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March 2020

Paul’s Timeline: A Change of Heart

      I want to share with you a person’s change of heart. I want to paint a picture of his movement from being a brash proclaimer to becoming a sensitive cross cultural missionary. This person is the great apostle Paul.

      Let me start with a verse describing Paul’s way of ministry. He goes to a place of prayer. He sits down with women and talks to them. (Acts 16:13) I think this is unusual for Paul to do. I say this because from an earlier narrative, we see Paul rebuking demons, confronting authorities, preaching fearlessly to Jewish men at a synagogue, and leaving a worker (John Mark) behind for “purist reasons.” (More on this later.) But now, we witness his new approach, that of personable visit with a woman named Lydia. What Paul is doing here is a shift of perspective, a change of strategy, or perhaps a gentler way of doing missionary work. Let me explain by going back a few chapters earlier.

      In Acts chapter 13, we see Paul enjoying some measure of success in Cyprus and Pisidian Antioch. In Cyprus, he publicly confronted a local magician and experienced a miraculous work. In Antioch (Pisidia), he preached a fiery sermon leading many people to believe. These are confrontational ways of doing ministry. He had relative success, but still an aggressive approach to winning people to the faith.

      In Acts chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas entered a synagogue in Iconium, and after a time of ministry, they were threatened with stoning. They had to flee the place. When they came to Lystra, Paul, in a loud voice, uttered healing to a person in front of everyone, which resulted in a public uproar. Many of the locals thought Paul and Barnabas were gods, divine beings pretending to be humans. This resulted, eventually, with the crowd stoning Paul and Barnabas. They miraculously survived the persecution and went on their way to other places with much greater results.

      It is fair to say that Paul’s earlier method of missionary work was aggressive and confrontational. After the Jerusalem Council in Acts chapter 15, we see Paul with a change of heart. What I am trying to say here is that Paul’s timeline was a movement from an inexperienced missionary to being a wise and careful one. Before he was combative and rash. Later in Acts chapter 16, we see him as gentle and considerate of the opinion of the general public. He even had a companion go through circumcision, just to appease some Jewish opinions. (See, Acts 16:3) We clearly see Paul’s mellow approach to ministry when he chose to visit a place of prayer “by the riverside” and not the usual synagogue. He decided to meet up with the women rather than with the leading men of the area. Change of plans? Looks like it. Doing the ministry in a gentler way? Definitely!

      Paul’s timeline here is that he is becoming a more mature worker. He is listening to people, the prayerful women in the area, and avoids outright confrontation. It did not mean that because he was becoming gentler, he was able to stop the violent resistance to the preaching of the word. In fact, Acts chapter 16 mentions the casting out of a demon possessed slave girl, the violence that ensued, and the incarceration of Paul and Silas in a Philippian jail. There was still an adverse reaction to the preaching of the gospel, but this time it was not a direct result of Paul and his company’s work of ministry. (See, Acts 16:19 and 17:5) In Thessalonica, they encountered another violent reaction to their preaching. At this point, Paul allowed the local believers to whisk him away to safer locations, away from the violence. (See, Acts 17:10) A change of heart? Looks like it. Doing ministry in a gentler, non-confrontational way? Definitely!

      Let me suggest at this point that Paul’s change of heart is a conversion to a cross cultural way of doing ministry. This is usually a gentler approach and avoiding unnecessary confrontation. Most of the time this approach results in nonviolent ways, but almost always leads to a dialogue and a healthy exchange of mutual understanding and respect. I am suggesting here that Paul’s conversion or change of perspective is a cross cultural ministry conversion. We see this shift clearly when Paul visits Athens and meets up with the Greek philosophers. His speech in the midst of the Areopagus is full of common themes that Greeks can relate to. He is becoming more sensitive to the people’s ways and enters their world with an astute admiration for their beliefs. Do you remember Paul’s reference to the “unknown god” in his speech? (See, Acts 17:22-31). Movement to maturity? Looks like it. A cross cultural way of doing ministry? Definitely!

      One more thing. People who are converted to cross cultural ministry are very forgiving. They are able to accept the faults of others and are open to second chances. They are also quick to admit their own short comings. Look at Paul. At first, he did not want John Mark to be included in the work. (Acts 15:37-38) Later, however, he changed his mind. He stopped his “purist reasons” and opened his heart to a fellow worker with a storied past. (See, Colossians 4:10 and 2 Timothy 4:11) Paul recommended John Mark to the ministry.

      Do you see Paul’s shift of perspective from this cursory study of Acts chapters 13-16? The Lukan narrative of Paul’s visit with Lydia was the turning point of Paul’s change of heart. From Acts 16:13 and onwards, we see Paul practicing a gentler way of doing missionary work. From this point on, we could now consider Paul as a seasoned cross cultural missionary.

      Do you know anyone who has been converted to cross cultural ministry? Is his or her timeline similar to Paul’s timeline? How can we help someone experience a change of heart just like Paul did? What are the ways of becoming a mature and sensitive cross cultural ministry worker?

