teaching the kingdom for two years, Acts 28:30-31. For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house in Rome and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.

We don’t know if that was the final two years of Paul’s life, or if as church tradition states, Paul was acquitted, went to Spain taking the gospel across Europe for a few more years before being arrested again and put to death.

What we know is that the kingdom of God is the hinge on which the door of Acts swings. Luke opens and closes his narrative of the church on the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God can be defined as the rule and reign of God. That is the realm in which God’s way is known and followed.

In Bangkok, I think of people totally unaware of God’s rule and reign. More than 98 percent of Thai people not only don’t follow God, but have little to know knowledge of who he is. When a Thai person comes to find God, they are looking for something real. We do not offer a new philosophy or a new way of life, but a relationship with a living God. Often before coming to know God, a Thai person will have an encounter with God: a miracle, a healing, an answer to prayer or direction in their life, or help through some problems.

One of my former students comes to mind when talking about radical conversion. A sign of the kingdom is a turn from a former way of thinking and ordering one’s life to entering God’s way of living and thinking. Jesus and his disciples preached repent for the kingdom of God is near. It is turning from the kingdom of this world to enter the kingdom of God. My student told me how God intersected his life as he drew near to him. His journey to faith included trying different religions after he found Buddhism wanting. He said, I’ll try God. God began to show him clarity to the questions he had and direction for his life. He found things to start making sense. He saw God’s hand leading his life and decided to make him king of his life.

What signs of the kingdom of God in action do you see today? How has the church gotten off track with the kingdom of God being the focus?