Weak-Faithed Fears

When was your faith first challenged?

For me, it was my freshman year in college, when I first met people who openly opposed Christianity. Before that, my faith was safe and easy, but when my new peers boldly questioned my beliefs, I stumbled, fearful and shocked. For a while, I was afraid to talk about faith issues, but eventually, those early experiences served to strengthen and confirm my faith in Jesus.

Now, in my 40s, I occasionally meet a believer who fearfully grasps his small beliefs and lashes out at anyone who challenges those beliefs. No offense, but faith can’t grow when we hold it so tightly, and it seems a miserable existence next to the broad confidence available to all who believe.

Paul saw this contrast when he finally made it to Rome.

Acts 28:17-31.

Around AD59 or 60, the Jews in Jerusalem wanted to get rid of Paul as quickly as they could. Some even vowed to kill him (Acts 23:12). But when he arrived in Rome, the Jews there wanted to hear about Jesus and this new sect called “The Way.” Why the contrast? What’s the difference between these two groups of Jews?

I posit that the Jews in Rome had stronger faith than those in Jerusalem. Why? Because they had been challenged and questioned.

Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.Philippians 2:12b

These Jews in Rome were confronted with other faith systems daily. They had to dig into their own beliefs and really know what was true. They had to make daily choices about following the guidelines of their faith. Some even defended Judaism in public forums.

Jews in Jerusalem, however, were surrounded by other Jews. They had gotten complacent, allowing their faith to be more of a national identity than a life-informing, daily influence. The faith of Jerusalem Jews was weak—not their knowledge but the actual working out of their faith in daily life. They knew more than anyone, but they hadn’t tested all that knowledge. As a result, they were afraid of conflict, afraid of things changing, afraid of trying something new. Isn’t that why they killed Jesus? Because he was trying to do something new.

You know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  –James 1:3-4

Spiritual maturity is the result of testing, and confrontations with those who believe differently is one form of testing.

I’m reminded of modern discussions about social media “bubbles” in which we’re only seeing and interacting with people who already think like us. A recent Washington Post op-ed suggested social media algorithms generate an “echo chamber” for the user in which we only see posts with which we agree (reference). How can our faith be tested in such an environment? (Also see my previous post, Lean In, Listen, and Learn.)

When Paul arrived in Rome, the Jews weren’t afraid to sit down and talk with him, to hear his story and draw their own conclusions (Acts 28:21-22). Paul couldn’t have asked for more.

Like everywhere he went, however, not all the Jews who listened to Paul became believers (Acts 28:24). That’s okay. Some did.

Another benefit of their strong faith was that the group could manage disagreement. If the people in a church or small group have no practice discussing/defending their faith, they won’t know how to handle internal dissent when it arises…and it will arise. A bunch of believers who have rooted their faith in the Word and tested it in the world will persevere through an internal conflict much better than their weak-faithed counterparts.

Friends, be like the Roman Jews: unafraid to hear a challenge or consider a different point of view. When your faith is strong, you can take challenges from outside and disputes from within. Nothing will destroy your faith!

Our faith is strengthened by challenges. There’s no need to be afraid of someone who thinks/believes differently. Don’t isolate yourself for fear of losing your faith! Any #confrontation is #NotAboutMe.

Have you had your faith challenged? How did you feel and how did you respond? I hope you did better than I that first time. Please let us know in the comments below. Thanks.

In Case of A Storm

There have been more tropical storms/hurricanes in 2020 than in any other year since the weather service began recording them. I don’t know about you, but the political and social upheaval in the United States right now (the week of national elections) also feels like a major storm. Businesses in large cities boarded up their windows in anticipation of rioting following the election, just like they would for a physical storm.

Hurricane Harvey stalled out over the Texas Gulf Coast for five days in 2017, producing catastrophic flooding after winds so strong they broke the recording devices (reference). Thousands of people lost their homes, and as many as eighty-eight fatalities are attributed to the storm (reference). Harvey became a named storm on August 17th in the Gulf of Mexico and died out on August 30th along the coast of Florida. That’s 13 days.

Nor’easters along the east coast of the United States often cause gale-force winds, rough seas, snowstorms, and sometimes flooding (reference). They are as serious and scary as hurricanes, they just don’t get names. A Nor’easter was responsible for the Blizzard of ’93 which shut down most of the eastern United States. The United States nor’easter season has just begun, and considering how 2020 is going, I’m more than a little concerned!

