April 30

But I need something more!  For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help!  I realize that I don’t have what it takes.  I can will it, but I can’t do it.  Romans 7:21-23

We’ve come to the end of our artificial schedule of 12-step devotionals on the fourth step.

Month-by-month, we will continue to keep step with the 12 steps that so many have found helpful as they seek to find freedom from bondage.

It’s not a bad thing to come to the end of this step and realize that we do not have what it takes. 

Stop.  Listen.  Do you hear the dropping of the chains of expectation? 

Paul wrote about his need for more, his willpower was strong, but his capacity to do was weak.   He confesses that he has tried everything – and nothing helped.  Can you relate?  Have you tried countless self-improvement projects, only to sink into the bitter pit of disappointment at your own inability to carry the project across the goal line of completion?

Paul doesn’t leave us in despair.  He provides us an answer filled with hope.  But to access the hope, we must set aside our need to self-improve; our illusions that “we can do it” with enough self-effort.  Let’s end the month, a tough month, with Paul’s encouraging words.  As a dear friend of mine says, may your roots sink deep, as you meditate on the source of all sustaining hope….

The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.  He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different….

We are all contradictions, but we trust in a Savior who sets things right.  May we sink deep into this truth, and see what happens.  Amen.

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April 29

Scripture reading for today: Acts 27-28

The story of Acts is one that is ongoing.  It is not the story of the perfect church, or an ideal to which we must conform.  It is merely recounting the response of Jesus’ closest followers to Jesus’ teaching, life, death, and resurrection.  I should clarify, though, that this story is not one of humans working on their own.  This is the continued story of God at work in the world, through his people, as he slowly brings about his “kingdom” and accomplishes his purposes on earth. 

There are a series of churches out there today that call themselves “Acts 29” churches.  Acts only has 28 chapters, so it’s sort of a clever way of saying that today’s church is the extension of what we see in Acts.  I happen to think that is kinda nice.  It reminds us that our task is not simply to try and emulate or recreate a previous version of the church that no longer exists but instead to recognize the mission of that church and try to apply it in our various contexts today.  This language probably sounds very church-y, as if I’m about to tell you that you just need to go out and “preach the gospel”.  This is not quite what I mean.  I do not mean that we simply need to find ways to tell people that they are sinners and that they need grace, this is an unfairly reductionist portrayal of the gospel message.  Instead, I mean that we need to align ourselves with the liberating message Jesus brings in all its forms.  This means everything from battling injustices in the world to the personal liberation from sin individuals have access to through Jesus.  The gospel message is much larger than just this latter point.  It means learning to care for our world and for other people even as we learn to care for ourselves in all facets of life.  The 12 steps are a great aid to us in this process.  They teach us helpful practices that enliven the way we view ourselves and our standing before God while also teaching us how to care for others, particularly those we have wronged. 

Step 4 really has us wrestle, perhaps for the first time, with the nature of our own character.  Often times, we like to view ourselves through “rose-colored glasses”.  In other words, we tend to view our “character” in much more positive terms than our behavior might indicate we should.  It can be a very dark and trying time to realize you might not be the person you thought you were.  I’m not here to make you feel bad about the fact that you’re not actually a “great person”, though.  We all have failures and shortcomings.  I would encourage you, as you go through step 4, to both allow yourselves to experience pain of a searching and fearless moral inventory while clinging to the hope that we can be restored.  Ultimately, we need to give up our hope that our pasts will change and find some hope that God will work in us and continue to work in us from this point forward.  Acts shows us that God does not stop working in the world when Jesus dies and is resurrected.  He is still active and moving and we can join in on his action if we’re willing to persevere through difficult times such as those we experience when we utilize resources like the 12 steps.

April 28

Recommended reading:  Acts 27-28

Who doesn’t love a good shipwreck?  Especially if we’re not on the boat!  In today’s reading, we can hear a fantastical story about Paul and two hundred seventy-six of his fellow shipmates, shipwrecked on an island – without the loss of a single life.

This didn’t mean that the sailors didn’t try to kill people. 

Paul, onboard as a prisoner, not as a guest on a fancy cruise ship, tried to tell the captain of the disaster that would befall them if they put out to sea.  The captain decided to ignore Paul, and rely on his personal experience to push on to a safer harbor, rather than remain in the current harbor, known for its barely minimal shelter.  He was wrong.

