Untold Stories – The Failure of the Jailer

We find a great story about faith in Acts 16:16-40. While Paul is on his 2nd missionary journey, accompanied by a small group of people (Luke, Timothy, and Silas), he begins ministry in the Roman colony of Philippi in Macedonia (modern day Greece, near the border with Bulgaria). While they are trying to preach, a disturbed woman keeps following them around saying: “These men are servants of the Most High God, and are telling you the way to be saved.” It isn’t that what she is saying is bad, or even that she was being malicious, but Paul eventually hears and sees enough of her to tell she is being tormented spiritually and needs to be set free. So, he prays for her and whatever was attacking her is forced to leave. Little does he know that he has just angered this slave girl’s owners, because without her demonic delusions, she wasn’t going to make them any money as a fortune teller. Angry, they stir up a riot and seek to get Paul and his companions thrown in prison. Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten severely, and thrown into prison without an investigation being done. They are put in the inner cell and in stocks like the most dangerous of criminals. This is where they meet our character, the Philippian Jailer. This man’s encounter with Paul and Silas has him on an emotional roller coaster! Imagine with me the story from his perspective.

At first, the Philippian Jailer is curious. These men are to be put in the inner cell and restrained with stocks fastened around their feet. The jailer had to assume he was dealing with the worst kind of criminals…but these men didn’t seem the type. When he investigated, their crimes made him more curious than suspicious. If the rumors were to be believed, these men were treated very unjustly. It seemed as if their only “crime” was to free a young girl from a wicked spiritual oppression…something that angered the exploiting slavers (who are the worst sort of people imaginable). Paul and his companion were beaten and thrown into prison on some trumped up accusations. This was not a minor inconvenience. This was a very brutal and dangerous game to play with two men that might be innocent. The jailer knew that better than anyone. Their behavior was even more intriguing: instead of complaining and protesting, they were praying and singing hymns to God. You can imagine the normal kind of men the jailer would see. Everyone claiming they are innocent, that they arrested the wrong man. “I didn’t do anything!” “I’m innocent!” He isn’t hearing such arguments from these men. These men were unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. Even though they were in prison, they enjoyed a freedom this jailer had never known. In stocks, bound with chains, beaten and accused of a crime they did not commit, they still have an inner peace and joy. They are singing out their praise to God! Something about this just cannot be ignored. This is what often happens when someone witnesses true beauty – Christ on display in the life of one that Echoes Him.

Next, the Jailer is terrified. About midnight, an earthquake rattles the jail. This is not just a tremor, but a tooth-rattling, bone-jarring, foundation-shaking quake. That alone would be enough to put ice in your veins. But then, he remembers his charge. The jailer rushes to the cells, hoping beyond hope to find the walls intact and the prisoners secured. He knows the consequences for failing in his duty. Roman law commanded that a jailer that loses his charge must endure the same punishment due to the prisoners. If even one prisoner has escaped, He would be killed. When he finds the doors to the prison wide open and extensive damage all around, his heart sank. He slumps to the floor, devastated. His fear has turned totally sour, now the bitter taste of despair fills his mouth. Hopeless, he thinks about the only option that remains: to save his family the shame of a humiliating trial and a brutal execution, he would simply kill himself. Drawing his sword and searching for enough strength to finish this dark deed, he is startled by the sound of a voice in the darkness. A sharp directive rings out in the dusty silence: “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer moved into the cell to discover that though their bonds were loosed and the door to the prison was wide open, all the prisoners remained where they were. Nothing in his history could have prepared this man for the shock and surprise of this moment. He has just glimpsed a different kind of humanity, a new way of life. Given the chance to flee, they stay only to protect the life of the jailer. Not only do they stay, but that have compelled or restrained the other prisoners as well. All are accounted for, and this jailer’s life is saved. What sort of men are these? There is a sharp contrast between the exploiting slave owners, selfishly taking advantage of someone else and Paul and the prisoners, selflessly staying where they are to protect another.

