Friday, July 8, 2011

Comfort with Curiosity

David said, “What have I done now? It was only a question.” (1 Samuel 17.29)


The juxtaposition of today’s Old and New Testament readings borders on brilliance. The Old Testament passage (1 Samuel 17.17-30) sets up the famous story of David and Goliath, while the New Testament (Acts 10.34-48) concludes Peter’s celebrated epiphany of Christian inclusion. Both thrust their heroes into uncommon situations, where they do extraordinary things. How each responds to his challenge and the route each takes to accomplish it are markedly different, however. Contrasting the two is where our lesson comes to light.

The High Noon finale of the David-Goliath showdown throws the story off-kilter. Itching for the climax, we breeze by its explanation of how an underage shepherd ends up on a battlefield, as if kids are regular figures in biblical warfare. But David’s arrival in the Valley of Elah—site of the latest Israelite-Philistine skirmish—ruffles feathers. His father, Jesse, sends him to deliver rations to three older brothers (with 10 cheeses for the commander, a not-so-subtle request that the officer look out for his sons). The errand is a boon providing the youth a break from the tedium of tending sheep and, better still, a glimpse of military life. David reaches camp as Israel heads into battle. He drops his parcels and rushes to catch his brothers before the fighting begins. There will be no fighting, though, as today goes like the previous 40. Israel’s troops take the field, Goliath taunts them to send someone out to face him one-on-one, and the entire battalion hightails it back to camp.

This isn’t what David expected. Being a curious teen, he asks if King Saul’s put a price on Goliath’s head. He has—one of great wealth, marriage to his daughter (making the victor a prince), and freedom from debt and servitude for the victor’s family. Eliab, the first-born, overhears David and goes off in typical big-brother style. “Why are you here?” he rants. “Who’s looking after the sheep? You think I don’t know what you’re up to? You’re here to check out the battle!” You’ve got to love David’s reply, because it’s a classic adolescent comeback. “What have I done now?” he groans. “It was only a question.” He shrugs Eliab off and inquires again about the reward. Once it’s confirmed, David hatches a plan.

Lack of Curiosity

Peter’s story is the opposite of David’s. He receives a personal invitation from a military officer. Yet Peter must renounce lack of curiosity before he can fulfill God’s purpose for calling him there. Here’s the back-story. An Italian centurion named Cornelius stationed in Caesarea has embraced the Christian faith. As a Gentile and imperial officer, his exposure to teaching and fellowship is limited, since the Church still functions as a Jewish sect—a problem he’ll be instrumental in correcting. Based on what he sees from the disciples, Cornelius and his household devoutly imitate practices like prayer and charity. All the same, having no pastoral guidance severely stunts their spiritual growth. While praying one afternoon, an angel instructs Cornelius to send for Peter, who’s presently in Joppa (roughly 35 miles away). The centurion dispatches two servants and a soldier to invite the apostle to visit and escort him to Caesarea.

As the escort journeys to Joppa the next day, Peter too is praying. He too has a vision. But, unlike Cornelius, he resists the experience. It’s noon. While his host prepares lunch, Peter falls into a trance. A sheet falls from the sky with non-kosher animals inside it. A voice tells him to kill and eat them. Peter knows better. “Surely not, Lord!” he protests. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” (Acts 10.14) The voice scolds him. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (v15) He gets a second chance, then a third, and each time it doesn’t occur to him to wonder why he should obey. He hangs onto his questions until the trance lifts, taking his answers with it.

Peter is still trying to figure things out when his escort arrives. Only when he hears Cornelius’s account of the angelic visitation does he start to understand. The centurion ends with, “So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” (v33) Aha! Peter finally gets it. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him,” he exclaims. We’ll never know who’s more astonished by this revelation—Peter or Cornelius.

God-Given Faculty

Too many of us are led to think honest curiosity mars faith and obediencethat questioning what we see and hear will only upset people and hurt us. Rubbish! Look at the difference between David and Peter. When David's baffled by what he sees, he asks questions. Though he’s essentially told to shut up and get lost, he keeps asking. Comfort with curiosity results in a thing far more spectacular than a boy felling a giant. His triumph over Goliath launches David’s destiny and resets Israel’s course for greatness. In contrast, Peter’s reluctance to question puts him in a fog. Were it not for Cornelius’s curiosity about Christ and how discipleship works, Peter’s confusion nearly costs his opportunity to establish the Church as the all-inclusive Body of Christ. As Its leader, he alone can make that happen. And he comes perilously close to missing the message.

Questions aren’t doubts; they’re tools. Curiosity is our God-given faculty to expand our understanding and vision of what God wants us to do. It separates mighty children from measly warriors, fervent followers from religious robots. Had Adam and Eve asked questions instead of believing what they were told, their story would have ended on a happier note. (And we wouldn’t be in such a mess.) Had Noah’s neighbors been comfortable with curiosity, they would have boarded the ark. Had Sodom’s death squad inquired who Lot’s visitors were, they would have escaped their gruesome fate. Failure to question facilitates failure. It’s a tale as old as time, the inevitable outcome of being afraid to appear naïve or unorthodox—when in reality, only those who are curious can reap benefits that Christ promises in Matthew 7.7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

O God of wonder, restore our comfort with curiosity. Teach us to save ourselves from failure to question so that we may live faithfully and obediently as You desire. Amen.