Nevertheless, in spite of all sorts of attempts to make poor choices and self-serving decisions, God manages to get everyone to shore safely – in spite of the foolishness of the crew.

If you have the time, and are so inclined, read the rest of Acts.  Notice how obvious the reason for God’s saving grace is when you see what Paul does inRome– his eventual destination.

Do you feel like you’re on a ship about to hit a reef?  Are you thinking of all sorts of desperate measures to rescue yourself and maybe even others that you love?

I would encourage each of us to consider the shipwreck of Paul and his companions – reluctant partners in following the call of God. 

God is up to stuff, the likes of which is beyond our ability to comprehend.  As we continue this devotional series, we will have more opportunities to listen and respond to the voice of the good Shepherd, in the meantime, may we continue to take the next right step.

April 27

Scripture reading for today: Acts 6-7

We’re shifting gears a bit as we head back into the New Testament to look at a few passages from Acts.  I should probably talk about the death of Stephen here, or the introduction of Saul as a character in this story, but I find myself intrigued by the opening scene of chapter 6 instead.  Evidently there is a dispute over the food distribution and this leads to a meeting between the disciples.  They said, “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables.”  This seems like a pretty confusing thing to say, doesn’t it?  Isn’t service and servant leadership a legitimate biblical theme? 

Acts is the sequel to Luke, written by the same person (probably).  Luke 22:26-27 says, “But that’s not the way it will be with you.  Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant.  So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table?  Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.”  In this passage Jesus is drawing attention to the way that status works in thekingdomofGod.  It is not defined or determined by conventional earthly means.  On earth, we view those sitting at the table receiving service as having the greatest status.  In God’s kingdom, in the territory where God rules, status is defined in terms of self-sacrifice and service.  Have the disciples in Acts already forgotten Jesus’ instruction? 

I would suggest that no, they have not.  Perhaps it is because the disciples very much value acts of service and taking care of the widows that they come to this conclusion.  The church has been growing and so it is becoming unmanageable for “the Twelve” to keep up with everything.  It’s not that they do not value the care of the poor and the downtrodden, it’s that they lack resources.  They very much care for the concept of servant leadership and see the value of taking care of their community, this is why they enlist help.  They don’t just let anyone manage the daily distribution of food either, the people they select must be well-respected and the Holy Spirit must have given them great wisdom. 

I think that this is important for a few reasons.  First, I think recovery communities tend to have more “widows” in them than a typical community.  I’m using the term “widow” here to represent the poor, hurting, damaged, marginalized people that tend to end up in need of recovery.  I think it is comforting to be able to look at this passage and be able to see how valuable you are to your church community, even when you may not feel valuable out in “the world”.  Also, it lets you know what you can expect and ask for in the context of your community (if it’s Christian, obviously the Bible shouldn’t really be used to tell non-Christians how to behave).  If you are deeply in need, the church should be the type of place that addresses this need. 

Point number two, the idea of servant leadership is an important one for those working the twelve steps, probably more so as you get towards the end, so I’m cheating today by discussing a topic that looks more like step 12.  These steps start us on a journey of learning about ourselves, about how we interact with God, and how we interact with others.  For Christians in recovery, this journey is further shaped by the Bible and our desire to grow as disciples.  So today I would encourage you to keep in mind passages such as this one when you do step 12, for instance, this way you can allow the Bible and the 12 steps to be mutually educational as you work through the recovery process.

April 26

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed – he only had eyes for God, whom he saw in all his gory with Jesus standing at his side.  Acts 7:55 The Message

Recommended reading:  Acts 6-7

Stephen was such a good guy; and it earned him nothing but trouble, an eventual death-by-mob, dragged out of town and pelted with rocks until he died.  As they killed him, He prayed, “Master, don’t blame them for this sin” – his last words.  Then he died.  (Does this story remind you of another story we recently celebrated as Christians around the globe?)

One of our early introductions to Stephen came in chapter 6 of Acts.  Stephen, brimming with God’s grace and energy, was doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.

We’re on the home stretch of step four.  Hopefully, we’ve been unloading a lot of junk in our trunk and finding some treasures along the way.  We’re making a list of both junk and treasure and calling it our inventory. 

Wherever we are on this journey, Stephen offers us hope and encouragement.  It was as he focused on God and brimmed with God’s grace and energy – bigger than himself and any personal inventory he could ever have compiled – Stephen did wonderful things in his community.  Inevitably, petty jealousies led to the false accusations and stoning of Stephen. 