Finally, the Jailer is compelled to faith and rejoices! The jailer started curious, but when he finally sees a demonstration of the life of Christ he is compelled! He has come face to face with his own death, and that allows him to see for the first time that he has never really lived. When he sees the LIFE evident in Paul and Silas, the way they worship in adversity and the way they think of others at their own cost, he cannot ignore it. He wants this life for himself. The jailer walks into the dark cell and falls at the feet of Paul and Silas. “What must I do to be saved?” This jailor has to have seen so many people in his time of service demonstrating the ugliest of humanity. Now he has witnessed the beauty of the Gospel in their behavior and in their countenance, so he responds to the Gospel in faith. The Jailer now tastes the joy that he was so attracted to in Paul and Silas! With rejoicing, he and his household are baptized that very night.

History is full of stories of “earthquakes,” things that shake the reality of the way we have always done it, the way we have always believed. These things cause us to question our standing before God and turn introspectively on our own hearts. In one sense, the jailer did die that day in the shaken prison; he started a new life. He responds quickly and decisively. His whole household hears the Gospel and responds in baptism. What is awesome is to see his faith reveal itself in immediate action: he dresses and cares for the wounds of Paul and Silas. The torture that they were put through in scourging has a dramatic effect on the body, and the compassion of the jailer was certainly appreciated. As they sat there enjoying a meal with a new Brother in Christ, Paul and Silas were likely thinking that every bruise and wound, both from the staff of the torturer and the stocks of the prison were a small price to pay for such a gift.

Reflections to talk about with your teenager:

*What do you think about the story of the Philippian Jailer? What in the story do you find interesting, shocking, or surprising?
*What was it about Paul and Silas that made them so interesting? Specifically, how do you think they were different?
*Can you think of a modern example of someone showing exceptional hope and joy, like Paul and Silas singing hymns of praise while in prison?
*Do you think that those that claim to Echo Christ today are as intriguing to outsiders? What should make followers of Jesus remarkable? What do you think they are actually known for?
*It took coming face to face with his own death for the jailer to recognize he has never really lived. Why do you think it sometimes takes extreme situations to get our attention?

Thoughts after Echo’s Hero Retreat

This month began with Echo’s Fall Retreat, where 100 echo students went away for a weekend to pursue God and connect with each other. These are always high points for me, and this one in particular. Something started that weekend in the hearts of our students, and so I have kept the messaging from Fall Retreat alive with our high school students.

The Hero Retreat was about inspiring students to do what they can. It sounds simple enough, but if we are honest, most of us actually do very little. There seems to be overwhelming need around us, and we feel pretty small in comparison. What can one person do, in the face of so much need, so much evil, so much darkness, and so much pain? The problems of this world are so intimidating it is easy to be discouraged and feel helpless. After all, I am only one person. One of the most important verses for understanding the work of the Kingdom of God is Acts 4:13.
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”
These were average, every-day people in normal positions in their culture. But they had been with Jesus. And that changes everything. If you have been with Jesus – then He is with you. I am just one person, but I am not alone…

A hero does what he or she can do. This is not a statement can be taken a few different ways. On one hand, you can use this statement to disqualify yourself from anything great, limiting the expectation of your contribution to the problem. I get it, the problem is HUGE. This is what happens when people witness an accident or a crisis and stand around doing nothing. We have been conditioned to believe small things about ourselves and to know our limitations. We can’t feed every hungry child, cure every disease, and prevent every injustice. We can’t solve the big problems of our world on our own. We are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem, so we don’t think we can do anything, and we do nothing. The difference between a hero and everyone else is that a hero doesn’t think this way.