The Mediterranean Sea gets Northeasters (just add the ‘th’ back in). When Paul was on his way to Rome as a prisoner, a Northeaster came across the sea and lasted more than fourteen days! That’s longer than Hurricane Harvey. While we can’t estimate overall losses of property or life, we know from Luke’s account in Acts 27-28 that Paul’s ship was destroyed but no one on the ship lost their life.

With a record-setting hurricane season here in the US, political vitriol, and social unrest of historic proportions, what can we do? Toward the end of Paul’s ordeal with the Northeaster, he spoke to the 275 people on the boat with him, and he modeled three things they should do in case of a storm. Their storm was physical/environmental, but the same principles apply when the storm is social, political, emotional, or relational.

3 Things to Do In A Storm

Acts 27:27-38.

1. Take care of yourself.

“For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive.”  –Acts 27:33-34a

It’s easy to get distracted, to let stress dictate our health decisions, but our bodies need food and water, oxygen, and rest. Especially in the midst of a figurative storm, we must take care of ourselves. Make time to prioritize healthy foods, some exercise, and a regular sleep schedule. Go drink a glass of water right now. Go ahead; I’ll wait. When you are physically healthy, you’re better prepared to face the storm brewing around you and to hear the Holy Spirit directing you through it.

2. Give thanks.

After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all.  –Acts 27:35

Need I remind you of this verse as well?

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  –1 Thessalonians 5:18

Gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving. We can find something for which to give thanks today, regardless of our circumstances. We don’t have to thank God for the storm, but we can always thank Him for His provision (such as the bread Paul ate), His sustaining power, His previous blessings, or at least the knowledge that He already knows the outcome or already has a solution laid out for the present storm.

In Paul’s case, God sent an angel to promise everyone’s safety (Acts 17:23-24). We may not get the angel appearing in the night like that, but we have the promises of Scripture and the reassurances of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

Thank Him for His provision, His promises, and His plan.

Why is giving thanks so important? Because it reminds us of God’s economy: that He’s in charge, that He supplies, and that He cares. Thankfulness puts us back in right thinking toward God. (You might even call it thinkfulness. Just an idea.)

3. Have confidence in God’s control.

“Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.”  –Acts 27:34b

Granted, Paul had the aforementioned angel.

Granted, we may lose more than a few hairs…or gain a few more gray ones (like I have) during the storm. God doesn’t promise us freedom from baldness, but confidence in God’s sovereignty is ours to be had. Recall all the times He saved His people, such as the Red Sea (Exodus 14) or this very story! In the next chapter, Paul gets bitten by a venomous snake and still survives (Acts 28:3-6). Or recall a time He helped you through a different storm.

We have to think big-picture. You and I have eternal life. At the risk of sounding fatalistic, we will go to Heaven when God decides we go to Heaven. We will live under the political system God has already decided to put in place. God will meet our needs—or not (like Job)—in a way that brings Him glory.

We’ve made it through eight months of pandemic and almost as many months of social unrest. Even if election indecision lasts fourteen days (like Paul’s Northeaster), even if you’re looking at four years (or four more years) of the president you don’t want, we can do this!

So friends, follow Paul’s advice:

Take care of yourself. Give thanks. Stay confident in God’s control.

We’re living through a storm of epic proportions, and it’s called 2020. How can we deal with it? The same way Paul dealt with a Northeaster that could have killed everyone on his ship. My plans #incaseofastorm are #NotAboutMe.

What spiritual practice or Bible passage has helped you weather the storm that is 2020? Give us your best advice in the comments below. Thanks!

PS–I love it when the Holy Spirit ties all sorts of threads together. Check out one or all of these:

Also, if you haven’t really listened to the lyrics in this song recently, take three minutes to watch the lyrics video for Casting Crowns’ Praise You In This Storm

A Real Halloween Fright

Here’s a little Fifth Friday Flash Fiction fun for everyone. Meet Aubrey and Zadie in an earlier story over on Intentional Parenting: How to Hug a Lightning Bolt.

“Ouch!”

“What now?”

“I stubbed my toe on that big gravel!” Zadie limped to exaggerate the effect, her princess-fairy-assassin costume becoming even more Frankenstein-like.

“Well, maybe if you hadn’t worn that big mask, you could see better.” Aubrey sighed in the classic big-sister way. “Come on.”

Zadie hung back near the road, her feet scuffing through the orange leaves. Half-way up the walk, Aubrey turned. “What’s wrong now?”

“I don’t think Mr. Jennings likes me.”

“Then it’s good you’re wearing a Halloween costume, Zadie. He won’t recognize you.”

Zadie knocked once on the storm door, turned, and hopped off the stoop. “He’s not home. Let’s go.”