Disciplines For a Difficult Time: “Weakness in God”

      (This is a sermon I shared last February 9, 2020.)

      There is a common greeting we often use in the Christian circles. It says: “I thank God for you.” Whenever you remember a friend who has prayed for you, or a pastor who has mentored you to Christian maturity, you can thank them for their help. Let us be thankful today that we are able to worship God as a community. Please turn to your seat mates and say “I thank God for you.”

      Paul uses this sentence in his opening remarks in his letter to the Corinthians. If we read 1 Corinthians 1:4-9, we will see that Paul mentions the reason why he is thankful. God will “keep you steadfast in the faith to the end.” (Phillips) God is faithful. He will take us to the end, to the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

      Today, we will talk about some ways a Christian can stay “steadfast” or remain faithful as we wait for the end, for the revealing of Christ. Imagine a straight line, and we are here. We need to be there. So, we encourage each other as we walk towards “there” and we say: I thank God for you.

      Where do we start? Let us start with Paul. He says: “I was with you in weakness.” Let us start with Paul’s understanding of this idea of weakness. Please read, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (ESV)

      Imagine a straight line. We are here. We need to be there, in the fullness of the presence of God. We start, together with Paul, in a life that is live everyday in our “weakness in God.” What is this weakness? It is not the opposite of power. It is based on a faith that rests in the power of God. We cannot be boastful. We continue walking this straight line knowing that our strength comes from the power of God alone. In the end, all we need to hear are the words: “I thank God for you.”

      Paul explains to us what happens when we have the “weakness in God.” In verse one, he states that we proclaim the testimony of God. Weakness in God is not quiet or lonely. It is full of proclamation of God’s goodness. Maybe it comes in simple words or ordinary speech, but it always speaks of God’s power and glory. What is Paul’s experience? Paul narrates a “thorn in the flesh” that humbles him in many ways.  Experts say this is an eye ailment that makes him unpleasant to look at. Whatever this “thorn” might be, it brings Paul to his knees in prayer and humble submission. In the end, he can declare God’s power and strength. He says: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (See, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Today, we benefit so much from Paul’s ministry. So, if Paul was here, we can tell him, I thank God for you.

      Paul also describes this weakness in God as demonstrating the power of the Spirit. (See, 1 Corinthians 2:4-5.) Let me suggest three ways we can demonstrate the power of the Spirit of God. I am suggesting that these three ways will help us be steadfast in our faith, until the end, the revelation of our Lord. I am also suggesting that we do these three ways together as a community, as a church. So, if we imagine a straight line, these three ways will keep us focused and help bring us there. And every time we practice these three ways, we say to our brothers and sisters: “I thank God for you.”

      The first way is the way of living a simple life. The second way is the way of generous giving. The third is the way of prayer. Imagine a straight line to our goal to be with Jesus. These three ways will help us stay on course, to follow the line towards our goal. Of course, there are many other ways or practices, but these three help us understand the idea of “weakness in God” as Paul explains in this book of Corinthians.

      So, let us start with the first way of simple living. This is a life that is live in simplicity and frugality. Simplicity could mean doing things to reflect our “weakness in God.” Maybe, we can be “weak” for God by volunteering for simple chores, such as cooking or cleaning, and without the fanfare or the public recognition that people nowadays expect from public service. Simple living could also mean saying “no” and practicing abstinence, such as not buying the latest smart phone or avoiding spending lavishly on an expensive dinner for a special person. What are other things you can refrain from doing or buying to be consistent in living a simple life? Maybe, choosing a simplier vacation for your family instead of an expensive trip to Disneyland. There are many ways of expressing this discipline of simple living.

      How do we know if a Christian is practicing this spiritual discipline of simplicity. Pastor Denny Wayman suggests that we see the practice together with the fruit of the Spirit of God. He mentions that these persons practicing the way of living a simple life is full of joy and contentment. They are not concerned with what other people would say about their lifestyle. I would say, they are weak in people’s eyes, but strong with the power of God in their lives. They are also full of the spiritual fruit of self-control. They know God is in control of their money, time, and gifts. The fruit of the Spirit of joy and self-control is abundant in the lives of these Christians. (Compare, Denny Wayman. 2019. Discipleship Ecosystem: Developing the Fruit of the Spirit by the Presence of God.)

      Do you know of anyone who is living a simple life? Is there anyone in your congregation who chooses to live a frugal life that translates  into laughter, joy, and contentment? When you see your brother or sister practicing the simple lifestyle, make sure you encourage him or her, and say: “I thank God for you.”

      Paul also experienced this simple living. In 1 Corinthians 9:8-18, he tells the Corinthian members that he is not claiming his right to a good salary as a Christian worker. He earned his living as a tent maker (Acts 18:3). He leaves behind all the privileges of an apostle for the sake of the gospel. What then should we say to Paul? We say: “I thank God for you.”

      The second way is being a generous giver. This means giving money, giving our time, or giving our services to God for other people. In 1 Corinthians 13:3, it states: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” The people who practice this discipline of generous giving are full of the fruit of love from the Spirit of God. Do you know anyone who is giving sacrificially to God? Please take the time to thank them. Go up to them and say: “I thank God for you.”