Most think: “I can’t do everything;” but a hero thinks: “I can’t sit here and do nothing!” No one ever did anything great while whining about how much they “can’t” do. This is what happened on a January day in 1982, in Washington D.C. when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River. The plane hit the 14th street bridge and crashed into the frozen water of the river. 78 people were killed in the horrific accident. 5 people survived the wreck, only to struggle with the freezing water of the Potomac river, unable to swim to safety because of injuries. Rescue crews struggled to get the survivors out of the river – and the survivors struggled to hang on to the rescue lines with broken and frozen limbs. Frustrated on the bridge, an office assistant named Lenny Skutnik couldn’t take it anymore. He stripped off his coat and boots, and in short sleeves, dove into the icy water and swam out to assist her. He drug her through the icy water safely to shore. When asked about it, he said: “Somebody had to go into the water, why not me?” The crowd asks “why?” Heroes ask “why not?” Somebody has to do something about it; it might as well be me. There were many people standing around painfully aware of the need, but only one jumped into the water. We have been so conditioned by our culture not to get involved, we think things like: “Let the professionals do their job.” “I will probably just get in the way.” “What can I do?” Lenny Skutnik’s story makes us feel strong. It reminds us about the best parts of humanity, the potential within each of us. It makes us feel heroic and inspired. Lenny’s story (like so many other stories of heroes) reminds us that sometimes human beings can do amazing things – because we were created by someone amazing to do amazing things.

Most ask: “Why me?” A hero asks: “Why NOT me?” We tend to underestimate what we are capable of. Seriously: I think you underestimate what you are capable of. Another way to look at this statement is through the eyes of Jesus – who thought we were capable of something great. We have disqualified ourselves from greatness because we believe the lie of our insignificance. We have become convinced that the problems of this world are so overwhelming that we cannot do anything to solve them. This paralyzing sense of inadequacy spreads like a cancer. What if we took Jesus and his belief in us seriously? Jesus wanted to change the world – and he decided to do it through a group of misfits and knuckleheads that were already overlooked by their culture. The astonishing truth of the Jesus movement is that the world was forever changed by the efforts of unschooled, ordinary people. They were not super heroes. They did not have super powers; they did not have special abilities. They were not geniuses or savants. They were not famous or super talented; they were not kings or queens. These were average, every-day people in normal positions in their culture. But they had been with Jesus.

In the face of challenge, most shrink back, but a hero rises up. This is undoubtedly how Lenny Skutnik felt. He was an office assistant in the Congressional Budget office. He was just trying to get home on a snow day, fighting traffic, normal, everyday stuff. He is not a coast guard rescue swimmer, he wasn’t even on a swim team! He left the house that morning the same as he always did, and expected more of the same from his day. It was a normal and routine day. Routine has a way of lulling us to sleep, of convincing ourselves of our smallness. This is exactly how he felt, until a crisis woke him up. It became instantly clear that he needed to be something more. In the moment you are called on to do something heroic, you either shrink or rise to the challenge.

You cannot do everything, but you can do something.
You cannot feed every hungry kid, but you can feed one. You cannot solve every problem, but you can solve one. Open up your heart to something outside yourself and see what God will put there. See the challenge, weep over it, let it in – but then listen to my challenge: stare that impossible, insurmountable thing in the face and instead of shrinking back, RISE UP. Dare to TRUST HIM.

Check out this dramatization of Lenny’s story here.

How to say friend – Conflict

Inevitably, every true friendship will be tested by conflict. Conflict makes people uncomfortable, and it isn’t fun, but it happens. At some point, you will disagree with or misbehave against or get wronged by someone you call a friend, and how you handle this conflict will determine the fate of the friendship. There are all kinds of subtle realities that feed conflict in relationships; we are fallen creatures that look to our own interests and sometimes neglect the interests of others. One conflict that is dramatically narrated in scripture happened between two prominent leaders in the early church.

Acts 15:36-41Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Up to this point, Paul and Barnabas have been traveling companions and partners in ministry. They have been a missionary team. At first, Barnabas was the “leader;” he took the young recent convert Saul of Tarsas under his wing and invited him to minister alongside him. As time went on and they endured challenges and achieved success, Saul (Paul) distinguishes himself as a powerful teacher and becomes the more prominent of the two. There is actually a moment where the text notes that Paul is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and after that, instead of listing the team as “Barnabas and Saul” (as it had) the story starts referring to “Paul and Barnabas,” or even “Paul and his companions.” There are several things that are at play here:
1st, there is the fact that Barnabas was willing to take a chance on the newly converted Saul of Tarsas. Saul had a very sketchy past in that he was the most zealous opponent of the Jesus movement. This is a testimony to Barnabas’ character – that he believes the best in others.
2nd, the dynamic of power shift had to be a difficult thing for any relationship to endure. The leader becomes the follower, the 2nd becomes the 1st. You can see this on sports teams and it can make for some tense moments. As Paul begins to get more and more attention and prominence, what does Barnabas feel?
Finally, there is the issue of Barnabas’ cousin, a man named John-Mark. (Have patience with the double name thing!) John Mark was a traveling companion of the missionary team, but when they entered a particularly hostile region, he decided to skip out and head back home. We are never given a reason, but Paul takes this as abandonment.