Why is this encouraging?  For me, it is perhaps a sign of aging – so forgive me in advance! – but this world never seems to live up to its hype.  Even if your personal inventory is all in the “win” column of godly living, there will always be someone eager to tarnish your reputation, even if they have to lie to do so.  Maudlin?  No, I think not.  More like realistic. 

So lest we forget – thank God life is bigger than our personal experiences, our disappointments, our heartaches or even our reputations. 

Finish up that inventory because it’s good work; but don’t take your eyes off of God, for it is from him, not our perfect performing, that we will find the grace and energy to do wonderful things among the people in our community.

April 25

Scripture reading for today: 1 Kings 8-11

The past few days we’ve talked about wisdom, and used Solomon as a positive example of someone who sought out wisdom from God.  1 Kings 3-7 offer a number of examples of Solomon’s great wisdom at work.  However, as is the case with many biblical characters, Solomon did not “end well”.  He became obsessed with wealth and women and ultimately they turned his heart away from the one true God and towards other lesser gods.  11:6 even tells us that Solomon’s heart was not completely inclined toward God in the same way as his father David.  (Side note: I think this is an interesting point to consider.  The Bible seems to consider David a hero of the faith pretty unanimously, despite his many shortcomings.  I guess this goes to show that our mistakes don’t have to define our legacy.) 

It’s sad, in a way, that Solomon goes from being a man revered for his God-given wisdom to a man stripped of his legacy.  Perhaps Solomon got arrogant, perhaps he got complacent.  Continuing with the theme of wisdom, this story certainly indicates that wisdom requires maintenance.  Once God grants wisdom, this does not mean that the journey towards becoming “wise” is over.  Solomon was not diligent and did not continue to seek wisdom.  Instead he allowed his ear to be inclined to the various sirens he took as wives. 

I suspect that this is not a foreign concept to us, either.  There have been numerous people and families who have been active at NorthStar over the years who, over time, seem to exhibit wise traits.  They work their recovery program hard.  They remain steadfastly devoted to the process of renewal, rebuilding, and transformation.  They make wise choices and experience various positive transitions in life as a result.  And yet, they do not “end well”.  Do you know anyone like this?  It is not uncommon.  It is very difficult to perpetually and diligently seek wisdom, and to seek to learn, know, and do God’s will in our lives.  Our community also has some very dear souls whose appearance may fool you, looking kind of roughed up by life, they provide discernment week after week to those willing to share in community with them.

This is the challenge that we face as we learn to seek God’s will while working the 12 steps.  We cannot afford to get complacent or arrogant or think that we’ve reached a plateau and we no longer need to work.  For the steps to be an affective method of seeking God we need to be willing to constantly work at them.  So as you take a personal moral inventory and as you seek wisdom in the process, know that this is the beginning of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.

April 24

Since this is the way it is with you, that you have no intention of keeping faith with me and doing what I have commanded, I’m going to rip the kingdom from you and hand it over to someone else.  But out of respect for your father David I won’t do it in your lifetime.  It’s your son who will pay – I’ll rip it right out of his grasp.  Even then I won’t take it all; I’ll leave him one tribe in honor of my servant David and out of respect for my chosen city Jerusalem.”  1 Kings 11:11-13 The Message

Recommended reading:  1 Kings 8 – 11

God isn’t asking us to live in perfect obedience to him like some insecure ‘god’ in search of endless words of affirmation and approval.  If this were the nature of God, could he approve of David?  David, who was not only a man after God’s own heart, but was a guy who went after the wife of Uriah, one of his loyal soldiers?

God knows he made us from dust.

God continues to ask us to consider our intentions.

As we think about our inventories, our intentions will be revealed.  As we continue to progress in our stepping, provision has been made for unintentional and ill-intentioned living to be dealt with restoratively.

But Solomon’s life provides us a warning we might want to consider heeding.  If we continue to show God that our intentions are NOT to keep faith with him, he will believe us.  And love us.  And maybe appropriate consequences.  All this believing and loving won’t be easy to ferret out and understand.  Consequences may be so delayed we miss the cause.

I don’t know if this makes sense to you or not – but understanding good and bad, right and wrong, fortune or misfortune – seems really hard.  As I age, I realize that things I thought were good turn out to seem like a bad thing; events that seem like they are bad, turn out to be blessings.  It’s all so very confusing.  Let’s hope Scott clears this up tomorrow.