Curiosity is God's means of endowing us with courage to ask questions and find clarity to accomplish what we're called to do. Failure to question facilitates failure.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. (Acts 9.36-37)

First Nature

The story of Dorcas offers a vital lesson for anyone striving to follow her example. She’s a disciple devoted to good works and charitable acts—which means she’s passionately committed to honoring Christ through active service to others. One senses she’s her faith community’s “go-to” person, the one who habitually sets aside personal concerns and desires when she's needed. Eagerness to help may be second nature to her. We all know uncommonly compassionate souls who draw great satisfaction from serving others. Their capacity to please seems bottomless and our certainty it springs from a healthy well comes from them seeking nothing in return for their goodness.

Dorcas very well could be that type of person. But even so, Acts attributes her behavior to discipline and devotion, clearly suggesting it’s driven by obedience to Christ rather than personal fulfillment as a do-gooder. Second nature or not, her generosity and kindness are now first nature to her, signifying the radical change of perspective that every believer undergoes when committing to Christ’s will and ways. The NFL legend Gale Sayers beautifully summarized the disciple’s calling as, “God first, others second, and I am third.” That’s what we see in Dorcas, whose preeminent desire to please her Maker is evidenced in tireless efforts on others’ behalf. In telling her story, Luke slips in a superb example, as grieving widows who gather with Peter around her corpse bring out “tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” (Acts 9.39)

Pragmatic and Unimaginable

When illness takes Dorcas from her community, she leaves a hole that sets off panic among its leaders. They call Peter from nearby Lydda for support and guidance. Assessing the situation, he discerns her invaluable service makes her irreplaceable. His response is both pragmatic and unimaginable. He sends everyone from the room and talks to God. Having just witnessed God’s power to rejuvenate the paralyzed limbs of a bedridden man in Lydda, Peter believes total rejuvenation is possible for Dorcas. According to verses 40-42, “He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

If we’re to gain full benefit from this story, we need to quit our post as onlookers and reenter it through Dorcas’s newly opened eyes. Our first seconds of rejuvenation confuse us. Not only is our consciousness restored, we’ve regained strength lost to disease and fatigue. We’ve received a miraculous gift! Then no sooner do we realize what we’ve been given than the same people whose demands and expectations wore us down return. Yes, they love us and their excitement with our revival is genuine. But wound into their happiness is also a benignly selfish hope our work will resume. We wait for the inevitable: “How soon will you feel like helping out?” What do we do with that? Should we resent it? Or can we find strength to be gratified that our service is so essential? Human instinct veers toward the former. Faith-driven discipleship steers toward the latter.

Abiding Trust

We authenticate our discipleship through selfless devotion to good works and acts of love. James nails this principle when he writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2.14-17) Wishing the best for those without is anathema to people of faith. Working to provide what’s best for them is how we best witness belief in Christ’s teaching and model. This applies to more than physical and financial needs. We respond in the same way when we detect emotional and spiritual deficiencies in others’ lives.

We master these challenges by tapping reserves of faith, love, and abundance. Since we’re surrounded with profoundly deprived souls, we often scrape the bottom of the barrel, offering our last ounces of energy, strength, and love along with material assets at our disposal. As people of faith, we don’t let fear of personal need hinder our discipleship and devotion, however. Following Christ transforms us from voluntarily kind and giving people into invaluable, irreplaceable individuals who habitually answer others’ needs with selfless generosity and compassion. We’re comfortable creating needs in our own lives in service to others because we trust God to rejuvenate us and replenish our store.

Isaiah 40.31 assures us, “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” The Hebrew word translated as “hope” conveys abiding trust that rejuvenation will come—waiting, not wishing, when, not if. Dorcas gave until, for all practical purposes, she could possibly give no more. But God said, “Not so!” At the Holy Spirit’s urging, Peter commanded her to get up. And she obeyed.

When invaluable service we render appears impractical or impossible, God says, “Not so!” Though we feel depleted past all recovery, the word of the Lord comes to us, saying, “Get up!” Our eyes reopen to unmet needs, unfinished work, and unrealized opportunities. We experience resurging strength and focus that renew our faith and devotion. Yes, we reenter the same battles and confront the same challenges as before. But rejuvenation instills in us fresh confidence. We’re stronger and surer, more certain than ever that, as Philippians 4.18 pledges, “God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.”

O God of boundless compassion and abundance, we confess our weariness and weakness—the total depletion we often feel in the face of needs and tasks You set before us. Yet even our weariest, weakest moments cannot steal our abiding trust in Your power to rejuvenate our spirits and replenish our store. In our hours of fatigue, we wait for Your word. Send it, and with renewed vision and vigor we will heed your command. We will get up to resume lives devoted to good works and acts of love. Amen.

Though devotion to good works and acts of love often depletes us, our abiding trust in God’s power to rejuvenate and replenish cannot be shaken.