So, how is this conflict a model for us?

1. In many conflicts, there is not a clear right and wrong position – just differences of perspective. Note that Luke (our author) doesn’t give us any judgment as to who is right and who is wrong. I can see the issue from Paul’s side – this was going to be a hard road, you don’t want to have to risk depending on someone who has let you down before. I can also see Barnabas’ side – everyone deserves another chance, this is about grace after all. So often we become so entrenched in our position that we focus on the winning an argument and we can end up losing a friend. Conflict happens and friendship can flourish when we learn to be wrong some of the time, and we learn what battles need to be fought and which ones don’t. You can save yourself a lot of grief if you can learn to consider the point of view from across the aisle. Can you see the reasons in the other person’s argument? Can you understand why this person is passionate about this issue? If you can gain another perspective in addition to your own, everyone grows. You are never as right as you think you are.

2. Comfortable or not, conflict needs to be dealt with. You might be surprised that such a disagreement happened among these Godly men. Sometimes we imagine that everything in the Bible should be stained glass and sacred, and this just seems ugly. It is easy to imagine raised voices and passionate debate. Here is deal – raised voices and passionate debate are not bad. When your relationships are strong enough to create a safe place to disagree, then you are finally in the realm of true friendship and teamwork. No functional team exists without conflict. Face conflict, don’t run from it. Tell the truth. Fight fair. Deal with issues openly, don’t hide it, don’t stuff it, and don’t avoid it. We often hope a problem will just go away if we ignore it. It will not go away; it will just get worse and the longer you wait to talk about the more awkward it will be to have the conversation.

3. God’s Kingdom wins when we chose to look at other people through the eyes of hope. What I love about this story is that God still managed to find a win for his Kingdom. Instead of a great missionary team breaking up, two great ministry teams were formed and the Gospel went out to new places. I also love that somewhere down the road, Paul did learn to see Barnabas’ perspective. Their conflict basically came down to John-Mark and whether or not there was potential there. Barnabas by his very nature is the kind of person that sees the best, gives the benefit of the doubt, and believes in other people. He is known as a “son of encouragement,” which is what his name means. He saw the potential in a young and passionate man named Saul – who later became Paul the Apostle. He also saw the potential in his cousin John-Mark, who later became a pillar of the church and wrote the Gospel of Mark. Late in Paul’s life, when he is in prison for the Gospel in Rome and Ephesus, he asks several times for John-Mark to be sent to him. Paul ends up finding two young men named Timothy and Titus, and just like Barnabas modeled for him, he mentors them and believes in them and brings out their gifts. This is a huge lesson – we need more people with the eyes of Barnabas, the kind that can see the potential in others and believe the best and fan into flame the gifts of God.

So here is my challenge: What conflict have you been putting off that are keeping you from healthy relationships?

Thoughts after Echo’s Fall Retreat

75 Echo students just returned from our Fall Retreat, a weekend packed full of God encounters and memories. This year, our theme for the retreat was Love Revolution, where we explored the story of a crippled man meeting Peter and John outside the temple gates. We examined this story from three different angles: Peter’s perspective as an unlikely hero, the story of the unlikely partnership of Peter and his former rival John, and finally the perspective of the man begging at the temple gate. Saturday night, we brought the weekend home as we talked out what this man’s story means for us today.