      Another fruit of the Spirit that is present among Christians who are practicing the discipline of generous giving is the fruit of patience. When you have more time, please read 2 Corinthians 9:11-15. Paul is describing here of the generosity of the Corinthian believers. He reminds them that “God is able to make all grace abound” in all things (verse 8). This means that it is God’s job to multiply our gifts and offerings, to make them grow. For us, our job is to give with a generous and loving spirit. This attitude requires a lot of patience. Because, in this day and age, we are so conditioned to always look for results and financial gain to our investments. When we give money, our brain is wired to ask the question: “How much return can I get for my gift?” We need to be patient. God is in control. He will bring in the increase in his own time.

      In the eyes of the world, generous giving is a weak thing. But in God’s eyes, this “weakness in God” will be rewarded. God will multiply your gifts (2 Corinthians 9:10-11). Do you know of people who are generous in their giving? Please take the time to talk to them and say to them: “I thank God for you.”

      The third way is the discipline of prayer. Prayer is simply talking to God. As a discipline, it draws us closer to God and keeps us focused on walking the straight line to our goal of being with God forever. We can exercise this discipline better when we apply it to our daily life, more specifically to our moment to moment breathing. When we breathe in, think of God’s goodness, love, and all the fruit of the Spirit entering your body. When you breathe out, imagine all the bad thoughts, the unwholesome habits, and other unhealthy ways coming out of your body. There are many other methods of applying this discipline. You can however, start with prayer as the way of breathing in God’s presence into your life. Every time you remember something good and lovely in your life, breathe in and say: “I thank God for these things.”

      Persons who practice this discipline of prayer are full of the fruit of the Spirit of faithfulness. They trust in God in all circumstances. Here is a practical way of applying this discipline. Close your eyes and enter into prayer. Think of a very difficult situation in your life. Imagine the pain and struggle you are going through. Now, while you are in the midst of this difficulty, listen to what Jesus said to Paul. In the middle of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, or his trials and tribulations, he hears his Lord say: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV) You can trust in Jesus. God will be with you. Breathe in his presence in your life. Say with me: “I thank God.”

      We can practice these three ways of simplicity, generosity, and prayer, and live out a life of “weakness in God” that helps us become steadfast in our faith. So, if we imagine a straight line, these three ways will keep us focused, move us forward, and bring us there in the fullness of the presence of God.

      How do we make this sharing time on the “weakness of God” relevant to our everyday life? I am going to suggest that we ask ourselves three questions: (a) Am I living a simple and joyful life?; Am I living a generous and loving life?; and (c) Is my prayer bringing me closer to God? Even much better is for you to meet up with your prayer partners and share with them these questions. Give them permission to ask you these questions. Make yourselves accountable to each other. Spend time with these friends. And as you go on your ways, make sure you thank your prayer partners for allowing you to practice the “weakness in God” through your friendships. Say to them: “I thank God for you.”

(This was a sermon shared at Higher Ground International Fellowship, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 2020 February.)

Facing a Pandemic in the Lenten Season

    This coming Easter Sunday, I will be dedicating Baby Tala, a year old baby from one of our international family here in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. With the Corona virus outbreak, however, we are thinking of creative ways to continue with the baby dedication ceremony. What are a the ways of celebrating a baby dedication without touching, being present to each other, or speaking at close range? How can we continue with the ceremony, and still respect other members who are taking serious precaution against the spread of an infection? Would a virtual meeting do justice to the occasion? What would you suggest?

    Here in Asia, many churches are canceling their Sunday services. Some Free Methodist churches here in Taiwan are doing the same. One church I am helping, Higher Ground International Fellowship (HGIF), is following soon. We are slowly thinking of ways to manage our videos and online postings of worship songs and sermons. We are doing this to follow the advice of our local leaders and also prevent the spread of a contagious disease.

    COVID-19 is now a pandemic, as declared by WHO a few days ago. We continue to pray for God’s grace to help us, especially the families who are mourning the loss of a love one or suffering due to an affected family member. We pray for strength for the doctors and medical specialist who are out there on the front lines helping people. We pray for wisdom for the leaders of our nations as they find solutions to stopping the onslaught of this pandemic.

    We had to cancel a missions trip to South Asia (NP). Our teachers, Pastors Ron and Jim, had to reschedule their coming from Michigan to Asia to later this year. We did not have a choice. Many of our Asian airports and border crossing situation have become so unpredictable. Many flights had been cancelled. The risk was too great to take. I am sure you all know this by now.

    The world is reeling from the threat brought by this pandemic. Sports events are cancelled in the USA. Cities are locked down in Italy and China. Schools are closing in Korea and other countries. I am sure everyone is feeling uneasy and experiencing discomfort. Maybe some are going through suffering. A few are in pain. We are still on the Lenten Season. We are reminded that Jesus himself went through these things we are experiencing—discomfort, suffering, and pain. Paul says: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Corinthians 1:5 ESV) My prayer is that we experience God’s comfort all our days.