“Wait. His lights are on. His decorations are out. Give him a minute. He’s probably slow.” Aubrey knocked more firmly. After twenty seconds, she opened the storm door and knocked on the solid, wooden door. It swung open a couple of inches.

She pushed in a bit more. “Hello? Mr. Jennings? Are you here? Trick or treat?” An upturned bucket of Halloween candy slid behind the door. A pair of feet stuck out of a lit room at the end of the hall.

Aubrey glanced back at Zadie. “Either this is an elaborate Halloween trick or something’s wrong. Come on, Zee.” Zadie grabbed her big sister’s hand as they stepped through the door. Aubrey strengthened her voice, “Mr. Jennings? Are you all right?”

Was that a groan?

Hand in hand, the girls crept down the dark hallway. A black cat crossed from one doorway to another in front of them. Zadie squeezed Aubrey’s hand even tighter and glanced at her sister. Aubrey was holding her breath, too!

They peeked around the corner into the lit room. Mr. Jennings lay face down, his cane stretched out like an hour hand at eleven o’clock on the 70s-era linoleum floor. Aubrey bent down and shook his shoulder. “Mr. Jennings? Are you okay?”

No answer. Aubrey pulled out her phone and dialed 9-1-1. When she ran to the front door to find the street address, Zadie leaned near Mr. Jennings ear. “I’m sorry you don’t like me,” she half-whispered. “Please don’t die.”

Mr. Jennings eyelids fluttered. He groaned then raised his hand a few inches off the floor and shakily pointed toward the kitchen table. A row of four orange containers sat near the center. “Your medicine? Is that what you need?” Zadie spoke to herself as much as him. She ran to the table and grabbed all four containers. “Which one? All of them? Oh, I don’t know what to do!” She twisted back and forth, her assassin cape slapping the floor every time.

She grabbed all four containers and sat them in a row on the floor, yelling, “Mr. Jennings! Show me which one!” His eyes opened long enough to register the containers, then he knocked over the second one. “Is that the one, Mr. Jennings?” She tried to read the label: “Nitro…nitro-glik-eron. Is that the one, Mr. Jennings? Do you need nitroglycerin?” Zadie was still yelling.

That’s the biggest word I ever read, Zadie thought, and I probably didn’t say it right. Mr. Jennings tapped the floor twice with his forefinger. “It says you should take two. Is that right?” Mr. Jennings tapped twice again.

She wrenched the bottle open before she realized it didn’t have a child safety cap. Half the pills fell onto the floor. She picked up two, blew them off, and stretched them toward Mr. Jennings. He did nothing. “You can’t get them, can you? Okay, I’m going to put them in your mouth.” Zadie grimaced and reached toward the old man’s lips. Thankfully, he opened his mouth enough for her to stuff in one pill then the other. “You’re gonna have to swallow, Mr. Jennings. I can’t do that for you!”

At that moment, Aubrey stepped back into the room with a gasp. “What are you doing?!?”

“He needed his medicine! He told me!” Aubrey’s eyes were filled with panic, but tears puddled in Zadie’s eyes.

“How’d he tell you? Never mind, here comes the ambulance.” Aubrey ran back down the hall. Zadie froze, looking from Mr. Jennings to the door and back.

The EMTs marched into the kitchen full of authority and loaded with equipment:

“What happened?”
“What did you do?”
“What did he take?”
“How many pills?”
“Where did you find him?”
“How long has he been like this?”

Now the tears were flowing freely, and the only thing Zadie could say was, “Two pills. I gave him two pills.” She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her princess-fairy-assassin costume before she remembered she would get in trouble for that.

———-

Zadie’s mom shook her awake early the next morning. “C’mon, Zadie. We’re going out for pancakes, but we have a stop to make first.”

Zadie had only been to the hospital once before. The long halls and mechanical noises quieted her always-full mind. Somehow, her mother knew where to go, and they pushed open a certain hospital room door. Mr. Jennings raised his head and weakly waved them in.

“You’re Zadie, right?”

“Yes, s-sir. I’m sorry we came in your house last night.”

He harumphed. “Sorry? Little girl, you saved my life!”

“What? I thought I messed up. I spilled your pills on the floor and I gave you two of them and the medics were scary and asked me lots of questions and I didn’t know what to say and my sister…” Her words trailed off as Mr. Jennings held his palm toward her like a crossing guard indicating ‘stop.’

“Zadie, it’s no wonder I didn’t talk last night. You won’t let a person get a word in edge-wise.” His eyes were laughing.

Zadie giggled. “That’s what Aubrey, my sister, that’s what she says.”