We know of him that he was forty years old, and that he had been crippled from birth. We know that he had arranged a way to get placed every day to beg at the temple gate. This man has a sad story, but everything in his life was about to change. He was about to meet two agents of God’s Kingdom, two people committed to having their lives become an Echo of Christ. That day, three things happened to him that had maybe never happened before. It changed his heart toward God, and it changed his life forever.

First, he was seen – This is remarkable because it is easy to imagine that his life up to that point had been on the receiving end of indifference. The text makes note that “Peter and John looked intently at him.” He was noticed, he was valued. This man had to be so used to being ignored and overlooked. We all know the feeling, because we have all done it. We see a homeless man on the road, or some other undesirable, and something in our fear or misunderstanding makes us reflexively think “don’t make eye contact and I am O.K.” It was 3:00pm, a regular time for temple prayer. This was a crowded scene – many people had already walked past this man. Some had given him pity, throwing him a few coins or a scrap of food. None of them had given him love, none of them had given him anything of true value. People like to be charitable, but they rarely perform acts of charity that are truly sacrificial. This beggar might have learned to expect nothing from most people that passed by. But these two men seemed different. They didn’t look over him, they didn’t even look down on him, they looked right at him, and they saw him. Where others had given him indifference, they gave him their attention.

Second, he was helped – This is remarkable because it is easy to imagine that his life up to that point had been on the receiving end of inaction. When the beggar found the courage to ask for money, he must have been disappointed when Peter gave his answer: “I don’t have any money.” This man though he knew what he needed, but he was wrong. He was asking for the wrong thing. Jesus once said to a woman that as they talked about drawing water from a well: “if you knew who I was, you would ask me for living water.” Well, if this man knew who he was talking to, he might have asked for something more. This did not stop him from receiving what he needed though. Peter continued: “I don’t have any money, but what I do have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” At first, his emotion might have gone from disappointment to confusion and anger; this was an impossible thing he was asking for! Yet there was something in the faces of these men, some deep well of love and sincerity, and the man must have realized that it was not a demand, but a gift. As if to ensure he was making good on his promise, one of the men reached down with his hand to pick up the cripple. Peter helped him up. He reached down with his hand to pull him off the ground. This is the most practical, tangible expression of love this man could have received. At that moment, this man who had been crippled for 40 years, never able to stand let alone walk, became aware of a strange new strength in his legs and feet: instead of collapsing beneath him, they actually supported him. He could stand! Miraculously so! He decided then to be brave and bold and reckless – and venture to do what he had never done: walk. He put one foot in front of the other, each step a miracle, each step astonishing, each step bringing more strength and health and life and faith. Soon, walking seemed such a plain and ordinary thing to do. He began to leap, jump, and run – daring to trust in the reality he was experiencing and casting away the haunting suspicion it was all a dream or that it would not last. After 40 years of broken immobility, being held in a motionless prison, and dependent on the charity of others – he could now move. By the Grace of God and the power of His Holy Spirit, this man could do what he had never even dreamed of doing. He leapt and ran, with each step discovering all his new limbs were capable of. People all around began to worship and exalt God – as if his joy was contagious. Where others had shown him inaction, Peter and John showed up with action.

Third, he was invited in – This is remarkable because it is easy to imagine that his life up to that point had been on the receiving end of judgment. This man had somehow arranged to be set outside the temple gate that people called “Beautiful.” It was an ornate gate made of decorative bronze, and it was a famous sight that tourists would visit. This was an ideal place for a beggar to find crowds of people. What I want you to think about though is what this crippled man thought about God. As a cripple, he was not allowed in the temple court. Outside the gate, there were notices posted in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew warning those unqualified to stay out on penalty of death. Think about how this man had to think about God, the one that had overlooked him, rejected him, labeled him unacceptable, unworthy. The Beautiful Gate had become to him an ugly barrier. He must have felt invisible. In his culture, it was assumed when you were crippled that you or your parents had done some horrible wicked thing, and the infirmity was God’s way of punishing you. Everywhere he went (with his limited ability to travel) he was judged and looked down on. How was he to think of God as anything but the unloving, hateful judge? This is so important, and I don’t want you to miss it: Peter and John showing this man mercy, acceptance, and love actually helped this man rethink his assumptions about God. It enabled him to soften his heart and receive from God. It was through faith in Jesus that this man was able to be restored, and that faith is only possible with a receptive heart. Peter and John showed him the truth about Jesus through their LOVE. The first thing they do with him once he is on his feet is walk him right through the Beautiful Gate, into the Temple Court. He can enter now because he is whole. This gate had become a symbol of his separation from God, but that separation has been erased in Jesus.