“I want you to know two things, little missy. And I asked your mama to bring you over here so I could tell you both. First, you saved my life, and I thank you for it. I was trying to get to those pills when I fell and bonked my noggin. If you hadn’t done what you did, we would have had a much more frightful Halloween.” He raised his eyebrows.

“And the second?” Zadie interjected.

“Just give an old man a minute!” Zadie pursed her lips the way her first-grade teacher had taught her when it wasn’t her turn to speak.

Mr. Jennings took a few more breaths. “Alright. I’m ready. The second thing is that I never didn’t like you. The fact is, you remind me of my own daughter about forty years ago. She and her mama died when she was just a little older than you are now, so seeing you makes me hurt something awful.”

For once in her life, Zadie had no words.

“But I’ve decided it’s worth it. I want you to come over any time, play in my yard, and eat apples off the tree in the back. When I get outta her, I’m even gonna see what I can do about replacing the tire swing we used to have on that oak tree in the front.”

Zadie’s mom touched her back, the universal parental prompt to say “thank you,” and Zadie did.

Here’s a #FifthFriday #FlashFiction not-so-frightful story about 2 sisters who are as different as their names: Aubrey and Zadie. Something light to end the month. Enjoy!

Did you share a harrowing experience with a sibling when you were younger? What happened? How did it work out? I’d love to read your TRUE story in the comments below!

4 Pleas for Church Leaders

It’s good to be back, friends! I’m still working on the project I started during my blogging break. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

When we left Paul, back in Do the Work Well, he was sitting with the elders of the church in Ephesus, urgently encouraging them because he knew he would never see them again (Acts 20). This chapter seems like Paul’s version of Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17).

Paul’s boat was about to leave, so he had to talk quickly and directly. The beginning and end of his conversation could have been for any believers in Ephesus and beyond. But tucked into the middle of this passage, Paul gives some very personal, prophetic advice to those specific leaders who sat before him. The principles, however, apply to leaders in local churches across time and around the world, from preschool Sunday School teachers to lead pastors of megachurches. These principles are more fundamental than leadership styles or personal preferences. They get down to essentials. Let’s take a look.

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A Little Time Away

Most of you, like me, wear many hats. Over the past year, the time I have available to wear my “writer” hat has dwindled. I LOVE researching and writing Bible studies and reflection pieces for Not About Me, but I haven’t kept up with some other writing projects God has put on my heart. So I’m taking five weeks off to focus on other writing projects.

In the meantime, there are over 300 posts here on Not About Me. Use the search tool or look through the categories to find more about anything on your mind.

I’ll “see” you back here the weekend of October 16th, and hopefully I’ll have some good news and/or some special things to reveal!

Nameless: A Muddy Man with Leprosy

Let me say up front, the muddy part is my imagination.

On two separate occasions, Jesus healed men with leprosy. Once, it was a single man, and the other time, it was ten men. We will spend some time with the former today and the latter next week. But first…

The New Testament term, leprosy, comes from a Greek word that refers to any type of skin disease. I worked in our backyard a couple of weeks ago, and as I write, I still have poison ivy on my arms. That’s one type of leprosy. The serious medical condition we typically associate with leprosy, however, is now called Hansen’s disease. It’s a bacterial infection that leads to nerve damage. The person doesn’t feel injuries to his/her extremities, resulting in disfigurement and sometimes death.

Here’s the CDC clarification:

The “leprosy” found in historical and religious texts described a variety of skin conditions from rashes and patchy skin to swelling. They were noted to be very contagious, which is not true for Hansen’s disease and also did not have some of the most obvious signs of Hansen’s disease, like disfigurement, blindness, and loss of pain sensation.

The Old Testament established regulations and purification rituals for those with leprosy (see Leviticus 13-14), which turned the priests into pseudo dermatologists. Glad I’m not them!

Now. Let’s get into the Scriptures.

A Muddy Man in the Road

Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-44, Luke 5:12-14.

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A Barnabas Background Check

I’m no stranger to background checks, although that “last 5 addresses” part stumps me. We’ve lived a lot of places! More personally, it’s hard to know someone until you know their backstory. Barnabas has come up a few times in our walk through Acts, so this week, I offer you four descriptors for Barnabas as his own man, separately from Saul/Paul. I hope you see him in a fresh light when we’re finished. Continue reading

Not My Words But His

From my seat at my wide, slightly dirty office window, it seems there are plenty of words floating around out there these days, and maybe you don’t need any more words to fill your ears. So this week, I offer you only the Father’s words along with some of my images of His creation. 

Psalm 46

Table Mountain
Lion’s Rump from Table Mountain (c) Carole Sparks

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Selah

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