****Thoughts for you and your teenager:
*This story is about faith in Jesus removing the barriers between a man and God. What barriers stand in between people and God today?
*Peter and John were the avenue of love, mercy, and acceptance to this man. Their love helped him rethink his concept of God. What do you think our culture’s perspective of God is? Why do you think that is? What should followers of Jesus do to reshape this perspective?
*Who do you identify with most in the story, Peter, John, the crowds, or the crippled man? Why?

Boring Teens to Death?

The 4th message in our series The Never Ending Story brought us to a passage that is comical and tragic at the same time. Acts 20:7-12 tells the story of a young man named Eutychus. Eutychus means “Lucky.” However, this guy was not so lucky. Paul is leaving the city of Troas in the morning, and I guess he is trying to make the most of his time. After an evening of “church,” Paul keeps preaching late into the night. Our lucky young man Eutychus is trying to stay awake, but he can’t. He falls asleep. Now this is a problem because the meeting is being held on the third story, and Eutychus was sitting in the window sill. When he falls asleep, he actually falls out of the window. It wasn’t the three story fall that killed him; it was the sudden stop as he hit the ground! This story is a bit amusing, but still pretty tragic. A young man dies in this story, right in the middle of their church service. Now, it does have a happy ending, because Paul raises him from the dead. This is one of only a few miracles like this in the whole Bible. What is crazy to me is that after this drama, Paul goes back up stairs to finish his message.

As someone who has given his life to help this generation of young people, this story hits me pretty hard. I have sat through some boring messages in my life, the kind you wish would end, and I am sure I have even delivered a few myself. I have to ask the question: why did this young man fall asleep? Why was he in the window? How did this happen? In many ways, a whole generation of young people have essentially “fallen asleep” when it comes to God’s Kingdom. What is going on? Is church boring teens to death?luke9_26

Was Eutychus bored? If so, I find this disturbing. Something has gone horribly wrong when the revolution that was started by Jesus Christ is viewed as boring. It means that we are under-challenging people and soft-peddling the gospel. I am not saying that everyone should be able to love the message of Jesus. It could be rejected as too hard, but it should never be boring. This is an assumption that I would really like to do my part to challenge. The message of Jesus is anything but boring and irrelevant.

Was Eutychus worn out? Maybe he was like many teenagers in this area – a bit overloaded with “stuff.” Maybe he had just finished his biology homework, knowing fell well that he still had that English essay and those Latin vocab words to memorize by tomorrow. Plus there is always a girlfriend to text, karate practice to attend, and a meeting for some future business leaders of Loudoun County that his dad made him join. Maybe he was just worn out. Maybe Eutychus had no time for what really matters because he was so busy with other stuff.

Was Eutychus overlooked? This is the one possibility that I really lose sleep over. One of my friends and ministry mentors told me a haunting story. When he was a youth pastor, he had an unremarkable boy named Brian Warner visit his youth ministry several times. The boy did not connect with anyone, make a friend, or try very hard to get involved. The group did not seem very interested in involving him or reaching out to him either. After a few weeks, he was gone. What makes this boy stand out a bit in the sea of nameless faces is that he is now known by a different name: Marilyn Manson. Just a thought – but his future could have been considerably different if one or two teens showed some hospitality or concern.

The thought that any teenager would feel like they do not matter or they do not belong breaks my heart. That should not be the case as long as God has any people living and breathing down here on earth. The Kingdom of God is in the business of ascribing unsurpassed worth to everyone, even those that might otherwise be overlooked or go unnoticed. Every student should matter, they should be seen, and they should be known. We talked out this week how it is the responsibility of all of us to make sure this never happens.

Echo exists because we are concerned about the teens that are sitting in the window in danger of falling asleep concerning the things of God. We want to seek out the teens like Eutychus, invite them off the window sill, and help them hear the challenge of the Gospel of Christ.

The Never Ending Story

never-ending-storyWhen I was a kid, my world was rocked by a movie called The Never Ending Story. A boy finds an old book, and as he reads he is drawn in to the adventure story. There are mythic creatures, heroes, and enemies; a beautiful empress (one of my first childhood crushes) and a world in peril. At some point, he realizes that he is actually in the story himself; that what happens in the story is connected to him in some way. Beyond his imagination and his connection with the characters, his choices in the world have a direct impact on the world in the book. As “imagination” dies in the real world, “The Nothing” claims more of the fantasy world.empress

The book of Acts in the Bible is sort of like this story. It doesn’t really have an ending; it ends abruptly with Paul in prison, almost like it is unfinished. This has led some people to believe its author died before it could be finished, but other people believe it was intentional. The book of Acts functions as a history of Christianity, telling the stories of the earliest followers of Jesus. Maybe the author intended it to be unfinished to imply that the story of Christianity continues with future readers. The story isn’t over, there is no ending, it continues with you and me. Reading the book of Acts, we might find that this story is our story: that we are actually connected to the book. In that regard, maybe it is the Never Ending Story.

This month in Echo, I am challenging our students to read through the book of Acts as we examine some of the episodes from the earliest days of the Jesus Revolution. As we explore the adventures of the first followers of Jesus and their quest to advance the Kingdom of God, we will be constantly asking the question: how can I find myself in this story?

Week 1, we talked out the role of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit sometimes doesn’t get much press. In the old creeds and catechisms (the way the Christian faith has been handed down for generations) Jesus and God the Father get paragraphs of explanation, but the Holy Spirit barely gets one line. Early in Acts, Jesus promised his disciples that when He left them, they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” That word baptized literally means “immersed.” John (the baptist!) immersed people in water as a symbol of being washed to be cleansed of sin. Jesus is saying to the disciples that they will be “immersed” in the Holy Spirit. It will be like they fell into the pool: they will be soaked, drenched, surrounded, and covered by the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, the event that follows, is when the first Christians receive the Holy Spirit. This event is what opens the book of Acts, clearly demonstrating that everything that follows is the result of the Holy Spirit working through these first Christians.

This is AWESOME. The Holy Spirit at work through the followers of Jesus a major theme in the book of Acts. You will see over and over again the phrase “…filled with the Holy Spirit.” It is very clear that what is happening is not because of the people, it is because of the power of God through the Holy Spirit. They did some amazing things in this story. Thousands of people join the Way of Jesus through their ministry, people are physically and spiritually healed, and dramatic miracles take place all because of the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Some of the time, we do not experience God like we could because we are too impatient. We do not give God the chance to show up. We want our relationship with the King of Heaven to work like the microwave: giving us what we want immediately at the push of a button. The thought of waiting for days in prayer like they did in Acts 2 sounds boring and tedious, because much of our faith experience is just “going through the motions.” What if we recognized that we serve a God that wants to be experienced? What if we prayed and worshiped like there is a God that is real and powerful and wants to be with us and near us on the other end of our songs and prayers? If we could settle down, tune out all the distractions, and invite the presence and power of God into our lives? It might not be fireballs and whirlwinds, but we can be sure it would be something that would impact the way we live out the mission of God in this world.

Jesus taught that the power behind his extraordinary life was the Holy Spirit, and that this power was going to be given to His followers when he returned to heaven. I was taught growing up that there was a part of God that was best understood through experience, and that this was the Holy Spirit. The biblical metaphors for the Holy Spirit are wind, fire, water, and oil. All these things are hard to contain, fluid, and evoke some sort of mystery. Maybe this is a case where our head can get in the way of what God wants to do in our hearts. What I do know is that the times in my faith journey that were most transforming were when I encountered the real presence and power of the very real and very personal Holy Spirit. Not as a nice idea, but as the actual Person of God reaching down to earth.